When asked the inevitable “where did you get the idea for this story” question, writers will often cite something that happened in their real lives. And while that’s what writer Yoon Ha Lee did in the following email interview about his silkpunk historical fantasy novel Phoenix Extravagant (which is now available in paperback a year after being released in hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook), the real life something he cited was a paint. Not a painting, not his cat getting into his paints, but an actual paint.
Photo Credit: Jeff Mann
To start, what is Phoenix Extravagant about, and what kind of world does it take place in?
Phoenix Extravagant is about the journey of Jebi, an ordinary artist who’s just trying to get by in their conquered homeland. When they’re recruited to help build the conquerors’ war machines — including a mechanical dragon — they discover a secret that convinces them to take a stand against the conquerors and steal the dragon.
The setting is loosely based on Korea during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945).
Where did you get the original idea for Phoenix Extravagant?
I first got the idea when I took up watercolor and became fascinated by the story of a pigment called PO49, or Quinacridone Gold, which is this beautiful orange-gold color. It was originally manufactured for car paint until, I guess, gold-colored cars went out of fashion. The paint manufacturer Daniel Smith bought up the world supply and put them in their watercolors. This was all fine and dandy until the supply literally ran out. I think you can still find tubes of the stuff on eBay but they run like $100 if not more (and you can’t have my stash because I will defend it to the death). In my Crayola days, I never thought of colors like Pink or Ultramarine as being finite, but when you’re talking something like watercolor as opposed to digital painting, those paint pigments are chemical substances, and there is no such thing as an infinite supply of any substance. That gave me the idea for the magical paints that are a part of the worldbuilding.
The other thing that I drew on is my knowledge of Korea’s history with imperialism and invasion. One of the side-effects of the Imjin War (1592-1598), in which Japan invaded Korea but was ultimately repulsed, was that the Japanese invaders admired Korean pottery tremendously. If you do art history at all, the Korean art form you’re most likely to have heard of is its pottery. The Japanese didn’t just make off with Korean pottery; they kidnapped Korean potters and took them home to Japan.
I assume PO49 is why you made Gyen a painter as opposed to a potter or a poet or some other kind of artist, right?
Yes. As I mentioned earlier, I took up watercolor — mostly so I could try painting my characters — so it was an art that I had a little more familiarity with than something like sculpture, where I have no idea how that works. (I should add that I do Western watercolors rather than an Asian tradition, but it’s better than nothing.) I thought poetry would be difficult for reasons of translation, because Korean and English are such different languages with different poetic traditions (consider Brother Anthony’s essay on the difficulty to translating a famed Korean poem, Kim Sowol’s “Azaleas.” Mostly I wanted to avoid making Jebi any kind of writer because, well, writing is my day job and it’s super boring for me to write about.
It sounds like Phoenix Extravagant is an urban fantasy novel. Is that how you’d describe it?
I’d call it silkpunk or historical fantasy, perhaps. For me, urban fantasy often focuses more on the politics of supernaturals like werewolves and vampires running around a city, and Phoenix Extravagant isn’t quite that. It’s really more interested in addressing questions of colonialism and imperialism in a fantasy-inflected history.
Phoenix Extravagant is your fifth novel after Dragon Pearl and the Machineries Of Empire trilogy. Are there any writers, or maybe specific stories, that had a big influence on Phoenix Extravagant, but not on anything else you’ve written?
Oh, that’s a great question. For this book specifically, the writer that I had in the back of my head was Guy Gavriel Kay, who writes wonderful alternate histories or perhaps fantasies of history. I discovered Tigana in middle school and fell in love; it still remains my favorite of his novels. (I suspect Kay does a lot more research than I do, however! I sometimes just wing it.)
How about non-literary influences; was Phoenix Extravagant influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Anime in general, ironically; my then-boyfriend / now-husband introduced me to anime in college, and this included a lot of classic mecha shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Visions Of Escaflowne and Patlabor. For a more recent influence, I might point to the anime Code Geass, which also tackles questions of empire and resistance.
