Interview with Joan He, Author of Sound the Gong

By: Michele Kirichanskaya
Jun 7, 2024

Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still, on occasion, will lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that storytelling was her favorite form of expression. She studied Psychology and East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania and currently splits her time between Philly and Chicago. She is the bestselling author of The Ones We’re Meant to Find, Descendant of the Crane, and the Kingdom of Three duology, which includes Strike the Zither and Sound the Gong.

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

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

Thanks so much for having me! I’m Joan, an author who loves to read and write books that subvert expectations. You may know me from my previous books, Descendant of the Crane, a YA fantasy that reads like a palace C-drama, or The Ones We’re Meant to Find, a YA scifi that I like to pitch as Black Mirror meets Miyazaki.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Sound the Gong?

It’s the sequel to Strike the Zither and the conclusion to the Kingdom of Three duology. Readers of the first book who enjoyed the crumbs of the enemies to maybe-lovers dynamic can expect to find a lot more of that here. And readers who enjoyed the sweeping war strategies? There’s a lot more of that too.

From its plot descriptions, it appears the Kingdom of Three series was inspired by the Chinese classic tale of the Three Kingdoms. What inspired your interest in adapting this story within the realm of young adult fiction?

I always love a good challenge, and what better challenge than to take a classic that is 800k words long, with over a thousand named characters, and make more accessible for both people like my mom (native born and raised but still hasn’t managed to get through the classic despite knowing all its legendary moments) as well as people new to the history entirely?

Also, despite the source material’s length, I actually think Three Kingdoms is very well suited for the young adult genre in one respect: the characters rely heavily on archetypes, and whenever archetypes are involved, the theme of identity surely comes into play. In which ways do we conform to how we’re perceived? In which ways do we embrace sitting with fellow nerds or jocks in a high school cafeteria, and in which ways do we rebel against labels? That’s something I really love exploring in YA.

What was the original inspiration for the Kingdom of Three series?  

Most of my inspiration starts from a “what if”. In this case, I was inspired by Zhuge Liang, the real-life historical figure behind Zephyr, and how his superhuman feats in the novel are framed as “well, oh, he’s that brilliant.” I wanted to challenge that—and the trope of the “overpowered” character as a whole—and have a bit of fun with it by bringing in some Chinese fantasy/xianxia elements.

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

As with most writers, I started out as a consumer of stories first, and most of the stories I consumed as a kid of my own free will (rather than being assigned in school) either fell into the middle grade or young adult categories or were romances in Cdramas, such as Princess Pearl and Wrong Carriage, Wrong Groomsman.

How would you describe your writing process?

Very slow.

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

Spirited Away definitely touched me—so much so that it drove me to pen a 140k fanfic, which is how I got into writing. I love how strange and poignant it is, and I especially love how Chihiro is a “difficult” child who starts off very frightened and spoiled. And don’t get me started on the emotional damage the ending did to me!

Within books, I saw a lot of my awkwardness in Ramona. Otherwise, I mostly found myself visually reflected in C-dramas. Luckily we have a lot more representation in the US bookscape now.

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

Everything Miyazaki does is a huge inspiration, from both how he lives to work to his actual oeuvre. Suzanne Collins inspires me as well because I think The Hunger Games was my gateway into YA books. Van Gogh inspires me because he reminds me that art should first and foremost be for the creator. How it’s received is secondary.

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

I’m a drafter at heart, so as scary as it is, I do love the potential of a blank page. Revising is personally more challenging for me.

Many authors would say one of the most challenging parts of writing a book is finishing one. What strategies would you say helped you accomplish this?

I spend a lot more time these days at the book idea generation/selection stage now, really stress testing each premise and asking myself “hey, is this a book that I can envision spending 4+ years of my life working on? Is this a book that I can’t sit back and trust that someone else will write it?” After that, I ask more craft related questions—is this a book where I have a rough plot, world, and characters that I can all see working together? An idea where I can see 2 out of the 3, for me, is better than an idea where I can only see 1. I find that if I do enough of this mental work upfront, I’m much more compelled to finish writing a book even when the going gets hard, because I’m able to come back to these touchstones of why *I* needto write this story, and no one else.

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

I’m not as smart as Zephyr, but when I was a kid, I was just as unfit as her! I’ve always wanted to see more heroines, especially in action heavy fantasies, that struggle to do physical things.

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)?

Hmm…probably what I love to read but haven’t yet written! The answer to that are adult thrillers and also romance forward stories, where the characters choose love. I’m waiting for the right book to write that (maybe it’ll be my next!)

What advice might you have to give for other aspiring writers?

To read widely, and to take your craft/time seriously even when no one else is. Also, try to examine if there’s a difference between what you like to consume and what you like to create. Some of my earliest manuscripts, which will never see the light of day, are more derivative because my inspiration relied too heavily on what I was consuming, which, while similar to what I like to create, is not a perfect 1:1 match.

What advice might you have for those hoping to make a story that spans multiple books?

It really is just that—think of it as one story that happens to be printed across two (or more) books. And so just like you probably wouldn’t set all the words in stone for the first half of your book before you write the last half, I made sure I knew book two’s beginning, middle, and end very well before finalizing anything in book one. That way I’m able to foreshadow much better and keep the characters and arcs progressing in a way that feels inevitable. But take this with a grain of salt, since I’m a plotter. If you’re a pantser and need to discover the story as you go, knowing as much of the story upfront might not work with your process.

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

I’m working on my next young adult! As with my previous books so far, it’ll be in a new genre, but still be tied to my heritage and culture.

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

I recently had the pleasure of reading A SONG TO DROWN RIVERS by Ann Liang early, and it was such a treat! If you love historical Cdramas and romance, you’ll eat this one right up.

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