A Chat with R.F. Kuang: On writing historical inspired novels

Mabuhay, friends!

When I first read The Poppy War I instantly connected to Kuang’s storytelling. At the time, I had been struggling with my own writing – completely unsure of the vision I was striving for. It was a meandering cycle of what if‘s and can I do this? Once I started reading The Poppy War, something changed. 

My own story began to take form. 

Today, I have the opportunity for a virtual chat with one of my favourite authors and writing inspiration. Unlike the other author interviews I’ve posted, R.F. Kuang and I talk about dealing with generational trauma through our writing and the music that inspired us. 

🌸 Read more: A DISCUSSION ON THE POPPY WAR BY R.F. KUANG

about the author

Rebecca F. Kuang is the Astounding Award-winning and Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic (Harper Voyager). Her debut novel The Poppy War won the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. She has an MPhil in Chinese Studies from the University of Cambridge and is currently pursuing an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship. She also translates Chinese science fiction to English. She starts her PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale next fall.

Website Twitter | Instagram

In conversation with R.F. Kuang

Cam: How did you find the time to write The Poppy War while studying? 

Rebecca: This is such a difficult question. The simple, honest, answer is that I really didn’t. I wrote The Poppy War when I was on a gap year between my sophomore and junior years in Beijing. I was working a full time job, but crucially, I didn’t have any homework to do after I got home from work at five every day. So I had seven hours of free time every single day to draft my first novel–I’m not sure I ever would have started otherwise. The sequels were a different story–I was finishing up my senior year when I finished the first draft of The Dragon Republic, and working on my master’s thesis at Oxford when I turned in The Burning God. That was torture. I was playing triage all the time; either I’d fall behind on book stuff (most of the time I fell behind on book stuff), or I was barely getting papers in on time. It was exceedingly difficult, and I ended up missing out on a lot of fun stuff over the past few years because I’ve never not been under book deadline. But I can’t complain–I got a trilogy out before I turned 25, and that’s a pretty cool accomplishment! 

Cam: It is! And congratulations! How does it feel now that you have finished The Poppy War trilogy? Was it difficult to let go of the series? 

Rebecca: I didn’t realize it was going to be so difficult. When I turned in the final revision of THE BURNING GOD in March, I was just so excited to be done – I was exhausted from working on these characters for five continuous years, and I couldn’t wait to move on to new stories, new ideas, and new characters. But then I started working on the Oxford book, and I realized it’s actually so difficult to let go of a project, especially when it’s something as long as a trilogy. I’ve grown so used to writing Rin’s, Kitay’s, and Nezha’s voices. I know them like they’re my best friends. Now I have to get to know a whole new cast, and I’m struggling – I feel like I’m tip toeing around strangers, trying to figure out what makes them tick. It makes me long for the familiarity of my disaster trio. But I’ve got to put them behind me! 

Cam: I am currently working on a novel that explores generational trauma and cultural erasure. One of my worries is making the story come off too bleak or fall short of the message I am trying to get across, do you have any advice on that?

Rebecca: You’re asking two separate questions. The first is about making a story too bleak. I’d challenge you to ask why that’s necessarily a bad thing? Why sugarcoat history? Why make the reader too comfortable? Opening up spaces for hope and resistance is one thing, but I don’t see the need to blunt the impact of historical trauma. I don’t like covering things up. 

As for falling short of the message you’re trying to get across, that’s not specific to writing trauma–that’s the general condition of writers, period! The challenge of writing prose is always trying to convey ideas which feel crystal clear to the writer to a reader who can’t read our minds. And the only way you’ll get better at that is to improve your craft, period. The way I sharpen my craft these days is to try to read as much as possible, and to treat other writers as my teachers. I try to make a note of what’s really working whenever I’m finishing a book I really enjoy, and to then emulate that in my own prose. I also highly recommend Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft as craft knowledge book. I still consult it on a near daily basis when I’m feeling stuck in my writing. 

Tell me more about your Filipino mythology inspired WIP! Are you also attempting to write to cultural/historical traumas, and how do you feel about grappling with them through fiction? How does Tokyo Ghoul fit in? 

Cam: It seems so far-fetched, doesn’t it? For Tokyo Ghoul to collide with my Filipino-inspired novel. It was while watching Tokyo Ghoul and the society created within the anime and the manga that I felt this push to write about the ghouls and aswang in the Philippines. A society quite similar to that one portrayed in the anime, where the ghouls hid themselves among the humans but had a society of their own. I’d also have to say that it was my hunger for Filipino monsters in the books I read that drove me to write this novel. 

