An Interview with Shelley Parker-Chan

    A montage of a portrait of Shelley Parker-Chan and the cover art to SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN.

    Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, she was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. Her debut novel SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN owes more than a little to all three. In 2017 she was awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her family.

    I interviewed Shelley Parker-Chan via a collaborative Google Document in June and July 2021 and in a Zencastr call on 8 July 2021.


    INTERVIEWER

    When you worked as a diplomat, and when you were working on human rights in different parts of the world, were you already thinking about writing, and how did you go from that to publishing SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN?


    PARKER-CHAN

    So I was working in Timor-Leste about 10 years after independence, back in 2010, I think, and I was working on human rights and a lot of that was dealing with the fallout of independence, obviously. What was really interesting to me was how, because it was all so recent, you could see how people who had been rebel fighters, independence fighters, had transitioned into roles in government. They became the leaders of this new state and a lot of the qualities that were very good for fighting for independence, really weren’t great for leading a really fragile democratic state—they had a lot of trauma. So many people had seen their families murdered and killed, there was so much violence. And all of these people had intense ambition and aggression and quite large egos, I’m going to say. And it was absolutely not what was needed. You saw how those qualities led to tyranny later on. And it definitely got me thinking, —Who are the kinds of people who can actually imagine change at the level of the state or the nation or the empire? Which I couldn’t solve back then. But later I started thinking about this story that I was going to write, and I became fascinated by the Hongwu Emperor, who was this peasant who had this intense ambition and became one of the most tyrannical emperors of all time. So I was just thinking about personalities.

    But SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN took a long time to gestate and it didn’t start with a story of the Hongwu Emperor. I was just thinking, —Oh, I love monks, I just want a story with fun things that I love, I really want a warrior and a scholar and princes and trashy stuff like that. But I wanted to write what was fun in the shape of a Chinese drama. And then only later I squashed it into the box that was this historical set of events that gave me this nice framework. And also touched on things I was interested in, which was about the personalities that come to power.


    INTERVIEWER

    And how does the Otherwise Fellowship fit in?


    PARKER-CHAN

    The Otherwise Fellowship is about expanding our understanding of gender through speculative fiction. And I think I’d always wanted to subvert traditional rises to power, which is traditionally a male kind of path in fantasy fiction, by making the central character not a man. And I say not a man because my main character is born a girl, but I think she occupies a gender fluid space. And part of her power is that the ability to slip between genders. And what I wanted to do say was—and I mean this in the kindest possible way—fuck you Confucius. I grew up in a very rigidly gendered world, even though I grew up in the west, there was the sense that the son is superior. It was never said so much, but you felt it. So we lived in this patriarchal structure and if you look at China and the historical empires run by men, it all rests on this Confucian patriarchal hierarchy. And I thought, —How do you bring that down? You can bring it down through violence, but you also bring it down by subverting the very pillars it rests upon, on that male supremacy. And I thought that if I took that person who exemplifies male power and made them not a male, that whole system falls down. So I said, —Screw you Confucius, my emperor is not a man.


    INTERVIEWER

    When you were growing up, what are your earliest memories of fictional stories, either in print or on screen, and are there any creators, or characters, who you have read or watched right from those early days until now?


    PARKER-CHAN

    The very first film I remember seeing was STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE! I guess I imprinted early on classic SFF action-adventure. I read a lot of SFF early on in life, but took a big break from it for a long time because it wasn’t fulfilling my needs—I guess it just wasn’t queer enough, and that’s what I was looking for. So there aren’t so many authors I’ve been following consistently since I was a kid. That said, I do have some favourite books that I first read as a child and still go back to: Susan Cooper’s The DARK IS RISING sequence, Tamora Pierce’s later books, THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. Actually, now that I think about it, the Terminator franchise has been part of my life since I was about 10. First the movies (or at least the first two), then I was absolutely in love with the wonderful, prematurely-cancelled show TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, and I did go to see DARK FATE in the theatres in 2019, although it didn’t rock my world or anything. I love killer robots so much. I tried to put everything I love into SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN, but time travel and robots were the two things that just didn’t fit, lol.


