Well, this is humbling. When I graduated college, I had no idea what I was going to do with my summer, let alone with my life. By contrast, R.F. Kuang has just graduated college and already released her first novel, an epic fantasy tale called The Poppy War (hardcover, Kindle). Though in the following email interview, she discusses how this novel wasn’t just inspired by her college courses, but how she relaxed in between them as well.
To being, what is The Poppy War about?
Sad girl does not want to be married. Seeks happiness with Drug Man. Big war. Very sad, everyone is dead. Fire dick. Big fire!!! Boom. Someone Help Altan Trengsin 2018.
Where did you get the idea for The Poppy War, and how different is the finished novel from that original idea?
The very first lines I wrote relating to The Poppy War were “Isle of Speer.” Speer came first, and the rest followed. When I first started plotting it, I thought the whole thing would take place at Sinegard. Only later after I’d delved into the historical literature did I realize that Sinegard is by far the least interesting part of this story.
The Poppy War has been described as a fantasy novel, but is there a subgenre of fantasy, or a combination of them, that you think describes the book better?
Some people have been describing it as grimdark, which I suppose makes sense given the level of violence in the latter half of the book. It’s probably best described as a book that fools you into thinking it’s a young adult school story, then does a 180 and punches you in the face, then burns down your house and kills your pets.
You wrote The Poppy War while going to Georgetown University, from which you just graduated. First, congrats on that.
Thank you! I just bought my graduation dress and I’m very excited to wear it to the senior ball.
Second, you’ve said The Poppy War was inspired by you studying Chinese history. But how often did you run into a situation where you had to choose between being historically accurate or telling the story as you wanted to tell it?
This book is secondary world fantasy, so all historical references are inspirational rather than accurate. For example, I play around with military timelines a lot. The trilogy is about twentieth century Chinese history, but technically the Communists and Nationalists were at war before Japan invades. Then Japan is defeated and the Chinese Civil War picks back up again. In the trilogy, the civil war doesn’t begin until Book 2, which is after the Third Poppy War. I’ve also smudged the involvement of the west, because they’re a cross between the Jesuits and the western powers of the 20th century. I use Chinese history more as a color palette than a strict outline, if that makes sense.
It does. So who asked more often if they could be a character in the book: your freshman roommate or your history professor?
Ha! No one wants to be a character in this world in the same way no one actually wants to live in Westeros. It’s miserable there. You’d die instantly. But my professors have been really enthusiastic about the book, which is awesome. I did a soft launch event with the Asian Studies department at Georgetown the other day, and we had a very fun conversation about The Poppy War and its historical parallels. Also, there was a lot of wine left over and they let me take a few bottles home which I think was a very good use of my tuition money.
I know writers hate the “who are your influences” question, but I am curious if there are any authors, or specific stories, that were a big influence on The Poppy War but not on anything else that you’ve written.
I read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card when I was very young, and it’s shaped the way I think about fiction since. You could honestly read The Poppy War as Ender’s Game in Song Dynasty China, Battle School and buggers and all. I think Ender’s Game has also stuck with me because the characters are so young, but are A) ridiculously smart and B) put in ridiculous situations of power. The juxtaposition of adolescent angst and geopolitical responsibility is fascinating to me. I like it when the political gets personal in super Freudian ways.
How about non-literary influences; are there any movies, TV shows, or video games that had a big impact on The Poppy War?
Avatar: The Last Airbender was huge. I’ve pitched The Poppy War as A.T.L.A.if Azula were the main character and everyone was doing drugs. Naruto and Bleach were also influential, just because I’ve followed those mangas since I was very young and their narratives have been hardwired into my brain. I also started playing Dragon Age and Mass Effect the summer I sold The Poppy War, and that’s affected the way I plotted the sequels.
Now, you’ve already said that The Poppy War is the first book of a trilogy. First, does the trilogy have a name of its own?
It’s just The Poppy Wars trilogy.
Without spoiling anything, what can you tell us about the second and third books in The Poppy Warstrilogy?
It’s all a continuous, linear narrative. Books 2 and 3 pan outward from the localized Sino-Japanese conflict of Book 1 to a broader clash between the east and the west, which I’m excited for. They’re supposed to be out on an annual basis, and so far we’re on schedule to make that work.
And is the plan that the third book will end this series, or are you thinking you might expand it a bit like how Kameron Hurley is augmenting her Bel Dame Apocrypha series [God’s War, Infidel, Rapture] with the upcoming collection of linked novellas, Apocalypse Nyx, or how K.B. Wagers is following her Indranan War trilogy [Behind The Throne, After The Crown, Beyond The Empire] with a second series that starts this October with There Before The Chaos?
I knew exactly how the last scene would go when I started drafting the first book. Rin’s story ends with Book 3. After that, I’m finished. This is all a singular, self-contained arc. Maybe someday in the future I might return and do a Trifecta prequel trilogy if these books sell well enough to justify it. But I’d also like to move on to new worlds and new stories. I’m only 21. I’ve barely even begun my career. I’d hate to be tied down to the Nikara Empire for the rest of my life.
A lot of readers, myself included, like to wait until all of the books in a series are available, and then read them all in a row. Obviously, you’d prefer if people bought The Poppy War now, and maybe three or four more times just to be super cool, but is there any reason why they should wait until they’re all out before reading any of them?
Buy it now, obviously, because I only get to keep writing books if this one does well. I also think it’s healthy to read these books with some space in between, if only because the novels are so dark. A lot of readers have told me that while they enjoyed The Poppy War, they had to give themselves breaks in between acts just to get back to equilibrium. That’s healthy. I support that.
Earlier we talked about the movies, TV shows, and video games that influenced The Poppy War. But has there been any interest in adapting The Poppy War into a movie, show, or game?
Okay. So which of those do you think would work better and why?
I think movies might be the best medium. I think and write in the three-act structure — that’s why this is a trilogy; the whole story is divided into thirds on a macro and micro level — which I understand translates very well to screenplays.
If The Poppy War was to be made into a movie, who would you like to see them cast in the main roles?
The entire time I was drafting The Poppy War, I envisioned Zhang Ziyi [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon] as the Empress. Have you seenher face? She’s perfect. I also see Jiang as Andy Lau [The Great Wall] with color contacts. But I have no clue who I’d cast for the younger protagonists. Probably unknowns. It’s not easy to find dark-skinned Chinese actors, and it’s important that the southern Nikara and Speerlies are, in fact, darker skinned. The whole film industry is obsessed with colorism, so most Chinese film stars are pale and paper-white.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Poppy War, what would you suggest they read while waiting for The Poppy War II: Electric Boogaloo to come out?
I…just had to google “Electric Boogaloo.”
In terms of Asian-inspired fantasy, Fonda Lee’s Jade City is astonishing. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books [The Grace Of Kings, The Wall Of Storms] are also great, though the narrative voice is quite different. I just finished reading Ruth Ozeki’s My Year Of Meats, which is in an entirely different genre, but highly recommended. Think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, but set much more recently and with a feminist tilt.