Interview with Jeannette Ng (UNDER THE PENDULUM SUN)
Jeannette Ng is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in Durham, UK. Her MA in Medieval and Renaissance Studies fed into an interest in medieval and missionary theology, which in turn spawned a love for writing gothic fantasy with a theological twist. Jeannette used to sell costumes out of her garage. They run live roleplay games, performs hair wizardry and sometimes has opinions on the internet, including in Uncanny Magazine, All the Anime and Foreign Policy.
She has won the Sydney J Bounds Award (Best Newcomer) in the British Fantasy Awards 2018, the Astounding for Best New Writer in 2019 and the Hugo Award for Best Related Work in 2020.
Welcome back to the Hive, Jeannette.
Let’s start with the basics: tell us about your work. Why should readers check out your stories and, along with Under the Pendulum Sun, where can they find them?
Most of my published work is gothic and creepy. So I’d say if you’re into that sense of unease where something is extremely wrong and you’ve no idea quite what, that feeling of shattered illusions and simmering repression, then maybe you’d like my book? There’s also a lot of elaborate descriptions of weird shit and people debating theology with deeply incomplete information about the world they live in (though that is also arguably everyone everywhere all the time).
Focusing on Under the Pendulum Sun for a moment, give us a glimpse into the world of your story. It’s a rich mix of Gothic and folk. You wrote a wonderful piece on the Hive about the Gothic girl and the house; were the texts you discussed there all influences for your book, or was there something more specific?
Reading that piece again, I think that was more or less a tour of my immediate influences, though I could probably keep going. The most obvious omission in retrospect is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, a novel about Jane Eyre’s seemingly feral Bertha Mason, giving her that space to speak her story of madness. That book challenged a lot of the colonial underpinnings of Jane Eyre and I have borrowed more than a few motifs from it — after all, Under the Pendulum Sun is also a Bronte remix.
Yes! It has very strong Sargasso vibes!
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke was something of a revelation. I was obviously very taken with the 19th Century but with magic setting. But more than that, I was in awe of the idea that people could still write like that, with that striking voice. I got it in my head that modern novels have to sound a certain way and it was liberating to think I could do a different thing.
The Maid (2005) directed by Kelvin Tong was what challenged me to think about what the gothic would look like outside of that immediate setting, how far can you push the girl and the house and have it still be recognisable. I’m not sure my write up does the film any justice, but what it sparked in me was the question, if magic is provably real, how can your characters still feel that sense of doubt and insecurity? The acute discomfort of the not being sure if its actual monsters or just a trick of the light. And it basically got me thinking about how to do gothic but also fantasy.
Tell us more about Catherine. Did she evolve at all through the writing process? How did you manage to strike that balance of believably Gothic heroine yet one who pushes back?
The biggest change was for there to be a Catherine.
A gothic story without a Catherine??
The earliest version of the story was just about two missionaries going to fairyland. I’d stumbled upon some Victorian missionary manuals in the university library and was procrastinating from an essay. I was very taken with the idea of making the people who those books embodied confront some actual monsters. So I had two men: an older one who has left cryptic clues and probably met a sticky end, and a younger one who is putting together those cryptic clues. The basic structure was to be a fall from grace, to have everything this man held true to be challenged and dismantled because fairies like messing with you.
That book didn’t come together very well. It got shelved and just sat there for a literal decade. It wasn’t until I was playing around with the gothic and asking myself what taboos can the girl in the house break that the two pieces just slotted together. I needed someone very repressed that I could then surround with rigid nonsensical fairy rules.
I had wanted Catherine to have that amusingly down to earth nature of Catherine Moorland from Northanger Abbey, but I think she ended up far more Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights, also an obvious influence. Her restlessness became a defining feature of her. Every conversation she had with Miss Davenport just turned into arguments.
The sheer imaginative scope of your land of the fae was beautiful to behold; the fish moon is a particular image that still strikes me. Do you see yourself returning to this world at all?
I’d like to. But equally I’m very aware that part of the fun is the novelty and wonder of it. If I were to return, the fae would need to have renovated the world again somehow? I have half a page of notes about a changeling convert returning to quasi-Victorian England, or at least liked the idea of that being my narrator. But I’ve not written anything more than that.
A lot of the worldbuilding did end up getting cut because I didn’t know where to put it and the characters had no way of knowing. The middle bit where they sit around and contemplate how cool whales are is quite long and boring enough as it is.
Let’s talk about the writing process; do you have a process? Tell us a little something about how your story comes together.
