Interview with Kylie Lee Baker (THE SCARLET ALCHEMIST)
Kylie Lee Baker is the author of The Keeper of Night. She grew up in Boston and has since lived in Atlanta, Salamanca, and Seoul. Her writing is informed by her heritage (Japanese, Chinese, and Irish), as well as her experiences living abroad as both a student and teacher. She has a BA in creative writing and Spanish from Emory University and a master of library and information science degree from Simmons University.
Welcome to the Hive, Kylie. Congratulations on your new duology which starts with The Scarlet Alchemist. Firstly, can you tell our readers a little about it?
Thanks so much! The Scarlet Alchemist is a dark YA fantasy that takes place in an alternate Tang Dynasty China where alchemists have discovered an elixir of eternal youth, but only the rich can afford it. A poor alchemist girl from southern China, who dabbles in illegal necromancy, dreams of becoming one of the royal alchemists to support her family, but her skills draw the attention of the Crown Prince, who suspects he’ll be assassinated soon.
Your book is set in an alternate Tang Dynasty China. Can you tell us more about this? What particularly drew you to this historical period?
I chose this time period largely because it was when Wu Zetian (the first and last female emperor of China) rose to power, and I really wanted to explore her as a character. It was also part of China’s golden age—a time of tremendous change—which gives me a really rich historical backdrop to write about, with a lot of advances that people who aren’t familiar with ancient China might not think about.
Tell us about your main character, Zilan. What kind of character can we expect to meet?
Zilan is a working-class hero who makes it her goal to prove that she’s just as skilled as the rich male alchemists who she’s competing against. She’ll do anything to win, and to protect her family. She’s also the youngest sibling in her family who gets away with way too much sass.
Who else can we expect to meet along the way?
Zilan’s older brother, Wenshu, is the brains behind the operation, and her older sister, Yufei, is the brawn. The Crown Prince is basically a golden retriever, and his mother, Empress Wu, is the smartest villain I’ve ever written—she’d didn’t climb her way to the top by getting lucky, and she’s always one step ahead of Zilan.
And your worldbuilding centres on alchemy and the consumption of gold and gems for eternal youth. Can you tell us in a little more detail how alchemy is used throughout? What of eternal youth, can this only be attained by the super wealthy?
The alchemy in this book is based very loosely on the principles and goals of Chinese Taoist alchemy during the Tang Dynasty. The alchemists use a combination of their own qi (a concept similar to life force in the West) and carefully chosen gemstones in order to transform the world around them. Different gemstones can achieve different results, depending on whether they’re firestones, waterstones, woodstones, earthstones, or metalstones. Zilan uses alchemy in a lot of small ways to make her own life easier (making rotten fruit fresh, repairing clothes, cleaning up, etc.) but the rich hire alchemists to create a special kind of gold that they can eat to attain eternal youth. Only the wealthy are able to afford this, which has created a massive wealth gap.
If you were transported into your own fictional world, how do you think you would fare?
I would die instantly. The book starts in southern China and there’s no air conditioning.
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?
The editing process for this book was fun because it was pretty structurally sound from the start, so I didn’t have to do a ton of re-writing. Instead, I got to fulfill fun requests from my editor like “make the stakes higher here” (which translates to “add more blood and violence” in my mind). But it’s different for every book. I can tell you that I don’t like re-writing chapters from the ground up. I’ll do it if I know it’s necessary, but I really drag my feet while doing it.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped the artist would portray?
For this book, I got to choose the model on the cover, and then I got to see the raw photos from the photoshoot and choose the poses I liked the best. Lillian Liu (the photographer) creates such amazing photos that have an ethereal fairy-tale feel, so between her and Inkyard’s art team, I knew I didn’t have anything to worry about. I was happy to be pretty hands-off for the editing part and trust my team’s opinions. I love how it looks kind of like a Netflix poster!
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
A capybara that is magically enhanced to be large enough for me to ride it. I would be close enough to the ground that I wouldn’t be scared of falling off, and could also scurry underneath taller animals. I think capybaras are very sturdy!
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s)? Any teasers for the sequel of your duology which you can share?
The sequel is about finding the source of alchemy and the true cost of using its power. It is more similar to Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (the inspiration for this series) than The Scarlet Alchemist, because it’s essentially about finding a philosopher’s stone.
Are you planning anything fun to celebrate your new release? Do you have any upcoming virtual or in person events our readers may be interested in?
I like to celebrate my new releases with an ice cream cake! The events have been winding down for me following the US release on October 3rd, and I’m happy to have some more time to focus on writing.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
I hope readers feel empowered to take control of their own destiny no matter the circumstances they’re born into.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
The Scarlet Alchemist is out today! You can order your copy on Bookshop.org