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R. F. Kuang Interview – The Poppy War

Rebecca F. KuangRebecca F. Kuang (writing as R. F. Kuang) immigrated to the US from Guangzhou, China in 2000. When she isn’t writing books she is a student of Chinese history focusing on military strategy, collective trauma, and war memorials. Her debut novel, The Poppy War, based on the Second Sino-Japanese War, released in the US yesterday and is releasing in the UK tomorrow. And today we were lucky enough to have her stop by to tell us about this exciting new story!

Is The Poppy War your first book?

Yes! First ever finished, first ever published.

What inspired you to write it?

Indirectly, the sheer existence of modern Chinese history. Directly, hearing wartime stories from my grandparents when I took a year off school to live and work in China for a bit. Popular works of epic fantasy take so much inspiration from European wars, but not many in the West are inspired by China. I wanted to write the book that I couldn’t find on a bookshelf.

What genre would you categorize it as?

Adult fantasy. Some people are calling it grimdark fantasy. I contest that label only because the darkness of TPW isn’t there for aesthetic, it’s there for historical accuracy.

What authors influenced you?

Too many to name. First off: Maxine Hong Kingston and Iris Chang, who are everything. As far as modern fantasy goes: N. K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, and George R.R. Martin. Orson Scott Card, problematic as he is, changed me at ten years old when I read Ender’s Game. I think I still try to write in a very Ender’s Game style–lots of heavy discussions about geopolitics interspersed with adolescent angst and witty one-liners. Also, things and planets going boom.

Why did you chose Rin as the main character?

The Poppy War (cover)The short version: I have never seen a southern Chinese girl who looks like me act as the protagonist of an epic fantasy book, and I wanted one.

The long version: This story has to be Rin’s story, because it’s a tragic villain origin story. Minor spoiler here: Rin’s life is meant to parallel the trajectory of Mao Zedong from obscurity in Hunan to a genocidal dictator leading millions. I wanted to explore the psychology of a dictator. How do you go from the roots that Mao and Rin had, to holding unimaginable power and causing so much suffering with it? How do you mentally justify that to yourself? I’m uninterested in sociopathy as an answer (sociopathy is such a boring trope in fantasy besides), so I wanted to start with a girl who cares deeply for her friends, who wants to save her country, and who is firmly convinced that she’s doing the right thing. And everything is disaster from there.

I sometimes felt Rin had romantic feelings for Kitay, Altan, and Nezha, and yet there really is no romantic subplot in the story. Why?

I’m not particularly good at or interested in writing romantic subplots. I’m also tired of romance getting shoehorned into stories where it doesn’t necessarily belong, which seems unfortunately common in a lot of fantasy novels with female protagonists. Rin’s story is so much more than whoever she wants to bang at the moment. I mean, yes, hypothetically she would like to bang, but our girl’s got bigger problems. Altan and Nezha don’t work out for obvious reasons, and Kitay is both aromantic and asexual, so that’s not happening.

I also admit that I’m just not particularly good at writing romance scenes. Maybe it’s because I know my parents are reading my work, so cringe. Part of it is also because I see my own characters like children, and when my children start making out with each other, I feel very uncomfortable. You kids leave room for Jesus.

Anything else you’d like your fans to know?

The Poppy War (detail)If you haven’t checked the content warnings for this book, now’s a good time. I’ve listed some of them on Goodreads but almost every SFF blog review has listed them too. This book is very violent, dark, and graphic. It’s not for everyone. Take care.

The Poppy War ends with several loose threads. When can we expect to read more about Rin?

The next two books in the trilogy, neither of which have titles yet, are scheduled to come out on a yearly basis. So next summer, if all goes according to plan!

We would like to the thank Rebecca for taking the time to speak with us today! The Poppy War is out now in the US and will be out tomorrow (May 3rd) in the UK. To learn more about The Poppy War you can visit Rebecca’s website or follow her on Twitter @kuangrf!

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