For those unfamiliar, how would you describe your fiction?
My Dark Heavens series is about an Australian woman who falls for a Chinese god who’s living in today’s Hong Kong. It has gods, demons, martial arts, a Love That Can Never Be, violence, sex, all that good stuff.
The Dragon Empire series is a science fiction that deals with interstellar politics and colonisation in a fun futuristic setting.
Could you give me a bit more background than the biography in the back of your books?
Let’s see. I’ve always had a career in IT; the writing thing was a major mid-life change. I’m an experienced programmer/analyst and an expert on some particular types of management systems and writing user manuals. (That’s where the writing skills started, I think.)
I married my Chinese husband when I was 21, and we lived pretty much as ethnic Australian Chinese for ten years together, having a son. Then he landed a very lucrative job in Hong Kong and we all went there. I stayed in Hong Kong for 10 years, added a daughter to the family, and built a successful IT consulting company while I was there. At the end of 10 years I returned to Australia with my kids and for something completely different, tried writing a novel.
A flood of creativity just roared out of me – obviously I’d been stifling this skill for a long time. I wrote the first two novels in the first year, backing them with really extensive research on the Chinese culture that I’d experienced while I was living there. They were accepted for publication two years later, and the rest is history.
Is Emma based on yourself?
Oh absolutely not! No way. She is 100% a combination of my badass sister and my best friend while I was in Hong Kong. Very little of Emma coincides with me.
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Short – that’s the first thing people notice when they meet me. I’m less than five feet tall.
Boring – just ask my kids. I spend most of my time in front of the computer, when I’m not driving the family and friends around.
Old – I was born in the 60’s and remember the first moon landing. That’s my excuse for everything – I’m old, don’t mind me.
How would you describe your own journey?
It’s been tough. Three times in my life I’ve had to give away all my possessions and move to a completely new location where I had no family or friends to support me. The first time I did this was with a six-week-old baby. It’s been a long road but I’ve learnt a tremendous amount about different cultures and learnt to be confident and self-reliant. I wouldn’t swap a day of any of it for a more comfortable existence, but it’s great now to be able to build friendships and a family network without the fear that it will all disappear.
Who is your inspiration? Why?
I suppose it’s part of the self-reliant thing that I don’t look to anybody for inspiration. Of course I’m always admiring the work of other writers, but when it comes to life I just do my best to care for my family without looking up to anybody. I’m less about idolizing the exploits of others and much more about doing what needs to be done in my life right now.
Brisbane – what is your favorite sight, sound, and smell? You can expand to all of Aussie … readers are just fascinated with Oz!
My favourite sight is the intensely blue cloudless summer sky of Brisbane. When you’re on the beach and the sand is an intense yellow, and the sea is blue-green and the sky is that crystalline intense cloudless blue of a really insanely hot summer’s day – that’s my Queensland! My favourite sound is also to do with summer in Brisbane – the cicadas are sometimes so loud they’re deafening. My Chinese husband used to say that the start of the cicadas meant the start of lychee season, and I adore lychees. My favourite smell is the wattle flowers, they’re a springtime symbol of the blue-and-cicada summer to come, and they have a sweet, powdery fragrance that goes right up your nose and makes you sneeze!
Hong Kong! What do you miss?
Really good authentic Chiu Chow (Teochew) food. This is a particular regional cuisine of China that’s common in Asian cities – and almost unheard-of anywhere else. Chiu Chow do a goose braised in soy and spices, then sliced and served with a vinegar, garlic and chilli dipping sauce that is to die for. My favourite dish, however, is a chicken fillet served with a black-and-white-peppercorn sauce and deep-fried basil leaves – that I have been totally unable to replicate at home. Damn, I’m craving Chiu Chow now. Every time we go back to Hong Kong for a visit we make a point of having at least two meals of Chiu Chow.
What did you miss most about Australia while you were in Hong Kong?
Personal space and fresh air. Everybody in Hong Kong lives on top of each other – the local mall was so crowded on Sundays that going there was torture. Towards the end of my time there, I was suffering so badly from the pollution that I had to use steroid eye drops so that I could see. People in Australia can afford to relax and be polite to each other, confident that their turn will come. When there’s so many people in a place, if you sit back and let others through first – you may miss out yourself. It’s a constant competition for limited resources and this brings a ‘me first’ attitude.
How would you define ‘success’? Have you achieved it?
Success is making enough income to support my family. Since leaving my ex and returning to Australia, it’s been something of a struggle to keep the family going – sometimes I’ve taken two jobs to ensure we had enough to live on. I’m close now to making enough as a writer to keep the family going without resorting to a second job. I’m nearly there. All the ‘fame’ stuff – the signings, the appearances, the cons – is fleeting and meaningless when I have to come home and check the bank balance.
What was your worst job?