    INTERVIEWER

    In SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN, I was struck by certain details like the cracked yellow earth of Henan, and the green-roofed monastery on the mountainside, and generally the verisimilitude of the sensory experiences described in the book. How did you go about researching the colour and shape of the lifestyle and geography and culture, and once you had that research done, was it a challenge to decide what to use and what to put to one side?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I read pretty widely during the development stage of the book, and visited a lot of Asian museums over the years I lived in Asia, so I guess I just absorbed lots of small details about what the 14th century world might look like. (Also, I watched a lot of cdramas.) I’m a visual writer, so when it came time to envisage the scene and then transcribe it onto the page, those little details had already worked their way into my imagination. I tend to under-write worldbuilding details, like clothes and architecture and so forth—I was sort of like ‘oh, there’s a generic building, we know what buildings look like in cdramas, no need to describe it in too much detail,’ and during one of my revisions with my agent I had to do a pass to add more stuff in. I love landscapes, and I can write about them endlessly, but clothes especially—I know they’re important, and they can signal so much about both the world and the character, but I’m just not really interested in them enough to do the kind of detailed research I’d need to do to use them in that way. So I just handwave, and imagine everyone is dressed in, like, polyester cdrama outfits.

    For landscapes, and the sensory reality of them—I drew a lot from my experiences in the various developing countries I’ve worked in. Poverty in 14th century China during an epic drought isn’t so different from poverty in remote rural Timor-Leste and many other places in the world, you know? You can sort of borrow the smells of the landscape, the feel of it, and little details. I remember I was thinking about Addis Ababa when I described the city of Anfeng—the cold air filled with blue woodsmoke. Some of the landscape is Taiwan, some is Australia, the details of the inside of the temples comes from old temples in places like Singapore and Malaysia and Indonesia. I did google the places in China where the book is set, but there’s sort of no point—the landscape of the 14th century doesn’t exist anymore, and hasn’t for a long time. The place where the Mongols went hunting—Liulin—is basically a coal mine now.


    INTERVIEWER

    What does your typical writing day look like and do you always write in the same place? And do you draft longhand, or into Scrivener, or something else?


    PARKER-CHAN

    Oh, I love Scrivener. I’ve been into Scrivener since the get go. When I wrote this book, I was working full time. So I was a member of the 5:00 a.m. writing club, and it sucked. And when you have a family, you get into this arms race with the children where you’re like, I get up at six o’clock and I try and do an hour of work before I go off to regular work. And then the child somehow senses you’re awake. They have this special radar and they’ll start waking up and then you decide to get up earlier, at five o’clock. And then you’ll find yourself waking up at four thirty in the morning going, —This isn’t rational. So I did that for many years, just an hour at a time in the morning. And that’s why it took me five years to write this manuscript. But now I’ve transitioned into a much more civilized routine of writing full-time. I get up like a normal person and sit at my desk and write in Scrivener. And I’m a big outliner, so I have all my dot points and I just fill it in through several different passes through the manuscript. So I always feel like I’m done because I’ve reached the end, hooray, and then I realize that I just have garbage writing and dot points on the page and have to go through again and again to get it to a non-garbage state


    INTERVIEWER

    During those years of writing the novel, was it a linear process, or were you circling back a lot or skipping around?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I think in terms of plot, I have it set down at the beginning. So that will be a linear process. I’ll ask myself what plot points I need and how it all fits together. And I’ll jot that down and I’ll know the shape of all the scenes. But it becomes really iterative with character and themes. I often have to write versions of the people as they go through this set of events and scenes and try to find a version that coheres. So I guess I work on the emotional arcs and the character acts separately from the plot and the narrative arcs. And they do interact, but not as much as you’d think. So usually my plot stays entirely the same, the whole way through, but the people themselves will change dramatically. The character is entirely different from one to the final draft. So for SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN I did maybe eight or nine drafts.


