You can check out my review HERE! and I hope it will convince you to pre-order it if you haven’t already done so. Now, without further ado, here is my interview with R.F. Kuang.
1. Hi, Rebecca! Thank you for doing this interview with me. Let’s start off with a cliché. Tell us about your debut, The Poppy War, and the main inspirations behind its creation.
The Poppy War is an homage to 20th century Chinese military history transposed to a Song Dynasty setting with a healthy dose of drugs, shamanism, and violence. Growing up, I was obsessed with Ender's Game, Naruto, Game of Thrones, and Avatar: the Last Airbender, so I suspect you'll find hints of all those wrapped up in the narrative.
2. As someone of Chinese heritage, I really appreciate all the Asian influences you implemented into the book and I can’t thank you enough for writing it. I have to ask you this, out of China’s entire bloody history, what made you choose Second-Sino Japanese War as one of your main inspirations?
I'm really glad you enjoyed it! I wrote the book that I wish a younger me had been able to find on shelves, so it always means the most when Chinese diaspora readers tell me they identified with some part of it. (The other day I got an email from an early reader who, like me and like Rin, came from southern China and had to learn to roll her R's to blend in. That felt amazing.)
I study modern Chinese history, and the Second Sino-Japanese sticks out pretty hard in the mess that is China’s twentieth century. And we need to talk about the Nanjing Massacre. I've never read a fantasy book that dealt with that particular atrocity. It's been referred to as the "Forgotten Holocaust," and for good reason. People have to know it happened. People have to remember.
3. The magic system in your book revolves around Shamanism and drug usage. Did you encounter any difficulties researching these aspects? Unless of course, you’re secretly a Shaman in disguise…
Ha! One research difficulty was that the majority of academic literature about shamanism is about North America. I deliberately did not pull from those traditions. That’s not my culture and not my story to tell. Good resources on shamanism in China proper are hard to find, though I did find a wealth of information about practices in Central Asia and Tibet. You need to be extremely careful writing about shamanism of any sort, particularly if it's a religion still practiced by people today. Shamanism isn't my religion, so I hope the representation comes from a place of understanding and respect, and not exoticization.
Another obstacle was gathering primary source accounts of drug use. Opium is obviously illegal here in the US so I couldn’t just, you know, go to a dispensary and get some nugs. So I spent a lot of time on very shady forums trying to piece together common experiences. Fun times.
4. For someone who writes military fantasy that’s oriented toward an adult audience, you can definitely be considered a fairly young author. Was becoming an author your biggest dream since your childhood? Was this the type of story you always wanted to write?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but it wasn't my childhood dream and I’ve never taken writing as a serious career choice. I still don’t. Don’t get me wrong-I’m having a lot of fun writing this trilogy and I intend to keep writing afterwards. But I never want to primarily be an author. Part of this is because I was raised in a strictly disciplined Chinese household and I’m terrified of making anything creative my sole income source (lol). Like, you'd better believe I'm getting a full-time job with health insurance. But I’m also not interested in only being a storyteller. All the stories have to come from somewhere. If I’m not living a complex life, researching complex things, then I worry I won’t have anything to write about. I think the best fiction I’ve ever read had something profound to say about the world. I’m only 21. I don't know anything about the world, even if I'm good at pretending. What profound things do I have to say without more life experience? How do I get that without leaving my writing desk?
5. Authors in the epic fantasy genre usually utilized multiple points of view as their main choices of storytelling style. The Poppy War is told solely from Rin’s perspective despite the epic scope of the story. What made you choose this direction?
The Poppy War is fundamentally the story of how one becomes a dictator (mild spoiler? but you should have seen this coming). Rin is quite obviously modeled after Mao Zedong. And the fascinating thing about villains and dictators is that they always have a justification for their own actions. Rin is an unreliable narrator. You see everything through her eyes so you understand her thought processes and for a moment, you agree with her. You think her choices are inevitable. You think they're just. It’s only when you step back that you realize something has gone terribly wrong.
6. I’ll be honest here, your book is amazing but what first grabbed my attention was obviously that gorgeous cover. A lot of my friends and those who follow my reviews said the same thing. It’s really rare to see a book that utilizes ink and brush as the main tools. Did you play any part in the creation of your cover art? Does Rin (I’m assuming that’s her on the cover) look exactly as you imagined?
Producing the cover art for TPW actually took longer than usual. It's a long, complicated story but the short of it is that my publisher and I went back on forth on proposed designs for a good few weeks because we had conflicting visions of how the book should look. But finally the Harper team came up with an ink brush design and commissioned a Taiwanese artist (Jungshan, go check out her Deviantart here! https://jungshan.deviantart.com/) to do the final product–and I'm, obviously, dazzled by it. All that is to say that cover art can often go drastically wrong, particularly for authors of color, and that I'm very lucky to have a publisher that listened to my concerns.
And yes, Rin looks exactly like she does in my head. I don't know how Jungshan did it. It's sorcery. I screamed when I saw the art for the first time.
PS–you didn't ask about this, but I'm going to talk about it anyways. I am very, very delighted that the cover illustration and audiobook narration were both done by Asian women (Emily Woo Zeller did the audiobook!) Representation matters. This was a group effort. And I'm so proud of all of us, and of Harper Voyager for making it happen.
7. Last question. Now that I’ve finished reading and reviewing your book, I’m dying for the sequel. When can we expect the second book of the trilogy?
Only a year from now :) I won't keep ya'll waiting.
Congratulations and best of luck on your debut! Thank you so much once again for doing this interview!
The Poppy War official release date: May 1st, 2018 (US) and May 3rd, 2018 (UK).