Ever since its release in 2018, The Poppy War series has taken the literary world by storm, winning widespread praise and acclaim from fans and critics alike for its unflinching explorations of war, power, and the darkest, ugliest parts of humanity. As the series comes to an explosive end with third and final instalment The Burning God, Off Colour’s Melissa Lee speaks to R.F. Kuang about her journey to the end of her debut series, working as an Asian-American creative, and her next exciting project, a novel on Oxford dark academia!
Melissa Lee: Let’s jump straight into The Poppy War series! Congratulations on reaching the close of this incredible trilogy with The Burning God. Tell us a little about what the last few years have been like for you on this journey.
R.F. Kuang: Five years is a long time to work on anything, especially when you’re transitioning from your teens to your early twenties. That’s when you become an adult! It really feels like this trilogy has shaped my identity and dominated my entire life. I’ve been with Rin, Kitay, and Nezha since college, and it’s very weird and saddening to say goodbye. I’ve grown so used to writing in their voices that it’s hard to keep their voices from creeping up when I’m drafting scenes with new characters. It still hasn’t quite sunk in that I probably won’t work in that world ever again.
Still, I’m so excited to move on to the next project. I’ve grown a lot, both as a writer and a public persona. I try to constantly improve my craft – I read voraciously, and I take notes on books I enjoy to study how my favorite authors make their words sing. My prose has gotten sharper and more efficient. I think I’ve gotten much better at handling large, complex storylines and nuanced interpersonal relationships. Now I look back on passages from the first book and cringe because I think I could do so much better knowing what I do now. And that’s good! The Poppy War trilogy was training wheels for the Oxford novel; I hope people look back on that trilogy and say it was the worst of my bibliography. I’m really thrilled to flex my muscles and see what I can accomplish next.
ML: Some of your key inspirations for Books 1 and 2 (The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic) were the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Opium Wars. What were your key inspirations for Book 3, The Burning God?
RFK: The historical scaffold for The Burning God is the Chinese Civil War and the first few years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) regime. Obviously, we know what happened in twentieth-century China: after World War II, the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war, drove the Guomindang (or Kuomintang) into exile on Taiwan, and established a government that was directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions over the next few decades. In The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic, I stuck pretty closely to the narratives of the historical events that inspired them. But in The Burning God, I’ve moved off the path determined by history in order to ask difficult questions about alternative future paths for China.
ML: As a dark-skinned Chinese woman who’s long grown accustomed to never seeing herself reflected in mainstream media, I was really surprised and delighted to discover a dark-skinned Chinese female protagonist in Rin. Why was it important to you that the heroine of your very first book be dark-skinned?
RFK: Colorism and color discrimination remain a big problem in East Asian and East Asian diaspora communities, but they’re almost never explored in Western fiction. It’s also an issue complicated by diaspora dynamics. For example, for many second-generation Chinese Americans, having a tan makes you quite attractive! But when I got a tan at summer camp and then visited my relatives in China, they were dismayed by how dark I’d become – and I’m not even very dark by Chinese standards to begin with. There’s this assumption in Western fiction that other ethnicities and culture are monolithic, so I wanted to illustrate prejudices and discrimination both within and between communities.
ML: June 2020 was a special Pride month, because you officially came out as bisexual on Twitter — or rather, affirmed your identity as a bisexual woman! Can you talk about your perspective and experience of LGBT+ representation in Asian communities and Asian literature?
RFK: I think that we’ve become much more open about talking about queerness, homophobia, and cultures of silence and stigmas in Asian communities, at least in our generation. I’m emboldened by queer Asian creators coming out publicly and expressing their queerness through their work. I loved Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire, which centers a beautiful women-loving women (WLW) relationship. I’ve also recently enjoyed Lyla Lee’s I’ll Be the One, which is wonderfully inclusive on all fronts and has a WLW couple as well!
Personally, I’m still coming to terms with being publicly queer and making queerness more visible in my work. Obviously, coming out can be really difficult for Asian immigrants. I’m still feeling the stigma, and I still fear disapproval and ostracization of those close to me. I still haven’t written a WLW relationship yet – I freeze up every time I try! I’m working on it; I’m working on myself. Authors like Ngan and Lee inspire me, and I’d like to give queer Asian readers the same amount of representation that they do.
ML: A lot of young creatives (myself included!) find it difficult to keep up with the increased pace of today’s world. For example, YA authors used to put out a book every few years; now it’s almost a given expectation that they release something new at least once a year. Do you feel that’s had an effect on the way you write and work? Has your creative process benefited or suffered from that?