Ah, there have been so many! It seems that the glass ceiling that was so soul-destroying in the past is finally breaking down, but it’s too late for me, I’ve left IT with my forehead bloodied from bashing my brains out on it. I have to say the worst job I’ve ever experienced was working as a support IT tech in a call centre for a huge bank/insurance conglomerate. Accustomed to building close personal relationships with the staff I was supporting and knowing all the software and hardware, I suddenly found myself never speaking to the same person twice in a company that ran so many different types of hardware and software that I was never in my comfort zone supporting them. All my call times were monitored and stats were posted where all could see them. Staff turnover was so high that training was considered a waste of time. I didn’t last long there.
Was there a defining moment in your life that made you decide to become a writer?
When I returned to Australia from Hong Kong I read just about every fantasy book on the shelves in the book store – I had access to English books for the first time in ten years. When I’d run out of things to read, I decided to write my own – if they could do it, so could I. It started out as a hobby but I found to my surprise that I was actually quite good at it.
What profession other than writing appeals to you (other than IT, of course)?
I’m already profoundly privileged to have had two such rewarding vocations. Maybe something to do with horses. I thought when I went to Hong Kong that I’d never be able to ride, let alone own a horse, again, and I was lucky enough to be given one by the Jockey Club while I was there. I’ve been riding and owning horses for a very long time now, and I still miss the horse I brought back from Hong Kong and sold last year.
When you were younger, what did you want to be? What study did you undertake to realise this goal?
I wanted to be a CGI animator before that was even heard of, and spent every spare minute on the shiny new Apple II at school. At that time (early 80’s) this was a completely new vocation, and there weren’t even any courses in it, so I applied and was accepted for a graphic design undergrad course that had some CGI in it, but it was too far away so I settled for a computing course locally. That’s how I got into IT in the first place.
What is most important in life? How do you make that a priority?
Two things – my kids and my writing. It’s hard as a mum not to make the kids a priority – I say yes to many things when I should really say no! I owe a duty to the fans who’ve bought my books to provide them with a great story that’s worth the money they spend on it, and the story writing is another priority. These two things are my life, really.
Do you have any ‘guilty pleasures’?
I’m a shocking gamer. I no longer play an online role playing game, but it was a large part of my life for a few years there. I told my kids I could give it up any time, and I did! Now it’s just third-person single-player action/adventure games, I’ve spent the past few weeks powerdisking through all the Prince of Persia games. That was a blast, and now I’m back into Assassin’s Creed. But I won’t join World of Warcraft, no matter how much they try to convince me to join them raiding. MMO’s are too engrossing and hard to leave.
What are/were the biggest challenges that you’ve faced? How do/did you deal with them?
The moves to new places, where I had cast aside all my possessions and go to a new place. The first few months after each move were particularly hard, when I had to rebuild my life and replace everything that had been sold or given away. Making new friends wasn’t that hard, but saying good bye always was. I don’t know if I dealt with them, I just did what had to be done and put my life back together. Having someone there to tell me to get over myself and stop being so pathetic helped to make me stronger when I was down, and chocolate’s always a good backup plan when things become overwhelming.
And here’s the fun question. If you could book a trip on a time machine, where and when would you go, and why?
Only one trip? That is cruel beyond belief. The Roman Empire at its height – no wait, the Byzantine Empire at its height – no, classical Athens, when the Acropolis is being built – no, hold on, Renaissance Florence, can I go to Renaissance Venice at the same time? Renaissance Rome? China during the Qing! No, during the Tang. The Ming! Angkor Wat, when the city held a million people. No! The Incan civilization. Hold on, there’s all the future, too – Brisbane, a hundred years from now. Brisbane, a thousand years from now, and throw in the rest of the world while you’re at it. Oh, I give up, that question is way too hard. Just lend me the time machine, and I promise to bring it back in five minutes.
Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?
I cannot express enough how much I appreciate all the kind words and positive feedback I get from my fans. When people tell me I helped them get through a trip to the hospital, or started them reading when they never did – which has happened – I’m making a positive contribution to peoples’ lives and it’s a truly wonderful feeling.
Some writers claim not to be influenced by the needs of the marketplace, while others seem obsessed by it. Would you please describe how the marketplace affects your writing (come on, tell the truth!).
When I returned to Australia I didn’t want to work in an office with computers any more so I decided to write a novel that would provide me with enough to live on so I would never have to put up with office politics ever again. I investigated what people like in a story and attempted to produce it. This might be a blueprint for a story that nobody likes, but I’ve been lucky and made something that readers enjoy. So the marketplace – my readers – are absolutely the main reason why I write what I write. The fact that it overlaps so much with what I want to read myself is all good.
I always hear horror stories of rejection after rejection after rejection when sending manuscripts to publishers. Were there any tips you used that seemed to help with that process?
