Interview with Sunyi Dean (THE BOOK EATERS)
Sunyi Dean (sun-yee deen) is an autistic author of fantasy fiction. Originally born in the States and raised in Hong Kong, she now lives in Yorkshire with her children. When not reading, running, falling over in yoga, or rolling d20s, she sometimes escapes the city to wildswim in lonely dales. Her short stories have featured in The Best of British Scifi Anthology, Prole, FFO, Tor Dot Com, etc., and her debut novel, THE BOOK EATERS, will be published Aug 18th, 2022 by Harper Voyager.
Welcome to the Hive, Sunyi. Congratulations on your release of The Book Eaters. How does it feel to have your book out there in the wild?
A little terrifying! I keep wanting to rush up anxiously to people and pre-emptively apologise, in case they don’t like it! (Also, it is okay if you, the reader, don’t like it! But thank you for trying the book either way!)
You have many reviewers (including me!) who love your book already, I’m positive you’ll get plenty more love!
That’s really kind, thank you hugely!
Ok, let’s get a little taste of what your book is all about. Can you describe it in five words?
Eat books, not brains!
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
No method, only chaos 🙂 My kids are ideologically opposed to sleeping, so I write when and where I can, and have no set schedule or rituals. I’m a serial rewriter and chronic reviser; I draft a pitch letter/query letter early on, and a rough synopsis/outline, which I gradually but rapidly abandon once drafting starts. Then the rejigging starts.
The first rewrite usually happens at the 25% mark, where I go back and overhaul the worldbuilding and characters and plot, based on things I’ve done so far and new ideas I’ve had. Anything is fair game: plots, setting, magic, characters. It can all change and sometimes, all of it does. (The only thing which remains fixed is the vibe and the emotional arc).
I do another redraft at about the 50% and 75% marks, roughly, and then a lot of heavy revision after the ms is done. At that point, beta readers and critique partners get involved, and more revisions kick off.
Speaking of worlds, tell us about your worldbuilding. Had you always planned to set your novel in Britain? And what inspired you to create the Book Eaters and Mind Eaters?
Definitely! I felt from the start that the vibe of the story was very British, specifically northern. There’s a gritty bleakness in the urban cities up here which seemed to suit Devon’s moods, and it contrasts so beautifully with all the lonely moors and wild places.
I think the concept of eating books is a natural extension of how book lovers think about media; we already describe books in food terms, like spicy and sweet, or heavy and light. It felt like an easy step up to imagine a whole group of people who take that concept literally.
You know, I’d never thought of that, we actually do describe books in this way already! I guess we smell books too, just like we smell food.
And books do have a wonderful smell!
As for mind eaters, they are essentially vampires, in a different form. They draw on a lot of different myths, and in earlier drafts I had more detailed explanations for what they are and how they relate to the book eaters (essentially, they are the Collector’s ‘data vaults’, designed to collate info by consuming book eaters) but most of that info was cut from the draft eventually. It distracted from the plot and changed the vibe too much.
That’s really interesting, I found the concept of the Collector fascinating and wanted to know more, but I also liked that it was a mysterious, god-like, figure. Was it your intention to create the Collector as a type of god for the Book and Mind Eaters?
I went back and forth for a long time on what kind of backstory I should include for the book eaters, and how much of it. In very early drafts, there was no Collector – they were instead a kind of yokai (there is a book-eating creature in some of the obscure Japanese lore), and the storyline actually opened with Devon in Japan, where she had fled to get away from her Family. In that version, the Japanese book eaters had found a way to stabilise their own population without resorting to such draconian laws as the UK ones. There was a whole plot arc that was going to deep dive into the origins of the book eaters a lot, and also there were originally other kinds of eaters (art, music, etc).
But after a lot of soul searching I moved away from that entirely, and threw out everything related to Japan (except, I think, for one tiny line about the Japanese families being special, and the easter egg of Jarrow having a Playstation before they’d been released, due to connections with Japan.) It felt appropriative for me to borrow from yokai myth when I know so little about it, and likewise from Japanese culture. I did try to do some reading into yokai and that only emphasised to me how unequipped I was to tackle the subject, lol.
Also, it felt complicated to have so much mythology, when the plot already had a lot going on, so the other worldbuilding was streamlined down to something manageable.
In later drafts, the book eaters were split between two factions: those who believed in the Collectors, and the Sabbatarians (a splinter religious group) who had adopted human christianity and believed they were the children of Cain, very vampire-esque. (The Sabbatarians ended up folded in the Ravenscars, and Killock’s cult.)
Ah yes, I wondered what had inspired Killock’s cult and his belief that Mind Eaters were holy/saints. That’s interesting to know.
I never originally intended for the Collector to be a serious explanation, more a reflection on the fact that they didn’t know their own origins. But my editor and early readers quite liked it as an explanation, so I leaned on it more in revisions. I’m so sorry, this was a very long answer! But it’s a good example of how much I throw out or change during revisions.
