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

Interview with Author Maya Deane

Maya Deane first retold the Iliad at the age of six. Athena was the protagonist; all six pages were typed up on a Commodore 64; there were many spelling errors. (She has only doubled down since then.) A graduate of the University of Maryland and the Rutgers-Camden MFA, Maya lives with her fiancée of many years, their dear friend, and two cats named after gods. She is a trans woman, bisexual, and fond of spears, books, and jewelry. Aphrodite smiles upon her.

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

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

Sure! I’m a novelist and a visual artist with a lifelong obsession with history (especially ancient history) and mythology, particularly mythology in its historical, changing context.

What can you tell us about your book, Wrath Goddess Sing? What inspired this story?

Wrath Goddess Sing is the story of the young trans princess Achilles, who has run away from her home in Phthia to live as a woman on the island of Skyros, where she has found trans community and love. But the patriarchal world of the mainland follows her to Skyros, for she is the daughter of a goddess, and as the Achaians mount a war to take back their stolen queen Helen, Athena, the Silent One prophesies that only with Achilles’ spear can Helen be recaptured. Unwilling to fight as a man, Achilles prepares to die, but Athena offers her another path. 

While other authors have reimaged the myth of Achilles in queer context, in particular The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, your version of Achilles is a trans woman. May I ask where that idea came from?

One long-standing episode/variation in the myth of Achilles is her sojourn on the island of Skyros, a common theme in art from pre-Classical times to the 18th century. On Skyros, Achilles lived as a woman named Pyrrha for years, and even had a relationship with another woman, the princess Deidamia. Some versions of this story have framed it in horrifically transmisogynist terms, like the Roman writer Statius who wrote Achilles as a cross-dressing rapist who invaded women’s spaces to sexually assault them, so in Wrath Goddess Sing, I offer a rebuttal: what if Achilles lived as a woman because she was a woman?

What draws you to Greek mythology, and what are some of your favorite stories/ deities?

I’m particularly drawn to the way Greek mythology tries to make sense of the catastrophic collapse of the Bronze Age world. Much of Greek myth was created during a literal post-apocalypse by the impoverished survivors of the wreck of a rich, sophisticated, multicultural world, and from Homer and Hesiod on we see a grappling with the fallout of the end of the Bronze Age. I’m fascinated by the stories of the Argonauts, which seem to preserve memories of Mycenaean Greek nautical expeditions, and by Athena, whose myths often put a veneer of order over terrifying chaos and horror. And also by Aphrodite Ouraneia, the older version of Aphrodite born from the castration of Kronos, who seems to be a trans-coded sky goddess in the tradition of Inanna and Ishtar before slowly being tamed into Zeus’s daughter Aphrodite Pandemos by the Archaic period.

What inspired you to get into writing, particularly speculative fiction? Were there any writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

I grew up thinking writers were the most incredible magicians, and Tanith Lee’s books saved my life more than once as a child. Wrath Goddess Sing, like all my books, is a story I’ve always needed, a story that would have made a difference if I encountered it younger, a gift I can offer to others as Tanith Lee and others offered their gifts to me. 

How would you describe your writing routine?

Controlled chaos. Rigid order. Marathon writing sessions. Enormous planning. Sudden change. 

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What do you to be some of the most challenging?

I love lyricism, point of view, and bringing worlds to life by finding those details that magically combine with other details to summon up a whole vanished time and place. Most challenging is probably the enormous amount of research that it takes to get things right. 

What advice would you have for aspiring writers? Any specific advice for other queer writers?

Find mentors who know what you’re actually trying to do and have done similar things themselves. You need someone to tell you how the game is played, how to navigate it, how to manage your expectations, what to do, how to thrive. And then practice, and be patient, and write something wonderful.

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

I’m working on a story set in late Bronze Age Egypt at the height of the 18th dynasty colonial empire. The main character is a captive from the provinces of Kna’an trying to get home to her beloved father and brother, and trying to wreak horrible vengeance on the treacherous sister she used to idolize. It’s sort of a retelling of the myth of Joseph in Egypt, but it’s also a meditation on empire, power, time, and love. 

