Monday, May 14, 2018

Henry Lien and Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword

It was absolutely fabulous to have Henry Lien back on the show! I'm excited to see the world of Pearl rolling out in novel form after we had such a great discussion about his story, "Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters," which appeared in Asimov's in 2013.

Henry joined us to talk about his new novel, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword, which he describes as a direct sequel to the previous story.

The world of Pearl is a secondary world in which Henry invented an art-sport that combines figure skating with kung fu. He first developed it at Clarion when instructed by Chuck Palahniuk. As an exercise in empathy and attempting to write something outside his own experience, he tried to enter the world of teenage girls, and examine girl-girl dynamics in a high-pressure setting, with talented but misbehaving girls prepping for an exam for an Academy.

The new book has been summarized by some as "Harry Potter meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on Ice," but is a lot deeper and more complex than that description would suggest. It deals with issues of immigration and crossing cultures even as it has tons of fun with its characters and their sport. The main character is a newcomer to a place that in her eyes appears to be more culturally advanced. Henry examines how one's identity splits during the journey of immigration.

This story is set in a fantasy world very different from ones we have seen before, so that we don't ever know quite what to expect. It draws cultural markers from China, Taiwan, and Japan, and uses elements of the region's history, including interactions between the different cultures. Henry said one of his goals was to create a world where you feel like you know it but when you engange in it in detail, it's super-different from ours.

In Peasprout Chen's world, tabloid headlines are delivered by birds in a delightfully innovative way. This world uses Chinese characters, which can be written in the grass script style as a continuous line. Henry noticed that his birds will follow him around, so he decided that he would have someone in the city skate the pattern of the characters on the ground while birds follow them overhead, essentially resulting in the birds tracing calligraphy in the sky. Grass-style calligraphy, which is an actual cultural thing, and actual bird behavior from our world, combine to create a completely alien result. In this way, Henry uses familiar building blocks to create a world that is unique.

We asked him how becoming a bird person changed him. This is a very sweet story! Henry told us about how he had rescued the birds, all of them small parrots. He calls them "an alien race that we share this Earth with." Birds are very sensitive to the environment, and their triggers are consistent. He compared some of their reactions to PTSD reactions. They are very idiosyncratic. Henry said, "It made me learn to love something I don't fully understand." You can appreciate the nooks and crannies even if you can't see the whole thing. 

Kat remarked that she's discovered a surprising number of figure-skating writers and editors that she hadn't previously heard about. 

Henry said that when he was researching figure skating and kung fu, he discovered that they have three characteristics in common: each is intense, lyrical, and punishing. Injury is always waiting for you, and can shut you down for weeks. There's a lot of drama in these sports that can be very appealing to writers.  The Olympics features brutal dramatic judgment where the athlete trains for four years to perform for two minutes, during which any error is catastrophic. Stakes are high, and the focus on age and performance is intense.

Henry talked about his own experience studying wushu, and explained that he came into classes with "hubris" based on his own general fitness and how strong the other people in the class looked. He made it quite clear that he'd been wrong about this! His 19-year-old lithe partner would "kick my butt every week." He feels that both figure skating and wushu reward the ways that women's bodies move.

The setting of Peasprout Chen is a city made of a non-ice substance called pearl. The fact that everything is made of pearl means that parkour can also be woven in.

He told us a bit about the backstory of the novel. There is the mainland empire of Shin which is kind of like China but not China; there is the island of Pearl which is kind of like Taiwan but not Taiwan, and then the land of Eda in the background which is kind of like Japan but not Japan. In this world, the male population of Pearl was destroyed in a war. A failed courtesan from Shin fled to Pearl and teamed up with an older woman famed for her ugliness. This older woman had discovered a substance that could be manipulated to make ice-like pearl. Together they created the city, and the courtesan invented the sport of Wu Liu to allow them to turn their disadvantages into strengths. The name "wu liu" combines the first half of "wu shu" (kung fu) with the second half of "liu ping" (figure skating.)

Henry put special emphasis on the idea of turning everything upside-down. We are told that our bodies and our identities are disadvantages, but those things should be turned upside down and turned into advantages.

On Pearl, there are no wheels, and no shoes. Dragging things around is considered primitive. Everyone learns to skate as soon as they can walk. The people are xenophobic and consider the outside world barbaric.

Cliff observed that if you were kicking people with blades, that would be cool for war but for a sport would lead to some pretty serious injuries. Henry agreed and said that there is always the threat of real danger with this sport.

Henry explained that he loves rules. School is an environment girdled all around with rules to keep people from misbehaving, so it's a setting he loves to work in. Students at the wu liu school are not allowed to do any moves outside of class, or they will forfeit their next examination. This is a key element of the plot of Peasprout Chen

In particular, he says he wanted a fantasy world with no magic. George R. R. Martin consulted with him on aspects of it. Everything is grounded in real world experience, including the constant threat of injury that has grave consequences for the students. Even a bad wrist can knock you out. Henry himself got injured at one point during his training because he had become frustrated when another student did a kick the first time. Henry tried the same jump and tore his hamstring; he said it looked like someone had cut him. 

