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Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Interview with M.L. Wang (Interview by David Stewart)

Official Author Website
Read FBC's Review of The Sword of Kaigen

M. L. Wang was born in Wisconsin in 1992, decided she wanted to be an author at the age of nine, and never grew up. She currently splits her time between writing fantasy books and working at a martial arts school in her home city of Madison.

When she isn’t building worlds on the page, she builds them in her aquarium full of small, smart fish that love to explore castles and don’t make noise during writing time.

[Q] Hello M.L.! Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic and thank you so much for taking some time to chat with us. Your book is making quite a splash in this year's SPFBO, and you certainly have made some fans within this blog. Could you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you do when you aren't writing fantasy books?

[ML] Thank you so much for having me! The Sword of Kaigen is the first adult fantasy book I’ve ever written, so it’s been kind of a shock how people have taken to it. A good kind of shock. Happy shockwaves.

In high school, when people asked about my hobbies, I would always say writing and martial arts. In the intervening years, both of those turned into jobs, so now I just sound like a loser with no hobbies. Maybe that’s not completely true. Other than writing stuff and kicking stuff, I enjoy walking along bodies of water, getting too into TV shows, and doing amateur art projects that are too bad to be shared online.

[Q] Why do you write fantasy books? Or if that phrasing is too pointed, why do you write? Do you have any formal training?

[ML] Writing has always been my way of processing the world. That might sound like a recipe for contemporary or non-fiction, but I only ever write speculative fiction (of my own will, anyway; obviously, in my youth, there was the odd school assignment). For me, a lot of the fun of fictionalizing the human experience is in the grandiosity, which in my published books takes the form of emotionally charged superpowers. You don’t have to take a microscope to an emotion if you can blow it up to the size of a dragon.

I have little formal training mainly because every creative writing class that’s ever been available to me has centered on writing short stories, a medium I despise. Not short stories by other people, I love those. They’re perfect for my slippery attention span. But as a writer, I prefer working on the kind of expansive worlds, serial adventures, and slow-burn character arcs that don’t fit in a few thousand words.

[Q] What made you decide to enter the SPFBO? Had you entered previously? To add to that, why have you taken the self-publishing route over traditional?

[ML] This is my first SPFBO entry. Petrik Leo, who was one of the first people to review The Sword of Kaigen over at Novel Notions, recommended that I enter. Prior to that, I had only heard about the competition through Kitty G’s SPFBO 4 videos and hadn’t thought of entering myself. Petrik and JC Kang both (separately) made sure that I marked the competition on my calendar and knew when to enter, so big thanks to them!

[Q] The Sword of Kaigen is such a melting pot of cultures, what would you say your primary cultural fonts are? Does your own background integrate into these inspirations?

[ML] Ninety percent of my world-building research has been devoted to the Mande of West Africa. This is because the Mande are the primary inspiration for the dominant people on Planet Duna, called the Yammankalu (those dark-skinned fire elementals who show up very briefly in The Sword of Kaigen). Theonite explores that larger African-dominated world, while The Sword of Kaigen focuses on a little corner of it that is loosely based on Japan. Even in backwater Kaigen, you’ll find the West African influence in their occupational caste system, facets of their religion, and some of their terms of address.

As the name Wang might suggest, I am neither West African nor Japanese. My mom is American and my dad is from Jiangsu, China. For those unfamiliar with Eastern World War II history, Jiangsu is the province where the Nanjing Massacre happened. Growing up, I had a weird relationship with Japan—basically trying to reconcile my fondness for modern Japanese culture and people with the genocide that affected the previous generation of my family and left a scar on the collective Chinese psyche.

Earlier in the year, I wrote this long meditation on how my experience of being a biracial kid trying to communicate across cultural lines drove me to create an ‘upside down’ version of our world. I won’t dump all that baggage here, but the underlying premise of Planet Duna is that it takes the racial hierarchies of our own history and flips them, giving the reader a chance to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. In Theonite, ‘Europeans’ (Hadeans) have been colonized by ‘West Africans’ (Yammankalu). In The Sword of Kaigen, the ‘Chinese’ (Ranganese) do some genocide in a ‘Japan’ (Shirojima, Kaigen) ruled by an Imperial ‘Korea’ (Jungsan, Kaigen). You get the idea. Like I said above, fiction is the way I process reality. This was all a coping mechanism of my teenage brain.

