Blog Conversation with R. F. Kuang

Anyone who has been following Read at Midnight for a length of time will know that I am an ardent fan of The Poppy War trilogy. As a fandom, we are blessed that Rebecca Kuang is consistently generous with her interactions with her readers.

Today, I am privileged to join in part of her blog tour leading up to the release of The Burning God! I got to chat with Ms. Kuang about the future of Asian SFF, her favourite scene from The Burning God, and her favourite house in Fire Emblem: Three Houses!

Blog Conversation

Note: my questions are in italics and teal.

Thank you so much for the exquisite pain that is The Poppy War trilogy! We have briefly talked about fanfic and AO3 in the past, and I know you’re working on something Nezha related for the pre-order campaign (!!!). Have you ever thought about “fanfic” scenarios for your own characters? I personally think about that AU dream world where Rin marries He Who Must Not Be Named in Book 1 A LOT. 

Occasionally, yes! Fanfiction is weird to think about when you’re the creator, because technically what I imagine is canon, right? So I never think about AUs that are just the same world but a different possible timeline, because to me that’s just a plot branch that I scrapped. (Such as Rin getting a HEA and marrying He Who Must Not Be Named! Also, for the record, I think they would make a dreadful couple; I think they’re both too short-tempered, selfish, and willing to hurt each other.) I haven’t thought about any actual AU scenarios in detail, but I’ve always thought it would be funny to see our Sinegard crew in an actual American high school. They’d tear each other apart. Nezha would be the silver-spoon rich boy whose father and brothers were all alumni at whatever posh boarding school this is set in, and Rin would be the grumpy scholarship student who hates everyone and everything. 

In the same vein, if you could rewrite the ending to any SFF work that you really enjoyed, what would it be and how would you do it? 

As a serial series-abandoner, by the time I get to the final book in any series, I have enough faith in the author and writing to trust that they will deliver a worthy conclusion. To me, the ending does not matter as much as the journey to that point, and whether there was enough character and plot development along the way to make the resolution feel complete – whether we are talking about an open-ending or a close-ended finale. However, nothing will make me as salty as the ending of the manga BLEACH, which I followed for over ten years, and devoted much of my teenage years to discussing it extensively over the internet. The ending felt like a betrayal to the characters I grew up with, who I no longer recognised by the last chapter. It left me feeling angry at my own apathy towards the characters I had loved so much, and to me, there’s no greater disappointment.

OMG I feel that. I followed Bleach all the way through the end – I read the weekly chapter updates from fifth grade through high school – and I did not like that ending a all. 

I also fail to suppress a cringe whenever we get the whole timeskip to married-with-children montage (cough, Harry Potter and The Spin Offs No One Asked For). Firstly, it reeks of unoriginality, I do not want to see The Chosen One saddled with the ideal suburban life (which is why I was so stoked to see Rin deliberately choose a very different path at the beginning of The Poppy War!). Another pet peeve of mine is character deaths written for the express purpose of evoking shock or sadness from the reader. There is nothing more uncreative, and as you well know, there are fates much worse than death.

On the reverse, this is not SFF per se but I loved how the RPG game, Fire Emblem: Three Houses (IIRC you’re a loyal Blue Lion), treated the separate storylines and gave them their own complete arc and different endings. For me, it was one of the most satisfying ways to experience a complete narrative from all the different points of views. That’s most likely just me and my deep phobia to commitment speaking, though.

Blue Lion boys forever. Hypothetically I agree that FE3H does an amazing job showing you the same overarching narrative from three different perspectives, just based on the discourse I’ve seen about the other two paths. But I’m so loyal to my Blue Lions that I could never bring myself to play the game any other way LOL. 

Speaking of fates worse than death, and as an author known for causing mass hysteria and panic attacks through the sheer pain of your books, are there any moments you are particularly proud of in the series? And are there any other SFF moments that inflicted the same pain on you?

Ahhh, I can’t talk about my absolute favorite scenes without spoiling TBG! Let me try…the fight scene at the end of Part I. You know that one 😉 I think it’s one of my best fight scenes to date, and every single line just felt so emotionally charged. 