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

In no particular order, Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun, Alison Rumfitt’s Tell Me I’m Worthless, Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt, Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became The Sun, and Vaishnavi Patel’s Kaikeyi

Interview with Author Francesca May

Francesca May grew up in the middle of England where she spent her childhood devouring fantasy books and brewing potions in her back garden. She currently lives in Derby with her family, three giant dogs, and two black cats. By day she works as a bookseller at Waterstones. By night she accidentally kills every house plant she touches and writes novels about gothic mansions, witchcraft, and queer love. She also writes psychological thrillers and gothic suspense as Fran Dorricott. You can find her on Twitter @franwritesstuff.

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

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

Hi, and thank you! I’m Francesca May, the author of Wild and Wicked Things. I’m an expert bookseller for Waterstones by day, where I run the YA, SFF, crime, manga and graphic novel sections, and by night I spend far too much time taking photos of my pets, killing my plants (oops) and writing stories about gothic mansions, witchcraft, and queer love.

Where did the inspiration for your book, Wild and Wicked Things, come from?

I love writing fantasy books, but I hadn’t had the nerve to try to publish one until WAWT. The idea came from a silly prompt on Twitter, when somebody asked “What is the book you wish you’d written?” I thought about the answer to that question for far longer than I should have and finally settled on The Great Gatsby. It’s a book that had a profound impact on me when I first read it, and which has impacted me every time since, especially with its themes of reinvention and discovery. Plus, I adore morally grey characters. But I knew my version of Gatsby would be… well, not very Gatsby-like at all. It would have to be genderbent, and sapphic, and I would want it to be speculative fiction—which in my book nearly always means witches. And I guess you could say that Annie and Emmeline’s story just grew from there, really!

What are some things readers can expect from the book?

I like to describe WAWT as a creeping, gothic tale of first love, inner darkness, and what it means to be powerful. It’s slow-burn in more than just the romance, with strong themes of belonging, coming of age, and found family. It’s a book full to the brim with morally grey characters—and I mean that, because like in The Great Gatsby not one of these characters is 100% (or even 50% if we’re being honest) nice or good. There’s my take on an Only One Bed scene, badass ladies in suits, dark magic and a healthy dose of murder. Yay!

How did you get into writing, and what drew you to writing fiction and historical fantasy specifically?

Honestly I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, but I started taking it seriously as an early teen, right around the time I learned about the existence of NaNoWriMo. What started out as a fairly isolated hobby became something I was encouraged to take seriously, while still finding incredibly fun and rewarding. After that I was truly hooked! As for writing historical fantasy, I think in some ways it comes from a melding of two of my favourite kinds of fiction. I love historical fiction, the way it can so effortlessly (it seems as a reader) transport you to places you have only ever wondered about. Historical fiction often truly succeeds in invoking the sounds, the smells, the desires of a time and people that are so like us, and also not at all. And fantasy is a further extension of this. I love the way that historical fiction comes with its own set of challenges for the characters, and in a fantasy world this is often dialed up to 100. Plus, on a writerly level, I just love the aesthetic of historical fiction. Those clothes! Those old-fashioned customs! They’re so elaborate and fun to adapt.

It would seem that a bit of historical research has gone into this book. How would you describe the researching process and how it intertwined with the actual writing of this book? Also, why World War I?

The process was actually a lot of fun! The 1920s are a time period I’ve been interested in for a long time because of the growth in female independence and the wealth structure in different places after the war. I think there’s a lot of fiction that focuses on the impact of the Second World War, but in the UK especially WW1 had a huge impact, societally and economically, as well as emotionally. There’s quite a difference in the way that Americans felt during that period and the way the Brits felt, largely because the war led to more British deaths than American ones, and I wanted to explore what a Gatsby-type world, with a prohibition, might look like from a British perspective. The Jazz Age was unlike any period that had gone before and that wildness that we often know and see in film and TV wasn’t the reality for a lot of people, so I found it really interesting to splice together the New Age with the Old Age, as it were. Of course I did a lot of non-fiction reading, and read a lot of fiction that was written by British and American authors in the 1920s before I started to write—and then obviously gave everything my own fantasy spin when I began my drafting.

What inspires you as an author in general? What helps you keep motivated to finish a book?

