I read She Who Became The Sun earlier this year and completely fell in love with the world, the characters and the writing(see my review). The book hasn’t left my mind since I read it and so, I couldn’t help but contact the author in the hopes that she’d agree to an interview because I am in love with them and am so excited for all books they write in the future.
ANd so, I am excited to present to you an interview with the author of one of my favourite books of the year:
Age Group: Adult
Content/Trigger Warnings: Dysphoria, pre-existing non-consensual castration, misgendering, internalised homophobia, life-altering injury (amputation), ableist language, non-graphic depictions of death by torture, major character death, offscreen murder of a child, scenes depicting extreme hunger/starvation, graphic depiction of a person burning to death
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.
To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything
“I refuse to be nothing…”
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
What inspired you to write She Who Became The Sun? Why did you choose to write about this time period and tell the stories about these characters?
As it happens, I didn’t start by thinking I wanted to write a story about the downfall of the Yuan dynasty—which, let’s face it, is one of the more obscure periods of Chinese imperial history. I simply wanted to write a book that felt like one of those sweeping historical Chinese TV dramas—twisty politics, hidden identities, tragic romance, an all-Asian cast—because I was frustrated at how there were no books in English that had that feel. I was initially playing around with the idea of a story about monks. I love the idea of monks—the asceticism, the self-abnegation—but even more than a good monk who follows the rules and has perfect self-control, I love the idea of a bad monk. Someone with ego; someone with ambition; someone who breaks their vows to pursue their worldly desires. So when I came across the story of the ruthless, ambitious Hongwu Emperor, who spent time as a monk in his youth, I realised I’d found my bad monk. And once I’d picked him, it had to be a story set in the 14 th century. The end of the Yuan dynasty is fascinating in its own right, though. It was a time of chaos and social breakdown, when ordinary people got the opportunity to make something extraordinary of themselves. Which is the perfect setting for someone born a girl, but who wants more than girls are allowed.
Which character did you like writing about the most? Why?
This possibly reflects badly on me as a person, but General Ouyang was the easiest and most enjoyable to write. Zhu Chongba is more of a wish-fulfilment character—she isn’t afraid to step outside of her (gender) box in pursuit of what she wants, whatever the consequences will be. Whereas Ouyang: he’s not what anyone would strive to be, I think, but he’s flawed in a more realistic way and perhaps he’s more understandable because of it. He’s all of us who’ve been maliciously misgendered, or whose personhood has been subordinated to the fact of a gendered body. I piled all my own gender rage and frustration into this one character. So, you know, I think his rage is legitimate! But at the same time he doesn’t have the courage or imagination that Zhu has, to choose his own path. I’m sympathetic to that, too, even though I can’t condone it.
Was it hard for you to manage writing in two different places with two different characters at once? How did you manage it?
Writing two interleaved storylines does require a bit of plot-massaging to make the two halves line up! It can be frustrating when you change something in one storyline, and it ripples through to the other storyline and you have to change things there that otherwise wouldn’t need changing. My own approach is to outline heavily, so I know all the beats of the story in advance. Then I write the manuscript for each storyline separately. That helps me make sure each side of the story works independently in terms of plot and character arcs. Finally I mash them together, and do an adjustment pass to make sure the two halves are actually in conversation with each other.
How many drafts did it take you to finish this book? And were there any big things you edited in/out?
I went through a lot of drafts, as I suppose most people do with their first book. I usually say I did nine, because “Draft 9” was the one that got put into print, but it was probably more like five major drafts (“Draft 1” is my outline, which throws the numbering out of whack, and several drafts were only minor changes). What I edited out was POVs: I think the early drafts had something like eight or nine POVs. There are genres for which that can work, but I wanted to write a hyper-emotional story and it wasn’t working with so many perspectives. So with my agent’s guidance I lost the minor POVs and went deep into just a few characters with the aim of letting the audience really understand what was happening with them, emotionally. And the biggest editing addition I did was: magic! The original story was a straight-up historical, albeit told in the style of an epic fantasy. But when I sold it to Tor, it was easier for them to market if it was actually a fantasy, so I added the supernatural elements (which, incidentally, solved at least one lingering plot problem, so I’m grateful I went in that direction).
What is your wildest dream about She Who Became The Sun? And what’s a smaller one that you really hope would come true?
The chances of seeing some kind of screen adaptation of She Who Became the Sun are absolutely minuscule (call me if you have a spare $100 million burning a hole in your pocket!), but hey: a person can dream, right? My small dream was always that one day someone would write fanfic based on SWBTS. There’s no greater compliment than having someone create in response to your own creation. And, delightfully, just the other day it happened! Someone told me there are four fanfic already in existence. I couldn’t be happier.
Lastly, what’s a book you’d recommend to readers of She Who Became The Sun?
She Who Became the Sun was lucky enough to come out at around the same time as two other magnificent, queer, epic fantasies that also engage deeply with empire and the patriarchy. Tasha Suri’s epic South Asian fantasy The Jasmine Throne grips you by the throat from the prologue and never lets up. It has body horror and lesbians and the kind of cathartic female rage you stand up and cheer for. It’s glorious. And the other one is C.L. Clark’s magisterial The Unbroken, which holds no punches in its complex portrayal of a distinctly French type of colonial rule.
Thank you so much for coming over and talking to me about She Who Became The Sun! I can not wait to read the next book in the duology!
Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, she was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. Her debut novel She Who Became the Sun owes more than a little to all three. In 2017 she was awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her family.
Have you read She Who Became The Sun? What did you think of it? If you haven’t, are you planning to read it?