by Elías Combarro email@example.com
Ken Liu is one of the most acclaimed short fiction authors of the last few years. With his short stories, he has won almost every award in the field (Nebula, Hugo, World Fantasy Award... you name it), some of them even several times. Now, he has published his first novel, The Grace of Kings, an amazing epic fantasy with Ken Liu's unique style. I've had the pleasure and the honor of talking with Ken Liu about this novel and his work in general.
Elías Combarro: You have written and published more than a hundred short stories in the past years. How different was the experience of writing your first novel? Did you have to change your creative process?
Ken Liu: It was a big change to go from short stories to novels. The most surprising thing for me was how important recordkeeping became to maintain basic continuity. For short stories, it was possible to keep the whole thing in my head and just take notes on a few critical, recurring details. For the novel, on the other hand, I had to take extensive notes on every decision: timelines, subplots, clothing, character description, linguistic quirks, etc. It was like writing an encyclopedia for a world at the same time I was trying to drive a story forward. I gained a great deal of respect for TV writers on long-running shows who also have to deal with such a challenge at a (possibly) far vaster scale.
I ended up employing a technological solution by maintaining a mini-Wikipedia for Dara, my fictional world. It’s come in really handy for writing the next books in the series.
EC: In The Grace of Kings we find emperors, warriors and epic battles, but also airships and submarines, gods and other mythological elements. What is exactly “silkpunk”?
KL: “Silkpunk” is the name I give to an aesthetic based on an economy and technology level somewhat similar to medieval China, but with extrapolation and development of select key technologies far beyond their real-life historic counterparts. For instance, I imagine kites being developed for military use as early gliders, and passenger-carrying flying machines based on Kongming lanterns. There are also echoes of steam engines, gunpowder-based rockets, and other similar ideas. The homage to “steampunk” should be obvious.
Just as steampunk often straddles the line between sci-fi and fantasy (I don’t think many steampunk inventions would actually work), silkpunk contraptions are not intended to be one-hundred-percent plausible from an engineering point of view. Though I’m a technologist at heart, I’m working in the traditions of Western epic fantasy and Chinese historic romance here, and generally I’m satisfied if my engineering calculations show that the inventions are within an order of magnitude of being functional.
EC: You’ve mentioned that your novel is loosely based on the history of the Han Dynasty. How much would you say is based on real events and how much is fruit of your imagination in The Grace of Kings? What kind of research did you need for writing the novel?
KL: I’d say that The Grace of Kings retains as much of the history of the Chu-Han Contention (primarily in Sima Qian’s accounts) as James Joyce’s Ulysses retains the plot and characters of The Odyssey. Readers who know the source material will see the parallels and understand how the fantasy world maps roughly on to history, but readers who don’t know the history will not be at a disadvantage in enjoying the story. Just as Joyce was interested in writing a modernist novel with mythological echoes, I’m interested in writing a new kind of epic fantasy with historical echoes, not “magical history.”
I am, after all, a fan of wonder and surprise and gritty battles and opulent palaces, and so this is a novel filled with water beasts who bring soldiers safely through stormy seas, magical books that know our innermost desires, maids and princesses with secrets and plots, gods and goddesses with their own agendas, and heroes and heroines who share in honor and courage.
Most of my research fell into two categories. One part involved reading the Classical Chinese texts to extract the bare bones of each episode, which I then re-created in my fantasy world, taking care that they still served the new narrative arc. The other part involved working out the various silkpunk technologies, cultures, languages, myths—this meant a lot of reading of old patents, specialized books of scholarship, and all sorts of fun computer modeling and simulation.
EC: The world building of The Grace of Kings is truly amazing, with lots of details that make it vivid and believable (I’m thinking, for instance, about the fragments in Ano language, or the social meaning of the different seating positions). How did you approach the creation of a whole world and its history, language and customs?
KL: I read a lot of accounts by various authors of how they go about world building and took bits and pieces of their advice that worked for me. My wife, Lisa, knows many more languages than I do, so I asked for her help in creating the artificial language. I’ve always had an interest in history and anthropology, and I knew that to make a believable world, an author had to think both about deep culture and surface expressions.
I also took a lot of inspiration from East Asian cultural models, and I tried to be careful and respectful by not “copying” these cultural details over literally, but by creating something new that echoes the source material without suggesting that it is a representation of the source.
Above all, what worked for me was to do the hard work of actually writing that Wikipedia for Dara so that I could be sure that the world was solid, even if readers would only get to see perhaps 1% of it.
EC: The Grace of Kings is the first part of a trilogy. Why did you decide to begin your novel-writing career with a series instead of a stand-alone book? When can we expect to see the second and third books? And what are your plans after finishing the trilogy?
KL: I didn’t start out planning to write 200,000-word doorstoppers (much less a series of them)! I was a short fiction writer, and writing at such a length was something I had to learn in the process. Indeed, The Grace of Kings began life as a stand-alone work, but as I wrote, I found that the characters and the world demanded a larger canvas and a longer arc than a single book could provide. I had to pare back the plans for the novel again and again, and in the end it just made sense to structure the work as a series instead.
The second book is scheduled to come out in 2016, and the third book in 2017.
EC: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
KL: Interested readers can go to my web site: http://kenliu.name to learn more about my novels, short fiction, and translations. I’m also active on Twitter at @kyliu99. Finally, I encourage fans to sign up for my monthly newsletter at http://kenliu.name/mailing-list/, where I announce giveaways, share interesting news, give sneak peaks of my upcoming releases, and explain a bit about my creative process.
EC: Any other thing you’d like to add?
KL: Besides my original fiction, I also do a fair amount of translation of Chinese fiction into English. One of these translation is The Three-Body Problem, the first book in author Liu Cixin’s bestselling hard sci-fi series about first contact and mankind’s journey to the stars. I’m pleased to say that the book has garnered a Nebula nomination this year, which testifies to Liu Cixin’s skill as a writer and the book’s appeal. This is the first time a work translated from Chinese has been nominated for a Nebula, and it is only the second translated novel ever (after Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities) to gain such distinction.
I’m very honored to have had the chance to help bring this work to Anglophone readers, and I hope readers check it out.
Finally, thank you very much for the interview. I hope you and other readers have as much fun reading The Grace of Kings as I did in writing it.