We’ve all heard the clichés about how you should write what you know, and how you should look for a void and fill it, and how you should always check before crossing the street… Well, it seems that writer Jadie Jang took the first two to heart (and hopefully the third as well) when it came to writing her new urban fantasy novel Monkey Around (paperback, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Jang discusses what influenced this fantastic tale, as well as her hopes for future installments.
Let’s start with an overview of the plot: What is Monkey Around about, and when and where is it set?
Monkey Around is an urban fantasy / paranormal detective novel set in the San Francisco Bay Area. The protagonist, Maya McQueen, is a were-monkey of unknown origin (to her; readers of East Asian heritage will know her origins immediately), who works by day in a supernatural-sanctuary-cum-café as head barista and peacekeeper, and by night as an activist and editor of a progressive Asian American magazine. Just as she finds her first clue about her identity, a shadowy monster starts eating the souls of shapeshifters in the Bay Area, and it seems to be following her.
Where did you get the original idea for Monkey Around?
I’m a big fan of female-led paranormal detective series, and I’d been binging on them for a few years when I realized that: 1) the genre was stuck on vampires, werewolves, witches, and fae, i.e.: magical creatures entirely from the western tradition, and 2) that was probably because most of the authors, and their characters, were white. I wanted to change both of those facts and put an urban fantasy on the market that was populated by main characters of color, who were also supernatural creatures from the immigrant communities of the Bay Area. I started, of course, with my own Chinese culture, and, the moment I sat down to think about it, I knew I had to do something with the Monkey King, who was my favorite Chinese mythological figure growing up. Gender-bending him into a female Monkey King was even better.
So, what kind of monkey does Maya turn into, and why did you feel this was the best kind of monkey for her to be? Because I get why you wouldn’t want her to be a Proboscis monkey, since they look like Karl Malden, and he was on that TV show The Streets Of San Francisco, that would’ve been too obvious, but Golden Snub-Nose monkeys are cool…
Golden snub-nose monkeys are freaky! They look like Ewoks whose skulls have been exposed and painted blue. [shudder] But I didn’t actually get to choose the type of monkey. Journey To The West, the classic Chinese novel that tells the Monkey King’s story, is very clear on the fact that he’s a rhesus macaque or rhesus monkey, which is the most common monkey in Asia. In fact, the Indian monkey god Hanuman, whom many scholars think Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) is based on, is probably also a rhesus macaque, although the Indian variety.
And aside from the fact that it’s where you live, is there a reason why you set this story in San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles or New York or Hong Kong?
Well, once I’d established that I wanted to do a non-western-mythology-based urban fantasy story with a female Monkey King at its head, it also occurred to me that I really wanted to see my own community represented. The book was always going to be set in San Francisco’s Bay because that’s the place I know best, and it’s one of the most demographically diverse regions not only in the country, but in the world.
But I didn’t just want to depict the Bay Area in general. There are so many subcultures here, and the one I live in, the Asian American social justice continuum — which connects at many points with many other communities, especially immigrant communities and communities of color — is not one I’ve seen represented in literature very often. (And I pretty much know all the writers who’ve done so.) I wanted to see us, our community, in a commercial genre novel, having fun, battling monsters, and being generally kickass.
As you said, Monkey Around is an urban fantasy novel. Are there any other genres at work in this story?
It’s 100% urban fantasy. In online writers’ communities there are constant debates over what makes urban fantasy urban as opposed to contemporary fantasy, which is a broader category under which urban fantasy falls. I contend that in urban fantasy, which often takes place in small towns and even exurban areas, the place, even if it’s a fictional place, is important to how the story is told and how the characters act and interact. Buffy The Vampire Slayer wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t in small-town Sunnydale, positioned over a Hellmouth. True Blood makes a meal out of Bon Temps, also a fictional place, but a small Louisiana village that is the only place that story could’ve happened. In Monkey Around, The Bay is an actual character with agency, that acts and communicates. But even without the city-as-character, these characters and their stories wouldn’t’ve happened in this way anywhere else, just as my own life and career would’ve been very different if I’d settled in a different city.
