Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Nonfiction

Author Spotlight: Ken Liu

Great to see another story from you in Lightspeed. I read a tweet that “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” began as a law school paper ten years ago. Can you elaborate on the origins of this story?

Thank you! I’m glad to be back in Lightspeed!

In law school, I took a comparative law elective on the legal history of China. “Litigation masters” were discussed briefly, but I found them so fascinating that I decided to do my class paper on them.

Late Imperial China never developed an independent legal profession as we understand the term in the West. But the complex social and economic life during the Qing Dynasty created demand for individuals with litigation expertise. And so the songshi (“litigation masters”) were born.

For various cultural and historical reasons, litigation was (and to some extent, still is) frowned upon in Chinese society, and aiding others to pursue litigation was viewed as stirring up trouble and profiting from the misery. To the magistrates, these individuals were bothersome songgun (“litigating hooligans”) who turned black to white and fooled the ignorant into clogging the courts. Officially, what the litigation masters did was a crime.

Very little is written about the litigation masters in the official histories. So, for my paper, I also turned to fictionalized accounts in popular culture. The portrayal of these shadowy figures in folk operas and folktales was very different from the official version. They were crafty, alert, nimble, and cunning; they used their intelligence to game the system so as to humble the powerful and uplift the powerless (and often made the magistrates look foolish); they had a habit of defending widows and orphans. Deemed amoral agents whose talent could be hired by anyone, good or evil, they employed strategies and tactics that were of questionable legality. Yet, in these stories, they were often engaged in the pursuit of a moral end that the audience sympathized with. In a corrupt society, they attacked poison with poison.

The kind of intelligence that the litigation masters displayed was that of the trickster hero. Melissa Ann Macauley, in Social Power and Legal Culture: Litigation Masters in Late Imperial China, enumerated aspects of the litigation master’s personality: deception, forethought, opportunism, deviousness, practicality, and intrepid adaptability and flexibility in the face of looming, unexpected threats. It reminded me of my favorite trickster hero from Chinese folk traditions: The Monkey King, who dared to rebel against the Jade Emperor and always had a clever plan in the face of overwhelming odds.

For years and years, the ideas in the paper circulated in my head until I figured out how to make a story out of it. I love it when I can make use of my academic work in fiction.

This is an important story of sacrificing for the greater good. I found reading about the suffering of the people of Yangzhou, as well as the torture of Tian Haoli incredibly difficult. Did you feel that this story was a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Writing this story reminded me, to a lesser extent, of writing my novella, The Man Who Ended History, another story about memories of historical atrocities. In both cases, I wanted to engage with the notion of the importance of remembrance, of preserving the past, of speaking up against the effort to silence historical ghosts and to subjugate the past to serve the purposes of the present.

Reading An Account of Ten Days at Yangzhou was emotionally very difficult. Chinese is the language of my childhood, and reading about the massacre committed at Yangzhou by the Manchu invaders in Classical Chinese had an emotional impact on me that cannot be expressed in English. I had to pause many times during the reading to get my emotions under control. It was a draining, searing experience.

This story is based on historical events, and Tian Haoli is based on folktales about the Litigation Master Xie Fangzun. I’ve read that researching is your favorite thing about writing. What draws you to research? What kind of research was required in order to do this story justice?

I treat the need for research as opportunities to learn, and who doesn’t like learning?

Luckily, I did most of the background research for this story back in law school, so getting my research file out and reading over my notes was relatively easy. (Not being at the law school any more, I don’t have access to the wonderful resources at the Yenching Library at Harvard—writers who are in school, please take advantage of the wealth of information at your disposal before you graduate!)

I also had to read up on the Yangzhou Massacre, which, as I explained, proved to be a very difficult process. I’m glad I went through it, but I would not want to go through it again. Reading about such atrocities has a tendency to make one despair at human nature.

You’ve been incredibly prolific over the past few years, which is a little intimidating for an aspiring writer. What’s the secret? What’s a day in your writing life like?

Ha! I’m afraid I don’t have a secret. What I do can be summarized in two words: write more. The more I write, the more ideas I have. I don’t think this is necessary for everyone because some writers seem to write very little, but everything they write turns out incredible. But for me, I have to do my thinking while writing.

Because of my job and the fact that my wife and I have two very young children, my writing time tends to be pretty unpredictable. I try to squeeze some writing in during my commute on the train, and again after the kids are asleep, but I can’t say I’m successful every day. I always wish I were more disciplined.

Congratulations on your recent string of awards, from the World Fantasy to the Hugo to the Nebula and more. What do the nominations and awards mean to you?

Thank you very much. I’m grateful to the other writers and readers of the speculative fiction community who have nominated my works and voted for them. Their recognition is humbling to me, and I’m just overwhelmed by the response.

Truth be told, I don’t think about the awards much. What matters is writing a better story next, not dwelling on ones you’ve already written.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King”? What’s next for you?

One of the most gratifying comments I received about this story came from a beta reader who’s also a lawyer. He said that the story made him feel good about our profession. I felt that way, too, when I wrote it.

As for what’s next, I’ve put short fiction on hold for a while as I work on my novel and complete a translation of The Waste Tide, Chen Qiufan’s debut novel. I’m excited about both projects and hope readers like them when they’re complete!

Thank you for chatting with me.

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Kevin McNeil

Kevin McNeilKevin McNeil is a physical therapist, sports fanatic, and volunteer coach for the Special Olympics. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and The Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Intensive Novel Workshop, led by Kij Johnson. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction and is forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Kevin is a New Englander currently living in California. Find him on Twitter @kevinmcneil.