Interview with Fonda Lee (JADE CITY)
Fonda Lee is an author of science fiction and fantasy novels for adults and teens. Her fantasy trilogy, the Green Bone Saga, begins with Jade City, which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, was a finalist for the Nebula and Locus Awards, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s Books, Syfy Wire, and the Verge. Her young adult science fiction novels, Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire, have garnered accolades including being named Junior Library Guild Selections and Andre Norton Award finalists. Fonda won the Aurora Award, Canada’s national science fiction and fantasy award, twice in the same year for Best Novel and Best YA Novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black belt martial artist, and action movie aficionado living in Portland, Oregon.
Hi Fonda Lee, welcome to the Hive! We’re so thrilled to have you – your Green Bone Saga is nothing short of amazing.
Thank you, and thanks to The Fantasy Hive for spotlighting women authors this month!
Thank you! We’re very excited about the #WomenIn SFF feature!
Your book has made quite a few well-deserved, waves with many bloggers, especially within the Twitter community. There have even been groups of fans swearing fealty to No Peak Clan, and there has been some incredible fan art being made! Did you have an inkling that your series would be so well received?
I didn’t know what to expect when the first book came out. The Green Bone Saga is my passion project. I wrote it because it was what I wanted to read but couldn’t find on shelves. Jade City was quite different from most of the other fantasy that was out there at the time it was released, so I didn’t know if it would gain an audience. All I could do was send it out into the world knowing that I’d stayed true to my vision and written the best book I could.
An enormous part of the energy around this series has been driven by word of mouth from the blogging community, and I’m deeply thankful for that. As an author, you always hope that your work will connect with people and that some of them will love your characters as much as you do. It’s an incredible feeling when you see that starting to happen. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing fans inspired by your story to create something of their own.
You’ve described the series as “Godfather with magic and kung-fu”, which is a killer pitch by the way, and works well with touchstones a Western audience can grasp. What (other) influences might a Western audience be missing?
The Green Bone Saga is definitely a blend of Western and Eastern influences. In addition to The Godfather and other mafia stories, it’s also heavily influenced by Asian crime drama (the ‘80s John Woo films starring Chow-Yun Fat, Johnnie To’s Election, and the sprawling yakuza film series Battles Without Honor and Humanity), classic kung fu movies, and the wuxia genre.
Can you tell us a bit about your world-building process please? The magic, which was visually amazing, is clearly in the Sanderson/Avatar vein of a bold set of powerful abilities. Did you consciously go for a “hard magic” style or was it something that just fit with the wuxia ethos you were going for?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted this world and its magic to feel very real and tangible. My goal was to take the awesome kung fu powers I’d seen in countless movies and ground them in a way that fit seamlessly into a gritty, urban, modern environment. In a way, I was backward engineering wuxia powers, setting up their origin and evolution at the same time. And I wanted the magic jade in this world to not to be something unknowable and mystical, but a resource subject to social, political, and economic forces—a flashpoint for human conflict.
Part of the beauty of your writing in The Green Bone saga is that it feels extremely cinematic. Over the years, which movies have impacted or influenced you the most? And because I’m cruel, can you pick just three of your all time favourite movies?
I’ve always been drawn to movies that I would term “smart action.” Films that are full of adrenaline and suspense and powerful action sequences but that don’t skimp at all on intelligence, characters, and engagement with deeper issues. Three of my favorite movies are The Matrix, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And even though I’ve already named three, I think I should be allowed to throw The Godfather in there.
Do you hope that somewhere in the future The Green Bone saga is acquired for a screen adaptation? Which do you think it is most suited for, a television series or movie, and why?
It’s definitely better suited for a television series. Television is the superior medium for long-form storytelling. An adaptation of the books would need that to capture the family saga, which is really the heart of the story. As for whether a screen adaptation happens, I’m keeping my fingers crossed along with everyone else.
I have really enjoyed the expanded world in Jade War, especially the view of Port Massey and Espenia. It was really interesting – quite eye-opening and at times uncomfortable, if I’m honest – to view what should be a familiar setting, in a US/European-style “Western” city, from an outsider’s perspective. Was this something you always wanted to explore with the series, or just a natural evolution?