And what about your lazy cat? How do you think they influenced Phoenix Extravagant in a way that would’ve been different if the cat was less of a slacker?
The book would have gotten written a lot faster without the catten sitting in front of my keyboard, that’s for sure. Although I actually got my husband to take me to cafes so there would be fewer at-home distractions.
I will note that there’s one scene in the book where a couple of hungry soldiers try to capture a stray cat for the stewpot, but the cat gets away clean. I’m too soft-hearted to let a bad thing happen to a cat in my stories.
Now, you’ve said that Phoenix Extravagant is a stand-alone novel, not part of a larger saga like your Machineries Of Empire trilogy. What was it about this story that made you realize it could be completely told in one book as opposed to two or three or thirty-seven?
I’m going to try to avoid spoilers here, but I’d always intended this book as a stand-alone in the sense that what it has to say about imperialism / colonialism is complete in this volume. If you look at history, Korea did not throw off the Japanese occupation with a plucky rebellion. History isn’t that neat or merciful. Rather, the occupation broke as a side-effect when the USA defeated the Japanese in WWII with the atomic bomb. I wanted to point to that piece of history with my ending and leave the reader with some food for thought.
Does that mean you’re not going to write any connected short stories like you did with Machineries Of Empiretrilogy and your story collection Hexarchate Stories?
Not for this setting, no. I feel I’ve said everything I wanted to say with these characters.
Speaking of books that are part of a series, you have also said that you have a sequel to Dragon Pearl in the works called Tiger Honor. What is Tiger Honor about, and when will it be out?
In Dragon Pearl, the villain was a tiger spirit called Captain Hwan. Tiger Honor is from the viewpoint of nonbinary tiger spirit Sebin, who grew up admiring their beloved Uncle Hwan. They’re dismayed when their acceptance as a space cadet coincides with news that their uncle has been disgraced for treason, and the stakes only raise when their training cruise ship is sabotaged and they have to save the day. Dragon Pearl‘s heroine, Min, will also show up — possibly as Sebin’s enemy. The book will be out January 4, 2022.
And is it a space opera story like Dragon Pearl?
It’s definitely space opera! I am nothing if not predictable.
Are Dragon Pearl and Tiger Honor the first two books in a trilogy, or is this a different kind of series than Machineries?
Let’s say that I can’t definitively answer that question at this time, but it’s not impossible that there might someday be a third book.
Going back to Phoenix Extravagant, this interview is going to coincide with the paperback version; the hardcover came out last year. Aside from fixing typos, and making it lighter and thus easier for your cat to drag around the house, is there anything else different about the paperback version?
Alas, this is (to my knowledge) the same text as the hardcover version.
Earlier I asked if Phoenix Extravagant had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think Phoenix Extravagant could work as a movie, a show, or a game?
I think it’d be a pretty depressing game. (Although if you’re interested in tabletop roleplaying game explorations of colonialism, I highly recommend Liam Liwanag Burke’s brilliant Dog Eat Dog. I think if you had the special effects budget for the mecha dragon and the mecha soldiers, it could make a pretty interesting self-contained movie.
And if someone wanted to make that, who would you want them to cast as Gyen and the other main characters and why them?
I’m pants at these casting questions because I don’t watch a huge amount of TV or movies — in an ideal world, though, I’d love to see Gyen Jebi cast with a nonbinary actor of color. I think Rinko Kikuchi would make a kick-ass duelist Vei; I loved her as Mako Mori in Pacific Rim.
Finally, if someone enjoys Phoenix Extravagant, what fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
I would suggest Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant and the rest of that series. The heroine, Baru Cormorant, is a deeply conflicted antihero whose efforts to take down the Evil Empire from within have spectacular collateral damage. It’s not for the faint of heart, because Seth is brutal in depicting the costs of tyranny and resistance, but it’s absolutely one of my favorite fantasy series of the past decade.