Hollywood in the 1930s was a magical place. But in her new historical fantasy novel Siren Queens (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), writer Nghi Vo envisions a tale of tinseltown where not all of the magic was on the screen. In the following email interview, Vo explains how the idea for this story came to her, as well as what ’30s movies and movie stars served as inspiration.
Photo Credit: © 2021 C.J. Foeckler
To start, what is Siren Queen about, and when and where is it set?
Siren Queen is basically about a queer Chinese-American actress earning her star in a 1930s Hollywood run off of Fairyland rules. It’s about monsters, money, fame, bad deals and good ones, and first love.
Where did you get the idea for Siren Queen?
So during one late night online chat with my friend Grace, I apparently just started musing about how Hollywood, especially during the thirties, was just Fairyland, with its promises of immortality and beauty, its penchant for stealing names and faces, the prevalence of bets you can’t win unless you can and some really, really dark underpinnings. I apparently kept going for two or three hours, and by then, Luli herself had shown up. After that, all I had to do was write the darned thing.
I assume that’s why you set it in the ’30s as opposed to one of Hollywood’s other golden eras…
I chose the 1930s for a few reasons. I know the era pretty well, I’ve watched a fair number of movies from the time period, things like that. There’s also the sense in the ’30s of film as an art form in transition. The rules were different, the movies were different, and so much was still being settled. Plus, Siren Queen is set right before the Hayes Code came down, and the movies that were being made at that point were wild.
Siren Queen sounds like a fantasy tale, like maybe an urban fantasy one, though also something of a historical fantasy story. How do you describe it?
I mean, I have the Wild Hunt and cow-tailed girls and a Tam Lin riff and monsters and princesses, I’m pretty sure I get to call it a fantasy. Maybe historical fantasy?
In deciding how Luli would look and act, did you base her on any specific Hollywood actress, or a combination of them, or did you instead let the story dictate that?
Luli of course shares her roots with Anna May Wong, but to be perfectly fair about it, Luli’s predecessor, Su Tong Lin, has more in common with Wong. Luli exists as she does as a reaction to the world I created that first night when I was spitballing Fairyland Hollywood with Grace. At some point, I realized that I needed someone to see this world, and Luli just shows up. I needed her to see, to survive and to thrive, and that’s what she does.
Siren Queen is your second novel after The Chosen And The Beautiful, and fourth book after the novellas When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain and The Empress Of Salt And Fortune. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had an influence on Siren Queen but not on your previous books?
Well, Siren Queen was the first novel that I ever actually wrote. I wrote Empress when Siren Queen was on submission to various agents. I think Luli and her world owe a lot to the biographies I read of actresses like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, as well as some of the true crime from the era I read as well. I knew when I was writing this that I very badly wanted to learn Angela Carter’s trick of folding vast stories into casual throwaway lines, so I read a lot of her work as well.
How about non-literary influences; was Siren Queen influenced by any specific movies, or any TV shows or games?
Let’s see. Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo; Morocco, staring Marlene Dietrich; and perhaps most importantly, Shanghai Express, which stars both Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong. Those movies feel so foreign in some ways to a modern viewer, and that kind of otherworldly quality, of a thing that never really tries to pretend to be real but somehow still is, stuck with me.
Hollywood loves sequels. And so does the publishing industry. Is Siren Queen a stand-alone story or the first book of many?
Siren Queen stands alone, but if you read carefully, it does have a few tiny things that link it to my first novel, The Chosen And The Beautiful. I’m due to start writing a third novel beginning in 2023, and I’m already seeing how it really is all the same world. And the reasoning behind all this is that I really love stand-alones. I love being able to pick up a book and read it without worrying about the past or the future that exists beyond its covers, but I also love the feeling of continuity you get from returning to the same world over and over again. So you know. This is just me getting to have it both ways.
So you’re not going to write the obvious sequel, Siren Queens, in which Luli is coerced into going back to Hollywood to save a young starlet from a bunch of unscrupulous agents, producers, and directors?
All I can imagine in response to this is Luli being shocked that she’s expected to save anyone. I think she’d be up to it. She would strenuously disagree. Probably also tell me to get the hell off of her property, she’s had enough of writers, thank you!
I mentioned that Hollywood loves sequels. Hollywood also loves making movies about Hollywood. Do you think Siren Queen could work as a movie? Or would it be better as a TV show or game?
I would absolutely love to see it as an incredibly expensive prestige television series. More than just the sheer magic of watching Luli, Greta, Emmaline, Tara, and Harry living and breathing, I would love to see what a good writer’s room would do with the world I’ve created and where people who have properly worked in Hollywood would take it. I think it could be gorgeous and creepy and delightful sardonic in the right hands, all the things I love to see on television.
And if someone wanted to make that happen, who would you want them to cast as Luli and the other main characters?
Oh man, I’m kind of bad at faces, but let’s see. Gemma Chan [Crazy Rich Asians] is who I thought of the most often when I was trying to imagine Luli making facial expressions. Harry has never looked like anyone but the 1930s actor Ramon Novarro, so anyone who looks like him. Emmaline maybe looks a bit like Mena Suvari [American Beauty] and [Mank‘s] Amanda Seyfried… I think overall though, if I got to make the call, I’d love to see mostly unknown actors in these roles.
So, is there anything else that people interested in Siren Queen should know before deciding to buy it or not?
First, Luli is telling this story from the future, so we know she ends up okay. Second, there are two graphic sex scenes in it. I think that covers my bases.
Finally, if someone enjoys Siren Queen, which of your other books would you suggest they read next?
How about The Chosen And The Beautiful? If you liked how Luli’s world felt, Jordan’s world has a few things in common with it, just with a few more actual devils and a lot more money flying around.