I’m probably going to lose Secret Writers Society points for saying this, but the publishers are always on the lookout for new, quality work and it’s not a magic lottery getting published. Getting published is a combination of three things: 1. Writing something really good. 2. Writing it really well. 3. Making publishers aware of 1 and 2. There is a 4, and that’s writing something new. But that should be part of 1 anyway. I’ve seen rejected manuscripts and they fail to pass either 1 or 2. People will submit manuscript after manuscript that is either 1. Extremely well written and plotless/tedious or 2. Brilliantly imaginative and gripping but so poorly written it’s painful to read. The publishers aren’t there to make manuscripts well-written; that’s our job. 3 is a matter of joining as many writing groups as you can, and making yourself visible in the community. The writing community is small, supportive, and always open to new ideas.
Has networking, cover letters, resumes, and being able to speak eloquently about your work helped you?
Absolutely. I only got published (ie won the magic lottery) because I was able to present myself, my ideas, and my manuscript clearly, interestingly, and most of all succinctly. Publishers are the busiest people on the planet and if you can make it short they love you. I sat down with a publisher and my manuscript and told her exactly how weird it was. She’d read ten pages and knew it was almost acceptably well-written to publisher standard. I made it short, to the point, and at the same time full of wildly strange and unique ideas.
What was your process for research in these stories? How important is it for you to get primary sources for your information rather than searching the internet? Where are some places you have found such resources? Have you read all of the classics you mention in the books?
Read all the things! Read everything. I have an hour-long lecture I give on research, but it basically boils down to: find every single resource related to the topic and read it. I read websites, I got everything out of the library that was even remotely relevant and read that, and I scrounged through second-hand book stores for books as well. (Right now I have a stack of … let me see… 11 reference books on my shelf on the ‘to be read’ pile. 5 on war, 4 on Chinese history and culture, 1 on mediaeval France, and 1 on hindu religion and culture, just because it was there. Oh, and a Chinese language workbook because my Chinese is becoming terribly rusty.) I looked for books on the internet, and I watched a vast number of really, really incredibly bad Shaw Bros and more recent kung fu movies.
I have read nearly all the classics I mention; I still haven’t finished ‘Journey to the West’! I am a bad person. ‘Creation of the Gods’ is my favorite.
Could you tell me a bit about your process for writing? Do you start with an outline? A general idea of where you want it to go?
I start with a very clear idea of where the path goes. The end is usually written about a third of the way in. The rest is full on seat-of-the-pants stuff. I’ve written outlines but they’re usually about 10 lines at most and I never really stick to them.
How many drafts do you generally go through before you are happy with the story? Do you ever find you characters gain a mind of their own and go against what you want for them? If so, how do you deal with it?
Drafts? Oh god, I hate answering this question, because the answer is 1. I rewrote book 1 completely to make it of publishable standard (they asked me to bring it up the writing standard of 2 and 3, which I’d written after more practice). I haven’t rewritten a book since; mostly I just tweak what I have. Most of what you read is the first draft with very little change. (I cringe when I say that, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be done.)
Of course the characters go off and do their own thing. I’ll be smacked between the eyes by a plot twist that I never saw coming, and that’s when things always get really good. After all, if I never expected it, the reader never did either! If the characters do something completely out of nowhere I let them push it and see where it goes. Usually it’s to a very good place. Often I feel like they’re writing the story and I’m just transcribing it, trying to bring the vivid images in my head to life.
How do you deal with writers block?
I don’t try to force it. I tried to force it- write the story anyway, even though I wasn’t feeling inspired – with book 4 and the result was very much substandard. So I just let things take their course, do other stuff, and then suddenly I’ll be smacked between the eyes by wonderful new ideas and be even more creative than ever. I’ve never had an issue with deadlines because if I let the books write themselves they always seem to be delivered on time.
If the words aren’t coming, I don’t think of it as a ‘block’, just as a slowdown in the creative process. I take some time away from the story and let my subconcious catch up with it and start adding to it. Trying to force it won’t help, I have to let the creative well fill up again. I trust my demented imagination to come up with more insanity for me, it just needs some time to create something really ridiculous.
When did you start writing? Did you take any creative writing classes?
2002, and no. Well, I did a great deal of technical writing before then, but 2002, when I returned from Hong Kong, was when I actually decided I was going to write The Novel. I took a couple of creative writing classes at the Queensland Writer’s Centre – on writing short stories because shorts are a good way of 3. Getting noticed, but I’m not terribly good at them and then shortly after I had the offer from Harper-Voyager. My bachelor’s (and MBA) are both in IT.
Is there any advice you would like to offer to an aspiring author?
Don’t quit your day job. Of all the authors I know, the vast majority – and these are people who write much better quality stuff, than me – can’t survive on the income they make as writers. I could say ‘don’t stop writing’ but if you’re writer you can’t stop. So have a backup plan and if you do happen to write the next Big Thing – wonderful. But the market is fickle and it’s obvious from the success of things like Twilight and (gag) Fifty Shades – the market is inexplicable. But if you can write something good and write it really well – then you’re already well on your way.
