Japan, in the eyes of novelist Eric Van Lustbader, is a land of martial arts, corporate intrigue and violent eroticism. Though the Japanese tourist office might stress other attractions, Lustbader (Van is a middle name) manages to portray the island nation with such texture and high drama that readers don’t much care whether or not he presents the true Japan. Just as well, since Lustbader has never been within a thousand miles of the place. “I don’t want to go there now,” says New Yorker Lustbader, 37, who for his research relies on local Asian cultural organizations and a large circle of Japanese-American friends. “I don’t want to confront the crowds and pollution and industrialization. That’s not the Japan I fell in love with in Japanese art, or that I write about.”
True enough. Though Lustbader’s The Ninja and its sequel, The Miko (Villard Books, $16.95), take place in postwar Japan, the Oriental traditions and values he depicts belong to a Japan of yesteryear, a place where honor was the paramount virtue, and face was for saving. Not that Lustbader’s Japan is too courtly; kimonos are ripped open there with banzai abandon.
The Miko, Lustbader’s current bestseller, continues the story of the Eurasian Nicholas Linnear, a member of an elite but disappearing class of Japanese assassins, which possesses powers bordering on the supernatural. Taught to kill in a thousand stealthy ways, Nicholas and his Asian cronies get entangled in a succession of gory escapades. For starters, one victim is shredded by a fan. Others have their noses and feet cut off, and one unfortunate pilot is devoured by a shark. Not surprisingly, critics accuse Lustbader of gratuitous violence. “I don’t believe I write violent books,” he protests. “I write books with violence in them. I am outraged by the epidemic proportions of violence in society, and writing helps to assuage the outrage.”
One scene of brutality is etched for ever in Lustbader’s mind. As a teenager in Manhattan he was going home from the movies one night when he saw a couple of thugs beating up a man on the street. “I’ve never forgotten that,” says Eric. “It may be tied up with the violence in my books. If I were one of my heroes, I could have done something about it.”
Eric’s youth was otherwise tranquil. The only child of a chemical engineer and a schoolteacher, Lustbader attended Stuyvesant High School for gifted students and was an early Beatles fan. As a teenager his mother gave him two books of color prints by the celebrated Japanese artists Hiroshige and Hokusai, and Eric developed an interest in Oriental culture that finally blossomed years later with The Ninja. But as an undergraduate at Columbia College he devoted himself to music and founded an independent production company. After graduating in 1968 with a B.A. in sociology, he wrote a weekly column on new music groups for Cash Box, and later produced a TV news segment on Elton John.
By the time he was 28, Lustbader had begun working on a series of science fantasy novels for Doubleday and then Berkley Books, which assigned a young editor named Victoria Schochet to work with him. The relationship eventually led to a more permanent partnership: marriage. Since their wedding in May 1982 Vicky has been the first reader and most rigorous critic of Eric’s Far Eastern sagas. A freelance editor who has worked with Frank Herbert on several books in his Dune series, Vicky also transfers Eric’s typewritten pages to their computer each evening. The Lustbaders have just completed Eric’s latest Oriental opus, Jian, to be published in 1985.
As Eric works in the couple’s beach house in Southampton, Long Island, rock music, not the gentle melody of wooden flutes, plays in the background. Someday, says the serious author, after he has quit writing about Japan, he would like to visit the country; surely this would be a sobering journey for one so rooted in fantasy. For the moment, though, he is focusing on creating an Oriental atmosphere in his workplace. The new home Eric and Vicky are building in Southampton with their Ninja and Miko millions will include an authentic
Japanese sitting room complete with tatami mats and a Buddhist prayer platform, but nary a catlike assassin.