Once I knew that there were going to be three books, it was a natural evolution to expand the story internationally in the second book, while still maintaining the tight focus on the main characters. Anden going to Espenia and navigating a culture that’s foreign to him was a really compelling storyline for me. As an Asian-American, I rarely see diaspora culture reflected in fantasy fiction. Other cultures, even fictional ones, are so often depicted as a monolith. (I wrote an essay about this on the B&N SF&F blog.) I seized the opportunity to contrast the culture that I’d familiarized readers with in the first book against both the foreign “Western” culture and the hybrid Keko-Espenian culture. I’m always striving to depict true-to-life nuance in the worlds I create and to remind readers that our sympathies are very much shaped by point of view.
The Kaul family are all so distinct and life-like characters. What were your influences and inspirations when it came to writing their personalities? Was it enjoyable to write characters, such as Hilo Kaul, with a darker streak to them?
I envisioned Jade City as a family saga before I knew who any of the characters were. So I developed all the characters in a way that I believed would create the most interesting and dynamic interpersonal relationships. I leaned on some common archetypes to get the ball rolling: the responsible eldest child, the impulsive fighter, the black sheep. But that’s just the starting point. In the course of the writing, those broad roles get filled in with so many more layers of individual personality. At this point, I feel as if I know these characters better than most real people! And yes, I enjoy writing all of them, especially the ones with a darker streak.
Since this is our Women in SFF month, who were the women in SFF (or beyond) that influenced or inspired you? (Authors and/or characters!)
I’m inspired by many women authors, but one of them in particular is the late Vonda McIntrye. I met her at my very first WorldCon in 2015, and she was incredibly generous and welcoming to me as a newly-published author. We stayed in touch for years afterward, and I always admired not only her long career and her impact on the field, but her kindness and her support of younger and newer writers. She was the one who encouraged me not to use a male or gender neutral pseudonym, because it was important, she said, that women be visible in this field.
In 2019 you became a co-writer for the on-going Marvel series Sword Master. Firstly, woohoo congratulations, Fonda!! Has this been something of a long time dream for you? And so far how has this project been going? Is it a very different experience from writing a novel?
It came completely out of the blue! Veteran comics writer Greg Pak had read Jade City and reached out to me to see if I’d be willing to co-write a series with him. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try my hand writing for a visual medium. Sadly, the Sword Master & Shang-Chi series ended recently. I went on to write a story for Marvel’s Iron Age 2020 anthology, but after that, I had to turn down everything else to finish working on Jade Legacy. I’d return to comics if another project fits the bill because I found the work enjoyable and refreshingly different from writing novels. The process is much faster, more structured, and more collaborative—but the essence of the job is the same because good storytelling is good storytelling.
Ok, just for fun…. the Marvel Avengers are in mortal danger, and it’s within your power to save only three of them. Which three do you choose?
I’m just going to go with my favorites: Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Hawkeye.
Do you feel that progress has been made in diversifying the comic-book writing scene over the last few years? It is a traditionally male dominated field — has 2020 contributed to that in any way? Who are your favourite female comic-book creators, both writers and illustrators?
I’m not knowledgeable enough about the comics industry to answer that, but I believe that it’s going through a lot of the same challenges and developments that we’re seeing in the SFF field—both in terms of the explosion of diverse voices and perspectives, and also the frictions that come from those changes. 2020 is noteworthy insofar as people have become much more publicly vocal about the issues, barriers, and abuses that female creators still face.
Some of my favorite female comic book creators are Marjorie Liu, Fiona Staples, and Noelle Stevenson.
Lastly, could you tell us about your future projects please? What can you reveal about Jade Legacy? *Rubs hands, hopes for juicy info!*
Finishing Jade Legacy is my main goal this year. As I type this, I’m a few weeks away from turning it in to my editor, and I can tell you that it’s the biggest of the three books—literally and figuratively. Jade War expanded onto the international stage; Jade Legacy takes the story intergenerational. You’ll see the younger members of the Kaul family come into their own, and you’ll see your favorite main characters struggle with how to hold onto power, and how to pass it on. If you thought the first two books were stressful and heart-wrenching, be prepared for the third book to put you through even more of an emotional wringer. I’m excited but also sad to be completing this trilogy and I think readers are going to be satisfied with how the saga concludes.
Jade Legacy will be released mid-2021. After that, I have a number of projects that have been waiting patiently in the wings. I’m eager to dive into them, but you’ll have to wait to hear more!
Thank you so much for your time, Fonda!