Exclusive Interview: “Bitter Medicine” Author Mia Tsai
It’s often interesting to hear where an author got the idea for their new book. Like, say, author Mia Tsai, who says in the following email interview that her xianxia-inspired contemporary fantasy novel Bitter Medicine (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) was partially inspired by someone else’s kid’s parents dropping the ball.
Photo Credit: Copyright Wynne Photography
To start, what is Bitter Medicine about, and when and where does it take place?
Bitter Medicine is about Elle, a magical calligrapher who works at a faerie temp agency called Roland & Riddle, and Luc, a half-elf who also works at the same agency, though in a much different capacity. Elle has put herself and her big brother into a self-imposed witness protection program because she’s hiding from someone who wants her family dead, and in the process, has made herself small as well. Luc approaches Elle because he’s figured out she’s more than she seems and needs her magic to look for that same someone. If he catches that person, it’ll be a big win for him, and he needs a big win to reach his goal.
We start the story in Raleigh, North Carolina, but both Elle and Luc get to ping-pong around several continents by the end. As for when, it’s as contemporary as I can manage; I was drafting this in 2016 and again in 2019, so let’s say it’s in the late teens.
Where did you get the idea for Bitter Medicine, what inspired it?
The world of the temp agency (or the world of Roland & Riddle) actually came first. Originally, I had meant this to be for a younger age category, since the story seed came about through an interaction with a student of mine, who was seven at the time. She’d lost a tooth, but the tooth fairy never came, so I joked that the tooth fairy had taken a sick day. And the temp agency was born.
Later on, I realized I needed to flesh out the world more to better set stories within it, so I brought over a bunch of characters I had languishing — both Elle and Luc were in that category — and chucked them into the world to see what would happen. The story then grew to encompass and then center them.
And is there a reason why Elle is Chinese while Luc is a French elf as opposed to having Luc be a Chinese elf and Elle be French or Elle be from Atlanta, Georgia while Luc is from West Orange, New Jersey?
It’s nice to acknowledge that people come from all over the world, and because I wanted the calligraphy magic to be featured heavily, the best candidate for that magic was Elle.
As for Luc, it might have been more realistic to have a spy-type figure come from West Orange, New Jersey, but this is fantasy. Why not lean into the tropes a little, you know?
The press materials call Bitter Medicine a “xianxia-inspired contemporary fantasy” story. For people unfamiliar with the term, what does “xianxia-inspired” mean as it relates to this story?
It might be easier to start with wuxia, which I think more people are familiar with here in the West. Wuxia is, and I’m simplifying a lot, martial arts fantasy. So that’s where you’d expect to see things like pugilists fighting against each other, wandering martial artists seeking to right wrongs, sects devoted to specific types of martial arts, being able to fly because of high skill, all of that. Xianxia is fantasy as well, but everything in xianxia gets more magical. There are still martial artists, but the magic revolves around traditional Chinese medicine, qi cultivation as a means to achieve immortality, and Chinese folk religion. Demons and monsters show up; there are magical items galore (I’m not saying wuxia doesn’t have magical items because it does, but in xianxia, magical items abound); gods and immortals appear.
Bitter Medicine is xianxia-inspired because Elle, as a direct descendant of the Chinese god of medicine, can be considered an immortal or a celestial, and she has a power set that aligns strongly with things found in xianxia: medicinal abilities, an extended lifespan, pyrokinesis (though that could be seen as more Western).
And in a similar vein, what’s the difference between “contemporary fantasy” and urban fantasy, and again, how does that relate to Bitter Medicine?
I’m going to take a second to doff the author cap and don the editor cap. I think, in my experience reading and working on fantasies of all kinds, that it’s a question of what’s at stake. Urban fantasy often has world-ending stakes and broad-reaching consequences if the main characters are defeated. Urban fantasy also features law enforcement officers or investigators who have to unravel the mystery before the Big Event happens and destroys everything. Often there’s a romance subplot as well. One urban fantasy series I love that has all the great hallmarks of the genre is Hailey Turner’s Soulbound series, the first book of which is A Ferry Of Bones And Gold.
Contemporary fantasy for me is magic that takes place in the real world but without the pyrotechnics and high stakes of urban fantasy. It’s everyday magic. Bitter Medicine is at its heart a deeply internal, personal story for both characters; they have to make decisions that impact themselves and their loved ones, but what they do doesn’t have ripple effects on the world. The contemporary part is represented by things like cell phones and Uber and Great British Bake Off marathons on Netflix.