How do people you meet react when you tell them you’re an author? Best/worst reaction you can remember?
I only tell people I’m an author if it’s absolutely necessary. If they haven’t heard of me (which is most cases) they’re immediately suspicious and think that I’m probably making it up or exaggerating, which leads to long explanations and justification that I really don’t want to waste time on.
People will often react by telling me tedious details about their novel which they’re going to write but haven’t actually started. Or want tips on how to get published, once again on a novel they haven’t written.
The best reaction was at my daughter’s recent party when one of her friends realized who I was and starting jumping up and down and screaming about how much she loved my books. That was great fun.
The worst reaction is when someone has written a novel, and thinks that I can get their ground-breaking guaranteed-best-seller published. I don’t have the heart to tell them that their work needs more polishing, and that even though I do have contacts in the publishing industry, I can’t make a novel publishable when it isn’t. That aspect of it is always heartbreaking.
Your first book White Tiger came out in 2006. Your books have been on the best seller lists consistently since then. Why do you think they appeal so much to your readers?
Mainly, I think, because of the novelty. The Chinese mythology is a completely new set of stories to explore, with wonderful – and truly weird – characters. Many people have heard of the Monkey King but the overall philosophy and the way it fits together is fascinating. I’ve also tried to make the books a simple, straightforward and action-packed read, always fresh and never boring. It seems to have worked!
The second series open 8 years after the first series finishes. You’ve been writing these characters since 2004 (?) now. Do they become like old friends?
Yes, they have become like old friends. Is there a line you cross? From where the characters are talking to each other, to where they are talking to you, and the men in white coats come to take you away? Maybe to be successful as an author you have to pass that line anyway. I know many of my family and friends suffer me with bemused tolerance and believe that I should have been carted off to the madhouse a long time ago. But then they all show up at my house and it’s a madhouse anyway.
Firstly I must say that we were all very much looking forwards to the release of your latest book, can you tell me, what was the hardest part of writing your latest book?
The hardest part of writing any of my books is starting them. But once I’m about a quarter of the way into the book, the story just takes off and I start to wonder how I’m going to fit everything that I want to happen in the remaining three quarters. The story starts to gallop and I have to rush to type to keep up with it – and after that it’s easy.
Is anything in your books based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
A great deal of the settings and characters in Dark Heavens are based very much on real life. The places in Hong Kong that my characters pass through are mostly real, with some tweaking to add to the story. The characters as well – the mythological characters are of course completely my own creation, but some of the mundane human characters are based on real people. Many of them are an amalgam of people that I met while working in Hong Kong. The overseas locations, as well, are mostly real places that I’ve visited myself. I think it’s this realistic edge that adds interest to the fanciful nature of the myths!
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
The most challenging part is finding the time in my busy day to chill out and let the words flow. I need to be in a very quiet and relaxed place for the story to come to me, and that’s usually late at night. This does not fit in well with a single-mum lifestyle where a young person has to be organized and off to school early in the morning. The creative side of me is easily interrupted – and ordinary life is full of interruptions. Sometimes I’m amazed that I get anything written at all with the constant distractions!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Most writers say ‘write’. Many writers say ‘read’. These are both excellent pieces of advice. Write all the time, read as much as you can – both of these are ways to hone the craft. I think the rule that I try to follow the most is ‘don’t be boring’. I try to write the unexpected – to clearly see where the story is going, then take it in a completely different direction; and when it’s heading down that path, to turn it another way entirely again. I think the key to really successful writing is to be skilled as a writer – and to be totally unpredictable.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
How mind-bogglingly tough the publishing industry is. I wasn’t expecting ‘being a writer’ to be so challenging. We’re constantly barraged by criticism and negative comments about our books, hounded to produce more of them, and racked by uncertainty about the next royalty cheque, but we still keep writing because we love what we do so very much. I love being a writer, I’m being paid to have elaborate daydreams and write down what happens in them. It’s the best job in the world.
Are there certain characters you would like to go back to, or is there a theme or idea you’d love to work with?
I don’t go to the characters, they come to me. Often on a very large steam engine with me tied to the tracks. Sometimes they grab the narrative and run away with it, and I’m left flailing behind wondering where they’re going. Lately I’ve accepted this, because it’s always going somewhere good. On something I’d like to work with – after I’ve finished this series (which won’t happen for another three big fat novels) I’d like to go to Japan and delve into their fascinating culture and truly awesomely weird supernatural world.
Tell us about your books – what separates them from other fantasy fiction?
Most fantasy fiction is western-based, and many authors follow the Anglo-Celtic footsteps of Tolkien. I have to admit that by my mid-twenties, if I read another book with elves, wizards or dragons (or more recently, vampires zombies or werewolves) in it, I would scream. I had the opportunity to live in China, and the mythology is so vast, complicated, and fascinating, it would be a shame not to share it. I think that’s the big separator – I don’t think anybody’s written anything featuring the Buddhist and Taoist pantheon before.