[Q] Your decision to set The Sword of Kaigen in a modern setting is an interesting one. Had you considered setting it in a historical setting, or was modern-with-ancient techniques always the goal?

[ML] I never thought of the modern setting as an interesting decision—though maybe that’s because it wasn’t really a decision at all. The central conflict of The Sword of Kaigen was cemented into the larger Theonite timeline long before I ever thought to write a spin-off novel about it, so it wasn’t like changing the era was on the table. I suppose, if I had really wanted to tell a traditional fantasy story, I could have gone back to Shirojima, Kaigen’s age of founding heroes, but that would have robbed Planet Duna of its underlying function, which is to explore contemporary realities.

All Theonite stories are really about modern people in the modern world. And to me, one of the most interesting things about the modern world is the interplay between traditional lifestyles and new technology. Some of the Japanese officers who shot at my relatives during World War II carried katanas. I’ve been to mountain villages in central Africa where men headed out to hunt with spears in their hands and iPhones in their back pockets. The mutual exclusivity some people imagine between swords and cell phone towers is a product of genre, not reality. And that bums me out. Genre fiction is supposed to expand the imagination, not narrow it. This answer got away from me a bit. Sorry.

[Q] Tangents are always appreciated, and I happen to agree with you. There’s a lot of what you could term narrow fantasy out there that’s basically comfort food – sometimes necessary but not always useful.

[ML] Most of my favorite sci-fi and fantasy mixes genres in weird ways—and I include the pioneers like Tolkien and Shelley in that; they were so weird people had to invent genres around them.

Misaki by Coralie Jubénot (Merwild)
[Q] We don't often get to see middle-aged mothers as our hero protagonists in fantasy fiction, much to the harm of the genre. Was there ever any fear that this would not land with readers? Spoilers - it lands.

[ML] I actually just published a guest post on how Misaki was never intended to be a protagonist and the series of accidents that led to her becoming one. To sum up that post here, Misaki originally features as a mentor figure in the Theonite books and was constructed accordingly. When I started writing The Sword of Kaigen, I thought a) that the whole story would be about half its current length and b) that Misaki would be a secondary point-of-view character to her more active, protagonist-y son, Mamoru. She wasn’t initially designed to be a main character, hence her protagonist-atypical characteristics, like her age and marital status.

It was as I ran into the unexpected complexities of her rage, grief and regret that she became a main character—at which point I wasn’t thinking ‘can readers handle this?’ as much as I was thinking ‘can I handle this?’ Misaki’s arc was one of the most challenging I’ve ever written, which makes it so meaningful to me that readers have managed to connect with her.

[Q] Your prior books are labeled as young adult, but The Sword of Kaigen is not. These are connected books, but how do they relate to one another in a series sense? Do you consider them vital to one another? Do they share any characters?

[ML] The Theonite books take place thirteen years after The Sword of Kaigen and follow a set of younger kids, including some of the tiny babies from The Sword of Kaigen (most prominently Robin’s son, Daniel, and Misaki’s youngest, Izumo) through their teenage years.

I wrote Theonite and The Sword of Kaigen to function as complete stories, independent of one other. Aside from my personal preference that a given story stand on its own, this approach was my only option from a marketing standpoint. A lot of parents don’t want their ten-year-olds who enjoy Theonite reading The Sword of Kaigen and a lot of readers who enjoy The Sword of Kaigen aren’t into YA, so I really did need the option to sell them separately.

[Q] Without spoiling things, The Sword of Kaigen seems ripe for a sequel, while at the same time telling such a complete story that it could easily stand on its own. Is that your plan? Is this a trilogy or series? How far have you planned?

[ML]The Sword of Kaigen will never have a direct sequel for a few reasons. First, I was very depressed when I wrote it and I’m glad the experience is behind me. Second, the book represents a tiny cross-section of a planet-wide story I’ve been plotting since I was a teenager, meaning that major events are set on an inflexible timeline. Holding to that timeline, there aren’t any novel-worthy developments on Mount Takayubi between The Sword of Kaigen and Theonite. This isn’t to say that the Matsuda family’s story is over—far from it—but their ongoing adventures will be tied up in the plot of the main series.