Danger creates good stories. Ambition is a characteristic required by the sport.

Henry quoted a line from Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell: "Don't talk to me about magic. It's like everything else: full of setbacks and disappointments." If this is the way your work seems, then whenever you achieve something, it feels like a huge accomplishment! Peasprout Chen's life is full of cultural landmines and danger, but when she does something cool, we cheer.

I asked Henry what elements of the world had been developed between the initial Asimov's story and this novel. He said a lot of it was what he had developed with George R. R. Martin. He took a look at the structures that made the society and the city work, like food delivery, money and insurance. You need to understand these mundane things.

"If pigs could fly, bacon would be expensive."

Thus, it's important to explore the mundane consequences of fantasy things. How do people tell time? How are they called to class? How would people of their technology and sensibility go about building things?

Henry said he'd ended up with a 100-page encyclopedia, but that it was joyful to write. He knows that at dusk, when the sun goes down, the rich go home and the poor take public transport, while kids go fare-jumping by hanging on the back of a tram. Little things in this world, he explains, are very real to him. After writing in it so much and being "a hermit" in his habits, he feels he knows the world of Pearl better than ours.

If people have glasses, where are they manufactured? If there's no green space, how is food distributed?

Henry told us about his agent, Tina DuBois, and his editor, Tiffany Liau, both of whom he greatly admires. They helped him to think hard about questioning the usual generalizations, like "girls are more relational." This is commonly claimed, but is not universal. Not every girl wants that out of life. There are social forces that cause women to need to figure each other out, but some still say, "I'm busy here." This is the case for Peasprout Chen. Henry said he thought very hard about her because she resists relationships, and is not really ready for them. She decides her own place in her world.

Henry says he's very grateful to the people who nurtured and inspired him in his writing process, and most of them are women. They helped him portray the characters realistically, with variety and intensity.

Tiffany Liau, Henry says, is a genius with plotting. She had zero problem with the all-Asian cast with some LGBT characters; she said, "Let's make it a page-turner." Henry believes that the style of an editor can be as distinct as that of a writer, and put a unique stamp on the writing.

He was inspired in part by Kelly Link, because she writes across genres and for different ages. She helped him perceive genres as constructs with porous borders. Henry said that if you don't impose those limits on yourself, the world might not be as resistant as you think. The language can be beautiful even in a book for young people, and you shouldn't dumb it down.

Tina DuBois, Henry's agent, was the one who said, "Do you not realize what's special about this? The star is the voice, the main character." Henry explained that he hadn't been able to realize this because the character was too close to him, which made it hard to see. He also said that Kelly Link had given him some really important encouragement when he finished his first three chapters.

Our discussant, Sally, remarked that it wouldn't be right if a figure skating plot did not include LGBT characters. Henry said it's possible to think of figure skating as a non-binary sport, given that it requires both grace and strength. It draws a diversity of athletes who each approach this balance in a different way. He noted that even in point-based sports like basketball, fans still talk about the grace of the athletes, and deeply appreciate it.

Kat suggested that people who are less inclined to mix grace with brutal intensity will move to sports other than figure skating. There's no padding for people who are learning the beginner jumps. Only if you get to a very advanced level will they put the skaters on a rig to help them with spectacular jumps.

Henry said that he never got over how alien figure skating felt. It seemed an arbitrary idea for a sport, to him, and the experts in it seemed they were from another planet.

Cliff asked Henry if he felt he was a substantially different person after writing Peasprout Chen. Henry said, essentially, no. He said that people sometimes think their lives will begin once they publish their first novel, but it hasn't happened to him. There are gradations of change, perhaps, but he can't see it. He hates the promotional part of being a debut novelist, and says he's always doing things outside his comfort zone.

He said the most amazing thing that had happened with his debut involved a song he had written for New Year's celebrations at the Academy in the book. He researched, and managed to learn the Apple Garage Band suite of Chinese instruments in order to compose the song. Then, Idina Menzel sang it with him at his launch party! He rented a small taiko drum so he would have something to do with his hands, learned to drum for 10 straight hours before the launch party, and played it while they sang.

Henry says he's just finished Book 2 of the series, which he calls "My favorite book of all time." It's called Peasprout Chen, Future Champion of the Battlebands. He's currently working on Book 3.

Henry, thank you so much for coming on the show! This world sounds like it's expanded and developed in truly amazing ways, and everyone should go check out Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword.

Tomorrow, May 15, 2018, at 4:00pm Pacific, we'll be joined on the show by author Kelly Robson, who will be talking about her climate-change and time-travel mixing novella, "Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach." I hope you can join us!


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