Your books mix fantasy with contemporary elements and characters. What do you think are the challenges or advantages of this mix, as opposed to a wholly fantasy setting?
The big advantage to using a real, modern setting is never having to build a map with Mountains of Doom, Enchanted Lake, and Mystic Tower. I’ve received comments that my solid grounding of the characters in the modern-day real world gives them a realistic edge that you can’t get with a fully fantastic setting. The idea of a Chinese god being stuck in traffic on one of Hong Kong’s busy roads is delightful.
I also wanted to include an insight into life in Hong Kong after living there for so many years. Rather than describe it in a dry travelogue I used it as the background for an (I hope) exciting fantasy experience.
The challenge was in creating a balanced portrayal of this very dichotomous city – the luxurious privileged lifestyle of the rich and the desperate struggle of the poor. The spectacular beauty of the harbour at night, and its contrast with the ugly rusting back alleys, full of decay and filth.
I’ve moved on to a wholly fantasy setting in later books of the series, and I’m having a serious amount of fun with that, but I still have my characters pop down to Hong Kong and get stuck in traffic jams. I often used to think that Hell is being trapped forever in the Aberdeen tunnel in a non-aircon bus in the middle of summer, breathing in the fumes and suffocating in the humidity.
Was it difficult to take what you know of the martial arts and add all the fantastical elements to it?
If you’ve watched any kung fu movies you’ll understand why the answer is no. The fantastical elements are treated as normal and wire-fu is just taken for granted. Just about everything I describe has been done (almost to death, actually) for many years by Chinese storytellers. I have to admit I haven’t really come up with very much that’s new, only repackaged existing aspects into a new viewpoint.
I have taken some classes where the instructor wanted literary fiction rather than the fantasy I would prefer writing. When I try switching back to fantasy, it feels clunky, would you have any advice for getting the fantasy up to par?
Literary fiction is occupied with words, the words sing across the page and they’re a big part of the process. With fantasy, too many words just get in the way – and that’s probably the ‘clunky’ you’re referring to. Broad, grand, verbose literary descriptions don’t have a place in fantasy – paint a rough sketch in broad brushstrokes and then leave it and get into the fun part – the supernatural strange novelty and weirdness! Trim the words to the bare minimum and keep the descriptions lean. Fantasy is about things happening.
While most of your books draw heavily on Chinese legend, Dark Serpent also features Celtic and Pre-Celtic elements with hints of others. Do you have any plans to bring mythologies from other cultures into the series?
I’ll only include cultures that I’m very, very familiar with. I would never attempt to weave a story about a culture that I haven’t lived inside for any period of time. It’s the details on food, attitudes and relationships that make a culture come to life on the page and you can’t relate that unless you’ve lived it yourself.
I hope that I will be able to spend some time with a dear friend who is Japanese and spends half her time in Japan – she’s generously offered to help me in discovering the important details of Japanese culture. So hopefully I’ll be able to share this in future books. There’s quite a lot of overlap between Japanese and Chinese cultures (but don’t tell members of either group that I said that) and Hong Kong has a great deal of Japanese influence. So I’m already part of the way there, and living in Japan in a Japanese family for a while would, I think, give me the insight to speak confidently and authentically about this rich and fascinating culture.
I’m occasionally asked if I’d write stories about Hindu mythology, and joke that I won’t go off and marry an Indian man and live there for ten years just so I can write books.
“Buddhist and Taoist philosophy and has brought all of these together into her storytelling” – what elements of these philosophies inspire your life … and your writing?
Care for all living things, and compassion for everybody I encounter. The important thing in life isn’t to be a winner, or the best or anything, but to have helped others and to have made the world a slightly better place than when I arrived. I hope I have achieved that.
In my writing, I try to include this philosophy in my books – and most of all, the books give me the opportunity to give my reader a glimpse into – and compassion for – other people. If I have changed anyone’s opinion of women or minorities for the better because of the insight they’ve gained in my books then I’m a success.
What initially drew you to Chinese mythology and culture?
Living there! It’s so ubiquitous in Hong Kong, you never even notice it. The Monkey King is everywhere. Chinese New Year is full of depictions of the God of Fortune. I never knew there was so much depth and wonder in the culture and I was boring everybody by rattling on about it so I decided to write it up. When I returned to Australia I wanted to write to share my experiences of the culture and mythology, and decided that it would be much more fun to do a wuxia (martial arts comic-book style story) rather than a dry essay.
Were there any kind of challenges or fears in writing about another culture? Why do you think there aren’t very many other authors doing the same?