Yes, I know this exact scene and I can say without a doubt that it’s my favourite scene of the trilogy.

So I have a hilarious story to tell here. When I was in middle school, I was really into the Warrior Heir books by Cinda Williams Chima, and my favorite character by far was Jason Haley. My parents wouldn’t buy me hardcovers of new releases, so when the last book in the trilogy came out, I had to borrow it from a friend. Unfortunately, I for some reason had a nosebleed the night I was excitedly reading The Dragon Heir, and when I got to Jason’s death scene I exhaled so forcefully I GOT BLOOD ALL OVER THE PAGE. I had to scrimp together the entirety of my allowance to pay my friend so he could get a new book. I lied and told him that it was ketchup. 

Congratulations on winning the Astounding Award this year and for using your platform to share your heartfelt speech on the plights of authors of colours. I love seeing SFF decolonized one book at the time, are there any works from “new” SFF writers that you’ve been enjoying?

Thank you! And yes–I have so many recs! I have Evan Winter’s sequel to the RAGE OF DRAGONS, the FIRES OF VENGEANCE, loaded up on my Kindle. Evan and I always recommend each other’s books to people who enjoyed our own–ROD, though drawing from a very different cultural inspiration than TPW, hits a lot of the same story beats in a very satisfying way. I’ve also just finished Nghi Vo’s forthcoming novel THE CHOSEN AND THE BEAUTIFUL, which is a retelling of The Great Gatsby from the POV of Jordan Baker, who in this version is queer, Asian, and can do magic. I’ve been searching for something that could match Fitzgerald’s prose since high school (I know, I love Fitzgerald, whatever, I’m basic), so this was a delight. Finally, Charles Yu is by no means a “new” writer, but I want to drop this rec because it came out this year and I finished it recently–Interior Chinatown was hilarious and very cleverly written. 

You read an astonishing amount of SFF by Asian writers. As we both know, the Asian SFF being published is really remarkable in its diversity and creativity–no two stories are remotely the same, as much as Western publishing might try to lump as all together at times. That being said, is there anything you wish you could see more of by Asian writers? 

The recent years have been so great for Asian SFF, and I want it to go on without limit. I would love to see more intersectionality in the representation in Asian SFF novels, because so many of us have been told that we have too many marginalised identities. We are already beginning to see this with works such as The Tensorate Series by JY Yang, Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho. I am looking forward to seeing more of this with upcoming releases such as She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan, and The Jasmine Throne by Tasha Suri! 

I’m very thrilled for those titles as well! 

I also want us to be less confined to certain genres, and for there to be less of a requirement of ‘education’ in these books. Some of my favourite Asian SFF has taught me so much about the culture and history that informs these novels, but I want to see Asian writers take unapologetic liberties. I want allowances for creative freedom, I want writers to go down the metaphorical rabbit hole without fears that they will be branded ‘inauthentic’ by armchair critics. I want all of those tropes branded as irrelevant to be reimagined and reclaimed: the chosen one, the band of misfits, the monster boys and girls, modern twists on Asian classics, and I still dream that someone will come out with a Jin Yong retelling one of these days. I want Asian SFF to be so prolific that someone manages to snag a 40+ book series ala Discworld.

Finally, I want to see Asian writers be allowed to write books that’s not explicitly about the Asian experience, if that is what they choose. I want to see Asian writers to experience different formats of storytelling as well: graphic novels, screenplays, video games! I want Asian writers to be able to team up and tell a story together like we’ve seen with This is How You Lose A Time War.

Gosh! Yes! I agree with all of this so much.

And just because I can’t quite bear to let go of The Poppy War’s universe and Nikara, I would love to know how much world building and history you have stored away for this series, and how do you keep track of it all? I loved seeing the glimpse of Arlong in your short story in The Book of Dragons!!