It starts with an idea and if I’ve got my act together, it’ll get written down in a notebook. From there it becomes several pages of free association notes. Sometimes it’s just a set piece or even a specific emotion I want to capture. A set piece that I think would be cool.
Eventually I’d be fitting ideas together — a cool hook for a setting might fit with a narrator or a plot twist. At that point it’s not an outline or anything, but I’ll be moving onto what I call “proof of concept” chapters where I’ll be trying out a voice for the prose and describe something about the world, or an event. Ideally this will get re-purposed into the finished work, but this is also exploratory. How do I feel writing like this and will I be able to do another hundred thousand words like it?
At some point an ending coalesces out of that morass of notes and then I can write towards it. That is when I know there is a novel and I might actually finish this thing. I say that, but maybe the next book will be different. They say you relearn this whole process all over again for every single book because every single one is different. Given how troubled second novels work, I think I’m meant to be inebriated in a hotel room in Wales and then emerge surrounded by typewritten pages I don’t remember writing? Who knows.
You have a number of short stories published, do you have a preference for a particular form?
I think in novels. As in, when I have an idea, it’s always “I should write a novel about Borgias in space” or whatever, but novels take a long time to write and I don’t think I’m actually that good at them. So things sit on my computer being half written — I’ve a folder titled “graveyard of first chapters” — but every now and again, there’s half an idea so very slight that they can’t possibly become a novel. Then I end up writing a thousand words of preamble where I’m just racing to the punchline. I have no idea what I’m doing. But they sometimes turn out okay.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
I write quite slowly so my drafts are really quite clean. Which is itself a problem but it does mean I’ve not really had that same tortuous tinkering that comes from a particularly messy edit where half the book is gutted. I am trying to write faster and sloppier, though. So I look forward to hating editing in the future.
As a self-editor, you have my full sympathy.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
I’ll confess all the fiction I’ve alluded to writing has fallen through so, I’m a bit worried I’m somehow jinxing myself. I’m allegedly writing something ballet-related, but with magic.
Tell us about a book you love. Any underrated gems we should add to our To-Be-Read lists?
Clouds Cannot Cover Us, by the inimitable Jay Hulme. It’s beautiful book of poetry, with a chiaroscuro structure — the first half is printed white text on black page and the second half black text on white page. There is something very beautiful in just how that draws attention to that duality of dark and light, and gives a little guidance for if I’m dipping in and am looking for something hopeful or something to share in my anger and frustration and fear. His work is deeply moving, profound but also just really accessible. More people should just read poetry in general, really.
The series I am following most avidly as it is drip fed to me episodically is Ascendance of the Bookworm by Miya Kazuki. It’s a portal fantasy about a young woman who dies in our modern day (ironically crushed by the books she loves so much) and wakes up as a sickly child in a quasi-medieval world seemingly without books. So begins her long, difficult quest to make herself some books. It’s almost totemic, something of her old life to cling onto. I love how carefully the narrative uses perspective and limited knowledge to build its world in layers, as well as how it makes wondrous the simple pleasures of modern life. It’s been a long frustration of mine that fantasy novels often have libraries without any sense of who put them together and why, where does all this knowledge come from and all that. Every book needs to be written by someone, after all. And this dives very deep into that as a theme. Among others. I’ll shamelessly also say that Myne is my Mary Sue. There is an anime and the light novel is itself available in English, but I’d recommend starting with the manga.
I’d like to also shout out Rebecca Kuang, but given her many awards, I’m not sure she counts as underrated. Her work is harrowing and I’m sometimes not sure what people who aren’t me make of her, but in a way, I read it as an emotional response to our shared backstory. It’s sort of a remix of modern Chinese history, dragging the antiquated nostalgia-drenched genre of martial arts sagas into the 20th Century. It was forcing me to confront stories that lurked in my family’s past that I didn’t want to think about and I still don’t know what to think about. It’s those complicated, uncomfortable feelings of having witnessed all that being made into a novel. Several novels.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Catbus from My Neighbour Totoro looks both adorable and utterly terrifying. Catbus may or may not be capable of devouring all my enemies, but is crucially also very comfortable. I’m probably also reasonably safe in that fluffy interior and probably won’t get digested.
Quite possibly my favourite ever response to this question.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
My work is what you make of it, I suppose. I’m not really into prescriptivist readings as a reader, and I crave no rosetta stone of authorial intent to guide me? But if it entertained, made you think or philosophise about identity or the nature of the soul or anything else, if it made you feel feelings, uncomfortable messy, horrible, intoxicating feelings, then I think I’d be more than content.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thank you for having me? I don’t actually know if I’m meant to type a reply to this….
People don’t often but it’s lovely when they do!