While Monkey Around is your first novel, you previously published the short story collection Slightly Behind And To The Left. Are there any writers who had a particularly big influence on Monkey Around, but not on any of your stories?
Absolutely. Monkey is a commercial genre novel, and deliberately so; the stories of Slightly Behind (which I wrote under the name Claire Light) are what’s generally considered “literary science fiction.” So the two books were definitely influenced by different writers and different regions of the literary landscape. Monkey‘s most immediate influence comes from other urban fantasy writers like Seanan McGuire, C.E. Murphy, Patricia Briggs, Carrie Vaughn, Faith Hunter, and Ilona Andrews. And while writing I was inspired, if not directly influenced, by other fantasy writers working within various Asian traditions, especially Fonda Lee, whose Green Bone Saga — wuxia meets The Godfather — is just amazing, and Zen Cho, whose Sorcerer To The Crown series is the answer to colonization you always wanted to see. Also, Henry Lien (MG sword-skating!), Neon Yang’s Tensorate series, Nghi Vo’s novellas, Jeannie Lin’s Gunpowder Chronicles, and R.F. Kuang’s harrowing Poppy War series. English-language Asian-based fantasy is enjoying a golden age, and I’d encourage everyone to go seek it out.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; were any of them a big influence on Monkey Around?
I’ve already mentioned Buffy and True Blood, which were my introduction to urban fantasy. I think Buffy — stronger and faster than everyone, with a smart mouth and a joy in kicking ass (at least, until she died the second time) — is definitely the closest urban fantasy model for Maya McQueen (and probably every other urban fantasy heroine ever) that I’m aware of. I think the contemporary humor that Stephen Chow employed in A Chinese Odyssey, one of his soon to be five adaptations of Journey To The West — and, I think, the best — probably influenced me a lot. I’ve seen a lot of takes on the Monkey King, and this was one of the few that was a pure pleasure for me. And I have to say that the ’70s show Kung Fu probably influenced me a great deal. I’d like to rehabilitate that show. David Carradine and the show’s producers get a lot of flak from Asian Americans for putting a white actor in yellow face (technically, I don’t think they taped his eyes or colored his skin, but still…) But I was a small child at the time, and Kwai Chang Caine was the first character I ever saw who was like me: mixed race, and not just that, but Chinese and white American. It meant so much to me, and I think the fact that my mixed race protagonist is a martial artist has to do with that.
As you know, having read a bunch, some urban fantasy novels are stand-alone stories, while others are part of larger sagas. What is Monkey Around?
Monkey Around is intended to be the first of a series, but I’ve only sold the first one so far. So if you like it, spread the word. The story I want to tell with Maya isn’t one that can be encapsulated in a single book. I have ideas for an 8-book series (8 being a lucky number in Chinese culture), but that’s not set in stone. We’ll see how Maya develops as I write; maybe she’ll mature faster than I expected.
Earlier I asked if Monkey Around had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip the script, as the kids probably don’t say anymore, do you think Monkey Around could work as a movie, a show, or a game?
Well, like probably every writer these days, I have a fantasy that Monkey will be turned into an HBO series. (HBO? Call me!) I think it would make a fun TV show or game. Maybe less so a movie, because part of the pleasure of urban fantasy series like this is getting to know and hang out with the characters, which is harder to do in a two-hour movie.
If HBO does call, who do you want them to cast as Maya and the other main characters?
I don’t really know who the up-and-coming actors are, and I’d want them all to be played by someone their own age: i.e., 20s.
Finally, if someone enjoys Monkey Around, what urban fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that one?
Well, Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga (technically a secondary world, but I consider it urban fantasy) and Zen Cho’s Sorcerer To The Crown series (alternate history urban fantasy) are worth repeating. Jewelle Gomez’s classic The Gilda Stories (a vampire through the ages) is a classic for a reason. Nalo Hopkinson’s Brown Girl In The Ring (post-apocalyptic, near-future urban fantasy as well) is another classic for a reason. N.K. Jemison’s new classic The City We Became is a very different take on urban fantasy: the city isn’t just a character; it’s embodied. Also, although they’ve become controversial, the two books of Rebecca Roanhorse’s Sixth World series (near future, post-apocalyptic urban fantasy) are terrific.