Authors, by definition, tend to be a bookish bunch. Their idea of heavy lifting is usually a hardback copy of War and Peace. Not many Mr Universes write novels for a living, and similarly if there is an international crisis of some kind you call on James Bond, not the writer who dreamed him up at the typewriter.
But 38-year-old man-mountain Chris Bradford is a bit different. A martial arts black belt and expert swordsman, this YA author practises what he calls “method writing”: if he can’t do something himself, he won’t include it in his novels.
In the case of his eight-book Young Samurai cycle, this didn’t just involve a three-week trip to Japan to scout out settings but also a long-term commitment to furthering his knowledge of the orient’s deadliest secrets.
“I’ve been doing martial arts since I was eight-years-old – I started off with judo and then moved on to karate. I’ve done a lot of different styles as I’ve moved around the world,” he says. “I trained in Iaido, which is the art of the sword or the way of the sword, because what I wanted to do was to allow readers to feel like they were the heroine and they are wielding the sword.
“And the only way to do that I think is to do what I call method writing. I go out there and learn that skill, learn how to do it, and I recreate that passion in the books. What I find, personally, is that the truth is far more interesting and impressive than anything you can make up.”
The Young Samurai books are a pacy, thrill ride through 17th century Japan in the company of an English lad, Jack Fletcher, who trains as a Samurai.
In the 1600s, Japan was a closed society ruled by a military elite. The Samurais, loyal only to their overlord, the Shogun, policed the coastline and, in the main part, prevented westerners from securing a foothold. However, these warriors also coveted Europe’s technology and weapons, so limited trading rights were granted.
It’s great fun, escapist stuff, which boys in particular will lap up. In the opening book, The Way of the Warrior, Jack is just 13 at the start of the books when his father and crewmates on board a British trading vessel are all slaughtered by Ninja pirates. Jack survives and is taken in by a local family.
Bradford admits his books share the same source as James Clavell’s 70s bestseller Shogun – the English sailor William Adams who became an honorary Samurai and the second most powerful man in Japan. “I thought what if William Adams had had a son – and he was the one to survive? What would have happened then?” Bradford says.
“I imagined Jack going to a martial arts school. That would have been fine but I thought it would be even better if I could say that these schools actually existed. That kids actually trained as samurai – at that age. Then I found out about a guy, Miyamoto Musashi, who was a kensei – a “sword saint”. He actually had his first real duel 13 years old and he was fighting an adult with a real sword while he had wooden sword, a bokken, but he still managed to win.”
Another winning element as far as young teens are concerned is the fact that the Samurai, of course, were the template for Star Wars creator George Lucas’ Jedi Knights – who used light sabres in place of swords, and wore robes instead of trousers. Once you’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back, the world of Samurai honour, their belief in Chi – the force of life – doesn’t seem such a leap.
They even spoke of a near legendary power called Dim Mak, or Death Touch, in which the exponent can, in the style of Darth Vader, utilise “certain pressure points on the human body to destroy your enemy”.
“It is shrouded in myth but it has a strong element of truth at the core,” says Bradford. “But when I go to schools it is the thing that gets the kids really excited.”
Hey teachers, you have been warned.
* Young Samurai: Ring of Sky by Chris Bradford (Puffin, £6.99) is out now