Okay, author cap back on.
Now, Bitter Medicine is your first novel, but I’m guessing it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers or stories that had an influence on Bitter Medicine but not on anything else you’ve written?
You know, I’m not sure. I think everything I’ve read informs everything I write in the sense that I am better able to find my point of view when contrasted against other points of view.
There are, however, a number of homages and nods to other media in the story. I know people like Easter eggs. So do I. There are plenty of Easter eggs in the book.
Oh, the world mythology aspect, though. Plenty of people have brought world mythology into their books, but I remember enjoying seeing Henry Neff’s take on world mythology in his Tapestry series, which is YA.
What about non-literary influences; was Bitter Medicine influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Bitter Medicine has a bit of a Men In Black vibe to it in the sense that there’s a large bureaucratic agency staffed by aliens. Or, in this case, magical creatures. One of my favorite tropes is mundane fantasy, like Miracle Workers, that TBS show, the premise of which really hooked me, but unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to watch it. When I started writing what would become Bitter Medicine, I was fresh off an obsession with the hit TV show Nirvana In Fire, which is truly and honestly one of the best historical Chinese dramas ever, so I was thinking a lot about wuxia and xianxia when I decided to have Elle’s primary magic be calligraphy-based.
And what about your cat Portia and your dog Puddles, what influence did they have on Bitter Medicine?
Bitter Medicine wasn’t written with Portia and Puddles around; they’re fairly recent additions to the household. My two babies that got me through the writing process were Pooka and Gremlin, who passed last year and last month respectively. Pooka’s job was to remind me to take naps, and Gremlin frequently would position himself so it looked like he was supervising me while I worked. Gremlin, who we called Mr. Grim, exists partially as the shop cat in Bitter Medicine. Mr. Grim was a very social cat who functioned as my greeter at my day job, and the shop cat needed that sort of personality.
As you probably know, fantasy novels are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas. What is Bitter Medicine?
It’s a stand-alone novel for now. And that’s because we writers have to query a single book, not a series, so it’s best to write something that has a clear beginning and end. Series potential can be a bonus.
On other fronts, Hollywood loves turning fantasy novels into movies, TV shows, and games. Do you think Bitter Medicine could work as one of those?
I think Bitter Medicine might function best as a TV show given its many locations and focus on personal journeys, but I think the world of Roland & Riddle would be wonderful as a tabletop role playing game because of its broad character-building options and customizable “missions” for temps to go on.
If someone wanted to make a show based on Bitter Medicine, who would you want them to cast as Elle and Luc and the other main characters?
I am extremely not visual at all, so I rarely find actors I think are perfect for the characters. Except, perhaps, [Emily In Paris‘] Lucas Bravo as Luc, which feels a little too on the nose.
No, I’d love to see fresh faces and new talent for all the characters.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Bitter Medicine?
There’s quite a bit of Western fantasy in Bitter Medicine as well. I delved into things like true names, curses, and pocket dimensions. There was a lot of consulting of my world folklore dictionary and I used chansons de geste and the history of Catholicism in France to build Luc’s history. In fact, that’s one of the Easter eggs. The Roland in Roland & Riddle is a direct reference to La Chanson de Roland, which then ties into…a certain magical item. Sorry, spoilers. Let’s just say Elle isn’t the only immortal around. There are more immortals than you can shake a stick at in Bitter Medicine.
Finally, if someone enjoys Bitter Medicine, what xianxia-inspired fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
Fans of xianxia will enjoy Tao Wong’s books; I recommend starting with The First Step, the first book of his A Thousand Li series.
Of course, The Untamed is a huge global hit, so if you have Netflix, you can watch it or read the translations of MXTX’s Mo Dao Zu Shi, which is the source material for The Untamed.
St. Martin’s Griffin has been releasing translations of Jin Yong’s classic wuxia epic, Legend Of The Condor Heroes. If you want to dive into foundational twentieth-century wuxia, it’s a great place to start.
As for Chinese speculative fiction, I can’t recommend enough The Way Spring Arrives And Other Stories, edited by Regina Kanyu Wang and Yu Chen, which is a collection of Chinese sci-fi short stories in translation, as well as essays from the translators.