Exclusive Interview: “Mammoths At The Gates” Author Nghi Vo


In Nghi Vo’s Singing Hills Cycle, a historian cleric named Chih wanders a magical fantasy world strongly influenced by Southeast Asian history.

But in Mammoths At The Gates (hardcover, Kindle, aduiobook), Chih’s feet are taking them back home for the first time in years, only to find that not everything is as they left it. In the following email interview, Vo discusses what inspired and influenced this new novella.

Nghi Vo Mammoths At The Gates Singing Hills Cycle

Photo Credit: © 2021 C.J. Foeckler


We previously talked about the Singing Hills Cycle in the interview we did about the third book, Into The Riverlands, so let’s just jump right in: What is Mammoths At The Gates about, and when and where does it take place in relation to Riverlands?

In Mammoths At The Gates, our wandering cleric Chih returns home to the abbey at Singing Hills for the first time in four years, only to find two mammoths and one very angry imperial advocate on their doorstep. You never really come home to the same place, and Chih finds a lot of changes waiting for them, ranging from the mundane to the tragic to the simply confusing. Who let everything they love change without their say-so, anyway? At the center of the changes is the death of their teacher, Cleric Thien, an important figure in many lives both inside the abbey and beyond it.

Chronologically, Riverlands is the earliest story on the timeline, while Mammoths is the latest, though of course, like all novellas of the Singing Hills Cycle, they can be read independently.

When in the process of writing Into The Riverlands and the first two books — The Empress Of Salt And Fortune and When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain — did you come up with the idea for Mammoths At The Gates, and what inspired that idea?

I’ve known for a while now that Chih would return home to Singing Hills and be forced to see it through new eyes. The actual war mammoths waiting for them was a surprise, though.

I guess I was also thinking about death and the echoes we all leave behind us. Our stories don’t end when we do. We live on in the thousands upon thousands of things we do while we’re here, and no one’s ever going to get a full account of it. The clerics of Singing Hills, however, will try to do just that.

And did anyone make any good jokes about Barbarians At The Gates, and if so, did you laugh at them or just stare at them while slowly eating a bunch of Oreos?

Ha, no Barbarians At The Gates jokes, but my friend Shane did tell me that Mammoths At The Gates would be a totally awesome name for a heavy metal album. I sort of want to commission someone to paint me that heavy metal album cover.

The previous Singing Hills Cycle novellas are fantasy stories, but with other elements as well; as you said in the Into The Riverlands interview, “Empress is a political drama, Tiger is a romance, and Riverlands is a martial arts adventure.” What then is Mammoths At The Gates?

Empress is a political drama, Tiger is a romance, Riverlands is a martial arts adventure, and Mammoths is a memorial.”

It’s also a mourning, a coming-of-age story, and just a few very bad days for Chih.

So, are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Mammoths At The Gates but not on any of the previous Singing Hills Cycle novellas?

Interestingly enough, I ended up rereading Spoon River Anthology by Edger Lee Masters before I wrote Mammoths. Probably a bit of that got into my writing, the conflicting views of the dead and the stories we never knew about the people closest to us.

How about non-literary influences; was Mammoths At The Gates influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

I watched a lot of YouTube videos of elephants to remind myself how mammoths might have moved and acted.

As you said, Cleric Chih heads home to the Singing Hills Abbey when their mentor, Cleric Thien, has died. The death of a mentor is very different from the death of a parent, sibling, or life partner. Once you decided that this would be the impetus of this new story, did you do any kind of research into how people react to the death of a mentor?

I think what it comes down to is that every grief, like every love, is different, and the relationship between Chih and Cleric Thien isn’t even much like the relationships between Cleric Thien and the other clerics they taught. I did some reading into grief in general, the biological reality of it and the emotional cost. At the end of the day, however, grief is so personal that the bulk of the work I had in front of me was figuring out where Cleric Thien and Chih’s lives touched, what was exchanged, what was given, and ultimately what was lost both in the present and in the future.

What I needed to figure out regarding where Chih was coming from was not only the present, the immediate loss, but also the way it’ll hit them like a hammer in the future, that someone they loved so much is gone. They’ve lost the meals they would have shared, the pleasure of seeing each other again after time apart, the wisdom and sympathy of someone who loves them and respects them, and that’s a loss that in a lot of ways, will never be over.

Now, the Singing Hills Cycle is an ongoing series, but as you said in the Into The Riverlands interview, “I’ve asked Tordotcom for a two-volume notice before they cut me off.” Has that notice been given?

Not yet! As far as I know, I get to keep going, and I am so, so grateful.


Mammoths At The Gates is, as we’ve been discussing, the fourth novella you’ve written, and sixth book over all. But you’ve also written a bunch of short stories. Has there been any talk of assembling a collection of them?

No anthologies, though I dig the idea. I miss writing short stories. I know they’re not as easy as they are in my memory, but they were so fast.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Mammoths At The Gates?

Hmm. How about the fact that this was the hardest book out of the Singing Hills Cycle for me to write? I love this one a lot, but, man, it was difficult going sometimes. I bet you can tell which parts gave me the roughest nights, too.

Nghi Vo Mammoths At The Gates Singing Hills Cycle

Finally, after four novellas in this series, people might want to read something different. So, for people who enjoyed Mammoths At The Gates and the rest of the Singing Hills Cycle, what novella that’s completely different would you recommend they check out?

Totally different, how about Nicola Griffith’s Spear? It’s splendid and intimate in a way that’s just the coolest. However, if they want some more ruin of empires, they should for sure check out Moses Ose Otomi’s Lies Of The Ajungo, which sort of destroyed me.



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