Many may know my guest from the upcoming Poppy War book I was raving about. I emailed the publisher and told Harper Voyager how in love I was with The Poppy War and they offered to set up an interview. So lo and behold, here you all go! I was so thrilled to be able to choose these questions and there’s some amazing answers here – what else did you expect?
What inspired you to write The Poppy War? When did you first have the idea for this stunning story?
The Poppy War came from a lot of influences–my interest in modern Chinese history, my fascination with lesser-known Chinese myths, and my love for Ender’s Game and Avatar: The last Airbender. But I think the moment that really sparked the story was when my father started telling me about how you could still run your fingers over the bullet holes of my grandparents’ house left there by Japanese soldiers during World War II. That’s when I realized I had to recount all this, somehow. But it didn’t feel genuine to write about it as a non-fiction account, so I fabricated it. (I’ve written more about this in an Uncanny essay called “How to Talk to Ghosts”–link here.)
Being a historian yourself, can you talk about the importance of respect for history and lore? This is one of my favorite parts of the book and something I come up a lot against coming from a humanities background myself.
I’m going to reference the Uncanny essay again because I’ve thought a lot about my relationship to Chinese history and how, and whether, I should write about it. But briefly–I appreciate work that recognizes that history and lore belong to living memory and living traditions. I don’t like the idea that you can write “fanfiction” of someone else’s culture without understanding why it’s important to them. That’s blatantly disrespectful.
The themes of power and responsibility come into play a great deal in the book. Can you talk a little more about these themes: the costs of power and the importance of responsible uses of power?
The Poppy War isn’t focused so much on the costs of power as it is about the kinds of power that are culturally acceptable, and why. As Jiang explains to Rin, shamanic power is antithetical to empire because it’s individually harnessed and defies codification and standardization. The Red Emperor slaughtered the monks and enslaved the Speerlies because they could access divine power that his troops could not. The Federation of Mugen wants to get its hands on Speerlies because their rigid militarization has similarly cut them off from the Pantheon. The established imperial powers are both deeply envious and homicidal towards shamanic power. Why? The Poppy War is a not-so-subtle critique of the way western, Cartesian rationality makes it impossible for us to even fathom alternative ways of engaging with the universe.
How did you create the world of The Poppy War? Were there any interesting facts that you researched for this book that didn’t make it in?
Worldbuilding is really easy when you study history. I started off with Song Dynasty China as a template for economics, transportation infrastructure, culture, and whatnot. Then I made tweaks to the world and history depending on what suited the narrative (like the slaughter of the monks by the Red Emperor, the massacre of Speer, etc.)
Good question! Not so much for The Poppy War, but I spent a lot of time researching and writing pages upon pages about canals and their role in riverine warfare for Book 2, which my agent told me to cut because it was just so boring. (Not to me. Sob.)
What were some of your favorite books growing up? Were these also the most influential in your life?
I read Ender’s Game when I was nine and it changed me and my writing forever. I didn’t even care about the xenocide part at the end, I just thought the idea of genius kids at battle school was so much fun. I bet you can spot similar narrative patterns in The Poppy War.
I was also deeply influenced by Romance of the Three Kingdoms. We had this serialized cartoon set in Chinese that I would spend entire Saturdays poring through. I grew up with stories about the cleverness of Chinese military tacticians who always managed to extricate themselves from bad situations without having to fight, which has definitely affected the way I think about writing war campaigns now.
What are you currently reading and would recommend?
I’m halfway through Ilana C. Myer’s Fire Dance, which was released just this month! Beautiful, beautiful prose with magic, conspiracies, and poetry. I’m also re-reading an ARC of Seth Dickinson’s The Monster Baru Cormorant, the sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant which came out a few years ago to massive praise. You’ll want this one.