    INTERVIEWER

    Can you give an example of how a character developed through the drafts?


    PARKER-CHAN

    Zhu Yuanzhang, my protagonist, changed the most, because it was very hard to find a character who was strong enough to carry the set of epic events, world-changing events, but who at the same time was likable, who you’d root for, who did feel like an underdog. And I didn’t know that at the beginning, when I was trying to create this character. I had created a complete sociopath. She was a legit, straight up, power hungry, stab you in the back kind of person. And she had a very intense childhood. The monastery was not a cradle of the adult she would become, it was this fight to the death place full of corruption, and she killed her first person very early on.

    And the feedback I got was that this person is just way too hardcore, and they come into the world fully formed as themselves. We meet them as a child and they are just this bad-arse. You have to give a character growth and bring the audience along on this journey. So here’s someone you can root for. Here’s someone who grows. Here’s someone who changes. I didn’t know back then that the character has to change for it to be an interesting story. So that was my discovery. So now she’s much nicer.


    INTERVIEWER

    Are you still fond of her as a character? Or have you started to tire of her?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I still like her. She’s not the person I envisaged starting off. And yet she became a person in her own right who I quite like spending time with. So it’s interesting to me that in a way I didn’t have the craft to execute my original artistic vision. But on the other hand, serendipity and the needs of the book led me to this other character who I also enjoy. So I guess that’s the fun part, the discovery part of writing that I didn’t realize there would be. I always thought I was quite a planner, but I found her unexpectedly.


    INTERVIEWER

    So, would you say you’re a gardener or an architect? And has your approach changed over time?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I still plan. And I still always have this vision of what I’d like it to be. And I just, sometimes we get led in a different direction. Sometimes I can’t execute it and it ends up being different. And maybe it’s not worse, maybe it’s just different. I’d love to be able to do that thing where you can take the contents of your brain and press it onto the page, and it comes out perfectly as you’ve always dreamed of. I think it’s Ann Patchett who says, having an idea for a book is like a butterfly floating through the forest and then you take this book and you smash it down on the butterfly. So it’s flat, dead. And that’s what you’ve got.


    INTERVIEWER

    I’ve read about how SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN grew out of a conversation at a dinner party. Looking back now at the process of thinking up the characters and the narrative, what was the most difficult part? And since that evening with your friends, how have you developed as a writer and a storyteller?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I’d never written original fiction before, so it was a steep learning curve. But on the other hand, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about writing a book, so in a way that was a blessing! The hardest part was making characters that readers would care about and want to follow on a book-length journey. When you write fanfic, the audience already cares about the characters—they come in with good will. You don’t have to do any of the groundwork. When you write original fiction, you have to work really hard to signpost to the audience: this is who the character is, this is the journey they’re going on, do you want to come along? I didn’t know how to create a strong character arc where someone grows and changes in fundamental ways. It’s horrible at first when you try to write with your basic archetypes, before you’ve fleshed them out into real characters: it feels like playing with paper dolls, where you’re like ‘now kiss’ and mashing their dead faces together. I’m not someone who thinks a lot about craft, I guess I do it mostly intuitively, so I’m not sure what I’ve actually learned to be honest. Shaping the characters and the story just comes a little easier now.


    INTERVIEWER

    Now that SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN is out in the world, have you been looking at reviews?


    PARKER-CHAN

    No, I think looking at the reviews is a recipe for insanity. I definitely try not to see what people are saying about this book. I have blocked Goodreads. I never thought that people would read this book. It’s been quite a mystery to me how it did get pitched—I don’t want to sound too bragging or anything—as a big book. I thought I’d have to self publish this. It’s a queer Asian book and it didn’t fit in a clear genre. So I was quite mystified, pleasantly mystified.

    So I never thought that anyone would read it, and I really just wrote it for me, and I wrote it to have fun. And I’m trying to keep sight of the fact that, you know what, this is a book that I like, this is a book that I wrote for me, and if just three people like it and see what I was trying to do with it, that’s gravy. And those three people have arrived, and they’ve written me lovely notes about how they saw themselves in this book, their queerness, and their genderqueerness was seen. So, job done.

