Category Archives: Interview

Author Interview: Livia Blackburne

I know I’m late, but here is the fourth and final interview for my Taiwanese American Heritage Week series, with Livia Blackburne, whose most recent book Rosemarked was one of my favorite reads of 2017. I’m dying for the sequel, Umbertouched, which comes out later this year (November 6th), but in the meantime, here’s a spoiler-free interview with Livia about Rosemarked and writing. 🙂

Synopsis of Rosemarked from Goodreads:

A healer who cannot be healed . . .

When Zivah falls prey to the deadly rose plague, she knows it’s only a matter of time before she fully succumbs. Now she’s destined to live her last days in isolation, cut off from her people and unable to practice her art—until a threat to her village creates a need that only she can fill.

A soldier shattered by war . . .

Broken by torture at the hands of the Amparan Empire, Dineas thirsts for revenge against his captors. Now escaped and reunited with his tribe, he’ll do anything to free them from Amparan rule—even if it means undertaking a plan that risks not only his life but his very self.

Thrust together on a high-stakes mission to spy on the capital, the two couldn’t be more different: Zivah, deeply committed to her vow of healing, and Dineas, yearning for vengeance. But as they grow closer, they must find common ground to protect those they love. And amidst the constant fear of discovery, the two grapple with a mutual attraction that could break both of their carefully guarded hearts.

This smart, sweeping fantasy with a political edge and a slow-burning romance will capture fans of The Lumatere Chronicles and An Ember in the Ashes.

Q: In YA, we always talk about the concept of “strong female characters,” and in fantasy, these tend to be warrior-types who literally kick ass. In Rosemarked, your main female character, Zivah, is a healer rather than a warrior. What do you think makes her strong, and what do you believe a healer’s perspective brings to the story?

A: I’m glad you made that observation! Writing Zivah the way I did was a deliberate choice after writing Midnight Thief, in which the main character  Kyra was a more traditional type of kick ass heroine. And while I love Kyra, with Rosemarked, I started thinking about other kinds of strength. What are other ways to change the world, if you are not able to beat up everyone you meet? And so, there’s Zivah. Physically, she’s very weak. In fact, she’s very close to death. But she’s smart. She’s worked hard to gain knowledge, and she’s savvy about applying it. She’s also determined, loyal, and brave.

Q: The Rose Plague is a very distinctive illness in how it manifests. Did you base it on any real life disease(s)?

A: The broad strokes of rose plague were inspired by leprosy. In fact, one of the main inspirations for Rosemarked was a play about the Hawaiian leper colony at Molokai. I was struck not only by the biological aspects of the disease, but the social emotional aspect aspect. It’s bad enough to develop a terminal illness. How much worse is it to have to deal with that illness in quarantine, apart from your family and everyone you love? For the specific symptoms of rose plague, I borrowed from a whole bunch of different diseases. Rashes, of course, are very common disease marker, and I also included some flu-like symptoms such as fever and delirium.

Q: Although Rosemarked is a fantasy novel, there are aspects of it that I could tell were grounded in science. Was your science background (Biochemical Science and Cognitive Neuroscience) helpful in writing this book, and if so, how?

A: Well, I did a lot of research into the history of medicine to find inspiration for the healing techniques used in the story, and my biochemistry background helped out a lot with that. Also, the story centers around a memory potion. While that potion is strictly fantasy, it is based on real neuroscience principles of memory. For example, the potion takes away your personal memories and your knowledge of the world, but doesn’t take away physical skills such as the ability to use a sword. This is very similar to actual incidences of amnesia, where people might forget ever learning to play the piano but still be able to play a minuet.

Q: One of the central conflicts of Rosemarked and Umbertouched is the colonial occupation of Dara and Shidadi people by the Amparan Empire. Are any of these cultures based on real life cultures?

A: None of the cultures map directly onto a real world culture. When I decided I wanted to write an ancient empire, I did look at the Persian empire as an example of how an empire might be run in that kind of time, with that kind of technology. And some aspects of the Persian empire did make it into the Amparan empire. For example, the importance of roads for transportation and communication, as well as a very cool military technique that appears in Umbertouched.

On the other hand, Ampara differs from Ancient Persia in many ways as well. Most notably, the Persian empire was actually quite good to the people it subjugated, so much so that sometimes their armies were welcomed as liberators. Anyone who reads Rosemarked, however, knows that the Amparan empire is anything but merciful.

There is some Asian influence, especially in the landscape of Monyar peninsula. One of the early Amparan surgeries described in Rosemarked was based on a real technique used in ancient India. And here’s a random bit of trivia, the basic philosophies of the Shidadi and Dara people stem from two sides of a Facebook debate about safety, liberty, and government overreach that scrolled across my news feed after the Boston marathon bombing. I wouldn’t read too much into the story about my own political views though. The story goes where it will.

Q: Rosemarked is your sophomore series. Has your writing process for this series changed from when you were writing Midnight Thief, and if so, how?

A: Midnight Thief was the first novel I ever completed, and I really had very little idea of what I was doing. A lot of things, like character traits, or world building, I kind of improvised as I went along. With Rosemarked, I was a lot more deliberate about planning beforehand. I spent a lot more time on world building. I thought a lot about what I wanted the story to be like, what I wanted the characters to be like, and what I wanted that I asked to be. Basically, I built a much stronger foundation and it saved me a great deal of time in revisions.


Livia Blackburned author headshot.jpg

New York Times bestselling author Livia Blackburne wrote her first novel while researching the neuroscience of reading at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since then, she’s switched to full time writing, which also involves getting into people’s heads but without the help of a three tesla MRI scanner. She is also the author of MIDNIGHT THIEF (an Indies Introduce New Voices selection), DAUGHTER OF DUSK, and ROSEMARKED (an Amazon best book of the month and YALSA Teens Top Ten Nominee).

Advertisements

Author Interview: Henry Lien

Hi again! Today’s Taiwanese author interview is with Henry Lien on his debut middle grade fantasy novel Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Peasprout Chen Future Legend of Skate and Sword

The synopsis from Goodreads:

Welcome to Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, where the blades are sharp and the competition is fierce. 

Peasprout Chen dreams of becoming a legend of wu liu, the deadly and beautiful art of martial arts figure skating. 

As the first students from the rural country of Shin to attend Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, Peasprout and her little brother Cricket have some pretty big skates to fill. They soon find themselves in a heated competition for top ranking. 

Tensions rise when the dazzling pearl buildings of the Academy are vandalized and outsider Peasprout is blamed for the attacks by her rivals … and even some friends. 

Now, she must uncover the true vandal to ensure peace between Shin and Pearl – all while becoming a champion.

Now, buckle-in for this in-depth interview!

Q: To start off, what is your favorite Taiwanese food? (You’re allowed to pick more than one.)

A: What a great question! Food is identity. I choose dan-dan mian (peanut butter noodle). It’s classically Taiwanese, naturally vegan, appeals to young and old, and serves as an eminently charismatic introduction to Taiwanese food. It makes an appearance in the second PEASPROUT CHEN book. In fact, there are a lot of cameos by Taiwanese food in the series.

Runner up would be a traditional Taiwanese breakfast spread with ride porridge, three kinds of pickled vegetables, simmered tofu, fried crullers, warm soy milk, etc. Truly the best breakfast in the world and I will fight, kill, and toss into the sea anyone who says different.

Q: Tell us a little more about Peasprout and the world of Pearl beyond what’s in the synopsis.

A: Peasprout is a huge personality. She is courageous, has a huge heart, is expressive (when she’s not reticent), is warm (when she’s not being icy), makes grand, gorgeous, generous gestures, says things that no one else says, does things that no one else thinks to do or has the guts to do. She is always the most original, most talented, most unforgettable person in the room. When you meet her, you will think about her later that day. She is also self-aggrandizing, deluded, extreme, a bit of a weirdo, and rather lonely. She’s pretty much me.

It was excruciating to write such a deeply flawed character based so candidly on myself while forbidding myself from shading her more flatteringly. However, writing this way was an exercise in a) learning to applaud the parts of myself that I am proud of while; b) gazing at my flaws fully and hideously lit; and c) accepting that I’m perpetually a work in progress and will probably die that way. Sigh.

Regarding the world of Pearl, I could go on and on. It’s a world where you can skate on any surface, any rooftop, handrail, balustrade, etc. The entire city was built to accommodate this fictional sport of wu liu, which combines figure skating with kung fu. The city is essentially a figure skating, kung fu amusement park. It was my own personal parkour course on a city-scale, my own private Disneyland built from a brain-scan of what I liked and cared about. I feel like joy is pretty thin in science fiction/fantasy and the world in general these days. I wanted to create a city that while far from perfect, was in one primary way an exuberant expression of pure joy.

