I already know that Rebecca Kuang’s The Poppy War will be at least in my top ten books of 2018, if not my number one pick. It was that amazing! I encourage all of you to read it once it is released on May 1st. Until then, I am delighted to share this interview with Rebecca Kuang!
Can you tell us a bit about your debut epic fantasy novel, The Poppy War?
The Poppy War is the darker, drug-addled cousin of Avatar: The Last Airbender and the Chinese history version of an Ender’s Game/Game of Thrones mashup. Also, everyone is high on psychedelics and summoning gods so I would say it is a pretty good time!
What drew you to 20th century Chinese history? And how did your study of history shape The Poppy War?
Modern Chinese history is family history. My relatives have survived all the vicissitudes of the brutal twentieth century. Someone in the family has to document it all.
The Poppy War takes the conflicts of China’s 20th century and transposes it to a Song Dynasty setting. You get direct historical parallels to certain 20th century figures–I think it’s fairly easy to figure out who Mao is, and to extrapolate the political relationships past that.
On a related note, The Poppy War can be an incredibly brutal novel. Why do you think depicting the brutalities of warfare is necessary for fiction in general and The Poppy War in particular?
The book can be hard to read. It was also very hard to write. I know of at least one reader who did not finish because of vivid descriptions of rape, and I don’t blame them.
At the same time, I really disagree with the idea that we should shy away from grotesque descriptions of violence, sexual or otherwise. There’s this camp that argues that fantasy writers shouldn’t “use sexual violence as plot points” because it’s regressive (and you’ll find it’s often white-knight feminist male writers arguing this.) That argument is valid to the extent that it tries to counter the reduction of women to sexual objects.
But I also think that completely writing off sexual violence as a plot point is so short-sighted. It does, inevitably, drive the plot of The Poppy War because it happened. The Rape of Nanjing happened, people just don’t know about it. Wartime sexual violence is brutally real for so many women around the world and the scars of twentieth century wars aren’t history, they’re living memory. But those stories aren’t told because they’re not about white women.
It feels like in comparison to anti-heroes, you don’t see that many anti-heroines. However, Rin is an amazing anti-heroine. Why did you make the decision to have The Poppy War feature an anti-heroic female lead?
Rin isn’t a hero because The Poppy War trilogy isn’t a heroic story, it’s an epic tragedy. I started writing The Poppy War because I wanted to know how ordinary people–not sociopaths, because sociopathy is such a boring explanation–could be capable of terrible crimes. How does someone become a megalomaniacal dictator who slaughters millions of their own people? What has to break to force you to that point? If you read Rin’s story as a retelling of Mao Zedong’s life, then the parallels become obvious.
But villains are of course the heroes of their own story, and from Rin’s perspective every action she’s taken was strictly, utterly necessary, which is how I imagine Mao conceived of his own actions. I think that psychological disconnect is fascinating.
Girls are allowed to take the Keju and attend Sinegard, but very few end up doing so due to other social barriers. What was your thought process when creating the cultural gender norms?
The Poppy War is a bit paradoxical when it comes to gender. I’ve borrowed a lot of cultural gender norms from traditional China–so girls are still seen as less valuable than boys, they’re not given the chance to get an education, they’re discouraged from joining the military, etc. And yet almost everyone in a serious position of power (from Rin’s vantage point) is a woman–the grand master at Sinegard, her foster mother, and of course, the Empress. You still have female soldiers; you still have female rulers. They just have to punch a little harder to get where they are. I wanted to illustrate that just because a society is patriarchal doesn’t mean that women don’t cause momentous shifts in history. Women in patriarchal societies still find pockets of agency, and that’s just as important to depict as utopias with gender parity.
The Poppy War is your debut novel! Can you tell us about the process of getting published?
I followed the standard process: write a manuscript, query a literary agent, then go on submission to publishing houses. I didn’t know anyone in publishing and I’d never been to any writing workshops, so I went in not knowing what was going on or what to expect. But I feel lucky because the whole thing actually went pretty quickly and smoothly for me. I wrote the first draft in three months, got an agent about a month or two after that, and she sold the book after a few weeks on submission. That’s less than eight months between putting pen to paper and getting a book deal. I know that’s not the typical experience so I’m very grateful for everything that fell into place.
Has writing the sequels been a different experience than writing the first book? Are they easier or harder?
They’ve definitely been much harder. They’re more complex books–they have more subplots and way more characters–and they’re longer by far. Part of the problem is just having time; I wrote TPW during a year off school when I had much more free time on my hands, and these days it’s difficult to find not just the time but the right mental space to right. I got over Second Book Syndrome/Imposter Syndrome fairly quickly thanks to some very supportive writing groups. The issue now is finding those days when I’m not so slammed by schoolwork that I can actually think about the book.
And for our last question, what are some science fiction and fantasy books you’d recommend?
I just finished Maggie Shen King’s An Excess Male on the plane and I’m reeling. It’s a fantastic sci-fi dystopia where so many trends visible in China today are exaggerated to a horrifying max. I also read Exit West by Mohsin Hamid on the same trip and can understand the hype; it is moving and gorgeous. I also recommend Ilana C Myer’s Fire Dance and Bryan Camp’s The City of Lost Fortunes, both of which came out this month!
About the Author
Rebecca F Kuang studies modern Chinese history at Georgetown University, and will be pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in 2017. Her debut novel The Poppy War is about empire, drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century and comes out with Harper Voyager in May. She tweets at @kuangrf and blogs at www.rfkuang.com.