    That said, it’s easier said than done. It is a bit of a mind fuck. Especially when you start thinking, —Oh, this book has quite a lot of buzz around it, can I live up to it with book two? That is definitely weighing upon me.


    INTERVIEWER

    In a recent interview for THE QUIET POND you talked about ‘diasporan congee’, the jook with the cabbage and sandwich ham, and I think this idea of hybridity is interesting on so many levels. Do you see SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN as a hybrid of genres — part-political, part-romance, part-fantasy — and to what extent is hybridity important to your identity as a writer?


    PARKER-CHAN

    Oh absolutely! SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN is a mix of eastern and western influences, just like me as a mixed race person. (Especially as an Australian person—Australia being that mix of Asian and European influences, when it comes to food at least. There would be no Australian cuisine without Asia!) It’s literary but its biggest style influence is fanfic. It looks like a palace drama, and it has that classic Chinese romantic tragedy aspect, but the engine is actually a western hero’s journey: the structure is pure farm-boy-becomes-king. That was totally why when I was querying it, I had no idea how to classify it—and neither did most of the agents I queried. Anyway, I was listening to a New Yorker panel today about writing and sex and desire by four very esteemed literary authors, and it was fascinating to me how they were talking about written depictions of desire and they never once mentioned romance. Is there really nothing they wanted to take from an entire genre dedicated to the subject? Nothing they saw of value there? In my opinion there’s value everywhere, and I’m going to take my influences from whatever catches my attention. Also, you know, I couldn’t write a classic xianxia or wuxia that would be suitable for mainland-Chinese audiences even if I tried. Because the way I see the world and my framework for understanding it is influenced by how I grew up, and that was in the west. And anyway, I don’t want to try! I’m writing in English for people like me, not for China. And I think that’s valid. The diaspora can have their own literature.


    INTERVIEWER

    And there is so much cultural diffusion in both directions, and we live in this world where many people exist in a hybrid space, culturally. How do you feel about that question of cultural exchange, globally, and how does that relate to your writing?


    PARKER-CHAN

    As someone who’s living outside of the US, I think I have a bit of an ambivalent relationship to the degree to which the US perspective has become globalized. It’s like a hegemonic sort of power, the way American cultural experience has been pressed upon us all to the point where we almost think in American terms, even though we’re not American. And it affects how we tell our stories. And sometimes I do question that. And it is a work in progress to think, —Is there another way I could be telling these stories? But at the same time I want my books to sell. Do I need to make them more or less American? That’s constantly going through your mind.

    I think the joy of reading is discovering other perspectives, but then this search for authenticity is also quite poisonous as well, because what is authentic when, like you said, we live in this hybridized world where everything is layered over each other in a way that you can’t quite untangle. And I guess when I think about writing a story, I ask, —Is it true to me? And that’s all I’m trying to do—to write a story that represents my experience in some way. And my experience is inherently a tangle of all those things. It is that American cultural influence that’s been pressed upon us, it’s my own cultural experiences, it’s my own experience living in other places in the world. It’s a product of this infinite cultural exchange that you can never distill down to any particular thing. You can’t say this bit belongs to that, and this bit belongs to this other part. So I guess that’s what fiction is.

    So I’ve been talking to other fiction authors and we’re often asked to write personal essays to promote our books. And we like to say that we’re fiction authors because we prefer to write down that tangle of things in an unexamined way. We just let it out there. Whereas in non-fiction I think you have to be much clearer about the issues, you have to lay out each issue in quite a systematic way and say these are the antecedents, or this is the influences on this particular thing, this is where I’m coming from.

    The joy of fiction is that you can just throw it onto the page and be like, this is my experience. I’m not going to pick it apart for you and say this bit comes from here or there or any other place. And maybe you’ll interpret it in a completely different way than I have interpreted my own experience from the inside. I think that’s the fun of it. .