Q: Why the name Peasprout?

A: I wanted a name that that was gender-neutral, equally adorable in English, Mandarin, and Taiwanese, didn’t actually exist, and had a lot of personality. I wanted something that was as rich in Chinese/Taiwanese flavor as the names that Tolkien made up to express essential Englishness in his works.

Q: Given the history and current presence of Asian Americans in figure skating, from Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi to today’s Karen Chen, Nathan Chen, and Alex and Maia Shibutani, it feels appropriate to have an Asian ice skating story. Did any of these skaters influence or inspire your story?

A: Massive influence! I don’t feel equipped to make generalizations about why there is such a high representation of Asian Americans in the sport. However, Kwan and Yamaguchi had to both deal with a lot of misstatements and nonsense regarding their Asian heritage in media coverage about their performances, endorsements, etc. That unfairness influenced the book since Peasprout herself is an immigrant and a dawning awareness of unfairness in the world is a classic theme in middle grade fiction.

On a more fundamental level, it felt right to write an Asian skating story because I always saw figure skating as the soulmate of traditional wushu (kung fu).

Q: What kinds of research did you do for this story, if any?

A: I took figure skating and kung fu lessons and was appalling at both. I wrote a blog about it, actually. If you want a good laugh, here’s a link: http://henrylien.com/writer-suffers-devastating-injuries-while-researching-kung-fu-figure-skating-childrens-book/ Despite the farcical tone, it’s actually 99% true. Read it and laugh at my woe.

For the worldbuilding, I also did a tremendous amount of research about language, culture, history, international relations, the complex history among Taiwan, China, and Japan, marine biology, architecture, engineering, meteorology, fashion, puberty, culinary fads, superstition, and on and on and on. A lot of that is happening under the hood but there’s so much solid research supporting the book that I in fact don’t really consider it fantasy. The fantastical worldbuilding is actually just exaggerated/extrapolated real stuff. I deliberately set out to write a fantasy that had no magic because I wanted to show that culture and history are in themselves magic enough.

For the characters and the interpersonal dynamics, I spent a lot of time in conversation with women including my sister, my agent, my editor, beta readers, etc., to make the representation of girls diverse and realistic, since I was writing from outside my own lived experience. I particularly wanted to examine the oft-bandied generalization that girls are socialized to be more relational and to develop instant relationships, positive or negative, with every other girl in their social unit, which instinctively felt super-sweeping and super-binary. Whether or not there is truth in this generalization, I wanted to explore the idea that not all girls are like this, want this, or agree with this generalization. Appreciating the differences of opinion about this idea was one of the things I spent the most time on.

Q: What would you say has been the hardest part of writing Peasprout Chen?

A: This question is hard to answer because everything about this book was hard. Perhaps the hardest thing was the puzzle nature of the plot. I was determined to write a puzzle plot that was as ambitious as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban” or “Abre Los Ojos”. The engineering required to pull off such a plot while staying mindful of all the other elements that go into a book while serving my particular plot’s unusual requirements for pacing, frequency of clues, scaling of transparency of clues to a vast age range of potential readers, passage of time in the book’s world (mapped onto a rigid academic schedule and seasons that don’t match with our world’s seasons but have plot impacts), number of pages elapsed, etc., while also making the book as enjoyable on a second read after you learn its secrets, all while striving for a feeling of effortlessness in the choreography of story elements, was a staggering amount of work.

Q: I went and listened to the podcast of Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters, which was posted on Asimov’s Science Fiction (links: Part 1, Part 2). According to your site, Peasprout Chen’s story is a sequel to this story but also the first in a trilogy of its own. Why did you choose to Peasprout Chen’s story as the start for the series?

A: “Pearl Rehab Colony” was always intended as a contained experiment, a sort of proof of concept for the larger series. It’s told from the POV of Suki, the villain of the Peasprout Chen series. As such, it was intended as an experiment to test my powers of empathy and ventriloquism. However, Suki’s head is a cramped, claustrophobic, forbidding place in which to situate a viewpoint. I don’t think readers would have been able to bear spending 360 some pages in the head of such a nasty person. Peasprout is quite the pill herself but a different sort of pill, one whose edges break off as it goes down, one that sweetens while being broken apart. In some ways, Peasprout’s story is not the story of a winner, but of a loser, and it takes a tenderer, more complex narrator than Suki to bear such things with dignity and beauty. I wanted a narrator that showed that being vulnerable was not incompatible with being strong.


Henry Lien author headshot

Henry Lien is a 2012 graduate of Clarion West, and his short fiction has appeared in publications like Asimov’s, earning multiple Nebula Award nominations. Born in Taiwan, Henry currently lives in Hollywood, California. Before becoming an author, Henry worked as an attorney, fine art dealer, and college instructor. His hobbies include vegan cooking, losing Nebula awards, and finding excuses to write and publicly perform science fiction/fantasy themed anthems. He is the author of Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Author Interview: Fonda Lee

Hey everyone, sorry for the gap in posting. Today’s interview is with Fonda Lee. Aside from addressing more general writing questions, this interview will touch on the first book of her adult fantasy, Jade City, which came out late last year, as well as her YA science fiction duololgy that began with Exo and concludes with Cross Fire, which is coming out later this month on May 29th. For context, I’m giving y’all the summaries of the books. (There won’t be any spoilers in the interview.)

Exo and Crossfire take place in a future in which Earth is colonized by aliens called the zhree. Here’s the Goodreads summary for Exo:

It’s been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose alien rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan’s high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan’s abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience, determined to end alien control.

When Sapience realizes whose son Donovan is, they think they’ve found the ultimate bargaining chip . But the Prime Liaison doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son. Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan’s survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another intergalactic war. And Earth didn’t win the last one…

And the Goodreads summary for Jade City:

FAMILY IS DUTY. MAGIC IS POWER. HONOR IS EVERYTHING.
Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.

Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.

Now, for the actual interview!

Q: Unlike many aliens we see in sci-fi, the aliens in Exo and Cross Fire, the zhree, are very clearly non-humanoid. Are there any real life-forms that inspired their design?

A: I was very intentional about not making the zhree humanoid. There are so many humanoid aliens in science fiction because Hollywood has human actors; I don’t have that constraint as a novelist. I wanted the aliens to be truly alien, but they needed to have certain characteristics to satisfy the premise of humans and aliens coexisting and cooperating on a future colonized Earth. I made a list of what traits would make an alien race compatible with us; they would be land-dwelling, use vocal communication, and be intelligent tool users. I also knew, from all the research I did into space travel for my previous novel, Zeroboxer, that radiation and harsh conditions are a major barrier to astronauts. An alien species with natural body armor would have a huge advantage over us in creating a galactic civilization. So that’s how the zhree came about: I envisioned them sort of as six-limbed, armored land octopi.

Q: The main character of the Exo duology, Donovan, has a unique position of privilege within the zhree-dominated colonized society because of his father’s political influence and his own integration of zhree technology into his physiology to become more like the zhree. What made you decide to center his perspective exclusively as opposed to, or without the addition of, that of someone with less privilege or even someone in the anti-colonial organization Sapience, like Anya?

A: I’d read plenty of young adult dystopian novels in which the protagonists are rebels fighting oppression: The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. They’ve become a staple of the category. It’s easy to root for and identify with a character who’s downtrodden and trying to forcibly overthrow an evil empire. It’s more challenging to understand and change the system from within. I love moral ambiguity in my fiction; I don’t want to make it easy for readers to identify good guys and bad guys (in fact, I never write them), because the real world is rarely so simple. If I’d written the book from Anya’s perspective, or written it in dual-POV, it would’ve been like a dozen other YA dystopian novels. Here’s the thing: the world is NOT dystopian from Donovan’s POV. In fact, it’s pretty darn good. Which goes to show that dystopia is all a matter of perspective. You could say that I wrote EXO and CROSS FIRE specifically as a way of challenging myself to make readers like, understand, and even root for, the “other side.” Donovan and his friends are good people who try to do what they believe with their own solid reasoning is truly right, which is to uphold the alien colonial regime. I want that to mess with reader’s heads.

Q: One of the hardest aspects of writing speculative fiction is avoiding excessive infodumps. How do you manage the balance between action/suspense and providing information on the world the characters inhabit?