RFK: It’s incredibly stressful. I understand the publisher’s rationale – especially with trilogies, they want to get the books out in close succession so that readers won’t lose interest. But nobody talks about what a burden it puts on authors, especially debut authors who are writing under contract for the very first time. My contract was set up so that I had to turn in a book a year, which proved impossible – writing a book in a year is hard enough if you’re writing full-time, but I was also a full-time student applying for grad school fellowship when I was drafting The Dragon Republic. I ended up needing extensions on every deadline, and that’s reflected in the books’ publishing schedules: even though they came out in 2018, 2019, and 2020, they’ve been releasing later and later in the year.
I’ve managed to keep up somewhat, but I’ve spoken to a lot of authors who felt like they hadn’t put out their best work because they felt stressed out by their deadlines. I’m not precisely sure what the solution is here. But I do think debut authors need to go in knowing that signing a three-book contract right off the bat might not be the best thing for your career.
ML: It’s a common fear among creatives of colour (writers, especially) that it’s harder for them to successfully sell their work if it’s not about pain or trauma specific to their race or ethnicity, especially to white publishers and audiences. Could you share anything about your professional or personal experiences with this?
RFK: Honestly, I don’t know if I’m the best person to speak on this because I do write about pain and trauma specific to the Chinese/diaspora Chinese experience. My next project is about racism, classism, and sexism at elite universities, much of which I experienced during my time at Cambridge and Oxford. I’m exactly that poster child BIPOC writing about BIPOC pain, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think that contributed to my book deals.
On the other hand, diverse stories about joy, love, and adventure unburdened by trauma are so important for marginalized readers, and I’m encouraged to see more of those books being picked up. I love reading books by diaspora Asian authors that don’t boil down to “I’m an immigrant, I’m ostracized, and I’m sad.” Not to be flippant here – books about diaspora struggles are what got me through middle school and high school because they helped me realize that I’m not alone. But that doesn’t constitute the entire Asian-American experience! The Asian-American experience is not just sitting alone in the cafeteria because everyone else thought your home-cooked meal smelled like trash. Authors like Sarah Kuhn, C.B. Lee, Gloria Chao, F.C. Yee, and Jenny Han recognize that, and I love their work for it.
ML: What’s one “writing rule” that writers should feel free to break — and one they shouldn’t!
RFK: I think the rule that you have to write every single day or you’re not a real writer is pretty rubbish. You’re a writer if you get the book done, whether through highly productive sprints or slow, steady word count targets.
I don’t think there are any writing rules that apply in every situation, but the advice that you need to give the main character a goal and obstacles preventing them from achieving that goal is pretty good, especially for novice writers. It’s hard to get the story engine going otherwise.
ML: Congratulations on writing for Star Wars! This was/will be your first experience working with a major media/entertainment outfit. What was that experience like (or, if it hasn’t begun yet, what do you hope that experience will look and be like)?
RFK: Intellectual property (IP) is strange. I’m still not sure how I’d feel about doing an entire IP novel. Novels are investments of the soul, and I’d much rather create my own world and character than play around in someone else’s sandbox. Writing a short story was a good compromise, because my contribution was only around 2000 words, and it felt more like scribbling fanfiction than anything. It was so much fun!
I was surprised with how much freedom they gave me. Lucasfilm are obviously really detail-oriented; I was amazed by how nitpicky the fact-checking was in my edits. They pay attention to everything, including whether “snow-speeder” is hyphenated or not. That being said, I got the freedom to choose any character in Episode V to write about (I don’t think I’m allowed to say who it is until the book is actually out), and more importantly, I got to invent huge chunks of his backstory and personality. I actually imposed some queer subtext into a few iconic moments of the film, and I was very nervous that it wasn’t going to fly (ha ha). But they loved it!
ML: The Poppy War series covers fantasy, and Star Wars covers sci-fi. What are some other literary ponds you’re excited to dip your toes into in the near future?
RFK: I’d like to branch out into more “literary” fiction, whatever that means. I think genre boundaries are pretty porous to begin with; there’s plenty of “litfic” that involves strong speculative elements (see: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant), and plenty of sci-fi fiction that has compelling, artful, deliberate prose (see: anything by Jeff Vandermeer).
But in my next project – the Oxford dark academia one – I’m moving away from the “grimdarkness” of the Poppy War trilogy (blunt, straightforward prose, breakneck pacing, actions scenes on every other page) to a literary style that invokes Donna Tartt, Susanna Clarke, and Charles Dickens in turn. That’s an eclectic mix, but I think it’ll make sense when the book is out. Hopefully it works!
ML: And finally, what’s one thing you’d like to share with young creatives just starting out on their own professional journeys?
RFK: Take other authors as your teachers. If you don’t have the time or resources to take creative writing classes, go to the library. Read widely and voraciously, and keep a notebook as you figure out what works and what doesn’t. There’s no better way to become a good writer by reading a truckload of the genre you want to write.
The Burning God dropped on November 17th and is available for purchase now!