    INTERVIEWER

    Is SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN going to be shelved in the general fiction section or the fantasy and science fiction section, or both?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I think it will be in the general section, in some places. I think the publisher in the UK was intending to pitch it as a crossover. So it could be literary-historic, or could be fantasy. And there are a number of books that hit that spot. Natasha Pulley and Bridget Collins are two UK authors who write what to my mind is straight up fantasy, but it has a very literary style, so it tends to be shelved in the general fiction section.

    But I’m so over this denigration of SFF. I really think you can explore just as much about the world in any genre, whether it be romance or thrillers or crime or science fiction or fantasy. I don’t see why we have to ghettoize them or look down upon them as some kind of trivial, escapist thing. Maybe they can be fun and still say some very interesting things about the world we live in. And I really see a place for more sincerity in writing. I think a lot of people who move in those literary fiction worlds enjoy a sense of ironic detachment. They like playing with style and form, which is fine. But they find sincerity a little painful or cringy. But I think that’s what so great about genres like romance and fantasy. There just sincerity of emotion that is being put on the page. It’s like saying, —I wish the world was like this, or wouldn’t it be interesting if—. But people find it a little bit too naive, or something. But I actually find it resonates with me in a very pleasant way.

    I think it takes bravery not to mask yourself behind a layer of detachment, like in autofiction, where I—m not the narrator, even though we have the same name, there is this layer of artifice. And I’m like, —I think it takes balls to be a romance author and to lay desire flat out on the page, saying this is what excites me, this is what people are interested in. Sometimes people want a story. They don’t want an intellectual puzzle. I think there’s value in having all kinds of fiction. But let’s not crap upon the people who enjoy an immersive story they want to lose themselves in.


    INTERVIEWER

    The ghosts in SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN are a fascinating element in the novel, and there is a sensuality at moments to the way they are described. And they’re also spooky, but not necessarily creepy. And visually, I could completely imagine them depicted on screen as these ethereal presences. How early on in the writing of the novel did you know that these ghosts would play an important part?


    PARKER-CHAN

    The ghosts were a last-minute addition after I’d already sold the manuscript to Tor. I wrote SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN as a straight-up historical—no ghosts, no fantastic elements whatsoever. Of course, the characters believed in the supernatural—and because they believed it, it affected the direction of their lives and their decisions, but it wasn’t real. Anyway, Tor gave me the choice of SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN being published by Forge, which is their more mainstream imprint, but I always felt that it had fantasy DNA, it was influenced by commercial franchise storytelling—it’s cathartic, not realistic—so Tor was a better fit overall. They asked me to add some fantasy elements. It’s hard to shoehorn magic into a completed story, though, because it affects how the whole world works—how people make decisions—it causes all sorts of plot-logic issues: ‘if the character has magic powers, why didn’t they use that power to solve X problem they were facing.’ So what I did was I made people’s supernatural beliefs literal. The characters used to think about the ghosts of their ancestors watching them, and hungry ghosts roaming around, and I just made them visible. That’s why they don’t really do anything, and neither does the power of the Mandate of Heaven.


    INTERVIEWER

    Did that come as a surprise, and what was it like integrating the ghosts into the manscript?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I had an inkling, it was probably going to go this way because when I queried it to various agents, I had a lot of agents who told me, —I really like this, but I don’t know how to sell it. They said, you know, —It doesn’t have any cool magic system, it doesn’t have any cool weapons, it doesn’t have any supernatural animals, so it’s not fantasy, but neither is a historically accurate, so it’s not historical, so I can’t sell it. And so I knew this was coming.

    And then when we went out on submission to general fiction editors and also to the SFF editors. And when the SFF editors were the ones who leapt upon it, then I knew that we were probably going to have to do some negotiations. And so I did have a few offers of interest and they had pitched their own suggestions for how this could be made to fit better within their SFF imprints. And one of them wanted to make it a secondary world, and that was something I could not do, because to me the story is tied to the specific events. It subverts a particular person who was very famously one of the great patriarchs of Chinese history. If he’s not that guy, then I think it would lose a lot of its power, if he just became a made up person in a secondary world. I wanted it to live in actual history, in our actual Confucian, patriarchal system, so it could break that system. So that was the deal breaker for me.