A: One of the keys to seamless worldbuilding is to weave information into the narrative in a natural way. The story should keep plowing forward and readers should be able to absorb everything they need to know in context. This also means giving the characters opportunities to interact with the world and examine the backstory in a way that informs the reader, without it ever seeming to inform the reader. For example, I don’t open EXO with an infodump on how the aliens came to rule Earth. It’s not until about a third of the way through the book that Donovan happens to see some old footage of the invasion and that’s when the reader gets it, in an almost “oh, by the way” as the story progresses.

Q: I know you have a background in martial arts, which must be helpful for writing the action and combat scenes in your books. What advice do you have on writing such scenes for people who don’t have that background?

A: Don’t get caught up in the nitty-gritty blow-by-blow details. Action scenes have to have narrative purpose and emotional consequence for the characters; that’s the most important thing. That said, action scenes should have rhythm, freshness, and clarity. Don’t use the same old clichés, “Her heart was pounding,” or “He saw red.” Come up with better ways of conveying the sensations of the fight, and make sure the reader can clearly visualize what’s happening. Finally, there’s no substitute for research. That might be first hand (take martial arts classes, learn to safely handle weapons) or second hand (for me, that included watching a lot of live MMA, action movies, videos on YouTube, and seeking out good action and fight scenes in other books.)

Q: I’ve only gotten to read a small part of Jade City, but I got very distinct Taiwan vibes from some of the worldbuilding. I know you’ve mentioned Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Hawaii, Japan as influences on the worldbuilding for Jade City in another interview. Are there any parts of the setting based on very specific real life locations, e.g. a particular neighborhood, street, building you’ve seen or visited?

A: The city of Janloon in Jade City is very much a world entirely of my own imagination. Think of it like Wakanda in Black Panther; it’s a place very much formed out of real world cultures and geography and aesthetic cues, but it’s also magical and completely its own place. I want the reader to feel like this setting is familiar, but they shouldn’t be able to identify anything that’s obviously from our world. Even the brands of cars and motorcycles and guns are invented; but my goal was to render everything so specifically that it feels real.

Q: Your debut novel, Zeroboxer, was a standalone whereas Exo and Jade City are both the first books in series. How has your writing process for these series differed from your writing of Zeroboxer, if at all, and do you have any advice for writing multi-volume stories?

I’ll hopefully be able to answer this question in a few years! Right now, I’m in the thick of working on the Green Bone Saga, so the one thing that I can tell you is that writing a sequel comes with its own set of challenges and is just as hard as writing the first book. (Not least of all because of the more aggressive deadlines.) The only way that the writing process really differs is that I have to think further ahead. For example, as I’m writing the second book now, I’m thinking about how certain thing might have repercussions in the third book. And I have my eye not just on the story arc for this book, but for the entire series.


Fonda Lee photoFonda Lee is the author of the gangster fantasy saga Jade City (Orbit), a finalist for the Nebula Award and named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, and Syfy Wire, among others. Her young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer (Flux) and Exo (Scholastic) were Junior Library Guild Selections and Andre Norton Award finalists. Cross Fire (the sequel to Exo) releases in May 2018. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black belt martial artist, and an action movie aficionado living in Portland, Oregon. You can find Fonda online at www.fondalee.com and on Twitter @fondajlee.

Author Interview: Stephanie Chen

Hi everyone! Today’s author interview is with Stephanie Chen, author of Travails of a Trailing Spouse, an adult fiction book that was released earlier this year that is loosely based on the author’s experience moving to Singapore for the sake of her husband’s job.

Travails of a Trailing Spouse.jpg

The plot synopsis from Goodreads:

The adventure starts when Sarah’s husband, Jason, is offered a position at a university in Singapore. Sarah, a successful lawyer in the US, quits her job and the couple say their farewells, and, with their two children, fly off to a new country, a new condo, and a completely new life.

The country is easy enough to adapt to (though the prices of some things? Jaw-dropping!) and Sarah and Jason soon meet the other expats in the condo. There’s Carys, the teacher, and good-looking Ian; Ashley, who keeps her apartment freezingly air-conditioned, and Chad, her amiable husband; Sara, who, like Sarah and Jason, is Asian-American, and John, who travels often for work. The couples form a close-knit group, and their evenings are soon filled with poolside barbecues, Trivia Nights, dinners, drinks and more drinks.

But is it time to put the brakes on the craziness when Jason and Chad are arrested after a pub brawl? Why, with such a fantastic lifestyle, is Sarah starting to feel listless? When will Sara’s brave front finally crack? Who’s that woman in the lift with Ian? And what secret is Carys keeping from her friends?

Not a simplistic novel of one-dimensional characters, Travails of a Trailing Spouse will strike a chord with anyone, expat or not, who has ever found life more interesting, complicated, frustrating and, ultimately, deliciously rich than could ever have been imagined. 

Q: To start off, I just wanted to ask what your favorite Taiwanese food is, and what are some of your favorite dishes in Singaporean cuisine?

A: Besides boba (duh), I love Taiwanese breakfast – 蛋餅 dan bing (egg pancakes), 燒餅油條 shao bing you tiao (fried dough stick in flatbread), 豆漿 dou jiang (soy milk), 蘿蔔糕 luo bo gao (turnip cake). My mouth is watering as I write this!

In Singapore, their version of turnip cake – or “carrot cake”, as they call it here – is also delicious. Called by the Hokkien pronunciation, 菜头粿 chai tow kway, it consists of stir-fried cubes of turnip cake mixed with scrambled eggs and crunchy 菜脯chai poh (preserved radish).

Q: Since, like your main character, you moved to Singapore from the U.S., it’s not hard to see that your novel is partially inspired by your personal experiences. What are some less obvious inspirations for your story?

A: While a lot of the book was drawn from my own life, some of the stories were “ripped from the headlines,” accounts that were reported in the local news that I thought were interesting enough to become part of a bigger novel.

Q: The word “expat” is often associated with white people in majority nonwhite countries. Since you’re an Asian person moving to a majority Asian country, did you ever get mistaken for a local when you first moved to Singapore? Does your book touch on this experience at all?

A: When I moved to Singapore, I thought, actually, that we would have a very local experience. We enrolled our children in local school, shopped at the local markets, etc. What I didn’t realize, however, was that because Singapore has such a large expat community, we immediately fell into the “expat crowd”. The book does touch on this when the main character attends an evening outdoor event and realizes that the entire park is filled with expats – she feels self-conscious as an Asian among the mostly Caucasian crowd, even though they are in Asia.

Q: Like Taiwan, there are lot of people of Hokkienese origin in Singapore. Did you have any déjà vu-like moments when you first moved, where things felt familiar despite being new?

A: Whenever I hear Taiwanese/Hokkien, I always turn my head towards it! There’s a familiarity about it that gives me comfort, although I usually get a strange reaction from taxi drivers or at the markets when I speak in Taiwanese to them!

Q: Did you have any particular people you used for the appearances of your characters? Alternatively, if your book became a movie like Crazy Rich Asians, who would you cast as Sarah and Jason?

After Constance Wu is finished with Crazy Rich Asians, I’d think she’d make a great Sarah Lee! For Jason – Ken Leung from Lost, maybe?

Q: What is your favorite aspect of writing or being a writer?

A: For me, writing fiction is really liberating; I think I’ve always been a bit of an embellisher, and now I have an outlet for that!

Q: Lastly, have you considered writing a book about Taiwan?

Yes, for sure, it’s on the list of book ideas! My father has also written a novel, called 優美的南台灣 (Beautiful Southern Taiwan) so perhaps I could do a translation of that someday – I would really have to improve the level of my Chinese, however!


Stephanie Chen author headshotStephanie Suga Chen is the author of the Straits Times bestselling novel, Travails of a Trailing Spouse (Straits Times Press, 2018).  She is a graduate of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a former partner of a New York City-based private investment fund. A proud Taiwanese-American, Stephanie grew up in Michigan and moved to Singapore in 2012 with her husband, two children and elderly cocker spaniel.

 

 

 

 

 

Author Interview: Kathleen Burkinshaw

The last special guest for May Asian author interviews is Kathleen Burkinshaw. Her debut novel, The Last Cherry Blossom, was published just last year, and in this interview delve into the behind the scenes writing process for the book, which was based on Kathleen’s mother’s experience.

The Last Cherry Blossom

From Goodreads:

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just her and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

SW: Please tell us a little about The Last Cherry Blossom beyond what the synopsis says.

Kathleen: The Last Cherry Blossom depicts the culture, mindset, and daily life during WWII before the bomb was dropped through the eyes of a 12-year-old-something that has not been done before.

My hope is not only to convey the message that nuclear weapons should never be used again; but to also reveal that the children in Japan had the same love for family, fear of what could happen to them, and hopes for peace as the Allied children had. I want the students/readers to walk away knowing that the ones we may think are our “enemy” are not always so different from ourselves. A message that needs to be heard now more than ever.