None, actually! I treat worldbuilding and lore very instrumentally–I never come up with more than what I strictly need for the story. I’m the complete opposite of writers who create elaborate project “Bibles.” That doesn’t work for me; I get really bored with any aspect of worldbuilding if it’s not serving to move the story along. I’m an ideas writer first–I come up with whatever historical, political, or philosophical theme I want to drive home–and then I come up with plot points to illustrate that theme. Characters come second, and the nitty gritty of the world comes third. So the Trifecta only popped into my imagination when I needed them, and the Chimei might never have appeared on page if I hadn’t needed some monster to drive Rin and Nezha closer together. There are no “untold stories” of Nikan lurking out there in a Scrivener file. 

I really enjoyed writing “The Nine Curves River,” but it’s not inspired by the world of The Poppy War. Rather, both that story and everything in TDR/TBG is inspired by the same source mythology about Nezha. I’m really interested in its themes of sacrifice, father-son relationships, and the cruelty of the ocean. Writing that short story helped me work through some character issues that rounded out Nezha’s personality and backstory, but saying more than that would verge into spoiler territory. 

Which novels do you particularly love for their extensive worldbuilding? We could both go on and on about how great Fonda Lee’s books are, but I do so love the alternate reality described in Jade City

Kekon feels like a living and breathing place, I feel a keen sense of loss every time I remember that the green bone warriors of clan No Peak are entirely fictional (we get a TV series soon though, I am LOSING MY MIND over it). I think Fonda Lee has done such an excellent job of tying down the ‘fantasy’ element of the plot, namely jade, intrinsically into the world building – from the way that it informs the local and international power struggle in the book, to the way it influences every character interaction. Whenever I remember that all of this stems from her deciding one day that this one rock has magical properties in her world, my mind is blown again.

Another writer that has excellent worldbuilding and breathtaking scope in the sheer number of worlds they have imagined is Ken Liu. I am actually in awe of his mind. The tomes of The Dandelion Dynasty is a testament to how rich and layered the world is. His recent short story in the anthology The Book of Dragons, A Whisper of Blue is brilliant both in its composition and its imagining of dragons as beings that literally power the wheels of capitalism.

Some upcoming Asian books that I am incredibly excited to see the worldbuilding for are The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart (bone. magic. I am sold with that pitch alone), and The Red Palace by June Hur (which is a historical retelling of the famous tragedy of Prince Sado, June Hur’s first novel is intricately researched and I cannot see what she does next). 

As the world building for The Poppy War was informed by your knowledge of China’s history, how has that differed to the process in your “dark academia” book? And could you give us a sneak peek into your draft 😉

The Oxford novel has actually been much easier to write from a worldbuilding perspective! It’s not secondary world this time, so when I need to decide how my characters are getting around the city or what kind of food they’re eating, I can just look things up in history books about early Victorian England. Same goes for the themes and ideologies. With the Poppy War trilogy, I spent a great deal of time wedding together Song-era technology with modern politics. With the Oxford novel, I can just lift straight from the intellectual debates that were going on in the mid-1830s. 

Sorry, no sneak peeks! It’s far too early, and I’m very private about works in progress until they’re developed enough to sustain independent life. 

I tried, everyone. Join me in great anticipation for the first sneak peeks into the Oxford novel in a (hopefully!) not too distant future. While you wait, Ms Kuang has recommended Catherine House by Elizabeth Thomas as a book to satiate your dark academia needs.

I am in fine company, as there is a host of excellent book bloggers and booktubers joining me on this blog tour! Please check out their conversations with Rebecca Kuang below. If they have posted, I have linked directly to their post for the blog tour. Otherwise, I have linked to their site so you can check out their other content while you wait!

The Rest of the Tour

October 5 – Petrik Leo
October 7 – Oro Plata Myta
October 9 – Your Tita Kate
October 12 – Utopia State of Mind
October 14 – Punderings 
October 17 – Lyrical Reads
October 18 – Fannatality
October 20 – Read at Midnight
October 23 – Tammie Tries to Read
October 27 – A Cup of Cyanide
October 30 – Happy Indulgence
November 6 – Novels and Nebulas
November 9 – Mandarin Mama
November 11 – Camillea Reads
November 13 – Bookdragonism

The Burning God

Goodreads | Publisher Website | Preorder Campaign | Booktopia |

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