Interview with Rebecca Kuang, Author of The Poppy War

I’m so delighted to bring you another interview, one with the amazing Rebecca Kuang, author of the upcoming THE POPPY WAR, a brutal and devastating Asian fantasy book that I am completely in love with. Speaking to Rebecca was such a lovely experience, and I definitely urge you to pick up her book when it comes out next month!

Hey Rebecca, welcome to the blog! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. First of all, I always like to start off with an easy question so, what is your favorite food or meal?

I’m Chinese-American so obviously I have too many goodies to pick a firm favorite. But right now I’m really craving taro milk tea and char siu bao (I’m a dim sum girl).

For your book The Poppy War, what’s one fun fact you’d like to
share about it?

The Cike (the merry band of shaman-assassins Rin joins later in the book) are based on the main characters in Journey to the West. Only a few people have picked up on that so far, which shocks me.

The Poppy War is filled with parallels to Chinese history,especially the relationships that Nikara has with its neighboring countries. Could you share a little about how you see the cultures mentioned in The Poppy War mapped onto the real world?

The Nikara Empire is clearly China and the Federation of Mugen is clearly meant to be Japan. Past that, the relationships become a little less historically accurate. Speer shares some similarities with Taiwan, but it’s not meant to directly represent Taiwanese history in the same way (though I do try to highlight the ways Taiwan got shafted by geopolitical power plays and the decidedly poor treatment of Taiwanese aboriginals by both countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.)

In the past few years, mainly due to the strength of the WNDB campaign, we are seeing a more vocalized demand for inclusive literature in the US, especially in kidlit. How would you say that has influenced your experience in the author industry?

I’m heartened and excited about the way some publishers (like Harper Voyager) are responding to the push for inclusive literature. In the past year, Harper Voyager has published Nicky Drayden, Maggie Shen King, and myself–all debut authors of color. And their works have been tremendously well received (duh, because they’re amazing writers.) Not everything has gotten better. Authors still face racism and discrimination at every stage of the publishing process, from writing workshops to the querying process to book deals to their treatment by publishers after they’ve signed their contracts. And of course, the numbers still look awful–just look at the stats that came out recently about the percentage of works about people of color compared to the percentage of authors of color published in the last year. But there are a lot of people in the industry doing incredible, important work–like my agent and editor!–and we should celebrate that. I’m very encouraged by the gatekeeper allies who use their platform to give authors like me a voice. We’re moving in the right direction.

I couldn’t help but notice that The Poppy War seems like an darker and more volatile Avatar the Last Airbender (although shhh I like The Poppy War even more.) If you could describe some of your main characters as a combination of the ATLA characters, who would be what?

Haha yes! ATLA was the first western cartoon I ever saw that really reveled in its Asian influences (in a non-appropriating way! How rare!) so it’s been formative for me. Rin is very much like Azula, obviously. But Azula’s actions in the show are explained away by sociopathy. I hope Rin is a little more complex. She’s not a total maniac. She cares deeply about other people and thinks she’s doing what’s best. That can be scarier.

I think Nezha is similar to Zuko (without the sibling connection to Rin, because gross.) He’s born into nobility and starts out as this nasty Draco Malfoy character, but over the series you see him grow and evolve to become far more responsible and compassionate. (I’m so proud of him.) Kitay is a combination of Katara and Toph. He’s tough in a way you underestimate and also cute as a button.

(Bonus: a fun graphic I made to appreicate Nezha, click through to see it in full-res on tumblr)

nezha 2                nezha 1

Can you say anything about your current projects and one thing you’re excited about from them?

I don’t tease something unless I’ve sold it, but I won’t be in a position to sell anything until I’ve finished this trilogy. And that’s going to be…a while. They’re long books, Eri.

If you were to say something to your 17-year-old self, what would you say?

Two things.

1- Don’t do your eyeliner like that.

2- He’s not the one.