    So when another imprint said, —We like it, add magic. And I thought, I obviously can’t design a whole magic system that the whole world has baked into it because that changes the entire story. People would be using magic to solve their problems in everyday life. So I literally just borrowed—I’m going to say it—Tamora Pierce, who wrote one of the most amazing gender-bending fantasies of my childhood, the Alanna series, bless her, had a system of coloured lights that represented people’s magic as they manipulated the world around them. So I thought, —Okay, there is a coloured light that signifies that people have some kind of mandate of heaven. It’s like those old European manuscripts where there is a little halo drifting over someone’s head to show that they were like selected by God or something—it’s an indicator, a potential.

    And the ghosts were just making something that was believed by the characters literal on the page. So it didn’t change anything about how they acted as they went through the event, it was just making them visible. And then there is the issue of fate—is fate real or not. In the earlier, pre-magic draft, I think it was much clearer that fate was not real, and in this one it’s a little more open.


    INTERVIEWER

    There’s a scene at the beginning where Zhu Yuanzhang, then Zhu Chongba, and her brother and father visit a fortune teller. Did you add that along with the magic, or was that always there in some form?


    PARKER-CHAN

    That was always there. It was always there, but I think it was less portentous. I think it was a little more low key. I think it was actually that scene where I got the idea of ghosts being present throughout, because she felt the presence of the ancestors watching. So it was always there. It did change, and this idea that the ancestors are watching this moment where fate is bequeathed to the next generation became quite important when I decided that seeing ghosts was part of her powers package.


    INTERVIEWER

    When I read those moments with the ghosts observing, eerily impassive, I thought, —This would look great on screen. Do you think about how SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN might look if it were adapted?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I feel like authors these days are very influenced by the cinema. I mean, I was. Maybe to the point where it’s not a good thing, because you’re really transcribing a TV show onto the page, and that can lead to weak writing in certain ways. I had to do a lot of work to change what was essentially a transcription of a Chinese drama show into a proper book with the internals. Because my first draft was entirely from the outside. Because we’re so used to watching things on screen I didn’t know how to write the emotional aspect yet. So I had to change that. But yes, I think it would make a fun TV show.

    But the thing is, book two is being written after I knew that ghosts had to be in it, so I think they can play a slightly larger role, not a dramatic role, but I think I could build them into the world in a more interesting way, so that’s been fun.


    INTERVIEWER

    In The Quiet Pond interview you said, —People are flawed and messy, and as the stakes get higher, they only get messier. And that is certainly true of many characters in SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN. But there is also a sense in which this messiness, these flaws, can be transcended. There is the hope of something better, of something greater, even after the most horrific things have happened. And so, how much is the startling and awesome cinematic denouement a statement about revolution?


    PARKER-CHAN

    It’s true that Zhu talks a lot about making something new, something bright, something better. But as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN is seriously concerned at all with war or revolution or the messiness of statebuilding. I kind of deliberately didn’t want to deal with any of that: the book is a power fantasy. It’s meant to be cathartic, not realistic. Triumph is clean and easy and quick in the way it never is (and never was) in real life. But I do get what you’re saying about the sense of hope—that the past can be transcended. And I think that element is specifically about gender. The real revolution of SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN isn’t about the Chinese re-establishing native rule. It’s about saying no to rigid gender roles, to the patriarchy, to male supremacy. When Zhu sits on the throne (which we know she will eventually), when she takes the position at the apex of the Confucian patriarchal hierarchy, and does so as someone who isn’t a man—that undermines the entire system. That’s the revolution, and it offers hope for everyone: for people who were oppressed because they aren’t men, but also for men who weren’t able to let go of the toxic aspects of masculinity.


