Interview with Author Mia Tsai

Mia Tsai is a Taiwanese American author of speculative fiction. She lives in Atlanta with her family and, when not writing, is a hype woman for her orchids and a devoted cat gopher. Her favorite things include music of all kinds and taking long trips with nothing but the open road and a saucy rhythm section. She has been quoted in Glamour once. In her other lives, she is a professional editor, photographer, and musician. Mia is on Twitter at @itsamia and on Instagram at @mia.tsai.books.

I had the opportunity to interview Mia, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself? 

Hey everyone! I’m Mia Tsai, a Taiwanese American author of speculative fiction. I’m also an editor, a musician, and an amateur orchid keeper.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Bitter Medicine? What was the inspiration for this story?

Bitter Medicine is an adult contemporary fantasy with lots of romance about two people whose lives are ruled by others and who, through extraordinary circumstances, learn to value themselves and each other. More specifically, Bitter Medicine stars a magical Chinese calligrapher named Elle, whose magic makes her calligraphy come to life, and Luc, a French half-elf who relies on Elle’s magic for success in his classified missions. Both of them are hiding secrets, of course, and it’s those secrets, which clash and intersect, that threaten the relationship they’ve built.

There isn’t a single inspiration for Bitter Medicine, but I told myself I wanted a world where I could show the magic inherent in written Chinese, plus a story of love and pain and mental fragility, where an Asian woman goes through depression and grief and her community steps up unequivocally to support her. I also love spy movies, so I brought a little of that into the book as well, then mixed it all with mythologies from multiple cultures.

As someone who has been noted to be influenced by xianxia stories, can you name any of your own personal favorites?

I just finished watching Cang Lan Jue/Love Between Fairy and Devil! I think I’ve had the opening theme stuck in my head for a good three or four days. I loved how much fun the show had with tropes—there’s body swapping and secret curses and an enemies-to-lovers storyline—and I appreciated the comedic bits. We all expect to cry in xianxia dramas, I think, so to be able to laugh a lot was refreshing.

As a writer, what drew you to the art of storytelling, specifically speculative fiction, and romance?

I was a huge bookworm as a child. I suppose I still am, since I’m never not reading something, whether it’s short stories for Giganotosaurus and Strange Horizons (where I’m guest editing the wuxia and xianxia special issue alongside Joyce Chng and Yilin Wang!), manuscripts, or eking out time to read for fun. But really, the truth is that fanfic got me started in stories from a young age. I loved the books I was reading so much that I didn’t want the stories to end. When I was in third grade, I wrote fanfic for a school assignment, and it’s been off to the races ever since.

Of all the genres, I steeped myself in fantasy the most, and it shows. I needed the escape as a child and having magic and romance in stories was perfect. There could be no overlap between those things and my real life. In books, I could fly with dragons, recite cantrips with mages, fall in love with my rival, and I wanted to write stories that did the same.

How would you describe your writing process?

Stop-start, at once fast and dramatic but also slow and painful. There’s a lot of agonizing, overthinking, doubt, and crying. Any idea I think has legs will get a zero draft that’s completed quickly; I think my fastest on record was ten days. And then, after that, I let the idea bake for a few years before I come back to it, look at what I did, and start over from scratch. That first draft takes a lot longer, anywhere from six months to a year, and then there are revisions…

There’s a lot of competition with myself, whether it’s word count goals for the day—they only ever seem to go up—or challenging myself to do something new, like write a whole book in a new style. I don’t recommend my process, really, and there are days when I wonder why I don’t quit. I don’t like writing, but I like having written.

Growing up, were there any stories in which you felt touched by/ or reflected in? Are there any like that now?

There were a great many books I felt touched by, stories of stubborn girls who find their inner fire and go out and change the world, and maybe find some romance along the way. I wanted to believe I could also be a warrior the way Aerin and Sabriel and Eilonwy were warriors. As books go, there weren’t many with characters who reflected my lived experience, and there still aren’t many at all. These days, Asian fantasy especially has been growing, and I have loved to read books like A MAGIC STEEPED IN POISON by Judy Lin, ASH by Malinda Lo, or WANT by Cindy Pon as a teen.

As a writer, who or what would you say are some of your greatest creative influences and/or sources of inspiration in general? 

I look to my life as inspiration. Anything and everything I experience can become an element in a book. I used to volunteer at the Atlanta Botanical Garden; I worked in the orchid library and with the orchid specialists. Being surrounded by botany got the mind going, and orchids are featured a little in my next book. Music, too, is a huge source of inspiration. I listen to a lot of music, since I’m a musician and all, and I do my best to listen to as much as possible when I’m in the mood for it.

As writing goes, I’ve always wanted to have John Irving’s ability to make a reader cry on one page and laugh hysterically on the other. I’m going to keep working on that.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you consider some of the most frustrating and/or difficult? 

Being finished with writing is my favorite! No, but on a serious note, when I draft, I do so chronologically and use tentpoles. And so arriving at the pivotal scene, the one I envisioned originally and around which I built the entire story, is one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s like the cake I told myself I’d eat but only after tasks A through Z were finished. I also enjoy editing a lot. I think I write just so I can make fixes and tweak language without annoying anyone but myself.

Drafting has got to be the most frustrating aspect of writing for me. I wish the words would simply appear and be done so that I could take my red pen out and get to work.

Aside from writing, what are some things you would want others to know about you?

I moonlight as a photographer every once in a while, and I love taking portraits of people. I used to do commercial photography professionally, though that didn’t last too long.

What’s a question you haven’t been asked yet but that you wish you were asked (as well as the answer to that question)?

What’s your favorite cocktail? A vieux mot, which is a dry gin, elderflower liqueur, and simple syrup concoction (just in case anyone wants to buy me a drink).

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Finish what you’re working on. No matter how good or bad, you should finish it. There are lots of writers out there who are always working on something in progress, and they spend years tinkering and perfecting—no. Finish it. Then you can edit it. At least you have finished it.

Additionally, finishing begets finishing. Finishing something proves to you that you can finish something, which gives you the confidence to go forth and finish your next something.

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I have a project titled Key & Vale which is out on submission right now. It’s a science fantasy set in a post–climate change world where cataclysms have wiped out many archives, so many so that people are left floundering. Key is a memory diver, an archaeologist gifted with the ability to taste blood and hallucinate the memories encoded within through use of a mushroom. Her job is to rediscover old knowledge, but it comes with a price: she can lose herself to the memories. Vale is Key’s guardian, tasked with keeping Key’s mind and body whole—but if that isn’t possible, she will be Key’s executioner.

Also, it’s sapphic.

Finally, what books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT? 

We’ve got an exciting year of books coming up! I’m of course looking forward to Ehigbor Okosun’s FORGED BY BLOOD, Emma Mieko Candon’s THE ARCHIVE UNDYING, SL Huang’s THE WATER OUTLAWS, and many, many others.

Header Photo Credit Michelle Li Wynne Photography