SW: I definitely agree since the othering of the “enemy” is constantly used to justify violence.

Aside from talking to your mother, what kinds of research did you do for this story? What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned?

I had to search for books that were about daily life in Japan during WWII-not as easy when you need to find them written in English 😊 But I was lucky to find a couple out of print books on eBay. Also, my local library had some great resources.  In addition, the website for Hiroshima has some information on life during WWII in Hiroshima as well.

The most surprising and interesting piece of research happened while in Hiroshima. In July 2015, we went to honor my mom at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. (Sadly, my mom had passed away in January 2015. Thankfully, she did know TLCB would be published and had read one of the drafts).  The most surprising information came while visiting with the librarians at the Memorial Hall. They kindly spent about 2 hours with me. I gave them my mother’s Hiroshima address and they showed it to me on a map from the early 1940’s.  My mother had always said she was over an hour from the center of the city. However, when we looked at it on the map she was only 2 miles away from the epicenter; much closer than what I had thought! To me, it’s a miracle that she survived considering how close she was to the epicenter.

Also, while there I realized the beauty of Hiroshima.  I had been so focused on the horrific destruction of August 6th itself.  But while we were there I saw the beauty of the sea, the mountains, and palm trees!  My mother always said she grew up in a beautiful place and I finally could see it through her eyes.  This came in very handy when I returned to my first round of edits from my publisher.  The visit to Hiroshima enhanced my descriptions in of Hiroshima before the bombing.

SW: I’m glad your trip surprised you in a good way and allowed you to connect to your mother’s feelings and memories. 🙂

Representing a culture that is unfamiliar to most readers is like an act of translation. Did you have any difficulties on this front while writing your book?

Kathleen: Yes, I wanted to be as true to the culture and time period as I could.  However, I needed to make it flow naturally. I spent a great deal of time working through this. One of the issues I had involved dialogue. The Japanese language has a polite form-especially at that time.  There are also no contractions when they speak.  So, I wanted to show that, but struggled with it sounding stilted.  I finally found a balance by using contractions and less formal conversation when Yuriko narrated and when speaking with her friends.  However, when a younger character spoke to an adult, or an adult was speaking to the younger character’s, it would be more formal and no contractions used.

SW: Making historical fiction both educational and engaging can be difficult. What techniques did you use to strike this balance?

Kathleen: Yes, it is very difficult. I tried to describe the historic information so it would flow with the story.  I didn’t want it to read like a report of Japan during WWII.  One of the reasons I used newspaper headlines, propaganda poster text, and radio slogans as chapter headings was to set the tone on what was happening and how it was reported. I wanted the story to be about the characters and their personal issues. The war would be part of the scenery in the world that these young girls happened to live in. I hope I came close to that balance for the readers. 😊

SW: Do you have any favorite historical fiction kidlit titles?

Kathleen: Yes, I do! I have too many to list them all.  But a few are: Kira-Kira and Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata. Two books that were inspirational to me were Blue by Joyce Moyer Hostetter and Eleanor Hill by Lisa Williams Kline.   Also from the 2016 debut authors- Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban.

SW: I have Kira-Kira and Weedflower on my shelf, but I still need to read them. Weedflower stands out to me in particular because it shows a Japanese girl prominently on the cover.

Although it doesn’t have a person represented in it, I honestly love the cover for The Last Cherry Blossom. Did you have any input on the design, and how did that process work?

Kathleen: Thank you! Katy Betz is the talented artist behind the stunning cover art. My editor asked me to make a mood board.  A few weeks later she sent me the cover art. I would have never come up with it (which is why I write and can’t draw), but from the moment I saw it I knew it perfectly represented beauty from the ashes.

SW: What would you say has been the most rewarding part of being a children’s author?

Kathleen: Meeting readers and students who tell me that my mother’s story taught them something they didn’t know about WWII, that her story inspired them, they think differently about nuclear weapons, and that they want me to write more books, touch my heart and amaze me so much.

Also, I’ve received emails from students/readers who didn’t like to read, but after reading The Last Cherry Blossom, they are interested in reading again! What could be a better compliment to an author?!

SW: That sounds lovely. I can’t wait to read and experience The Last Cherry Blossom for myself!


scbwisigningyay! (1)Kathleen Burkinshaw is a Japanese American author residing in Charlotte, NC. She’s a wife, mom to a daughter in college, and owns a dog who is a kitchen ninja.  Kathleen enjoyed a 10+ year career in HealthCare Management unfortunately cut short by the onset of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD). Writing gives her an outlet for her daily struggle with chronic pain. She has presented her mother’s experience in Hiroshima to middle schools for the past 6 years. She has carried her mother’s story in her heart and feels privileged to now share it with the world. Writing historical fiction also satisfies her obsessive love of researching anything and everything. The Last Cherry Blossom is a SCBWI Crystal Kite Award Finalist (southeast region) and 2016 Scholastic WNDB Reading Club selection.

You can find Kathleen online at kathleenburkinshaw.com and on Twitter @klburkinshaw1.

Author Interview: Tara Sim

Today’s special guest for my Asian author interview series is Tara Sim! Her debut YA novel, Timekeeper, released last November and was one of my favorite books of 2016. In the interview we’ll be discussing the sequel, Chainbreaker, which comes out January 2nd.

From Goodreads:

Clock mechanic Danny Hart knows he’s being watched. But by who, or what, remains a mystery. To make matters worse, clock towers have begun falling in India, though time hasn’t Stopped yet. He’d hoped after reuniting with his father and exploring his relationship with Colton, he’d have some to settle into his new life. Instead, he’s asked to investigate the attacks.

After inspecting some of the fallen Indian towers, he realizes the British occupation may be sparking more than just attacks. And as Danny and Colton unravel more secrets about their past, they find themselves on a dark and dangerous path―one from which they may never return.

Well how’s that for ominous…

(My comments/questions are in bold and labeled “SW.”)

SW: Tell us a little more about Chainbreaker beyond what’s in the Goodreads synopsis.

Tara: There’s a lot more action (and airships) in this one, plus more POVs other than Danny’s. I was excited to dig deeper into Colton’s story arc the most. You’re going to see a lot of India, and a new villain will be introduced that I can’t wait for readers to meet!

SW: Airships! That’s definitely an upgrade. Also Colton is my son, so I will never say no to more development for his character. Excited to find out who the new villain is too.

How would you say the experience of writing book 2 differs from writing book 1? This can be in general or specific to your series.

Tara: If you ask any author about writing a book 2, chances are they’re going to cringe or groan or some combination therein. Honestly, they’re challenging—especially in a trilogy, when they have to have a story arc on their own as well as moving the series arc forward. A lot of the time a book 2 will feel more like a stepping stone, something that you have to get through in order to reach the finish line.

However, I enjoy the challenge of sequels. Writing CHAINBREAKER was a lot of fun because not only was I getting to understand these characters better, but I was exploring their world outside of England. For that matter, getting to write about India for the first time—while daunting—was also a very cool experience.

SW: I thought it was cool that you chose to set Chainbreaker in India since it’s an opportunity to explore colonialism through fantasy. Since your setting is actually an alternate timeline, I’m curious as to how the history of your fictionalized India is different from real life. Can you elaborate a bit on the background context for the events of Chainbreaker?

Tara: In regards to India’s history of colonialism and oppression, I kept most things the same, since I didn’t want to erase this huge part my family’s history. I didn’t want to make light of it, or to somehow sweep it under the rug, so it’s at the very heart of the story in book 2. I think, especially during these current times, we all need a reminder of what’s been done in the past and how people have suffered as a result. I will say that there is one way I bend history a little, but *River Song voice* spoilers.

SW: Guess we’ll have to wait and see. 😱

Although Daphne wasn’t as central of a character, I loved reading about her perspective as someone who defies expectations and norms in terms of both race and gender. Will she play a larger role in books 2 and 3? How did it feel to write about a character with a similar background as a biracial Indian?

Tara: Absolutely! Daphne has more POV chapters in book 2, and what with them being in India, a lot of her arc involves identity. It was interesting to write a character with a somewhat similar background to me, since I’ve never done that before, but it was a cool way to transcribe some of what I grew up with into a character who’s different enough from me that it didn’t feel autobiographical. Daphne deals with her identity in her own way, and I loved writing it.

SW: Even when we aren’t writing about characters whose identities match ours, our background and identities inform our writing. How would you say yours have influenced Timekeeper and your other projects?