    INTERVIEWER

    Have you sat back and mused over how China, the China in the world you created, might develop differently after this fork in history? Do you think about how history might ripple out from the story you tell in SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I think in general, that’s really fun to think about. I love alternate history, I love forks, I love the multiverse, because I really like that logical sense of, yeah, if there is a fork, how does each direction go, or how do two people diverge and become two separate selves in two different timelines? That’s my jam. But in terms of this as we know, the Hongwu Emperor was a terrible tyrant and he murdered all the people who brought him to power. He was awful. And I think that set the tone of the Ming dynasty. And I have created a person who is not that historical guy. If you read the first book, you see that the historical Zhu Yuanzhang dies in the first chapter. And the person who becomes him is not that same historical person, she’s different. She follows through the same set of events, which is a bit cheating, but once she would be on that throne, the idea is that because of who she is, she breaks that system and takes it in a different direction. And she would not be the insane tyrant that the historical guy was. I’m not going to say she’s a nice person but, I never intended to make her exactly the same as him. And I think that would set the Ming dynasty off in a different direction.

    But it still is an empire. And the question is, to what degree would it be known that she was not a man as she rules as the founding emperor? Or is she undercover, still? I think some aspects of that will be resolved in book two and some won’t. But take Empress Wu, back in Tang dynasty—she ruled, she was the empress, and yet things snapped back to normal as soon as she was gone. She didn’t fundamentally change the system, even though her rule was so powerfully transgressive. The people who wrote the history who came after, wrote the good aspects of her out of it. They made up the most revolting stories to say that she was unfit for rule. History is written by the men, and they are the ones who survived and kept on going. So I don’t know, it’s interesting to think about.


    INTERVIEWER

    Thinking about gender, and about patriarchy, what do you feel about the current state of the Anglophone publishing industry? And what would you like to see more of, or less of, in the future?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I think we’re living in the golden age of science fiction and fantasy for sure. When it comes to representation of all kinds of identities. When I first started writing SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN, there were no Asian-inspired fantasies around, except for Ken Liu and Guy Gavriel Kay, who is not an Asian author himself. This was before The Poppy War had even been announced yet. So I really felt I was venturing into the unknown. Is this something that could be interesting to people? Is this something that could sell? So I was just trying to write something that I wanted to see in the world and I just hit this wave of interest in diverse voices. So it was very lucky for me. And also Chinese dramas hitting the mainstream, which is also not something anyone ever really expected. I was watching these back in the day, when you watch on YouTube with fan subs, and now they’re on Netflix and everyone’s watching them.

    And Tasha Suri and C. L. Clark and I always laugh about the fact we have the golden Sapphic trio. All of our books are really similar. And they have yellow covers, which is just a hilarious coincidence. But they’re about women or non-men or nonbinary people, smashing empires. We live in a world where the three of these are coming out in the space of like several months. So it’s fantastic.

    But at the same time, I think you can go a little too far down the identity fiction route. Sometimes I’m tired of having to say what my book is and give it a label. Is it Sapphic fiction? Is it genderqueer fiction? Are your characters lesbians? I just want to let the people be people. They are who they are. And writing in a historical period was very freeing in that sense as it took me out of that contemporary world where we are increasingly interested in putting people in boxes and labelling them. And I understand there are very important reasons for having labels and that can be very powerful, especially politically, but sometimes at the individual level, you just want to be free. I am who I am, I’m going to be with who I want, I’m going to live in the world how I want to. I would like for all of publishing to enter that world of nuance a little sooner, rather than later, rather than having to fight over the specifics of is this exactly the trans experience as everyone else understands it?


    INTERVIEWER

    Casting forward, away from the bright light of SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN, what stories are you hoping to tell in the future? And what topics or ideas are you researching or exploring?