I was always concerned that I would be accused of cultural appropriation; of using the culture merely to further my own agenda. The exact opposite has happened. The Chinese community has rallied behind me, and I’ve received so much – so much! – generous positive feedback it’s been humbling and wonderful. I constantly receive emails from Asian people thanking me for doing the hard work – the research – on the mythology that the older generations are either generally quite ignorant about or are loath to share. They love that I’ve brought Chinese culture into a story that is so popular, but at the same time I’ve treated it with respect. I have a special folder for emails from gay and Asian fans, and it warms my heart.
I think the main reason that most authors don’t do it is because of the cultural appropriation thing. If you just dip into a culture, and don’t live it, don’t experience the nuances, don’t spend time living with the people and being totally immersed in it, then your voice isn’t authentic and most authors know it. It’s completely wrong just to watch a few movies, do a few Google and wiki searches, and then try to use a culture. That smacks of exploitation.
As more members of different cultures gain their voices, though, I’m sure we’ll see much more literature – in English and in diverse languages – that breaks down this barrier.
It is clear that some of your inspiration was pulled from martial arts, Chinese mythology and the Tao, what other things inspired you? How did you get into martial arts?
Martial Arts is just something I always wanted to do. When I returned to Australia I finally had the chance to take it up and grabbed it. Other members of the martial arts group have always been wonderfully supportive of my (extremely poor) attempts. Other things that inspired me – well, everything. Every person I meet, every thing I experience. I’m lucky that I’ve lived overseas and experienced two distinct cultures and that’s given me inspiration that’s wider than usual.
Was it a bit of a culture shock to come back to Australia?
I can remember the first time I came back after being a while in Hong Kong – I was delighted at the signs. They were all in English! I was so accustomed to seeing signs in Chinese, or both languages, it was a cultural jolt.
Coming back for good has had some difficulties. There are a few really authentic provincial Chinese dishes that are simply not available here. I have an arrangement with the local Chinese restaurant to do one for me (steamed scallops on bean curd with black bean) but there’s no Chiu Chow Goose or Pepper Chicken here that’s really authentically well done. I miss the food!
There is peril for any writer who writes about contemporary cultures, of falling into stereotypes and misrepresenting cultural practices. I know that you’ve a family connection to Hong Kong and Chinese culture, but did you feel any anxiety about writing Chinese characters? How do you overcome the trap of stereotyping? Or indeed of stereotyping the Australian characters?
Cultural stereotyping is that same as any stereotyping, I think. It’s very easy to write characters that are stereotypes – cardboard cutouts that the writer moves around like puppets on a stage. I do my best to avoid any sort of stereotyping – sexual, cultural, anything – by stopping when I create a character and asking myself ‘Is this what the reader expected the character to be like?’ If the answer is yes, and that character has personality or physical features that the reader has foreseen – then they’re a stereotype. The essence of what makes real people real is their unexpectedness. I was aware of cultural stereotypes about the people I was writing, and I’ve done my best to subvert or avoid them to give my characters the depth that only real people have.
Were you conscious of being a ‘westerner’, of post colonial attitudes as you wrote and researched? So many artists and writers in Australia are overly conscious of not wanting to been seen as practising any kind of cultural imperialism.
I’m intensely aware of that, and I’ve really tried my very best to treat the culture with as much respect as possible. Being on the inside, as part of a Chinese family, also gave me insight into how the local people see the Western colonial powers. I identified more with locals than with expats, to be honest. I didn’t live the privileged lifestyle with huge apartments and cars and servants that the overseas executives enjoyed; we had a tiny flat in an ordinary estate and mostly mixed with locals.
In researching the mythology of China, did you get the feeling that the mythology is still ‘alive’ in the cultural consciousness of the people? Did you discuss your research and intention with people? Did you have any moments of resistance from Chinese people?
Chinese mythology is strongly affected by its cultural context. On the Mainland, all religion was banned when the Communists took power shortly after World War II. The temples and shrines have only recently been allowed to reopen, but religion is still strictly controlled by the government. The people of Hong Kong regard themselves as more ‘modern’ and ‘Western’ and the traditional beliefs – Buddhism, Taoism, and Animism – are often dismissed as “old peoples’ superstition”. It doesn’t stop people from putting a small shrine to the Door God outside their business, however.
I sought help from a few Chinese friends when I wrote the first three novels and wasn’t so confident in my depiction of the mythology; they were enthusiastic and helpful, but at the same time disappointed in themselves that they didn’t know as much about their own mythology as they would have liked. Nobody has ever said that I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
Have any people of Chinese/Hong Kong cultural background criticised your work for inaccuracy? Have you encountered any backlash? Or indeed, any positive feedback?
I’ve never been criticised; exactly the opposite! I have so many people of various Asian heritages come up to me at signings and thank me for bringing their own mythology to life. The stigma of the “old peoples’ superstition” stops grandparents from sharing this rich cultural heritage, and many younger people know little about the mythology. I’ve been thanked for making it so accessible – I’ve done the hard research work and presented the stories as a fun read. I’ve received praise for the accuracy of my depictions of the mythology and the martial arts, which is always gratifying.