Finally before you leave, do you have any Asian literature recommendations? Feel free to list as many as you’d like haha.

Too many. I just finished Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male which was a very smart and clever take on the Party and modern China’s gender problems. A little while ago I read Fonda Lee’s Jade City, which has since been (rightfully) nominated for a Nebula (!!!) If you haven’t read JY Yang’s Tensorate novellas yet, you should. They’re gripping and delightful. I also have a blog post coming out with Tor.com soon highlighting five books about Asian cultures by Asian authors, so look out for that.

Be sure to follow Rebecca on twitter and make sure to check out THE POPPY WAR when it releases next month! 

tpw-cover When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late. – Goodreads

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Interview with Mary H.K. Choi, Author of Emergency Contact

Hey everyone! I’m back from the void with an interview with Mary H.K. Choi, whose debut Emergency Contact just released into the wild. Not going to say I laughed out loud reading the answers to some of these, but I dare you not to want to pick up her book after reading this interview because I would want to read her words all day everyday.

Hey Mary, welcome to the Fictasian blog! Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. First of all, as a fun way to start things off, what is your favorite food or meal?

OMG this is a random-ass question after my own heart. I love food so much! Okay, my favorite meal (this way I can include many things) is very non-traditional poké with all the avocado, masago and extra sriracha. Plus, a Kinder Country candy bar for dessert and Hawaiian sweet maui onion chips and a LaCroix sparkling water on the side. If it’s a meal I’m eating at home it’s probably a supermarket roast chicken that I eat with my hands like an animal. Dipped into either sriracha or sprinkled with a little bit of white truffle salt from Piedmont.

As a debut YA author, what are you most excited about your book being out in the world?

It’s wild to know that people are reading something I made up completely from my own brain. I know it sounds obvious but as a reporter and essayist who’s only ever written non-fiction, it’s mind blowing to sit inside the experience. I’m also stoked that so many POCs are in my mentions talking about how excited they are to see a non-white main character so that’s really encouraging too. It’s amazing to have this tidy little package of my entire bleeding thumping heart out in the world and have people respond positively to it. It feels stressful and risky but so far it’s going well so I’m ecstatic.

What are two fun facts you would like to share about Emergency Contact?

It used to have this scene in my favorite store in the world. It’s a truck stop called Buc-ee’s and Texas people know what I’m talking about. It’s enormous and has a trillion bathrooms and walls upon walls of snacks, a barbecue area, kolache bar and something called a beef jerky bar. It’s paradise. In any case it’s legendary and I had Penny make a pitstop in the New Braunfels one on her way to college only because I like the place so much but the story dragged so I took it out. But I think about the deleted footage often.

There’s an anecdote in the book that I gently lifted or else “sampled” from my friend’s life. My friend has an ex who shows up as Liar on his phone and we were commiserating about broken hearts and dashed hopes and when they told me that I thought it was hilarious and brilliant. Of course I asked for permission but I wonder if they’re going to get any blowback if their ex notices.

As an Asian author, how has your culture or background influenced your books and writing?

I talked about this in another interview and it’s something I’ve tweeted about before but I love being Asian and getting to write about Asians moving around in the world and looking out of Asian eyeholes, thinking out of Asian brains. It affects everything and nothing at the same time. People have commented how Celeste, Penny’s mom in the book, isn’t a typical “tiger mom” and that’s something I get to do because that’s where I want diversity to go. I want to write roles where people are falling in love and fighting and freaking out where it’s a non-issue to me and my Asian friends that they’re Asian but might startle someone else who has a flattened, pat, simplistic idea of “how Asians are.” Also, there’s so much pleasure and joy in me writing about the Asian experience however I want. Cis white people must feel like frickin’ Midas all the time where everything they touch turns into Cis white people and everyone thinks that’s the natural order. I want that for everyone else. And the incredible thing is, I think in YA and middle grade that’s actually beginning to happen.