My country had been colonized by Spain for more than 300 years. My novel is set during a fictional time but it details the invasion and what it might have been like to live under colonial rule; what it might have been like for creatures that were once revered to be turned into demons. I wanted to explore the emotions of shame and disgust; the internal struggle against religious & cultural erasure.

I was initially hesitant to pursue this novel because…growing up I never felt I fit into my Filipino identity much less my Indian heritage. I always felt in limbo and so I struggled trying to figure out where my identity began and ended. I always wondered if the historical trauma my country faced was mine to tell when I had only been a little girl the last time I was in the Philippines. 

Imagine your characters as modern AU, what would their music taste or favorite music be? 

Rebecca: I love this question, since I listen to so much music when I’m writing and have compiled endless playlists for each book. Here’s a playlist I put together for Fantasy Hive a few years ago that has a few of the foundational songs of THE POPPY WAR! Hozier’s “Arsonist’s Lullabye” is at the top of this, obviously, because the lyrics are spot-on to describe Rin’s personality. In terms of actual musical tastes though, I think modern Rin listens to a lot of death metal while studying because she wants to seem tough (see Aggretsuko, lol!), Kitay enjoys classical music, and Nezha pretends that he’s only into cool, little-known indie bands but you’re just as likely to catch him jamming out to Camila Cabello. Rin likes Kendrick; Kitay prefers Childish Gambino, and of them love Lorde. 

Do you write to music as well? What artists do you have on your writing playlist, and what would your MC’s favorite songs be?

Cam: Oh, I love writing to ambience! I find lyrics to be distracting, sadly. Fun fact: a lot of my characters – in Their Wicked Devotion and outside – were conceived by specific songs! 

If we’re talking modern AU, Zio listens to old school punk and probably prides himself in his indie collection. Ligaya definitely embodies Hozier’s Wasteland, Baby! album with a mix of Sasha Sloan – especially Sasha Sloan’s song Older. 

Teacup loves any boppy type of music. They won’t admit it but they love it because of how much it annoys Zio. 

For the overall novel, Dirty Paws by Of Monsters and Men, Big God by Florence and The Machine, and Hell to the Liars by London Grammar. 

Rebecca: Ahhh, I love Hozier and Of Monsters and Men! I have quite a few of their songs in the TPW playlists. I also have to admit that, after a long “I don’t like Taylor Swift” spell, I’ve finally come back around with her new album, and I’ve been writing exclusively to Folklore for the last few weeks. 

Finally, you mention on your blog that you try to create awareness of mental illness through your book blogging. Which novels would you particularly recommend to people dealing with depression and anxiety? I’m currently in therapy for depression, anxiety, and PTSD and I’ve recently really enjoyed Lulu Miller’s WHY FISH DON’T EXIST. It’s not a fiction novel, but it’s such a beautiful, uplifting, funny, and hopeful read. 

Cam: I read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng a while back, unaware how impactful and needed that novel was going to be. It is a very heavy book and not one I would recommend anyone to pick up, especially if you don’t think you can handle heavy emotions (here is a list of trigger warnings: suicide, depression) but I found it soothing.

I would recommend Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens for those seeking a book on isolation, loneliness and the connection between people. For anxiety, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman has a moving representation that made me cry.

THE BURNING GOD BY R.F. KUANG

After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead. 

Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much—the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges—and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation. 

Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it? 

🌸 Add to Goodreads or The Story Graph

🌸 Buy from Amazon or The Book Depository

tour schedule

October 5 – Petrik Leo

October 7 – Oro Plata Myta

October 9 – Your Tita Kate

October 12 – Utopia State of Mind

October 14 – Punderings 

October 17 – Lyrical Reads

October 18 – Fannatality

October 20 – Read at Midnight

October 23 – Tammie Tries to Read

October 27 – A Cup of Cyanide

October 30 – Happy Indulgence

November 6 – Novels and Nebulas

November 9 – Mandarin Mama

November 11 – Camillea Reads

November 13 – Bookdragonism

🌸 Who is your favourite author?

🌸 Which song inspired your characters or writing project?

Oh, and do recommend me a feel good book because The Burning God is going to end me.

If you enjoy my work here at Camillea Reads, consider helping me by donating to my buying me a coffee through ko-fi.

One thought on “A Chat with R.F. Kuang: On writing historical inspired novels

  1. Your Tita Kate says:

    “The first is about making a story too bleak. I’d challenge you to ask why that’s necessarily a bad thing? Why sugarcoat history? Why make the reader too comfortable? Opening up spaces for hope and resistance is one thing, but I don’t see the need to blunt the impact of historical trauma. I don’t like covering things up.”

    GODDAMN REBECCA 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽

    Like

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