As you did your research and drafted the story, how did your personal experience of living in Hong Kong inform/influence the research? Did you find that you had unconsiously absorbed a lot of cultural, which was reinforced by your research?
When a Westerner sees a man in green with a bow and arrow, he immediately knows ‘Robin Hood’ and all the backstory. It’s the same in Chinese culture – when someone sees a monkey riding a cloud, carrying a staff and wearing a diadem, they know immediately the whole context of the Monkey King. The Taoist deities are immmediately recognizable whenever they’re depicted, and I became almost subconciously aware of their existence. When I delved into the academic studies of the mythology, I was surprised at how much of it I was already aware of.
Did you find any research resources contradicted the understanding you had?
Much of the research contradicts itself! Chinese mythology has been around for centuries, and added to and moulded to suit the storytelling needs of the time. My main character, Xuan Wu, has changed over the thousands of years that stories have been told about him. He originally started as just the Black Turtle of the North, a Fung Shui creature representing that direction; then later a snake was added, making him a combined creature. Some time during the Ming Dynasty, he was made into a human prince who subjugated the turtle and snake demons and became a human Immortal in Chinese Heaven. His name was changed from Xuan Wu to Zhen Wu because it was too similar to the name of the ruling dynasty; and he became the patron god of all martial arts. So my main character is, at the same time, a combined animal, a demon, a god, a human, a prince, and – to top it all off – a reincarnated soul of the supreme ruler of the heavens, the Jade Emperor himself. When I’d uncovered all of this about him I sat back and wondered how I was going to incorporate it into a story.
Is there any particular advice you would give to writers who wish to use elements of different cultural practices in their writing?
You can’t really write about a culture other than your own if you haven’t lived in it. You have to experience it from the inside to really share its true essence. Doing some book research and pulling out references – or even visiting a place and gawking at tourist attractions – has to be backed up by living with the local people and sharing their everyday trials and problems. Living in Hong Kong is very different to visiting – there are problems which you aren’t aware of until you actually have to reside there. Simple things like buying food and making a trip to the shops can become major hassles.
What is your favourite Chinese myth/story?
The story of the White Snake. It’s a tragic tale of a snake spirit who falls in love with a human man. They marry and live happily for a long time until a roaming Taoist monk discovers her true nature and reveals it to her husband, who is shocked and horrified that she is a snake and rejects her. I like this story because it illustrates so well how blind prejudice can ruin lives.
Your books contain an eclectic mix of ethnicities, sexualities, gender identities and relationship dynamics. Have you had any responses to this? What are your thoughts on diversity in fantasy?
I have a special folder in my inbox for fanmail from gay and Asian people. Some of the responses are so positive and heartfelt that they give me a smile for the rest of the day. I just received an email from a young woman who had given the books to her mother to read – she said if her mother can like a gay character then maybe she’ll be able to have an important conversation with her. Asian readers thank me for doing the research , and providing information on a heritage which is disappearing in the modern world
And as to diversity in fantasy: I’ve been a reader of fantasy for many years, and when I was younger I was often disappointed at the lack of characters that I could identify with. I’d often put a book down in disgust the minute a female stereotype – the jolly mother, virginal damsel in distress, or warrior ice queen – appeared, and sometimes a female character wouldn’t even appear until well into the story. I knew that women were half the world’s population, but in these fantasies they were about as common – and as interesting – as the female Smurf.
I could understand my Asian partner’s disdain for my fantasy books – they didn’t relate to him at all. People of Colour were almost non-existent – and then there’s the stereotype of the Dark-skinned Noble Warrior-Race or the Sneaky Asian Merchant-Class. I’d cringe sometimes at the way Asians were depicted when we watched television or Hollywood movies together.
And if LGBTQ characters did appear, they were invariably twisted, evil bad guys. Always. I had gay friends and they were completely mind-blowingly wonderful people – why the hate?
I guess my own writing is my own small way of rebelling against that. Now that we’ve reached the twenty-first century, I’m not the only one who sees diversity as not just a bonus – but a necessary and vital part of any literature. The world is a vast and interesting place full of varied and fascinating people, and if you’re not reflecting that in your storytelling, then you’re doing your reader a disservice. Pandering to preconceptions and prejudice: doubly so.
How do you feel about the presence of minority or mixed race authors and characters present in fiction, specifically speculative fiction and all its varied genres?
Every time I see an author or character that’s an example of diversity I do a little fist pump and go ‘YES’. Then I cringe, hoping that if it’s a character, that the author hasn’t just made them ‘ethnic’ to add little flavor, and they know what they’re talking about culturally and not appropriating. If the character is gay (and even when it’s not) I cringe, hoping that it won’t be gratuitously stereotypical, which is worse than not having a gay/ethnic character at all. When it’s an authentic, authoritative voice for diversity, a real person rather than a stereotype, I have to admit I do a little victory dance. So how do I feel? I think the short answer is: happy. Doesn’t matter whether it’s spec, genre, lit, YA, anything. All diversity is good and makes me happy.
