Ken Liu on Writing, Translating, and the Future of the Dandelion Dynasty

Ken Liu is the Nebula and Hugo award-winning author of The Dandelion Dynasty series. To celebrate his new short story collection, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, he dropped by r/Books for an AMA, where he dispensed writing advice, gave fans a sneak peek at the future of The Dandelion Dynasty, discussed being on both ends of the author-translator relationship, and much, much more. Here are the highlights!

On his writing process:

I usually start with what I call the negative-first draft. This is the draft where I’m just getting the story down on the page. There are continuity errors, the emotional conflict is a mess, characters are inconsistent, etc. etc. I don’t care. I just need to get the mess in my head down on the page and figure it out.

The editing pass to go from the negative-first draft to the zeroth draft is where I focus on the emotional core of the story. I try to figure out what is the core of the story, and pare away all that’s irrelevant. I still don’t care much about the plot and other issues at this stage.

The pass to go from zeroth to first draft is where the “magic” happens — this is where the plot is sorted out, characters are defined, thematic echoes and parallels sharpened, etc. etc. This is basically my favorite stage because now that the emotional core is in place, I can focus on building the narrative machine around it.

There may be multiple passes between first draft and final draft, and this is where I get comments from beta readers, tweak the language, shuffle scenes around, change POV, experiment with tense and voice, and all the other “writerly” stuff.

On when he knows a book is finished:

When any further attempts to “improve” it lead to something worse.

On how much of his writing is influenced by readers and publishers:

None. I’ve never attempted to write specifically to the perceived taste of a market or editor, and I ignore reviews as much as possible (reviews are good for connecting the right book with the right reader—which doesn’t always mean positive reviews!—but I don’t think they help writers at all in improving their craft). I should add one exception: I do call upon trusted beta readers when a book/story is in draft form and take their reporting of the symptoms seriously.

On writing advice:

I’ll give you a writing prompt: open a dictionary and pick a random word. Now, try to write a story about that word without ever using the word or one of its synonyms.

Several of my stories came to me this way. (Usually it’s because I’ve been commissioned to write about some theme, and I find the most useful way to get a story idea is to vow to write about the theme without ever explicitly invoking it.)

In general, I think the best way to get ideas is just to live your everyday life and pursue whatever interests you: games, reading, hobbies, work, sitting around doing nothing. The more time you spend thinking about things that get you excited (without consciously thinking you’ll turn it into a story), the more ideas you’ll get.

On the future of The Dandelion Dynasty:

The Veiled Throne is coming January 2021 (that’s the schedule for now. But given all that’s happened, things could change)!

So the series is finished, complete, and done at this point.

However, what I wrote as the third and final book turned out to be too long—it’s one of those cases where my best plans didn’t survive the machinations of my characters. They insisted on going about saving the world their own way, and I had no choice but to follow along.

Rather than shrinking the font and cramming the story into one book, the “third book” is going to be published as two separate books (hopefully coming out in quick succession) :-)

The arc for the Dandelion Dynasty is complete at this point—or at least the story I wanted to tell about Kuni and his family is finished. I may, in the distant future, return to Dara. But ten years spent in a single world is a looonnnnng time, no matter how you slice it. The Dandelion Dynasty has been, by far, the most time-consuming and energy-consuming project in my life. I need a break from it at this point, no matter how much I love it.

On literary convention and rebellion in The Dandelion Dynasty:

A lot of my choices were driven by the desire to write the sort of book I wanted to write: I liked omniscient POV; I liked stories featuring a Greek chorus; I liked stories that played up the artifice of its own narrative; I liked stories that explored how difficult it was for societies to change; I liked stories that resisted the ideal of “immersion” by constantly doing things that would cause the reader to pause and interrogate what they had just read …

In other words, I deliberately wrote The Grace of Kings in a way that honored the pre-modern narratives that I feel were foundational narratives for cultures. It flouted many conventions of “modern” novels, and it’s totally understandable that some readers don’t like that.

The Wall of Storms, on the other hand, is much more like a modern novel, and that shift in style is deliberate, mirroring the shift from legendary history to modernity, from myth to constitutive political performance between the first and second books. But the second book also goes against some of the narrative stylistic conventions of contemporary fantasy by, again, honoring both pre-modern and post-modern ideas about narrative.

And the same sort of shift in style and deliberate flouting of “rules” occur again with the conclusion of the series. The world of Dara is always in revolution, and so is the style in which the books are written. That’s the “punk” part of silkpunk.

