As a part of the special The Gender & The Genre of El Fantascopio Blog, today Leticia Lara and myself interview Yoon Ha Lee, whose collection Conservation of Shadows I have recently reviewed (in Spanish). You can read the Spanish translation of the interview at Leticia's wonderful blog Fantástica Ficción. Hope you enjoy the interview!
Yoon Ha Lee: My 3rd grade teacher, Mr. McCracken, inspired me. Before then I never considered it, but he was very enthusiastic about teaching creative writing--I seem to recall that he dressed up as a superhero, Story Man, once a week, for special sessions--and I loved making up stories so much that I decided I wanted to become a writer. 3rd grade is a terrible time to lock in a career choice, but there you go.
One of the first authors to influence me was Anne McCaffrey, whom a friend introduced me to. I loved the time travel in Dragonflight and the scope of the worldbuilding for Pern. Later on, in middle school, I yearned to imitate Piers Anthony and Simon R. Green for their clarity and vigor of prose. Piers Anthony was also especially helpful in that he wrote cantankerous Author's Notes in which he talked about the more grubby business side of being a writer and potential pitfalls. I found this very illuminating. I don't read Anthony anymore, as my tastes have changed, but I wrote to him once when I was in middle school, telling him how much I liked his works and that I wanted to be a writer, and he wrote back encouraging me to keep trying. I'll always be grateful to him for that.
Later on, in high school, the two authors who taught me that language can be beautiful in itself were Patricia A. McKillip and Roger Zelazny. And Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game was the single book that made me switch from writing fantasy to science fiction (my early stories were closer to sf, as opposed to the recent ones that are more science fantasy), because I discovered that I really wanted to write about war and ethics.
One of my favorite authors today is K.J. Parker, whose mixture of black comedy, cynicism, and attention to historical detail is amazing; I can't decide whether I love "A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong" or Purple and Black more. I still enjoy Simon R. Green for his larger-than-life, gung-ho characters and their adventures, and recently I had a lot of fun reading Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet books. I'm behind on short stories, as I no longer read as fast as I used to, but I'm really impressed by E. Lily Yu and Ken Liu.
LL&O: How long does it take you to write a story? Where do you draw inspiration from?
YHL: This depends on my health and how much trouble the story gives me! If I can manage to stay well, I usually start at 250-500 words/day and ramp up to 500-1,000 words/day, which will tend to give me a short story in a couple of weeks of actual writing time. The biggest predictor not related to health is how clearly I understand the ending I am aiming the story toward. If I know what the ending is, then I have a much better chance of being able to complete it quickly. These days I try to avoid even starting to write until I have an outline. For a short story an outline may just be a few lines--the opening, the conflict, the ending point--but this skeleton is crucial so I don't get stuck!
Often, after the rough draft, I will try to get a beta reader to make sure that the story has come out all right. Some of my drafts come out pretty clean, but some of them are very messy. I'm very grateful to my beta readers for their time and hard work!
Inspiration: I have a lot of odd hobbies, and I like to read widely in order to feed my writing. Some of the topics I draw on again and again, because I know them a little better, are mathematics, linguistics, music. I was a math major and I think that math is very appropriate as a source of imagery for speculative fiction, since it's foundational for science. As for linguistics, English is not my first language, Korean was (although I have lost fluency in it), and I've always been fascinated by languages. Right now I am trying to learn Japanese, mainly because my boyfriend (now husband) got me hooked on anime and manga years ago and I can find instructional material for it that works for me. Music-wise, I had the obligatory piano lessons, plus viola and some classical guitar, and I am a hobbyist composer. But you know, the oddest things find their way into stories. "The Bonedrake's Penance," which just went up on BeneathCeaseless Skies, has cupcake frosting because my mother was obsessed with elaborate frosting decorations when I was a small child. "Effigy Nights" draws on my childhood love of making paper dolls. "The Battle of Candle Arc" and "Between Two Dragons" draw on East Asian history (the Imjin War, 1592-1598). I like colliding disparate elements to create worlds.
LL&O: You write both fantasy and science fiction. Do you approach these genres differently?
YHL: I think of fantasy and science fiction mainly as marketing categories. Pragmatically speaking, this affects what markets I can send which stories to. I'm often bemused by the categorization quarrels, because what I usually write is fantasy using science fictional elements. For instance, "The Battle of Candle Arc" involves a space battle, but the technology is essentially magic with a side of vector calculus and abstract algebra. The "science fictional" guns in "Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain" might as well have been magic wands. It's all in the furniture.
LL&O: Do you think that the authors from non-English speaking countries are more prominent right now in science fiction and fantasy than they were a few years ago? What do you think about reading translations? Do you think the translator needs to be guided by the author?
YHL: I feel they probably are, but it's hard for me to be sure. I do not look up an author's nation of origin or ethnicity; I just read the story. Names alone are deceiving--my name is pretty unambiguously Korean, but my daughter has my husband's family name, which is German, and a Western first and middle name, so you'd never guess from that that she has any Asian blood.
Because of health problems, in the past few years I have not been reading a whole lot of sf/f lately either. These days I'm more likely to be reading nonfiction for research, indie roleplaying games (many are available as PDFs, so I can load a bunch of them onto my Kindle DX), or older works that catch my eye. To keep up with a few of the more recent works of short fiction, my strategy lately is to watch Lois Tilton's reviews at Locus Online (http://www.locusmag.com) and try out a few of the stories that she makes sound interesting by downloading epubs to my Kobo Mini ereader. Tilton and I don't have entirely the same tastes, but I like the way she summarizes stories so I can decide for myself.