In the past few years, mainly due to the strength of the WNDB campaign, we are seeing a more vocalized demand for inclusive literature in the US, especially in kidlit. How would you say that has influenced your experience in the author industry?

I’m incalculably lucky to be getting here exactly when I am. I’m benefitting so much from a lot of hardwon territory and moved needles due to the emotional labor and social justice pursuits of other people. I’m grateful for everyone who’s ever spoken on issues of sensitivity readers, the many layers of privilege, ableism and intersectionality, like Dhonielle Clayton the COO of WNDB who I just met at Teen Book Con. Like, between writing her own novels and moving the campaign forward, she’s never not working. Ever. In a pristine, matte red lip no less.

The thing is, I don’t know what it was like a few years ago in kidlit, I only just arrived. But my experience has been incredible. Out the gate I had dinner with Jenny Han the New York Times Bestselling author of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. It was on the strength of us both being Korean! It was awesome and amazing and started from me sidling up to her on Twitter. I got to ask a thousand questions and trust her wisdom and perspective wholeheartedly. And when I went to Houston last week, it was nerve wracking to be thrust into a group of strangers especially since so many of the authors have written so many books before but I already kinda knew what “high school cafeteria table” to sit at. I went straight to where there was melanin and of course there were New Yorkers at that table too and it was wonderful. Not to say that it was exclusive or anything like that—it’s not like, “You can’t sit with us!” lol—just that there was an emotional shorthand and generosity that I found very reassuring as someone who struggles with social anxiety.  

Aside from being an author, you’re also a reporter. How was writing a novel different from your experience of writing articles and what would you say you enjoy best about both of these sides of writing?

I enjoy both because they’re so different. It’s nice to get a break from one kind of mode of thinking especially when you’re stuck in another. I always equate being a writer to always having homework and while that’s true it also means that you’re never bored or lonely. You always either have interviews to transcribe and fiddle with or else you have characters running around in your head demanding your attention. The other thing is that for a long time no one was paying me to be a novelist so the paychecks in reporting were supremely helpful to underwrite what was a passion project.

Are you currently working on any future novels or writing and can you share anything about them?

I just finished a draft of my second novel that’s based in New York and I’m working on a third about Korean sisters that may not be YA. I’m still in the process of figuring that out but I can definitely guarantee that you’ll see some strong female characters and some intense moms.

If you were to say something to your 17-year-old self, what would you say?

To treat yourself as you would something outside of yourself. To be kind and careful and patient and that happiness is not a finite spot in the future that you have to work punishingly hard to deserve and reach. And not to weigh yourself so much. My ED was bad at 17.

Finally before you leave, do you have any Asian literature recommendations? Feel free to list as many as you’d like.

  • Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.
  • The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
  • To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
  • Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
  • Everything I’ve Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  • A Wild Sheep Chase Haruki Murakami

 

REV_1_9_EC_JKT (1)

For Penny Lee high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her. When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.

Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a café and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him.

When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other. – Goodreads

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photo credit: Hatnim Lee

Follow Mary on twitter @choitotheworld and make sure to check out her book Emergency Contact!!

How Korean Dramas Shaped REBEL SEOUL

Hi, Fictasian readers, thanks for having me! Today I’d like to talk influences: How Korean dramas (K-dramas) played a big part in shaping REBEL SEOUL, complete with gifs!

BTS ARMY ocean
BTS Army ocean
  1. Music

REBEL SEOUL begins with a concert, and in a way it was my homage to K-Pop, as well as a nod to OSTs (Original Sound Tracks). I also listened to K-Pop while writing (you can check out a partial playlist: here), which included songs from OSTs like Shut Up Flower Boy Band and Heartless City. I think the mood of REBEL SEOUL’s first draft was “몰라야 할 말” by Loveholics (featured in the drama Shut Up Flower Boy Band). Later in revisions, “Just” by Zion.T and Crush became the book’s theme song. Because music is so integral in Korean dramas, as well as Seoul culture in general, I wanted to channel that feeling of music through my writing – by inserting actual music into the novel, but also by writing to the soundtrack of songs that invoked the feeling of the book.