    PARKER-CHAN

    Bold to assume that I have any ideas for what to do next, lol. I’m not one of those people with a million ideas on the boil at any one time. I like to work on a single project at a time, and each project takes me a long time. But then when it’s done, I don’t like to look back. I’m definitely done with imperial China. There are lots of Asian-inspired fantasies now, and I feel like I’ve done my time in that genre. I want to try something that feels new to me in terms of geographic setting and time period. Because SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN had a big scope and big cast, I wouldn’t mind writing something more contained next: something where the primary story is about just two people and their interactions. A romance, I guess. My mind keeps drifting to New York in the 1980s, the East Village, the AIDS crisis, David Wojnarowicz and Robert Mapplethorpe, artists who burned bright but had their lives cut short. Maybe there’s a story there: POSE meets FLEABAG. I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it. Maybe after that I’ll try something bigger, like that scary Bible alt-history that I’m always talking about haha.


    INTERVIEWER

    The 1980s New York romance sounds like a great premise. Would you set that in an alternate world, a world where maybe the response to AIDS was different?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I don’t know if this will actually ever turn into anything, it’s just something I’m batting around. I really like that era, it’s a very resonant and tragic and important part of queer people’s past that occasionally, as an older person myself, I sometimes feel like the younger generation have forgotten about. It was nice to see it again on screen in POSE, but it was very present in my childhood. The specter of the AIDS crisis and the absolutely callous way it was dealt with.

    I would probably not make that one an alternate universe, I was just thinking it would be a romance set in that era, which is a very fertile period for interpersonal stories. Will it actually turn into anything? I don’t know. I would like to write romance and I would probably set it in a historical era of some kind, but I don’t think romances themselves need the alternate universe framing quite so much.

    For the kinds of stories where you want tosubvert something, like the alt-Bible story I mentioned, that would be an alternate universe.I want to change one key thing about a very big biblical event. And when I came up with that premise I thought, —Oh, is this idea genius, or is it insanity, or is it genius? And either way, I don’t know if I’m good enough to write it. But that’s a different kind of story, that’s a story about breaking and reforming the world in interesting ways, and what that breakage says about the foundations of our mythology. Whereas a romance can just live in a period of time, happily, and you can just play with two people and that’s the story.


    INTERVIEWER

    You said you don’t have a million ideas on the boil at any one time. Do you normally think in terms of novels, or do you also have ideas for shorter works?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I would love to write a novella just because I am the world’s slowest writer. So it would at least get something finished more quickly. But I think in long form, I don’t think in short form. I think they are different skill sets, much like writing nonfiction personal essays versus writing books. Maybe novel and novellas are closer together, but definitely writing short stories uses a different muscle, a different skill, and I have huge admiration for people who can write really interesting, fresh, short stories. And not just one, but a whole book of them.

    I guess I think in long form because of what I was always reading. It’s not like I planned SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN to be a 400-pager, it just turned out that way, just the natural length. So I guess your mind grooves to a certain kind of rhythm, and mine is that length. I also could not write a 900-page fantasy like some people.


    INTERVIEWER

    Are there any other authors or books that you’d like to signal boost?


    PARKER-CHAN

    I feel like I had a reading slump, and then all of a sudden I read a bunch of absolute bangers. So Lee Mandelo is a Tordotcom author who has SUMMER SUNS coming out in September, and this is a Southern Appalachian Gothic with ghosts, mashed with street racing. And it’s just a great book about toxic, homophobic Southern masculinity, and suppressed queerness and coming to realizations about yourself. And it’s also about loss, about someone who’s already died and then you re-evaluate your relationship with that person who has died and you discover new things about yourself and about them, but it’s too late. And it’s such a poignant, powerful set of emotions to base a book around. But because there are ghosts, the dead isn’t always dead. So it’s very exciting, I loved it. And it’s very visceral as well. You feel that sticky, Spanish moss, sweaty Southern feeling.

    And also Emily Tesh has a new book that’s just been announced called SOME DESPERATE GLORY, and it is an absolutely smashing space opera about teen space terrorists who are raised in this cult that believes they are the last bastions of humanity standing against aliens. And it is the most amazing journey from hating someone, to just a hundred percent being behind them. I haven’t stayed up until 3:00 a.m. in a long time, and that was the book that kept me up.