The translated works I have read most recently are Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (trans. into English by William Weaver) and Forest of a Thousand Demons: A Hunter's Saga by D.O. Fagunwa (trans. into English by Wole Soyinka). What I was struck by was the beauty of the language, which of course makes me wonder about how these works read in the original languages. I don't seek translations out, mainly because I already feel overwhelmed by the pile of books in my house, but I don't avoid them either.
I have been translated into a few languages (Polish, Russian, Italian, and Korean, I think) but I had no influence over the process. I am not fluent in any of those languages and feel I would get in the way. I don't know how translators feel about this matter, however.
LL&O: You are American of Korean descent. Would you say that your heritage has influenced your writing?
YHL: Yes, with the caveat that my earlier stories didn't show this at all. For example, my second published story, "Echoes Down an Endless Hall," has cockamamie French/Italian-ish names (I'm bad at naming characters, I took French in high school, and I was in a hurry) in a more-or-less Western future, with bonus Swan Lake references because my father was a ballet aficionado and taught me and my sister to love Tchaikovsky. I had grown up reading sf/f that was largely Western in focus, so I found it very difficult to imagine that anything else was possible. Some years back on LJ I saw discussion of this problem led by various people, such as coffeeandink, oyceter, and deepad--I'm sorry I don't have cites, I lost all the links ages ago--and I decided that this was something I could address in my own writing. I don't pull out Korean influences for every story, of course. Right now I'm working on a (short) science fiction future retelling of part of the Iliad, because that's also a story I grew up with and love. (My dad again.) But since it's not like there's an overabundance of English-language sf/f that draws on Korean history and culture for inspiration, I daresay I will write more such stories in the future.
LL&O: When reading “Ghostweight”, “The Battle of Candle Arc” or “The Book of Locked Souls” the We See a Different Frontier anthology comes to mind. Do you think stories can be used as a tool to talk about postcolonialism?
YHL: Well, sure. I'm not familiar with this anthology, but stories are a tool, period. You can use them to talk about postcolonialism or anything else that you can get your reader to sit still for. You could probably use them as a tool for deconstructing cat macros. In the case of "Ghostweight" and "The Book of Locked Doors," I was thinking of Japanese colonialism and Korean history, although neither story is directly based on history other than the generalized dynamic of oppression.
"The Battle of Candle Arc" is based on a more fantastical setting, although from the reader's viewpoint I suppose there's no way to tell. I actually wrote it to expand on a couple lines in a novel in which the eponymous battle is mentioned as backstory. So the situation of the heptarchate's police state against the various heresies came from the novel's setting.
LL&O: What is your opinion on the situation of women in genre fiction?
YHL: If you mean women as genre fiction writers, I have seen enough pushback from people claiming that this is a "solved" problem that I doubt any such thing has already occurred.
If you mean women as in female characters, I would still like to see more of them. I have a ten-year-old daughter and she loves reading fantasy adventures and stories about dragons. I would be so happy to be able to hand her more such stories with girl protagonists instead of girl sidekicks. (I guess it's too much to hope for more girl biracial protagonists; her father is Caucasian.)
LL&O: How do you cope with your day-time job and your writing? Do you feel the influence of your mathematics background when developing your stories?
YHL: Okay, this one's easy. I don't have a standard day job. During the day, I write and get some chores done. (I wash dishes or move the laundry when I get stuck on a story.) Then I take care of our daughter once she gets home from school. I have bipolar disorder, so this makes it difficult for me to work a standard full-time job. I am very fortunate in that our family's financial situation makes it possible for me to stay home and devote my days to writing.
I definitely use my background in mathematics to write stories. The obvious one is in mathematical imagery such as fractals. But the other is in the way I structure stories. I think of a story as being like a proof: once you know what you're trying to prove--that is, the final emotion or thought that you want to leave the reader with--everything has to lead up to that final point. This is probably not what my math professors wanted me to be doing with my degree...
LL&O: Languages (and their rules) are very prominent in your work. Do you think that the symbols we use and the languages we speak define, somehow, who we are?
YHL: I would say that it influences who we are, but I'm not sure I agree with the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if that's what you're getting at. There's definitely something that gets lost in translation between languages, however, something I experience every time I talk to my mom; she is only fluent in Korean and I am only fluent in English, so communication becomes an issue. One of the reasons languages interest me is that different languages have different ways of expressing things that are similar but not quite the same. Sometimes I try to explain to my husband what a particular expression in Korean means and I find that I can't encompass the concept concisely, when in Korean it is very simple. So I guess there's something there, even if it's elusive.
LL&O: Are social networks important for you relationships with other authors and with your readers?
YHL: I keep connected to some writer friends through Dreamwidth, and sometimes people leave me lovely comments on my stories when I post links to online publications. I do have FaceBook and Twitter accounts, but I mostly use those to communicate with friends on non-writer matters. On Twitter I usually talk about gaming and anecdotes about my daughter's hijinks, not so much about writing. I like having a couple of spaces where I can relax!
LL&O: What are you working on right now? Could you give us a sneak peek on your future projects?
YHL: My agent, Jennifer Jackson, is shopping around a space opera novel, Ninefox Gambit. It takes place in the world of "The Battle of Candle Arc": a disgraced captain has a chance to redeem herself by retaking a space fortress captured by heretics, but her worst enemy may be the undead tactician assigned to her as an advisor. And yes, General Jedao shows up again.
I'm also working on another couple novels in that setting, and developing an unrelated space opera where stardrives run on music theory.
LL&O: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
YHL: I keep a website at http://yoonhalee.com. It has excerpts from published works and notes on forthcoming stories, as well as contact information if anyone should want to send me a note. (I must admit to only being fluent in English, though.)
LL&O: Any other thing you'd like to add?
YHL: No, I think that's it.
LL&O: Thank you very much for your time and your answers!