K-drama / 20th Century Boy and Girl
K-drama / 20th Century Boy and Girl
  1. Food

You can’t have a book set in Korea without food, especially street food. I have definitely suffered from the “I watched an actress eat ramen deliciously in a K-drama, and now I crave ramen” syndrome. So of course I had to have characters eat ramen in REBEL SEOUL – multiple times – as well as other types of street or convenience store food. I think the “street food cart scene” is a staple in every K-drama, and I wanted to have similar scenes in REBEL SEOUL to ground readers and give them a sense of homecoming.

K-drama / W: Two Worlds

K-drama / W: Two Worlds
K-drama / W: Two Worlds
  1. Style

Wardrobe and style are super important in Korean dramas, whether it’s like the above Kang Chul from W: Two Worlds who always dresses snazzy in bright colors or Park Shin Hye’s character in Flower Boys Next Door who is always seen dressed in big sweaters or blankets (she’s a reclusive writer – I can relate). You can tell a lot about a character from their clothing. I wanted to channel this a bit in REBEL SEOUL. My protagonist, Jaewon, when not wearing his school or military uniform, dresses in dark, plain colors. Ama, another character, wears bright colors (when given the chance), which matches her personality. Even if I don’t describe in-scene what each character is wearing, I always know what they’re wearing because, like K-dramas, I think wardrobe and style tells you a lot about a person and their preferences, who they are and who they want to be.

K-drama / I Remember You
K-drama / I Remember You
  1. Fight Scenes

I think most K-dramas have fight scenes, even if they’re not action or crime dramas, like the one above. Even comedies will have a hair-pulling fight between friends or a fight between jealous rivals. In REBEL SEOUL there are multiple fight scenes (including ones inside giant robots). Just like how the fight scenes in dramas are carefully choreographed, I choreographed my fight scenes, paying careful attention to where the characters were standing in-scene, how their bodies connected, the sights, sounds, and tastes. I watched a lot of favorite fight scenes from Korean dramas, to see what details about the fight scenes made them exciting and unique to watch (not just flailing punches).

K-drama / Reply 1988
K-drama / Reply 1988
  1. Friendship

The main reason I watch K-dramas is for the characters and their relationships to one another. Though REBEL SEOUL has an action concept and is in the mostly action-driven sci-fi genre, it’s a character-driven story focusing on the protagonist’s relationships – past and present. Jaewon’s past was a lot like the gif above. Though his friends often got him into scrapes, they also got him out of them, supporting him when he was hurt or afraid. When he lost those friends, it devastated him. Present-day Jaewon struggles to come to terms with his past, while coming into contact with new people who challenge him. I feel like every good drama challenges the viewer with difficult questions and complicated feelings. I tried to do the same through Jaewon’s relationships in REBEL SEOUL.

Image/ Seoul, South Korea on Study Celta
Image/ Seoul, South Korea on Study Celta
  1. Seoul

REBEL SEOUL is a mashup of K-drama influences and my own trips to Seoul. It is, in a lot of ways, my love letter to this city. Seoul is as vibrant, colorful, noisy, quiet, dreamy, harsh, fast, stylish and beautiful as the dramas show it to be, which I hope my book portrays it to be (beyond the dystopian veneer). Hopefully through this book I can share some of that love with readers!

Thanks to Axie for stopping by and be sure to check out her book Rebel Seoul out now. You can follow her on twitter, tumblr, and instagram , as well as add Rebel Seoul on goodreads

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Axie Oh is a first generation Korean American, born in NYC and raised in New Jersey. She studied Korean history and creative writing as an undergrad at the University of California – San Diego and holds an MFA from Lesley University in Writing for Young People. Her passions include K-pop, anime, stationery supplies, and milk tea. She currently resides in Las Vegas, Nevada with her puppy, Toro.