I have just started work on a newsletter serial called Rage and Whisper, which takes place nine years after The Sword of Kaigen. It isn’t a sequel per se but does feature some of the same characters. The Sword of Kaigen itself started out as a newsletter serial, so if people enjoy this project, I may end up publishing it as a book or novella down the road.

[Q] Follow up question that is somewhat repetitive, but will your further books also stick to YA, or do your characters, in essence, “grow up” in to adult fiction?

[ML] Theonite was originally modeled after Harry Potter, a series in which the tone and content age substantially with the protagonists, so yes, that is the plan.

[Q] Your book manages to create in-depth, authentic characters, an engrossing plot full of unknowns, and some of the best action scenes that I've ever read in any book. How do you balance this? Do you have literary priorities? 

[ML] First of all, it’s deeply flattering to hear that you liked the action scenes so much, since action certainly hasn’t always been my strong suit.

I’m a character-oriented writer before anything else. In my opinion, an otherwise beautiful story without strong character development is like a sexy car without an engine; cool, but what’s the point? This is why Shakespeare inventing ridiculous plot contrivances in order to push his characters to their emotional limits will always be stronger storytelling to me than a logical sequence of events that doesn’t challenge its characters.

When I write, everything—the plot, the magic, the religion, the martial arts—are negotiable based on the arcs of the main characters. I know that the action scenes in The Sword of Kaigen were satisfying to write because they served as expressions of the characters’ emotions, relationships, and personal growth. I think (at least, I hope) they’re satisfying to read for the same reason.

The Duel by Arielle Werthaim (arielle_the_merms)

[Q] Not a question, but that specific spouse duel later in the novel illustrates that point perfectly. I’m not sure I’ve ever read an action scene that was so necessarily narrative.

Speaking of fight scenes, what influences are you drawing from to plan them out? They have the feel of professionally choreographed sequences. Are there any particular martial arts movies you're drawn to, or does it all stem from your own experience (you know, fighting with ice swords)?

[ML] The influence of Avatar: The Last Airbender on my universe should be obvious, alongside kung-fu movies and lots of anime. Going into the project, I did take some sword courses in order to get a better feel for armed combat (my forte is traditional taekwondo, which is closer to the bad guys’ fighting style than the main characters’). Sadly, there were no swords made of ice.

[Q] And speaking of influences, do you have any fantasy or literary influences that particularly stand out? And tangentially to that, how would you say the experience of being an Asian-American fantasy author is in a world where Asian culture is only lately being properly represented in fantasy? 

[ML] Okay. Here’s the part where I have to admit that I don’t read much fantasy, or indeed much at all. I know that everyone and their mom insists that you need to read in your genre constantly in order to be a good writer, but that had better not be true because reading has never been part of my writing process. I very occasionally listen to fantasy audiobooks (my hands-down favorite in recent memory was Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings) but when I read with my eyeballs, it’s almost always history books.

The world is full of fantasy based on other fantasy, meanwhile, there are whole real-world cultures that go unexplored in modern SFF. I have a tragically limited attention span for reading—just ask any of my grade school teachers, I was the worst—so when I am able to read, I prefer to put that energy into the neglected histories of our own world. If these count as literature, I would cite the Kojiki, the Nihon Shoki, and The Tale of the Heike as influences for The Sword of Kaigen.

As for being an Asian-American author… all I can say is that I got lucky with my timing. I wish I could claim that I’m a sales genius who planned to release an Asian-inspired fantasy at exactly the time that books like The Poppy War were taking off in the traditional market, but I’m rarely that tuned in to the trends. JC Kang and Petrik were the ones who initially compared The Sword of Kaigen to The Poppy War and pointed me in the direction of that market, which I think played a role in getting the book off the ground.

In the long run, I hope I’m not known as Asian author of Asian fantasy, since that isn’t my focus and I don’t plan on releasing any more Asian-centric stories. Asian cultures, martial arts, and characters will always be an important part of my work; you’re just unlikely to see anything as bluntly, homogenously Asian as The Sword of Kaigen from me again. Samurai have been done. They’re done all the time by writers more capable and better informed on the subject than myself. I’m going to try to devote the rest of my writing career to things you haven’t seen before.

[Q] What would you do if you won the SPFBO? 

I’m not sure. Run in circles like a toddler? Probably tell my parents, who will say “That’s great, honey,” and then move on with their lives. It’s not something I’ve planned for, though it would amazing. Another happy shockwave.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview!


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