Tara: I think my background and identity inform a lot of what I write, but like I said above, not in a way that’s autobiographical. As a biracial girl, I’ve always been more inclined towards characters who are half—whether that means biracial or half fire demon or half elf, you name it. Also, as a bisexual girl, I’ve been more inclined towards LGBTQ+ stories. I think this intersection between race and sexuality guides a lot of my characterization and storytelling.

SW: Because in general people tend to envision 1800s England as populated by straight white people, it was a breath of fresh air to read about a cast that was as diverse as the one in Timekeeper and also great to see the ways in which you tweaked the social norms of your world. What are your thoughts on playing with these implicit normative rules in historical fiction, and do you have any advice on worldbuilding for alternate histories?

Tara: I think bending the rules in historical fiction is like walking on eggshells. On the one hand, you want to acknowledge what actually happened, and not erase the true and heartbreaking struggles that marginalized people faced. On the other hand, with TIMEKEEPER, I wanted to create a world where people felt safer to be themselves. We live in a scary world, and personally, I was tired of reading about secrets and fear and being discriminated against.

So, while there is still some discrimination in the books, I bent the rules a bit to allow for less of it. My two biggest focuses were homosexuality and gender equality, which are explained as being societal results of the early boom in technology.

I think, when you’re crafting an alternate timeline, you have to be mindful of those eggshells and not crack too many of them. There should be a logical reason for your changes, rather than just “I wanted it to be this way, so here it is.” Think deeply about your alternate timeline and the causes and effects. And don’t forget to acknowledge those who have struggled.

SW: It’s a tough balance for sure.

Last question! What would say was the most challenging and the most satisfying parts of writing Chainbreaker? What do you think you have learned about the writing process?

Tara: The most challenging part was writing about India. Although I’m half Indian, did a bunch of research, and went to India for a few weeks, it was still a challenge to capture everything I wanted to convey. More so because this takes place in the past, when the British Raj was at its peak. As for the most satisfying parts, I think delving deeper into everyone’s character was super satisfying.

I think this was the book that taught me the importance of double checking facts and research. Although I’ve done a lot of research for books in the past, this was the one that needed the most, and it was a long process that I hope will pay off.

SW: I can’t wait to see the fruits of your labor! Thanks for answering these questions!


Author Photo_Tara SimTara Sim is the author of Timekeeper (Sky Pony Press) and can typically be found wandering the wilds of the Bay Area, California. When she’s not chasing cats or lurking in bookstores, she writes books about magic, clocks, and explosives. Follow her on Twitter at @EachStarAWorld, and check out her website for fun extras at tarasim.com.

Author Interview: Sarah Kuhn

Today’s special guest for my Asian author interview series is Sarah Kuhn! Last year, her debut novel, Heroine Complex, released and was one of my top reads of 2016. Come July 4th, the sequel, Heroine Worship, will be out. I’ve invited her to talk a little about the series and Heroine Worship.

Heroine Worship

Honestly, this cover is everything. It’s so dynamic and kickass. Thanks to Jason Chan for saving Asian SFF with his amazing cover illustrations. (In addition to the covers for this series, he also illustrated Cindy Pon’s Want.)

To keep things mostly spoiler-free for book 1, I’ll just link to the synopsis on Goodreads.

As always, my comments/questions are in bold and labeled “SW.” Here we go!

SW: Well, I am super excited that Heroine Worship is about to be released. Can you offer us any teasers beyond the synopsis?

Sarah: Thank you—I’m excited too! Heroine Worship is really about Annie Chang/Aveda Jupiter figuring out who she is now that everything she’s ever known has changed. We see a lot of her internal landscape, learn a lot about what she’s been feeling. There are so many superhero feelings in this book, y’all. There are also tons of supernatural wedding shenanigans, gorgeous vintage outfits, and at least one scene with sexy cake-eating. And it gives folks something that was only teased in Heroine Complex: Evie and Aveda fighting side by side as legit co-heroines.

SW: Annie’s character is interesting to me because she’s such a drama queen but also tough at the same time. Did she spring from your head, fully-formed, like Athena, or did it take some work to bring her to life? What has your character design process been like for this series?

Sarah: She’s actually the character that’s changed the most since I came up with the idea for Book 1! Evie and Aveda weren’t originally childhood friends and she was much more of a cartoonish diva boss character I plugged in to service this bigger idea of the superhero’s personal assistant story. Once I made them longtime friends, I had to think about her in a lot more depth, think about what drives her and what makes her and Evie’s bond so deep and complicated. I kept coming back to this intense drive she has to be The Absolute Best at whatever she’s doing and how that sometimes blocks out everything else—that’s certainly something I can relate to. She’s one of my favorite characters to write because she’s so bold and loud and has a tendency to charge into situations without thinking about the consequences. I love how she 100 percent refuses to be ignored.

As far as developing characters in general for this series, one of the things I enjoy the most is putting them all in a scene together and seeing how they interact, how they bounce off of each other. For instance, Nate (Evie’s scientist boyfriend) mentoring Bea (Evie’s science-intrigued little sister) came out of that.

SW: Complex characters are more compelling! In the Heroine Complex series, we have three Asian American girl protagonists, Evie, Annie, and Bea. Which of the three are you most like, if any? What traits do you share in common with each of them?

Sarah: I think of myself as being the most like whichever character I’m writing at the time because I’m so intensely in their headspace. I connect a lot with Evie’s snarkiness and using humor as a defense mechanism and her initial insistence on seeing herself only as a sidekick—that’s how I saw myself for a long time. And I relate to Aveda’s need to be the best and fear of failure and vulnerability—as well as her extreme love of fashion. I suppose like Aveda, I now also refuse to see myself as anything less than the protagonist. Bea, I’m still getting to know—stay tuned.

SW: I can’t wait to get into Aveda/Annie’s head because I’ve been wondering what goes on there since Book 1. And I also can’t wait to see more of Bea’s perspective since she’s younger than both Aveda and Evie and therefore will have a different perspective.

If you could cast any actors for the major characters in Heroine Worship, who would you choose, and why?

Sarah: That’s impossible to answer because there are so many awesome Asian American actresses doing great work right now! My mind overloads with the possibilities. I always love seeing people post their fancasts, though!

SW: I feel like I need to go looking for good fancasts now. *makes notes to search later*

I know for your journalism, you talk a lot about Asian Americans in media. What kinds of stories are at the top of your wish list?

Sarah: I’ve said this a ton, but I always love and want to see more stories about Asian Girls Having Fun. Those stories could take so many different forms—Asian Girls Falling in Love, Asian Girls Kicking Demon Butt, Asian Girls Going Shopping and Seeing Star Wars and Gossiping Afterwards While Looking at Pictures of Cute Dogs. Just as much Asian Girls Getting to Do Cool-Ass Shit as possible.

SW: I’m on board with that. It’s great to see that more of these stories are starting to appear in YA and beyond.

Looking at what’s already out there, what are your favorite Asian American creative works (e.g. movies, tv shows, books, comics, etc.)?

Sarah: We’ll be here all day unless I restrict myself somehow—there are so many awesome Asian American creative people doing awesome shit in all mediums right now! So I’ll keep it to recommending a few books either in my genre or adjacent to it:

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger is a fantastic, funny, wonderfully earnest urban fantasy about bartenders who fight monsters with alcohol magic. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee is a clever, trope-deconstructing YA superhero book in a fun near future setting featuring cute robots and even cuter romance. And Trade Me by Courtney Milan is a swoony, sexy, witty contemporary romance about two seemingly opposite people who decide to switch lives for a month—this books makes me feel so many things and I adore the main couple so much. And all three of these books have awesome Asian American girl protagonists.

SW: Okay, I am seconding the hell out of Last Call and Not Your Sidekick, which were also among my top reads of 2016. (I’ve linked my reviews above for everyone who’s interested.) Trade Me I’ve heard of but haven’t read, but I’ll add it to my TBR. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, and I wish you a wonderful launch for Heroine Worship!


Sarah Kuhn Credit CapozKnows PhotographySarah Kuhn is the author of Heroine Complex—the first in a series of novels starring Asian American superheroines—for DAW Books. Heroine Complex is a Locus bestseller, an RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee for Best Urban Fantasy, and one of the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi/Fantasy Blog’s best books of 2016. The sequel, Heroine Worship, is out summer 2017. She also wrote “The Ruby Equation” for the Eisner-nominated comics anthology Fresh Romance and the geek girl rom-com novella One Con Glory, which earned praise from USA Today and io9 and is in development as a feature film. Current writing projects include a series of Barbie comics and a comic book continuation of the cult classic movie Clueless. Her articles and essays have appeared in The Toast, The Mary Sue, Uncanny Magazine, AngryAsianMan.com, IGN.comStarTrek.com, The Hollywood Reporter, and the Hugo-nominated anthology Chicks Dig Comics. (Photo Credit: CapozKnows Photography)

You can find Sarah on the Web:

Author Interview: Axie Oh

Continuing with the Asian author interview series, today I have special guest Axie Oh to talk about her debut sci-fi dystopian YA debut, Rebel Seoul, out this fall on September 15th!

