Story Behind the Story: “That Moonlight Smile”

Back in June, Defiant Scribe published a razor-sharp issue about vanity and the societal fixation on beauty. One of the standout stories—and one of our personal favorites—was That Moonlight Smile by Aaron Elias, a piece set in Japan and examining the idea of beauty and vanity through a geisha lens. Gripping, scary, moving, and beautifully written, the must-read page-turner pulled at all our heartstrings. Of course we were dying to find out more. So, for our third interview in our ongoing Story Behind the Story interview series, we set out to speak with Aaron Elias to get the inside scoop on how the piece came to be.

Spoilers ahead. 

Defiant Scribe: I definitely wasn’t expecting to see a story about geishas in our June edition, but it was a really clever choice for that theme. Had you written about geishas before? What made you decide to center this story around them?

Aaron Elias: Outside of seeing Memoirs of a Geisha, my knowledge on the subject was pretty limited until I started the research for this story. I chose geishas because A) there’s something about bygone eras I find so fun to write, and B) at the time, l had been looking for an excuse to do a geisha story for a while but couldn’t think of any good ideas. That month’s Beauty theme helped pull some ideas together.

At the same time I wanted to make it a disturbing read. Beauty is a social construct and therefore a ridiculous one, but it’s something that affects most of us deeply. When we get more attention for being seen as attractive, we usually feel better about ourselves. Sometimes to an unhealthy degree. It’s silly and childish, but true. Since geishas are literal embodiments of the ‘perfect woman,’ succeed based on their beauty (and social graces), and often start young—I thought about how far some of these girls would go to preserve that sense of identity, given the means.

DS: It came across as so well-researched.

AE: I’m glad that came across, because I now know more about geishas and ancient Japan than I ever cared to.

DS: How much time did you spend on that? Were there any specific resources that you utilized? And did you learn anything that surprised you?

AE: Not really, but I do make thorough research a habit. As readers, it’s pretty clear to us when an author takes the time to research his subject matter, and when he doesn’t. No specific resources I can note, besides the Wikipedia article. I mainly combed through a couple different sites and articles to make sure I had a respectable understanding of the matter.

There wasn’t any one thing that really stood out to me about geishas, but the culture as a whole did. Once you read about it, you (or I, anyway) start to see the whole thing as walking a very fine line between artful expression and caricature of male sexuality. I mean, it often took a successful geisha 3-4 hours and two assistants—minimum—just to get their hair done. Different seasons and holidays demanded different hairstyles. Enormous amounts of time, work, and money went into turning a woman into a geisha. And while the men themselves paid equally enormous amounts of money for a short evening with these women… the two of them would usually never touch.

DS: The characters were all incredibly compelling, and I loved the dynamics between each of them. The relationship between Lily and Hiroshi stood out to me, in particular. How would you categorize their friendship?

AE: Also glad that stood out; theirs was the relationship I probably fine-tuned the most. Hiroshi came into existence out of pure logistical necessity, but I didn’t want him to be just another faceless mafia thug. So he turned out to be somewhat of a stand-up guy who’s making the best of his situation, not just for himself but for everyone—at least, as he sees it. I think Lily sees that in him and respects that he’s at least trying, even if she doesn’t fully agree with it herself. They respect each other not as equals—because they aren’t, and Hiroshi makes this quite clear to Lily—but as people.

Yet one of the problems in their friendship is that Hiroshi’s problem-solving skills and general perspective are neither black nor white. They’re quite in the gray, almost Utilitarian. Which of course doesn’t help Lily, who is younger, confused, and at a crossroads in her life. So while the two of them seem to have earned each other’s trust and respect, Hiroshi’s morality is questionable but firm. Lily’s are instead mainstream but unstable, and as the ending (hopefully) showed, that can still lead to plenty of pain between two people.

As for anyone who’s wondering whether or not they might hook up: that was kept ambiguous for a reason. Smarmy eyebrow raise.

DS: I noticed the story didn’t have a clear-cut antagonist—all of the characters were so complex, nuanced and layered, and all of them were sympathetic. Did you intend to write them that way from the start? Or were some originally conceived as more villainous?

AE: Sort of. Mother was originally meant to be more villainous which I think still sort of comes through, but as I got on in the story, I decided to humanize her as well. Everyone wants something. We all have reasons for what we do. Evil only exists wherever you see it, so I wanted to see how the ending would play out with no discernible evil, since there never really is anyways.

I also wanted to play with the question, “What is one of the worst things a good person would be willing to do to get what they want?” and how different people with different goals would live up to that idea. So I took some people who are, at their core, good, and all care for each other more or less—and then put them all on a collision course. I wanted the end situation to be intractable, and there can’t be a happy ending because all the relevant characters are both the protagonists and antagonists of that critical situation. No matter what choice Lily makes at the end, everyone loses.

DS: On that subject, the moral complexities at the core of the story were really interesting, and the way that theme intersected with the idea of beauty and its cost was just brilliant. Did you set out to write a story about ethics and characters in the midst of moral dilemmas, or was that element just a byproduct of the plot line?

AE: I’d love to say I planned it from the get-go, but I definitely didn’t. These things usually happen after I commit Future Aaron to a basic story outline, start writing, then flip off Past Aaron and make a million changes anyway.

Seriously though, I was much more focused on the character relationships and the fallout of their clashing goals. The whole morality thing seemed to sort of coalesce as I wrote out their interactions, and really only came into play once I polished off Hiroshi (yes I know how that sounds thanks) and picked an ending. But once I noticed it, I chose to run with it. I also tore out a good deal of hair as a result; this was the first story I’d written since 2013, so I wanted to attempt something that would challenge to make up for the lost time.