Women in SFF Author Spotlight – Zen Cho (SORCERER TO THE CROWN)
Zen Cho is the author of the Sorcerer to the Crown novels and a novella, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, as well as the short story collection Spirits Abroad. She is a Hugo, Crawford and British Fantasy Award winner, and a finalist for the Locus and Astounding Awards. She was born and raised in Malaysia, resides in the UK, and lives in a notional space between the two.
Welcome to the Hive, Zen. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
They’re not remotely obscure, but I recently burned through Martha Wells’ wonderful Murderbot series, classic action sci-fi about a robot who’s forced to make friends and have feelings. They’re mostly novellas so very quick reads. I’ve also just started SL Huang’s upcoming novella Burning Roses, a fairytale retelling where both Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi (whose wife Chang E turned into the moon) are middle-aged women monster slayers. Think Buffy, but everyone’s a middle-aged lesbian.
That sounds amazing.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
I’d be a bard and my weapon would be Microsoft Word tables. I can do a really deadly Microsoft Word table. (Can you tell I don’t know anything about D&D?)
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, how do you like to work? (In silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps? Do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit?)
Tell us a little bit about your writing method!
I’ve worked at all hours of the day in various different settings – as with the majority of female writers throughout history, and many writers of all genders today, my writing has to fit in around other obligations. The main thing I need is my laptop: I sometimes write in longhand to brainstorm or break up a writing block, but most of my work gets done at the keyboard.
I’m a sort of combination of architect and gardener: I generally have an outline, even for short stories, but the outline’s mostly to reassure myself that I have a plan so I’m not writing into the void. That said, I discover a lot in the process of writing, so I invariably stray from the outline. I guess I’m an architect, but often I start constructing the story-building and then it collapses and I have to excavate the story from the ruins.
What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
I’m very much influenced by great British fantasists like Diana Wynne Jones and Edith Nesbit. A review compared my work to Joan Aiken’s – I didn’t read her as much growing up, but that kind of warm, intelligent, funny fantasy is definitely what I aspire to. In terms of authors working in the field today, Karen Lord and Naomi Novik have really stood out to me as models, in terms of career path and body of work.
I’d love to do a graphic novel some day, and maybe a picture-book. My ideal collaborator would actually be my cousin Alina Choong, who’s a gifted artist.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it? Alternatively, what games have you enjoyed recently?
I’m watching the second series of What We Do in The Shadows, a mockumentary about hapless vampires in Staten Island, based on the film written by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. It’s hilarious and features a great improvement on the film – which I also loved – in including a female vampire, Nadja. All the characters are great, but she is the best.
We agree, she’s my favourite too. The way she says “Jeff” gets me everytime.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
I’d cook or bake an interesting recipe, read, watch a show, maybe do some gardening. I’m great at pottering.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress?
I’m working on revisions to a novel which hasn’t yet been formally announced, but I’m very excited about it. It’s a contemporary fantasy set in Malaysia about family, gods, ghosts and finding the courage to be who you are.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
The best tip I’ve seen is setting low word count targets for yourself. For the way that I work – and I suspect this applies to lots of other people, though not everyone, because how creativity works is really variable – having, say, a target of writing 300 words five days a week is more achievable than, I don’t know, 1,000 words every single day. Of course, if you’re on deadline you may have to work faster than that, but I think once you have a good understanding of your capabilities it’s easier to vary your working pace. It’s a matter of figuring out a creative practice that’s sustainable for you.
Any piece of writing advice can be unhelpful, even the tip I’ve just mentioned, because it’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. Anything that says writing has to be done any sort of way or you’re somehow not a real writer can be really damaging.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I’m a big fan of taking judicious breaks. Sometimes your creativity or motivation does run low and you have to refill the well by doing and consuming things that inspire you. Other times, though, you have to buckle down and bash something out and hope for the best. I know I’ll feel worse if I haven’t done any writing so that helps me get the words out, even if I suspect I’ll have to throw them out later. It’s all part of the journey.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
I have a boring answer because the place I most want to go right now is Malaysia, where I’m from, and see my family. I’d go at the point, hopefully in the near future, when I’d no longer need to quarantine upon arrival.
Who are your favourite female characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of female character you enjoy writing?
Rukia from Bleach is probably my favourite of all time, though I can take or leave Bleach itself. (Sorry to any Bleach fans, but that manga needed to end 100s of chapters before it did.)
I like writing overbearing aunties. They’re my favourite character type to do because they write themselves.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
I’m obsessed with Living Alone by Stella Benson, set in a slightly alternate WW1 England about a lonely woman who moves into a witch’s house. Benson belongs to a group of British female fantasy writers working in the early 20th century whom everyone seems to forget when they talk about early fantasy, like Hope Mirrlees, Vernon Lee, Naomi Mitchison and Sylvia Townsend Warner. The book is strange and whimsical and verging on twee, but if it’s the sort of thing you like, you’ll like it very much.
Thanks for expanding my TBR Zen!
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with an elevator pitch? Why should readers check out your work?
I write funny books with serious bits, or possibly serious books disguised as light-hearted fare. My debut novels, Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen, are a Regency-set diptych – think Jane Austen only with PoC protagonists and magic. Sparky women, upright men, dragons with monocles and more! My most recent release, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, is a fantasy novella about bandits and nuns in a wuxia take on Emergency Malaya, featuring dumb jokes, dark pasts and lots of hijinks.
That’s brilliant, thank you so much for joining us today Zen!