The Novel(s)

So, I have big news. I sold three novels and a collection of short stories to Simon & Schuster’s new, yet-to-be-named genre imprint.

You can read the full press release here at io9.

As the press release says, the first book in the series, The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion,

… follows Kuni Garu, a charming bandit, and Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke. At first, the two seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, they quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures. The scope of the series is epic, involving gods, massive armies, diverse cultures, multiple plotlines, numerous characters, politics, war, courtly intrigue, and love.

Kind of hard to describe how I feel at this moment, so I’ll keep it light and summarize the remarkable series of events that led up to this point.

Years ago, my wife Lisa and I came up with the idea for the series together: a loose retelling of the historical legends surrounding the the founding and early years of the Han Dynasty. Culturally, these stories are like the Iliad and the Odyssey in the West and have been an important part of the mythic imagination of people in the Sinosphere for millennia.

When I was growing up, I imbibed them through accounts by pingshu storytellers on the radio, through retellings by my grandmother, through comic books and popular histories and textbooks and famous Classical Chinese poems and essays. They were among the earliest stories I can remember.

Most of my stories are reactions against something I don’t like: a popular narrative leaves something out that I feel is crucial, a set of assumptions and myths being told and retold that I feel is damaging and limiting, or the kind of story I want to read isn’t being written. This series is no exception. I wanted to write a novel that told these stories that I loved to a readership that might be unfamiliar with them, but I didn’t want to write a straight historical novel or a “magic China” fantasy series — these approaches are fraught with the kind of appropriation issues that I find so problematic.

So I decided to do something different. I wanted to retell the stories in a new setting, with new cultures, new peoples, new technologies and magic that are not tied to their Chinese roots directly.

One of the benefits of this approach is that I avoid bringing in all the problematic baggage of the Western gaze on “China” seen in so many fantasy/historical narratives set in China. Another benefit is that it gives me more creative control: I have more room to change the narrative in ways that balance the integrity of the source material—and its essential difference from modern sensibilities—against the desire to transform and alter it to suit my vision for a modern audience.

I have altered the source material far more than most “retellings”—although the essential plot and many of the cultural practices are modeled on East Asian cognates, events are compressed or expanded, characters are combined or invented, borrowings from other periods and other cultures are freely mixed in. The Dandelion Dynasty is set in an archipelago where magic, the gods, and silkpunk technology—battle kites, winged airships, scaled whales, books of shifting prophecy—are all real, and heroes and villains vie not just for power, but also the judgment of history.

The hope, of course, is a final product that readers can enjoy as much as I did the original.

The first draft of the first novel in the series, The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion, was written during NaNoWriMo back in 2010. I worked off and on on it (and its sequels) since then over three years, each major revision pass altering the story in significant ways. I joked with Rachel Swirsky once that, in a manner of speaking, I could be said to have written more than one novel considering how many times each sentence had been rewritten.

(Her response went something like this: “By that logic, I have written dozens and dozens of novels” — Rachel always knows how to give me perspective.)

My old agent, Joe Monti, never quite succeeded in convincing me to let it go on submission before he got his dream job as Executive Editor at Simon & Schuster’s new genre imprint (sorry Joe!). But the ensuing scramble for a new agent turned out to be a blessing in disguise—my new agent, Russell Galen, was extremely encouraging and got me to see that I’d reached the point where I needed to work with an editor, and he was ready to go out with the manuscript on submission. With great trepidation, I agreed.

The first buyer he approached (and the only one he needed to approach, as it turned out) was none other than Joe (thanks Joe!). So now I get to work with an editor who I trust, who knows the manuscript well, and who understands my vision. Such a confluence of events was not something that could have been planned and would be preposterous if I presented it as fiction.

This book wouldn’t have existed without my grandmother, who introduced me to the magic of pingshu storytellers; it wouldn’t have existed without my wife, Lisa, who first saw the Islands of Dara with me, helped me construct many aspects of the world, and encouraged me to realize it through much personal sacrifice; it wouldn’t have existed without the work of my agents—old and new—and Simon & Schuster; it wouldn’t have existed without the support and feedback of the many, many writers and readers who have helped me grow as a writer over the years.

I’ve been truly lucky.

Much remains to be done, but I can’t wait to share The Chrysanthemum and the Dandelion with you all.