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Monday, December 9, 2019

Paul Krueger and Steel Crow Saga

We had a great time talking with guest author Paul Krueger about his novel, Steel Crow Saga. Paul describes it as a love letter to Pokémon, and also as what would happen if Pokémon and Full Metal Alchemist had an anti-colonialist baby. He said he went way out on a limb with the book, using a different world with situations in it that are not average, and that it meant he had to draw on a lot more personal things in order to make it real and relatable.

I asked Paul whether there was any part of the story he really had in mind from the ground floor, and he said the only thing was Pokémon. The characters in this book are able to connect their souls to an animal's soul, and thereafter summon that animal by calling its name - but this is not the Pokémon you are familiar with! It has a lot of fascinating twists.

Paul told us that although he believes all binaries are false, he's much more on the side of "pantser," someone who doesn't outline ahead, but discovers the story as they write. If he redoes something in the story, it might end up with a completely different ending. Sergeant Tala, the main character in Steel Crow Saga, didn't exist in any of the earlier versions of the book. Paul spent some time frustrated with earlier drafts because they didn't seem to have a thematic skeleton or a plotline to explore that.

The world of Steel Crow Saga is a secondary world, i.e. not related to our own. In it, Paul uses actual Earth languages rather than creating new languages. In this book, there are four different countries and five different cultures. Paul didn't want to ask the readers to keep all the names of the groups in their heads, so he based their interactions on real Asian history. He picked up a lot of Asian history over the years. Shang is China, Tomoda is Imperial Japan, Sanbu is the Filipino group. Paul told us that each of these groups was used for language and for cuisine in the book.

The character of General Erega is inspired in part by George Washington (if he never owned slaves), and in part by Filipino generals.

Paul said he struggled somewhat with questions of authenticity because he is a member of a diasporate community, i.e. not a current member of the cultures in the countries he is featuring. He asked, "What are you being authentic to?" He chose to mythologize the countries somewhat, and to draw from anime and detective novels.

One of the fascinating things about Steel Crow Saga is how it tackles the hidden underbelly questions of Pokémon, namely, are Pokémon enslaved? Paul argues that Pokémon does itself a disservice by avoiding the slavery question, so he wanted to tackle that head-on.

I asked him whether he had an answer for whether the shades in his book are slaves. He doesn't - and different characters in the book disagree with one another on that very question. Paul says it's better to have ambiguity. He's annoyed by 100% bad guys, or people with 100% right to be oppressed. In Steel Crow Saga, the Tomodanese believe all souls are equal, and they therefore believe that shades are slaves. Unfortunately, they also over-apply that sense of moral superiority to justify colonization and taking resources. It echoes real history quite effectively.

The history in the book is inspired by the history of 20th century Asia. Jeonson is an altered form of a word for Korea, which declared it was an empire but then was gobbled up by Japan. The people of Jeongson lived under the Shang for centuries and then under Tomoda. They became people without a nation. The character Lee Yeon-Ji is from Jeonson. Shang is based on the latter days of the Chin dynasty before it fell and became a republic. Paul said that monarchies are convenient for narrative because they are able to localize the stakes of the story into a single person. Paul also told us that the Philippines were the 2nd richest country in Asia before the Japanese occupation. He said that later rulers like the Marcoses took lessons from external oppressors. However, Paul didn't want to claim the history. He didn't consider that pain his to exploit.

Paul mentioned that there is a lot of great SFF now featuring Asian cultures, including Fonda Lee's Jade City and Jade War, R.F. Kuang's The Poppy War and The Dragon Republic. They pay a lot of attention to this historical period. Fonda Lee focuses on an immigrant story. Paul says this is a moment when we examine Empire and the marks people leave on each other, and the scars left by nations.

I was especially interested in the way Paul described the changes that happen between drafts for him. He said a lot of his first drafts have shapeless blobs and featureless rooms. At first, Tala was "hte angry one" and Jimuro was "a shitty prince." Gradually, through the process of the story developing, they are revealed as more. When learning about other characters, Paul suggests using them as foils against each other. He says "I do better with big ideas." He did tell us that some of the early drafts included versions of "I choose you" or Pokémon arenas, but those fell away as the book took on its own shape.

Paul told us that what really brought the book together was when he realized he was interested in the idea of forgiveness. Can you do the unforgiveable? Can you then forgive yourself afterwards? Returning to these questions kept him going.

He also said he believes in the forensic principle that all things that come in contact with each other leave traces behind. He applies this to characters. Watch what happens when two pairs of characters come in close proximity to each other. What happens if they switch "dance partners" for a while?

We talked a little about romance in the story. Paul said it could be viewed as a chronicle of the world's craziest double-date. Lee and Xiulan have a lot of banter in their relationship. Tala and Jimuro progress in their relationship much more slowly. Paul didn't want the progressions to be parallel. Tala and Jimuro start out hating each other. Paul said he was worried at one point that they were too vitriolic, that he should pull back, but Alyssa Wong said he should lean into it harder. This led to Paul writing a fistfight scene, and led to the two characters coming to respect each other. He said that when he came to writing the scene where they get together, he realized that one of them just wasn't there. One of them didn't have bandwidth for a serious relationship, and the other realized that with respect and understanding.

Paul says he has left doors open for sequels, but he wants to do some stand-alones first.

We asked him about the title of Steel Crow Saga. Apparently it was super-hard to title because his first thought was "Full Metal Pokémist." Then he tried "Splintered Souls," but it wasn't going in the right direction. There were lots of back-and-forths with the editor. Eventually they hit on the word "Saga," which everyone really liked because it captured the anime feel of the book, and after that "Steel Crow" finally came together.

Matt Wallace, of the Sin Du Jour series, had the following titling advice, which Paul summarizes as follows: I imagine the obituary for my book and write the headline.

I asked Paul about something he'd said online about fan art. Paul told us that his first book, Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge, didn't have any fan art. When he whined about it, he was told he'd only vaguely described the characters. In Steel Crow Saga, therefore, he made sure that each character had colors and symbols, their own animal, and distinct physical traits. Paul said, "I went really overboard with visual cues." The good news is, he's gotten lots of fan art this time! Paul says being friends with artists has made him a better writer. He listed Victoria Schwab and Erin Morganstern as writers with great visuals.

Paul commissioned art for his book on the theory that it was like busking: you put out some money in your hat, and people see the social clue and contribute. He therefore seeded the internet with Steel Crow Saga art. He says he's very touched by the fact that people take time to do art, and to create recipes based on his book. Steel Crow Saga features adobo, and you see it many times. There are exchanges of adobo. He calls it the perfect food, because it is adaptable, has five ingredients, and can be made in less than an hour. It's the "Kalashnikov of recipes."

Paul says he likes to use food as a vector to create a world. "If you can figure out where the food comes from and where the poop goes, you can extrapolate a society." Jimuro is used to cleaner, mild flavors. His diet is vegan. He has learned over time to appreciate bolder flavors. Paul likes to consider the palates of different countries.

Paul said the princess who pretends to be a detective reveals something quite personal about him. Because he loved Calvin and Hobbes, and Calvin would sometimes be a Private Investigator, Paul would daydream about being a detective. Xiulan got his love of detectives, his aversion to mushrooms, and his inability to throw.

Paul, thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us further insights into Steel Crow Saga!