Rebel Seoul

From Goodreads:

After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.

When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.

With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.

Pacific Rim meets Korean action dramas in this mind-blowing, New Visions Award-winning science fiction debut.

Now, for the interview! As always, my comments are in bold and labeled “SW.”

SW: Can you tell us a bit about where the idea for Rebel Seoul came from?

Axie: The idea for REBEL SEOUL came from a very productive senior year of college watching anime and K-dramas. Haha. Jokes aside, I’ve always loved anime, K-dramas and books. I was also a creative writing and East Asian history double major in college, so I love writing and history. But the actual spark that lit the flame of REBEL SEOUL was a dream (really, all writers should depend on their dreams for ideas). In the dream, a girl was standing on top of the tallest building in Seoul, and in the distance, she heard someone singing a song. I woke up from this dream crying because something about the song moved me so deeply. I thought to myself—what about the song would make me/her cry? Who is she? How did she get up there? Was this the first song she’d ever heard? The dream was cold. I set the book in winter. The girl was fierce. I made her a supersoldier.

SW: I’ve never had a dream that has inspired a story, but hopefully it will happen in the future because your dream sounds so cool.

Rebel Seoul has been pitched as Pacific Rim meets kdramas. Were there specific kdramas that inspired the story?

Axie: So many! But the dramas that most directly inspired the story would be: Shut Up Flower Boy Band, Gaksital, and School 2013. Shut Up Flower Boy Band and School 2013 are both realistic high school dramas that deal with the day-to-day life of students and their hardships and relationships, joys and growth. Gaksital is an amazing historical action drama about a masked freedom fighter in Korea during the 1930’s Japanese colonial era. The themes in both shows (combined with the futuristic settings and tech of anime) directly influenced REBEL SEOUL.

SW: I’m tempted to watch Shut Up Flower Boy Band, if only because Kim Myungsoo, a member of my favorite kpop group, Infinite, is in it, haha. Gaksital sounds completely up my alley in terms of genre!

A good part of the work of writing speculative fiction is drawing on reality to make your world convincing. What kinds of research did you do for Rebel Seoul, if any?

Axie: Most of my research for REBEL SEOUL was in Korean words and honorifics since I use Korean to complement the voice of my narrator. My first language is English, so I wanted to make sure my Korean was accurate and reflective of the language (since it’s written out in English, not Hangeul). I’m indebted to the keen eyes of my Korean readers, as well as my Korean copyeditor. Other research included: looking around Seoul when visiting family, reading other works of fiction written by Korean and Korean American authors, and watching K-dramas and films.

SW: Representing languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet is always tough and something I’ve dealt with myself while writing. This factors into character name decisions all the time for me.

Speaking of character names, I noticed that there are a lot of Korean characters in YA named Jaewon. There’s Jaewon from Ellen Oh’s Prophecy, Jaewon who’s Daniel Bae’s brother in Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star, and now your protagonist for Rebel Seoul. How did you decide on his name, and what was the overall process of coming up with names for your characters like?

Axie: I love PROPHECY’s Jaewon! By the time I read PROPHECY, REBEL SEOUL’s Jaewon had already inhabited his name, so I just thought of it as a fun coincidence. Now with Nicola Yoon’s Jaewon, I wonder if we all had the same naming process! For me, I wanted a name that would be easy to pronounce for English-speakers, since I knew it would be Romanized (converted from Korean to Roman/Latin script). As anyone who has an ethnic name knows, it really matters that our names are pronounced correctly. Whatever name I chose for my protagonist, it would be a real Korean name, and I wanted it to be pronounced correctly. But for how I actually chose the name, at the time I was watching a Korean drama called “Can You Hear My Heart” starring Kim Jaewon; hence, Jaewon was born (but with a different surname). In another revision, I later changed his surname to “Lee” because my actor inspiration for Jaewon became Lee Jong Suk. So, Kim Jaewon  + Lee Jong Suk = Lee Jaewon. The other characters’ naming process was less complicated, but no less thought out. I really believe names are important.

SW: I agree! I swear I spend more time coming up with names for my characters than writing sometimes.

What would you say was the most difficult part of writing Rebel Seoul?

Axie: The actual drafting of REBEL SEOUL was fun, as were the revisions I completed with help from CPs and beta readers. The most difficult part were the revisions post-winning the New Visions award, mostly because I rewrote a lot of the book. I drafted the book in 2013-4, won the award in 2015, and then rewrote most of the novel in 2016. By then, it had been awhile since I last worked on it. I had gone a year through grad school and written whole books since that initial draft, and it was a challenge to face the novel, flaws and all. I managed, with the help of my brilliant editor, to revise the novel into the best possible version of itself, but…it was difficult, to say the least!

SW: Rewriting is definitely tough because you have to apply tough love and tear down what you’ve created to rebuild in a better form.

What was your favorite part of writing Rebel Seoul?

Axie: My favorite part was how a lot of my own love of Korea—the country, the people, the culture—appeared in the book without conscious intent on my part. In a way, I was re-discovering my love of Korea while writing the book—its back alleys, food, music, fashion, everything. The ways these elements came out in the book as I was writing it constantly surprised me!

SW: I guess that’s the beauty of #ownvoices, being able to incorporate the things you know and love into your writing. 🙂

Last question is a fun one. If Jaewon had a character theme song, what would it be and why? (does not have to be a song sung in English!)

Axie: I love this question! Jaewon’s theme song would be “Just (그냥)” by Zion T. featuring Crush. When I heard it for the first time, I thought, “This is Jaewon’s theme song!” Lyrics include:  If you’re saying hi / Because I look down / Don’t worry about hurting my feelings / And just pass by (translated lyrics from: 1theK). It’s such a melancholy song and captures how Jaewon feels at the start of REBEL SEOUL—a self-imposed loneliness that refuses to let others in.

SW: I am a huge sucker for loner types, haha. I can’t wait to finally meet Jaewon when Rebel Seoul releases. Thanks a bunch for the interview!


AxieOh_Headshot copyAxie Oh is a first-generation Korean American, born in New York City and raised in New Jersey. She studied Korean history and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of California San Diego and is currently pursuing an MFA in Writing for Young People from Lesley University. Her passions include K-pop, anime, stationery supplies, and milk tea, and she currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada, with her puppy, Toro (named after Totoro).

Author Interview: F.C. Yee

This month is packed with interviews because of #AsianLitBingo, and there are four more to go before the end of the month, not counting this one, so I hope you are ready for the flood. Today’s special guest is F.C. Yee, whose debut YA novel The Epic Crush of Genie Lo is releasing August 8th!

I have to take a moment to appreciate this cover because it’s so eye catching.  (In an earlier version of the cover, Genie was much smaller compared to the title, and the difference in the visual impact is pretty dramatic.) I especially love the tagline because it’s a hyperbolic rendition of a typical Chinese parent line and sets the tone for the story.

Before we begin with the interview, here’s the Goodreads synopsis:

The struggle to get into a top-tier college consumes sixteen-year-old Genie Lo’s every waking thought. But when her sleepy Bay Area town comes under siege from hell-spawn straight out of Chinese folklore, her priorities are suddenly and forcefully rearranged.

Her only guide to the demonic chaos breaking out around her is Quentin Sun, a beguiling, maddening new transfer student from overseas. Quentin assures Genie she is strong enough to fight these monsters, for she unknowingly harbors an inner power that can level the very gates of Heaven.

Genie will have to dig deep within herself to summon the otherworldly strength that Quentin keeps talking about. But as she does, she finds the secret of her true nature is entwined with his, in a way she could never have imagined…

As always, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled with “SW.” F.C. Yee’s answers will be labeled “Christian” (because that’s what the C stands for and I’ve been using given names for all these interviews).

SW: Please introduce yourself!

fcyeeChristian: Hi! I’m F.C. Yee, author of The Epic Crush of Genie Lo. It’s my first work of fiction to be published. Prior to that, most of the writing I did was in college for a humor magazine. I live in San Francisco and enjoy varied pursuits like staying in, staying in and watching TV, and staying in and playing games.