Devon and Cai are both such fantastic complex characters and they both invoke a lot of emotion from the reader, especially Devon’s backstory. Did their story arcs evolve naturally or had you planned them from the beginning? Was there any part of their narratives you found difficult to write?
Many thanks, that’s very kind! I had a sense for how Devon would develop but the specifics took a lot of ironing out. Something I find helpful is Lisa Crohn’s Storytelling Genius book. Her plot generation thing doesn’t work for me, but honing in on misbeliefs that characters carry, which shape their motivations and actions, is a really helpful exercise for me.
Any abuse scenes I find awkward or difficult to write, and the balance between being authentic and being exploitative can be hard to nail. I hope I have gotten that right.
One of the aspects I loved in your novel was your descriptions of how certain books tasted. I have to ask Sunyi, how would you or Devon think your own book would taste?
Describing book tastes was tricky because Devon, having rarely eaten human food, would not be able to match tastes, if that makes sense! Eg, she can’t say a book tastes of popcorn or cake, when she doesn’t eat popcorn or cake. With that in mind, she would probably say that TBE has the tang of blood and the smell of peat.*
**peat is the rich, smoky soil you find in the moors – a lot of whisky is flavoured with it.
The Book Eaters fantastically delves into many powerful themes such as motherhood, survival after trauma, body autonomy, the nature of monsters and the patriarchal society. How important was it to you to shed light on these subjects? Which of these did you enjoy exploring the most?
Many of the themes grew out of the writing process. Fairytales are naturally steeped in patriarchy, in that weird mixture of privilege and social chains, and that crept into the story from every angle. Monsters (how we define them or create them) and intergenerational trauma also sprang up as the draft was written.
Parenthood/motherhood was one topic I set to explore from the start, because it’s not seen as “exciting” to write a story about it. Fantasy tends to favour world-shaking stakes or universe-altering plotlines—which is fantastic! But not what I was going for, in this case. For this book, I was more interested in exploring personal cost, and individual devastation.
That’s definitely an aspect I loved. Devon faces so many difficult, almost impossible choices as a mother.
There is a wonderful Russian director called Andrey Zvyagintsev, who makes bleak and beautiful contemporary films about small people living small lives which collapse around them. He describes his work as post apocalyptic, but not in the Mad Max guns-blazing-scifi-sense; what he is talking about is the quiet apocalypse of individual lives—the total ruination of a single human being. I love his approach to that, and hope to capture the same thing.
I found parts of your novel strongly reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and I loved how your epigraphs used quotes from other works of literature such as fairytales, The Princess Bride and Return of the King. Were these a significant source of inspiration to you? How did you go about selecting the quotes?
I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only skimmed The Handmaid’s Tale, and have never seen the show, or read Atwood’s other books! I probably should, sometime. But the fairytales were a huge inspiration, for sure. Years ago, I wrote an undergraduate dissertation on the fairytales of George MacDonald, and it gave me the chance to spend a lot of time reading, researching, and thinking about those stories. All of that info has been useful for drafting this novel.
Forced marriage is not only normal in fairytales, but also presented as romantic and idealised, and inter-family violence is common. In general, I think fairytales are a quiet psychological commentary on what we’re afraid of as a society, and they can help us to talk about things we don’t always have words for.
Absolutely. I think with Devon you explore the ideas of being a fairytale princess really well.
The quotes were something I compiled separately – I made a huge list, and then fitted in ones I felt were appropriate. Some I had ideas for straight away while writing chapters, and others I had to go digging for them.
Ok, time for a fun question now. If you could eat any three books, which would you choose and why?
I would choose The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, because it is wonderful and funny but also very large and I can’t remember it all just through reading. In a similar vein I think I’d pick Journey to the West and Gilgamesh because it would be a shortcut to learning Chinese and Sumerian, while also absorbing those texts without translation. I am very bad at languages and probably can’t learn any other way. (I used to speak Cantonese, but I have never spoken Mandarin.)
Another fun question and this is always one of our favourites here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
I would ride the alzabo, from Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer. They are a large, bear-like, predatory alien species, who can absorb the memories of their prey (a bit like mind eaters, but more wide-ranging and complex—not limited to humans—and very scary!)
Ok, that does sound terrifying!
So what’s next Sunyi? Will there be a sequel to The Book Eaters? Or are you working on any other upcoming projects? We need more from you!
I’m contractually tied into standalones for the next two books, so there won’t be any sequels for awhile, sorry! Someday I would like to return to the world of TBE and do another semi-standalone book, written from a different POV character, that wraps up some of Devon’s hanging storylines. But it would be a few years from now.
In the meantime, I’m working on a historical science-fantasy novel set in alternate, post-war Hong Kong, where ghosts roam at night and the triads employ exorcists as a protection racket. It’s tonally quite different from TBE, with more (sardonic) humor and less gore, but I hope readers will find it fun for different reasons.
Definitely looking forward to that!
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope that they will feel they have ‘endured’ something with Devon, and find some catharsis in that experience.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thank you hugely for the opportunity to chat!
The Book Eaters is out today from Harper Voyager and is available HERE