A.J. Hartley’s new book blends fantasy and folklore

People The Arts

May 30, 2023

Charlotte author A.J. Hartley pens an adventure set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, inspired by his son.

by Vanessa Infanzon

photograph by Justin Driscoll

cover art by Jeff Langevin

Over the last two decades, New York Times-bestselling author A.J. Hartley has written two dozen books, from adult mystery-thrillers to historical fiction to young-adult novels.

In his upcoming young-adult novel, Hartley’s fascination with Japanese folklore creatures and his family’s personal stories are woven into a tale based in a rural town in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hideki Smith, Demon Queller, Hartley’s 25th novel and most recent book in the young-adult fantasy genre, will be published in August. His wife, Hisako Osako, and college-aged son, Kuma Hartley, helped Hartley flesh out the story. 

“Writing is a complicated process,” Hartley says. “It’s not just about sitting down and typing out words. A lot of it is about research and conversation. The story has emerged out of a couple of decades of talking to [family members] about their experiences as Japanese or half-Japanese people in this country.”

The stage was set for Hideki Smith, Demon Queller more than 30 years ago, when Hartley left his hometown of Preston in Lancashire, England, to teach English in Japan for two years. He met his wife, a Japanese American, there. Though he tried writing the story several times over the years, he finally settled on a fantasy adventure featuring a boy and his sister who gain ancestral powers to combat monsters and demons specific to Japanese folk culture. “It’s an adventure, but it’s also sort of comic,” he says. “It’s got a snarky, self-conscious kind of tone.”

The main character, high-school student Hideki Smith, fights off the creatures with samurai and superhero combat abilities such as stamina and strength. His sister, Emily, can turn into a fox, a gift she finds hard to manage. “This iteration of the story grew out of watching my son navigating high school and such as a mixed-race kid, who was not particularly connected to his Japanese heritage,” he says, “and then the effect on him the first time we took him to Japan and seeing how he connected with that side of things.”

Left: Kuma Hartley, A.J. Hartley and Hisako Osako. Right: Book cover

Hartley was the Robinson Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare at UNC Charlotte until his retirement this spring. During his 18 years at the university, he taught Shakespeare and creative writing in the English and theater departments, as well as running production for performances. He’s written eight academic books about Shakespeare.

If fans don’t find Hartley through his novels and academic pursuits, his lectures about Japanese rock music on YouTube widen his audience. “I probably get more fan response to that than anything else because YouTube is a very immediate forum and people are commenting all the time,” he says. “I introduce people to new bands and walk them through the songs so they understand the lyrics and cultural context.”

Retirement from teaching will allow Hartley more time for writing. He’ll continue his partnership with Tom DeLonge, a guitarist and vocalist in Blink-182, a rock band known for “All the Small Things,” and “I Miss You,” popular songs released in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Over the next several years, Hartley will write four books for DeLonge’s To the Stars entertainment company. “We’ve been working together for about eight years,” Hartley says. “I’m writing a book he’s commissioned. It’s set in the early ’60s in Nevada and connected to a UFO event.”

From his Charlotte home, Hartley writes on a laptop in his study, preferring the silence to a noisy coffee shop. He writes the entire book, rereads it, then starts the editing process. “Once I know what the story is and figure out the main premise and issues, I’ll write a very short outline of the story, 15 to 20 pages,” Hartley says. “Once I’m happy with that, I’ll write the first draft in about three months. That means doing 3,000 words a day, three days a week. I write from beginning to end ­— I don’t edit as I go.”

In 2022, Hartley released Burning Shakespeare, a time-travel story about removing Shakespeare’s works from history. It’s a statement on anti-censorship wrapped in a sci-fi adventure. “One of the oddities of my career as a writer is I have always moved from genre to genre,” he says. “I don’t always write the same thing. I started out writing realist mystery thriller kind of things, then moved into fantasy and science fiction. I’m writing for adults, kids and young adults.”  SP


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