 

SW: Beyond what’s the in the Goodreads synopsis, tell us a little about The Epic Crush of Genie Lo.

Christian: This book, if I did it right, is about knowing exactly what you want and being kept from it by forces that claim they’re beyond your control. It’s about discovering your inner power, testing the validity of those claims, and finding out that they were BS all along.

If I did not do it right, then it’s solely about make-believe punching.

It is not the first book I ever wrote; in fact the first words I put to paper for The Epic Crush of Genie Lo were during a writer’s conference where I was supposed to be talking about a different book entirely. I solidified some ideas on hotel stationary during a pitch session and read the pitch to the group before the rest of the story existed. They didn’t hate it, so here we are.

SW:  Since your book incorporates some Chinese lore, what is your favorite Chinese myth/folktale/legend?

Christian: My favorite story would be how the goddess Nuwa created humans. According to some versions, she started by sculpting individual people out of clay. But at some point she got impatient and started flinging the clay around, creating people wherever drops of it landed.

The legend isn’t very funny when used to justify social hierarchies like it apparently was in the past, but it is pretty amusing to imagine a creator goddess going “Eh, whatever. It’ll work out.” I like to think we’re all of us the product of hasty assembly, without exception.

SW: That sounds less flattering than what the Greeks came up with, but hey, we can’t all be artists and masters of crafting, right? Speaking of craft, did you do any research for the story? If so, what kind?

Christian: I read multiple versions of Journey to the West, including an abridged one that has maybe three demons tops, and an unabridged version that was so long I doubt I remember every part of it. Prior to that I had read or watched media about Sun Wukong in passing, but it wasn’t with the intent of doing research. Also, it would be impossible to claim that I wasn’t influenced by American Born Chinese, which I’d read before the idea of doing fiction ever crossed my mind.

SW: My background with Journey to the West is fairly similar. My dad read me these illustrated storybooks about the Monkey King and I watched a cartoon movie about him, but I’ve never actually read Journey to the West in either English or Chinese. I’ve been meaning to though.

But even with only bits and pieces the human mind can create so much. You start out with a seed of an idea but end up with a fully fledged story. How has your story grown and changed from its earlier iterations?

Christian: The major plot beats and characterizations were pretty much the same since early drafts, but a lot of the smaller details kept evolving to fit the story and tone. I ended up removing some unnecessary complications that would have caused the narrative to come to a screeching halt or thrown the reader out of the flow of the story. There was also a steady shift over time towards increased focus on Genie’s relationships with her best friend, and especially her divine mentor/boss/older sister figure.

SW: I loved that character, so I’m glad you decided to give her more page time. It was cool to see a very modernized depiction of her. Coincidentally, she’s sort of important to one of the stories I’m writing, so I’m just going to pretend our stories happen in the same universe about a thousand years apart 😉

What was your greatest challenge with writing the book?

Christian: I struggled for a while with how to relay the origins of Sun Wukong to anyone who wasn’t familiar with the original story. Going back to the above question, another draft of the book had interludes that tried to summarize relevant chunks of Journey to the West, and that didn’t work as well as what I eventually landed on.

To my surprise I also got stumped on some small key plot mechanics that I needed to keep the story moving forward. Certain elements that should have been obvious in retrospect took me weeks of banging my head against the wall to figure out.

SW: I think I’ve been through something similar in the past. On the flip side, what was your favorite part of writing the book?

Christian: I enjoyed creating the reversals that occur during fight scenes and giving off that manga-esque “You think you have me beat but this isn’t even my true power!” feeling. I may or may not have imagined most of those moments before writing the book and used them as motivation to finish the rest. *cough*

SW: “Write the shiny, explosive parts first, sweat the small stuff later” is probably a lot of writers’ modus operandi, to be honest, ha. 😂

This next question is something that came up while I was reading the ARC of your book. (Spoiler free zone, don’t worry) What’s your beef with bubble tea? Okay, I’m being facetious, but Genie seemed to be very adamantly against bubble tea. Speaking seriously, was there any reason besides familiarity that motivated you to set the book in the Bay Area in particular?

Christian: I personally love bubble tea! I just thought it would be funny if Genie hated something that most everyone in the Bay Area loves. The thought of her silently grousing as all her friends keep wanting to meet up for bubble tea was a very Genie-like image in my head.

As far as for why the book takes place in the Bay Area, I’m afraid it was just proximity coupled with an Asian American population that lent the setting elements that I wanted. I’m sure there’s an alternate universe where I lived elsewhere and wrote the book to be in Flushing, NY, or maybe Vancouver.

SW: I guess that means Genie and I would not hit it off​ that well. I love bubble tea and wished I lived somewhere that has plenty of bubble tea shops nearby. 😅

Now, for the last question…

Although the book feels like it can stand alone, I also think there’s room for more stories about Genie. Are there are any sequel ideas/plans? If not, any hints at what’s next/what you’re working on?

Christian: There will definitely be at least one more book about Genie (hooray for contractual obligations!) After that, I might try my hand at YA Fantasy, or even a Middle Grade book. I would love to do a book that has a Korean influence as I’m of Korean descent as well as Chinese, and I have to be fair to both sides of the family ☺

SW: Yesss! I’m so down for another book about Genie and Quentin. I’m also excited about the possibility of a Korean-influenced book because we need more Korean rep in YA, especially SFF.👀

Thanks a bunch for this interview! I’m looking forward to receiving my copy of The Epic Crush of Genie Lo on release day!


You can find F.C. Yee on the web:

And don’t forget to add The Epic Crush of Genie Lo on Goodreads!

Author Interview: Mina Li

This is the fifth in my author interview series for Taiwanese American Heritage Week. Today’s special guest is Mina Li. In this interview we will be talking about two of her published short fiction pieces and her writing experiences.

As usual, my comments and questions are in bold and labeled with “SW.”

SW: Asking this of everyone: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (Feel free to list as many as you like if you can’t pick one.)

Mina: This is going to be a really disorganized list, so in no particular order: scallion pancakes, bubble tea (50 Lan has this oolong bubble tea that is just the right amount of smoky, creamy, and sweet), aiyu jelly, sheng jian bao, pineapple cakes with actual pineapple bits in the filling, custard apples, wax apples, and beef noodles.

Oh, and one thing I was introduced to in the US from my mom: green mango pickles. I have some in my fridge right now.

SW: Scallion pancakes, bubble tea, pineapple cakes, and beef noodles are also among my favorites. I’m sad that there are no Taiwanese bubble tea chains anywhere near me. 😦

So I just finished reading “Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses” and loved it. It strikes me as a very Asian American story, with a heroine who has been displaced from her homeland and is fighting to preserve her connection to it. What inspired this story?

Mina: There was a fairy tale meme going around with a writing group of mine, where we could request retellings starring our OCs. A good friend of mine requested Tam Lin with the heroine of another story I had, and a side character that she had Unresolved Romantic Tension with. As in, the only story that had them remotely as a pairing was a drunk kiss during a wedding reception.

And then it turned out some of the readers were into that pairing, so I took it and ran. That was back in 2012 or so. The story written wasn’t “Peach Trees” since it was mainly for readers familiar with my OCs, and also, it was from “Tam’s” point of view.

Around 2013-2014 I was really considering submitting my work, and I thought of rewriting that story from “Janet” (now Kairu’s) PoV. It really does strike me that you liked the diaspora aspect of it, considering an editor I’d spoken to at the time said they wouldn’t have taken the story. I still remember their words: “Why can’t it take place in her own country?”

It does bother me that there are those out there that don’t recognize that Asian diaspora characters aren’t white people with Asian faces, that we’ll have different experiences that aren’t quite the same as our white or Asian-in-Asia counterparts. So when I was writing “Peach Trees,” I took special care in how Kairu perceived The Borders v. the kingdom of Yue. That took more work than I was anticipating, since there were a lot of internalized things I had to confront, like beauty standards and perception of environment. I suppose one of the points I was trying to make was that an Asian character in a Western environment isn’t necessarily going to be the same as a white character in a Western environment. There seems to be a notion that when people immigrate to the West, they abandon their culture and adapt right away, and when it comes to my immigrant family, immediate and extended, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Warning: SPOILERS for “Of Peach Trees and Coral-Red Roses.” Highlight to read:

Jumping off of that point, that’s actually where the peach tree came in. Fairies are weak to iron, but in Chinese folklore, if you want to keep away demons, peach branches and peach wood are used in exorcising demons. The original weapon I was going to have for Kairu would have been some MacGyvering of iron and a peach branch. A beta reader, R.P., suggested a different idea where the peach tree was magic, and the rest is history. (I really, really owe her for suggesting that–it was such a good idea that I managed to rewrite the draft in two weeks!) I like how it has Kairu triumphing over the faerie queen using a weapon from her own folklore, and what that implies for diaspora–that despite their new surroundings, their culture is still viable and valid. (End spoilers.)