I think the main thing that inspires me to finish projects is just the feeling of having a complete book. I write primarily for myself, so the fact that I could sit down at the end and read what I’ve written is a great motivator for me. But I also have a group of really supportive friends who read snippets (or whole novels sometimes) and cheer me on endlessly. Inspiration, I find, can come from anywhere. I find it in music, in other books, in television and movies or just from talking to friends, listening to the customers I have in the book shop. Most of my ideas stem from a “what if…?” idea that lodges itself in my brain and just won’t let go.

How would you describe your writing process?

Messy! Haha. I tend to write first drafts very fast, and then edit slow, so the drafting process can sometimes take as little as four weeks. I tend to burn through my ideas really fast, desperate to get my thoughts on paper in chronological order as fast as possible, and then I go back through much more slowly, layering in details about world, character etc. I know some writers prefer the editing process, but for me drafting is my favourite part. There’s no pressure for the book to shine yet, it just gets to be a story I’m telling myself—which is why I got into writing in the first place.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do or research in your free time?

Because I spend a lot of my non-writing time bookselling I still use a lot of my free time to read. It’s my main hobby! But outside of the book industry it’s mostly activities like walking, swimming, anything to give my brain a break or to encourage plot ideas to come unstuck, and the rest of the time I’m usually looking after the hoard of animals I have. Right now we have two newfoundland dogs and three cats, so it can be a bit of a handful! But a very fluffy, lovely handful.

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

Ooh this is a tough one! One question I get asked a lot is “who is your favourite character in Wild and Wicked Things?” and, honestly, I would also like to talk about my least favourite character. Bea. Bea is Annie’s childhood best friend who has since moved to Crow Island with her very rich new husband—and honestly, if readers don’t dislike Bea by the end of the novel then I have not done my job properly! She is selfish, oblivious, and focused on nothing but achieving her own frivolous goals… but she’s also scared, vulnerable, and has been affected very badly by the hand she’s been dealt in life. Her naivete in the past has caused her a lot of problems, made her wish for autonomy over herself and her life, and that means she was also one of the most challenging characters to write. Bea doesn’t mean to hurt other people, but she also has reached the point where she has been hurt so repeatedly by her own poor decisions that she doesn’t much have the capacity to care if she hurts others as long as she perceives that she’s helping herself. In a lot of ways she’s like Daisy in The Great Gatsby—primarily out for number one—but of course the path to reach this point is a complex one.

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

My biggest piece of advice to aspiring authors is always “if you can do nothing else, think of nothing else, if writing feels like it is in your blood, then you are a writer”. And I don’t mean that writing should always overtake the other things in your life, but if you always come back to writing, then you are a writer, and the first step to a career in writing (if that’s what you want) is treating yourself seriously. I say don’t use the phrase ‘aspiring writer’ because if you write, then you are already a writer! Giving yourself permission to take the writing seriously, to invest time and effort and resources in that writing, is the best way to a career in it. My second-most important piece of advice is “make as many writer friends as you can”. Friendships within the writing community are invaluable. We learn from each other, we support each other, and that makes a sometimes isolating thing so much less lonely.

Are there other projects you are working on and at liberty to discuss?

Yes! As Francesca May I am currently working on my next fantasy novel, which will be coming out with Orbit in 2023. It’s a fun blend of Stepford Wives meets The Witches of Eastwick, in which a young woman returns to a small Cornish town where she spent summers with her aunt growing up to find the town, and its inhabitants (including the girl she used to know very well) subtly changed—and now everything is far too perfect… Spooky stuff! I’m having such a blast writing this pastel-goth witch book and I can’t wait to share it with everybody.

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

A book I absolutely adored recently if you like queer fantasy is Malice by Heather Walter. It’s basically Sleeping Beauty but what if the villain gets the girl? So good! Other LGBTQ+ books I loved recently are Malinda Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club (historical YA), Margaret Owen’s Little Thieves (YA fantasy), Emily Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (adult gothic fiction), and Tasha Suri’s The Jasmine Throne (adult epic fantasy). We’re in such a golden age of LGBTQ+ fiction right now and there is so much amazing stuff out there, the bookseller in me could go on for hours!