Post-SPFBO 5 Interview with WINNER M.L. WANG
M.L. Wang’s excellent Sword of Kaigen won SPFBO 5 with a record 8.65 out of 10 in the contest’s five-year history! If you missed the Fantasy Hive’s SPFBO finalist review, you can find it here!
M.L. Wang, thank you for joining us for this interview at the Fantasy Hive!
Once more, congratulations on Sword of Kaigen winning SPFBO 2019! You’ve had a little over a month to calm down, process – how have you taken to winning the competition?
Like I take to most things. Clumsily.
Increased expectation always causes me an unreasonable amount of stress. By late 2019, I was already struggling to write through the idea that people expected things from my next book, and considering what SPFBO’s previous winners have gone on to accomplish, winning has raised that bar even higher. Years from now, I know I’ll look back on SPFBO 5 as all-around positive and laugh at myself for having been such a stress-head but for the moment, I’m looking up at that expectations bar and trying not to lose my mind.
Recently, I’ve been alleviating that stress by staying far away from social media and sinking myself deep into my new writing projects.
I thought the blog post you wrote after being announced as the winner encapsulated one of the best aspects of the competition, the connections drawn between authors, the sense of community and belonging that comes with that. What is it like, finding yourself part of a group like that, bursting with creativity?
“Bursting with creativity” would imply that we talk a lot about our grand plans to revolutionize fiction like Tolkien and Lewis, which could hardly be farther from the truth. Very occasionally, the conversation turns intellectual—or I have coffee in the middle of the night and try to bully the Australians into writing a book about boomerang warriors astride Megalania (sorry Lisa, thanks for bearing with me)—but most of the time, we just unload about our author-related problems and crack ever-more-convoluted inside jokes.
Generally speaking, fantasy authors don’t need help being creative; they need help making human connections and remembering to look after themselves, so that’s most of what we do in the SPFBO chat.
Did you come away from SPFBO 5 with any new favourite authors – not so much in terms of friendships as in terms of new fantasy worlds and unique stories you feel in love with?
I really only consume audiobooks due to my poor attention span, so when it comes to indie titles, that can be a limiting factor. Of the SPFBO 5 audiobooks I have gotten to, I would recommend The Kishi by Antoine Bandele. I’m a huge sucker for African-inspired fantasy and this one was particularly smoothly-written and digestible. I also have a list of SPFBO 5 audiobooks I still want to get to, including the entries by Tao Wong, Ben Galley, Rob Hayes, and a few of the other finalists who have audio versions in production (I won’t say who because I’m not sure if it’s a secret).
Sometime back, you announced you’d be stepping away from the Theonite series to pursue a project in a new setting entirely — how far along are you with this new world and story? Can you share with us some tiny morsel of information not yet out there in the world?
Something I had forgotten during my overstay in the world of Theonite is how long it takes me to build a universe from scratch. Last time I built a world of this size, it took me over ten years. The process is faster now that I’m not twelve, I know where the quagmires are and how not to blunder into them, but it’s still slow-going. After months of mapping, sketching, and conlanging, I’ve just reached the point where I can write freely in this universe without foundering on details like “oh no, where does this river empty?” “are these two dialects mutually intelligible?” or “wait, does this culture even have marriage?”
And a morsel of information…? Well, the new universe is called Altima. And the project I’m working now represents the first time I’ve ever written POV characters who are shape-shifters. I’ve always loved playing with uniquely limited or enhanced senses in narration, and writing a character who is, say, a python for some scenes opens a whole new realm of senses to explore. It’s weird and gross, and I’m having lots of fun.
I absolutely loved the way you focus on the struggles of one family in The Sword of Kaigen, how you built the conflict between two, even three different Matsuda generations — is the family angle one you’ll be looking to examine further? What other themes are you excited to explore in the future?
Family dynamics are my favorite source of conflict and character development, so yes, we are absolutely looking at more families as central cast!
The Sword of Kaigen focused on characters coping with the demands of a traditional patriarchal family structure. In Altima, I’m excited to get into more varied family structures, based on a range of lesser-explored cultures—the matriarchal family of sisters, the extended family of nomads, the found family of orphans, the single parents, step-parents, co-parents of convenience… all the fun dynamics.
A theme in Altima that I never really explored in previous books is resource depletion. Consequently, the theme of family comes into play with characters trying to create a future in the wasteland of a collapsing world.
What is your writing method like? Are you a pantser or a plotter, or do you eschew these terms for a style all your own?
Recently, my writing method has involved gamifying my word-count in a spreadsheet that I keep open next to my word processor. While this helps me stay focused on writing, it does not help me stay focused on a single project in a linear fashion—a side effect of being a predisposed pantser, I guess, no matter how hard I try to plot ahead. Yet another instance of that SPFBO chat coming in handy: Lisa Cassidy, Rob Power, and myself are currently racing to the endings of our respective projects (don’t get excited though, I’m definitely losing).
I’m sorry to hear it, but I’ll have my fingers crossed you make a come-back at the final stretch-line, all the same. When you don’t write SPFBO-winning books, what do you do? Video games, D&D, strange and bizarre hobbies you often find yourself unable to talk to anyone about? We at the Hive won’t tell, we promise!
When I was younger, I used to say that my hobbies were writing and martial arts. Since then, both of those activities have become jobs (even some of my side hobbies, like Photoshop and linguistics, somehow became part of the author business) so basically, I’m a loser with no hobbies. And yes, I would appreciate if you kept that in the Hive.
Our lips are sealed. Where do you draw your inspiration from? In fact, what are you reading, right now?
I draw most of my inspiration from world history, which is so often stranger than fantasy. So, as I listen to my fellow finalists’ audiobooks, I’m also reading back through some of my old sources on Ancient Rome, the Bambara, and the Iroquois. I know that sounds like a random collection of cultures, but it’s all part of the plan, I promise.
A plan! I can barely wait to see it come to fruition. Thank you so much for doing this! On behalf of the entire Hive team, I wish you the very best of luck in your feature endeavours! We’re all beyond excited to see the worlds you’ll come up with next.
Thank you so much for having me!
Anyone who wants to get a miscellaneous short story from my new universe (miscellaneous because it’s a surprise, definitely not because I haven’t figured out what it is yet) this month can sign up to my newsletter here: https://mlwangbooks.com/contact/