Why do you think the presence of such authors and characters is at the point that it is? Meaning, are there certain attitudes, stereotypes or expectations that accompany such authors and characters, or maybe that don’t accompany them that make the prevalence what it is today?
I think the current point is tipping over into more diversity. The Old Guard are waning and a new, strong, diverse group of voices are speaking up and being heard.
When I was small (I’m an old lady now) my world wasn’t a very diverse place. All the speculative fic writers I read were white, and the vast majority of them were men. And I didn’t notice, because that’s the way the world was. A friend of mine at a spec fic con made the point about the ‘scene being ruled by Old White Guys’.
Younger readers and writers are born into a world today with more diversity. Hell, I added to it myself by marrying outside my own ethnic group and having mixed-race kids. In my parents’ time this would be unthinkable. In my time it was unusual. In my kids’ time – it’s normal. This is the new, strong, diverse voice that’s being heard and I am so happy to hear it sing.
Do you feel like something should be done about the popularity/frequency of minority/mixed race characters or do you think how it exists now is an accurate depiction of the audience of such fiction?
As it stands now, such characters still aren’t an accurate representation of the world’s vibrant diversity – there are probably a number of factors that make most of today’s successful English-language authors of the majority ethnic group – but this is changing all the time. As our cultures become more diverse, so will our authors. As our authors become more diverse, so will our characters. I think in the near future we’ll see more culturally distinct authors giving a voice to minority and mixed characters. Cannot wait.
How do you decide what race or sexuality your characters will be? Does it just come to you or do you purposefully choose certain races? What was the case with the DARK HEAVENS Trilogy?
I have four main characters; all the others rotate around them. I wrote my books for a Western female audience, so the main POV character is a western woman. I use her POV to contrast the Western customs with Chinese culture. She’s the anchor so I’ve made her something familiar for the reader (and I’m delighted that men find her just as valid a POV character). The rest of the characters – the vast majority of them – are Chinese, and I chose to add a black gay American just to throw some variety into the mix. This was deliberate, actually; I wanted to depict the noble Chinese God of War and the man – and woman – who love both him and his child. Sexuality is something I have a great deal of respect for, I wanted to write a gay character who isn’t the stereotypical effeminate, and any reader of my books will know that I love gender-bending. My latest work, Small Shen, has the main character of a Chinese bisexual rock who can change gender at will. Most of the readers who’ve already seen it adore him, and the artist who illustrated Small Shen, Queenie Chan, has produced a poster of his male and female forms for her own amusement that is simply delightful.
What effect do you think reading books with primarily white heroines and heroes in them has on minority/mixed race readers, if any? What about the effect on white readers, if any?
I think my own daughter has felt, in a way, marginalized. The heroes and heroines aren’t ‘her’. Very often the mixed-race or minority character is ‘just a sidekick’. She doesn’t want to be a sidekick; she’s definite heroine material. (This is actually one of the reasons why one of my four main characters is a half-Chinese young woman who is dealing with both her god-like powers and mixed ethnicity – and dealing with both magnificently.)
On white readers – it reinforces the idea that the world is white, that all the most important people are white, and really reinforces the superior white worldview. Ugh.
If you could make one statement about the frequency/popularity of minority/mixed race characters in speculative fiction, what would it be?
We need more.
If you could ask successful editors one thing about their acquisition of books and whether or not a character’s culture/race plays into it at all, how would you ask it? Or rather, what question would you ask about this topic, if you could?
I’ve asked this! My old editor at Voyager retired recently, and I asked both her and my new editor about books with different races and cultures. (I asked them about their opinions on sexuality and gender-bending as well, because that’s a very big part of the books later in the series.)
They want more. They want a lot more. I’ve been asked by an editor if I could do something with a different Asian culture from just Chinese – could I do something with the marvelous Indian Hindu pantheon (I’m often asked this at cons as well) or with Japanese gods and demons, or … anything else? (I want to go to Japan – dip into the culture there, live there for a while – and share the wonderful Japanese demons with a western audience. Those things are truly, mind-bogglingly awesomely weird. Great stuff.)
I told my editor there’d be some massive gender-bending in a later book – a character would change gender completely. Her response? ‘Excellent’.
Editors are looking for a truly authoritative voice of cultural diversity. They can spot fakes a mile off, and are very leery about obvious and exploitative cultural appropriation. They don’t want diverse culture just for the sake of it; they want to give a voice to diversity that’s real, heartfelt, and authentic. I don’t think there’s any sort of discrimination against a diverse voice in fiction – I think it probably the opposite. The success of my work is an example of what the future could bring, and it looks very bright.