Monday, October 26, 2020

Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee's novel Ninefox Gambit came out from Solaris in 2016 and quickly garnered massive critical acclaim and was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke, Hugo and Nebula Awards. It won the Best First Novel Award in the Locus Awards and the Reddit Fantasy Award. Revenant Gun, the third novel in the Machineries of Empire series, was nominated for a 2019 Hugo Award.

Lee's new novel is Phoenix Extravagant.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I've always thought a title should intrigue the reader and, if possible, just sound cool. It might be weird to have a story about a mecha dragon (featured on the cover!) called Phoenix Extravagant, but that was the title that came to me when I conceived this novel. It refers to a magical paint pigment with fiery and destructive power, and I picked the phoenix reference because it's based on a real-world watercolor pigment, PO49 (Quinacridone Gold), that has a glowing golden tone. The secret behind the creation of these magical pigments is at the heart of the story's exploration of themes of colonialism and assimilation.

What's in a name?

My setting, Hwaguk, is loosely based on Korea during the Japanese occupation; the Japan-analogue is called Razan. My protagonist's name is Jebi, which means "swallow" (as in the bird); their sister is Bongsunga, or "balsam." These aren't typical names, but I wanted to avoid colliding with the names of well-known people and frankly, there's not a huge amount of variation in Korean names. Many Koreans love nature so names derived from the natural world seemed like a good choice. I made the perhaps unusual decision to use a constructed naming language for the people of Razan rather than actual Japanese names, again to avoid colliding with the names of historical figures.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self wouldn't be surprised by the fact that it's a fantasy, as my original ambition was to write fantasy, not the science fiction I'm better known for. But all the stories I produced as a teenager were about Western characters. It literally hadn't occurred to me that I could write a story drawing upon my Korean heritage and the years I lived in that country. The other thing that would startle teenage-me is that I spent middle school complaining loudly to my best friend that dragons were cliché. Obviously I've changed my mind since then!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings for sure. I don't even start writing until I know the ending; I learned in college that writing without a goal in mind is a great way to end up with unfinished story-corpses all over my hard drive. In this case, I goofed on a colossal scale. Not only was my opening wrong, my first 40,000 words (not a typo) were wrong. The first draft of Phoenix Extravagant was set in a fake fantasy Renaissance Europe, and several months into it I realized it wasn't working, tossed out all those words, and started over, this time with a setting I could connect to--Korea.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

The only way I can write is to find some point of connection between myself and my characters, even the most despicable villains. In the case of my protagonist Jebi, they're a painter. The arts figure prominently in the novel, and I picked painting instead of pottery (although Korean celadon is arguably better known) because I'm a watercolorist, albeit in the Western rather than the Eastern style. Jebi is an ordinary person caught up in politics and intrigue and war, and they're rather poorly equipped for it. All they want to do is paint! I identify a lot with Jebi; I have no martial skills worth mentioning, and I'm not notably brave. Like Jebi, my basic desire in life is to make beautiful things. Of course, Jebi will find that they may have to take a stand.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

For this novel specifically, I did a lot of reading up on Korean art history. In general I get most of my worldbuilding ideas from nonfiction, especially history, or games (both computer games and tabletop games). The really ironic influence is anime, which is of course Japanese. My then-boyfriend now-husband Joe introduced me to it in college, and I still enjoy it to this day, from the outlandish mecha robots to romantic comedies or sf/f shows. My mecha dragon, Arazi, was directly inspired by watching anime like Visions of Escaflowne.
Visit Yoon Ha Lee's website.

The Page 69 Test: Revenant Gun.

Writers Read: Yoon Ha Lee (June 2018).

My Book, The Movie: Ninefox Gambit.

--Marshal Zeringue