On the rise of Chinese science fiction:

I’ll reuse here the answer I gave to a similar question upon the publication of Broken Stars. (I’ll restrict my comments to “Chinese SF” since that’s where I know something.)

I’ve always approached Chinese SF as a diverse collection of individual works by individual authors, with no interest in pushing some collective label or uniform analytic framework on them. Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem is completely different from Tang Fei’s “Call Girl,” yet both are beautiful works of art with unique thing to say about the human condition. Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide shares very little with Xia Jia’s “Goodnight, Melancholy,” yet both moved me to tears and showed me something new about the potential for speculative fiction. The works have different political, social, and aesthetic stances and engage with Power and Privilege from different vantage points. I don’t see any value in trying to lump them in together and make claims about them collectively.

All that is to say, while I’m delighted that individual writers and individual works have found more readers who love them outside of China, I don’t think the market reception of any individual work will tell us much about how the market will receive other writers and works that happen to also be Chinese. Every writer and every work must find an audience on their own.

I know very little about why some books sell and others don’t—and this is true of everyone in publishing. Every good book has an ideal audience, but it seems that we’re still very very bad at matching books to ideal audiences. All we can do is to tell as many people as possible about books we love and hope for the best.

On maintaining an author’s voice in translation:

I don’t think you can maintain an author’s voice. In translation, you’re recreating the author’s voice in a new language, using new materials to rebuild a replica of a structure from another culture. So the voice of the translation is necessarily your own voice, but modulated to serve a story that’s not yours. It can be a valuable exercise to experiment and probe and learn the range of your own voice in the process.

On being translated:

Because I know how hard translators have to work, I typically ask to be in touch with my translator in other languages so that I could explain to them which bits are made up (no need to research to track down the location of my fictional town or the Latin name of my fictional species); which quotes are allusions (so they could go find the original in French or Spanish or German …); which words are particularly tricky (e.g., the “grace” in The Grace of Kings—and it’s a quote from Henry V); which parts are going to be repeated and become significant in later books (“Hodor!”) etc. I want to make their lives easier, which leads to a better book.

I have to trust the translator, who I view as an artist partnering with me in the creation of a new work. I try to interfere as little as possible after I explained my intention because a good translation has to be about what I meant, not what I said. And I have to let my partner figure out the best way to artistically realize my intention in the new medium.

On book recommendations:

  • Tochi Onyebuchi — Riot Baby
  • Peter Tieryas — United States of Japan
  • Sarah Pinsker — A Song for a New Day
  • S.L. Huang — Zero Sum Game
  • Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone — This Is How You Lose the Time War

Also, Cat Valente’s upcoming “The Past Is Red” (a continuation of her award-winning “The Future Is Blue”) is wondrous, as is Rebecca Roanhorse’s Black Sun (pre-Columbian Americas-inspired epic fantasy).

I think the books by Taiyo Fujii are incredible. Both Gene Mapper and Orbital Cloud are so tightly plotted and contain fantastic hard SF speculation. Plus, they are funny! I can’t wait to see more of his books in English.

My friend Stanley Chan (Chen Qiufan) writes gorgeous stories filled with dark visions of cyberpunk futures delivered in cinematic, biting prose. Waste Tide is his debut novel in English, and you can check out his short fiction in the anthologies I edited.

Another writer, Hao Jingfang, should get your attention. She’s an economist and entrepreneur who has done incredible social enterprise work for the education of impoverished children in rural China (Google for some of her interviews). Her novel, Vagabonds, is a philosophical novel that I describe as a spiritual descendant of Le Guin’s Dispossessed. Her short fiction can also be found in the anthologies I edited.

Any of the collections by Joyce Carol Oates; How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer; _Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino; Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories by Caroline M. Yoachim; Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lah

On how his career as a lawyer impacted his writing:

I think becoming a lawyer was largely what drove me to the conclusion that good stories matter more than good institutions. It was shocking to me at first how important storytelling is in the law: not just in the form of stories lawyers weave for juries and judges, but in the way the profession conceives of itself and tells itself stories to valorize certain arguments and to dismiss others, to justify systematic oppression and violence, to rationalize away the intolerable. It fundamentally changed the way I think about stories and how they are the software of society.

On the real-life inspiration for Luan Zya:

Luan’s scientific mind and abiding faith in humanity are both inspired by my grandfather, who was a prominent chemist. He lived a life grander than any story I could ever tell, and TVT is dedicated to his memory. Though he’s been gone for a long time, I miss him all the time.

 

There’s a lot of other good stuff that we couldn’t fit here, from more book recs and writing advice to thoughts on metaphor and historical inspiration, over at the full AMA. Go check it out!

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