SW: To be honest, I’ve been wanting to write secondary world diaspora stories because diaspora seems to be missing from a lot of high fantasy. In most fantasy stories, racial/ethnic groups tend to be very self-segregated, which feels unrealistic given that the migration of people has happened since as long as there have been people.

I also read “Dreaming Keys” because I bought the An Alphabet of Embers anthology a while back. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the main character/narrator was Taiwanese American and that the story used actual Chinese characters (hanzi) in dialogue, as opposed to pinyin and/or translations. What motivated this decision, and how would you say your multilingual background plays into your writing?

Mina: A good friend of mine showed me John Chu’s “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” and that was really the first story I’d seen that had hanzi instead of pinyin or translations. It was revelatory, in a sense, because before that, I would have thought “no, I can’t do that, it’s simply not done, how are readers going to understand what the characters are saying?” Chu showed that it could be done, and extremely well, too–that story won a Hugo! So I’d have to say that that story had a major influence in writing hanzi dialogue in “Dreaming Keys.”

Prior to that, a lot of my multilingual background was trying to directly translate proverbs or hanfu items into terms that non-Chinese/Taiwanese readers could understand. I remember adding notes at the end of stories that explained the proverbs or any terms/items that readers might not be able to get.

When it comes to Bethany being Taiwanese-American, I guess the motivation in its simplest terms is that I don’t see a lot of Taiwanese protagonists in books or stories outside of Taiwan. Fresh Off the Boat was a big deal for me when it aired (despite the first season finale where they apparently thought the mainland and Taiwan were interchangeable) because it was the first TV show that immediately felt familiar and like home.

SW: Yeah, I can practically count on two hands the number of Taiwanese protagonists I’ve come across (book list coming soon) in my years reading Anglophone lit. Which is why I always jump for joy when I see another.

One of the things I’ve experienced during my years writing as a Person of Color and Asian American is a shift from writing European-esque settings (for fantasy) and white characters (mostly for contemporary) to writing fantasy inspired by my own Taiwanese heritage and characters who look like me and share parts of my identity. Did you ever go through such a phase or transformation? How would you say your approach to writing has changed over time?

Mina: I think I always leaned toward Asian characters, when it came to fanfiction or RPs. The few times I’ve written sympathetic protags that aren’t explicitly Asian, it feels…off to me, for lack of a better word. I have to work a bit harder at getting inside their heads from time to time. With Asian characters, it’s easier, for lack of a better word.

When it came to fantasy (the genre I write the most), I don’t know if I ever thought of writing Western-style high fantasy? I’ve done urban fantasy with Western settings and Asian protagonists, and I have an wuxia fantasy story that takes place in both fantasy versions of Asia and Europe. The main character is Chinese, and it’s basically four years of her growing up in those circumstances. It’s currently on ice now, but if/when I do go back to it, I’d probably redo a few backstories and try to be more inclusive on marginalizations. I’m still rather fond of it.

SW: When I was younger I wrote high fantasy with European-esque settings, but a lot of my stories had dark haired characters who were coded as Asian. As I got older I converted over to writing explicitly Asian characters and #ownvoices narratives.

For marginalized writers, writing #ownvoices stories is often a means of speaking back to a society that others us and erases us. How do you approach writing #ownvoices narratives, and what are your goals, if you have any, when writing them?

Mina: I don’t know if I have any goals at the moment. When it comes to writing #ownvoices narratives, I tend to pull from my own experiences, which tend to come from the majority in some cases (Taiwanese Mandarin is the only dialect I speak, and my parents immigrated to the US for grad school, for example). It does bother me from time to time when outsiders are all, “this is just another narrative of X” sometimes. I did see a book review critiquing the fact that the main character was another high achiever kept from her artist dreams, and the author commenting quite politely that while she could understand that, that those were her actual experiences she was writing about.

I think we have to be careful not to internalize the myriad demands of what diverse audiences wants–that it’s totally okay if you yourself cannot provide them. I think what we could do instead is that if there is someone writing #ownvoices from PoVs you can’t provide, to support them by boosting their work and purchasing it. But even if your voice falls within the majority or the mainstream, it’s still important and deserves to be heard.

SW: I think as Asian Americans we get our writing policed as either “too Asian” or “not Asian enough,” and in my case I always wonder if people are going to question the authenticity of what I write because I’m not writing oppressive Asian immigrant parents.

Although Asian American literature is often pigeonholed as being about “the immigrant struggle,” there’s so much more to it than that. What aspects of Asian America and Asian American identities and experiences do you find yourself drawn to? What kinds of Asian American stories do you want to write about?

Mina: So the “immigrant struggle” doesn’t do a lot for me personally; my folks had no tragic backstories, and their memories of growing up in Taiwan aren’t particularly hardship-filled or tearjerking. They go back every now and then and seem to have a grand old time, so.

I’m a bit more focused on Asian American stories that don’t take place on the coasts, where there isn’t a Chinatown–we certainly have a strong Taiwanese community here, but there’s no area in my neck of the woods that would be considered a Chinatown, you know? And of course not all Asian-Americans are raised in California or New York.

I have a novel planned that’s got a Taiwanese-American protagonist. She wasn’t the perfect daughter in high school because she didn’t get straight As, never really smiled, and basically had interests that were outside the mainstream. At that age, she discovered certain powers that she had, but due to bullying, used them to hurt instead of help. The novel begins when she’s in her thirties, where she’s tried to bury that really hard, but also still isn’t the perfect daughter (unmarried, occupation is respectable but doesn’t pay a lot, body issues, etc). Another character in the novel is her rival, someone she was unfavorably compared to growing up, and how his boyfriend comes to her for help.

When I was a kid, one of the things I hated most was being compared to other kids. It really made me feel inadequate, like I would never be good enough. So and so spoke better Mandarin; so and so smiled; so and so was better looking; so and so excelled in sports/math/whatever. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that they’ve had their own issues growing up, or actually were really cool people. And it surprised me a lot later to hear from one of those kids that his mom had been comparing him unfavorably to me!

SW: I’m totally with you on wanting to write (and read) Asian American stories that aren’t on the coasts, having spent the majority of my life in the South in Texas (14 out of 24 years, welp), where it is a very different environment than, say, the Bay Area.

I’m also on board to read this Taiwanese American novel if/when it happens. In many ways I was very much a model Asian student in high school. Now that I’m out of college, I’ve fallen into a not-so-perfect Asian life, off the beaten path of conventional success that I once envisioned for myself. Because of this, books that explore Asian Americans’ quarter-life crises in their 20s and 30s appeal to me.

But enough about me. Next question…Are there any writers who have influenced you, and if so, who are they?

Mina: John Chu has been an influence with the hanzi, at least, although I’m still trying to find my way with that. (It’s been noted when I write in hanzi that the dialogue sounds very waishengren, so make of that what you will!)

David Mitchell has been one as well. I remember getting Ghostwritten at fifteen and just reading it over and over until the spine cracked. My copy of Cloud Atlas has the cover coming apart from the binding. I just love how he writes his prose, and I’d love to write like that one day.

SW: I think I need to read more John Chu since you’ve mentioned him twice now. I’ve only read one of his short stories to date.

Last but not least, because I’m a youngster looking for guidance, I have to ask: if you could give your younger self writing and publishing advice, what would you say?

Mina: You don’t need an MFA or to take a ton of creative writing classes to get published. Even if you have a day job, you can still write, and you’ll be grateful for the stability. And if you keep at it, you’ll find your folks will come around.

Also, no matter how off the wall an idea sounds, just…just write it. People are more receptive than you think, really. More often than not they’ll think the idea is cool.

Also also: don’t self-reject. Send in the story anyway–the worst they can say is no.

SW: I’m definitely going to keep these words in mind as I continue on in my writing career and graduate to submitting things. Thanks a ton for answering these questions so thoughtfully! I look forward to reading whatever you publish next.


Mina Li’s Self-Intro/Bio: I’m a Taiwanese-American writer, Michigan born and raised. When I’m not writing I like to knit my own sweaters and socks, try out new recipes, and go for long walks. I’ve also got a thing for mermaids, considering The Little Mermaid came out when I was six. Also, a guilty pleasure of mine is watching online reviews of bad movies.

You can find her online at https://minasli.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @CodenameMinaLi.