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Feature Interview: Henry Lien

Henry Lien is a 2012 graduate of Clarion West. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He is the author of the Peasprout Chen series. Born in Taiwan, Henry currently lives in Hollywood. Hobbies include writing and performing campy science fiction/fantasy anthems, and losing Nebula awards. You can find him online at henrylien.com.

You’re the first author I’ve interviewed who’s had a Broadway singer perform at the book launch for their debut novel. I watched the promotional video (bit.ly/2KALX0E) of the one and only Idina Menzel performing the theme song from the first book of your Peasprout Chen series, Peasprout Chen: Future Legend of Skate and Sword, with you. That’s so cool! What’s the backstory? How did that happen?

We’re represented by the same agency, ICM. She got a hold of the advance reader copy of the first Peasprout Chen book and flipped over it. She asked ICM if they could arrange for her to meet me. After I finished screaming into my pillow, I said, “Oh, well, let me see if I can find a slot in my calendar to squeeze in lunch with Idina Freeggin’ Menzel.” Then I screamed into my pillow some more. We met and really hit it off. She has become a dear friend. So I asked her to sing the theme song for the book at the launch. She said yes. Then I died of shock, and thus am conducting this interview with you from the Beyond.

People have been elevator pitching your Peasprout Chen series as Harry Potter meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on ice. I see the topical similarities, but the description doesn’t work for me, because the series really is its own and very cool thing in terms of tone and worldbuilding. This began as “Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,” the novelette published in Asimov’s that you wrote for Chuck Palahniuk while you were at Clarion West. I think your description of it as a female Fight Club makes more sense. But I also understand that, these being middle-grade books, you can’t market Fight Club to readers that young. Do both descriptions resonate with you, or does one resonate more than the other?

Both resonate and both were conscious models. Fight Club for the reasons you mentioned. But I also wanted to capture the appeal of Potter by embracing the things that I felt truly made it memorable (dry humor and its puzzle nature). The Peasprout Chen books have no magic, no castles, no wizards, no chosen one, etc. But they’ve got (a) dry humor that sails right over the main character’s head; and (b) they are intricate puzzle stories with what readers have told me are genuinely startling plot twists. I think that these are actually the two features most responsible for making Potter so loveable, not its fairly routine world building. They are also the reasons why people consistently come away from Peasprout Chen with a Potter aftertaste despite the radically different setting and themes.

You’ve said that Ted Chiang is your favorite speculative fiction writer. What about his work has inspired your series, and what are some of your favorite stories of his?

Ted reminds me of Kubrick. (a) He is not prolific and is surgically precise in the choosing of projects to work on. (b) The ambition of his works is breathtaking but unshowy. (c) Each work is vastly different from the others in subject matter and genre, yet he absolutely nails everything that he sets out to attempt, and his first attempt in a genre usually results in a classic of the genre. (d) Quality, careful thought, and craft sing from every line of every work he creates.

I was inspired by Ted to impose the highest possible standards on myself for the Peasprout Chen series and only to write something that the world hadn’t seen before. Favorite works include “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” (which I think answers the fate/free will debate so beautifully that I never have to worry about that again, as well as never need to attempt a time travel story); “Hell is the Absence of God,” “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” and the short little parrot one (since I rescued a couple parrots).

How did you decide that Peasprout was going to be the main character of the series? Because Suki, the protagonist in “Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,” is the mean girl antagonist in the books.

Suki’s quite the pill, and I don’t know if readers would want to be in the head of such a character for 336 pages. I also wanted a character who was an immigrant, who had zero self-esteem issues and, in fact, needed some confidence destroying, and who was modeled closely on myself, warts exaggerated. The character of Peasprout is really just me in fourteen-year-old teenage-girl drag, and the books are really just thickly-veiled autobiography.

Peasprout is an immigrant because she comes from the rural country of Shin to attend the Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword. In the second book, Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions, there’s a scene where transfer student and fellow Shinian, Yinmei, says to her, “You’ve only been here in Pearl a year and a half. How quickly this place can make one forget one’s homeland . . . This place has that power. But don’t forget where you come from.” And yet throughout this book, Peasprout refers to herself as a Pearlian while balancing her outsider status and two identities.

To Pearlians, Peasprout insists that she is Pearlian, rather than Shinian, because she is combating the notion that immigrants don’t “belong here.” To Shinians, including Yinmei, she insists that she is Shinian and is offended when she is accused of being too enculturated into her new home and abandoning her roots. Peasprout has to fight on two fronts to defend her right to belong to both cultures. I think many immigrants will relate to that. Peasprout doesn’t know it yet, but she is working toward a sense of bicultural identity, which will become a principal theme if I get to write more books in the series.

Fingers crossed that you get to write more! When we learn that Peasprout’s safety and status in Pearl are at stake, her instructor Sensei Madame Liao says she can’t be sent back to Shin—read: deported—because “Pearl Famous is a sanctuary school. If we choose to grant sanctuary to someone, Pearlian authorities cannot touch her as long as she stays within the campus.” Are you referencing sanctuary cities and our current war on immigration?

Yes, very much so. But unfortunately, this is also a moral crisis that people have faced in different countries, in different periods of history.

Peasprout’s goal is to become a legend of wu liu, the deadly and beautiful art of martial arts figure skating. You’ve mentioned that figure skating and kung fu are kindred sports. How so?

The combination of dance and athletics gave them a family resemblance that I was surprised no one (to my knowledge) had attempted to explore before. I took figure skating and kung fu lessons as research for the books. As a student of these sports, I discovered that I was appalling at both, despite being generally strong and way macho. It was humbling and frustrating to see young women and girls being able to do with seeming effortlessness what I could not with great struggle. The lesson that I learned was that figure skating and kung fu, which I had chosen to combine because I thought it would be cool, were actually two sports that reward balance and flexibility more than brute strength. They were sports that rewarded the ways that girls and young women are built differently from males. There is a reason why teenage girl figure skaters can do things that even the best adult male skaters cannot do. This taught me an invaluable lesson that became a main theme in the book: Heroes come in all shapes and sizes.

All shapes and sizes and a variety of identities, including queer identities. Can I just say how much I love seeing how the queerness in the series plays out? I love how it’s integrated in the highly competitive setting of Pearl Famous Academy, and in many ways, it’s even celebrated. And the queer relationships that form between some of the characters are so endearing.

I deliberately wanted to give POC and queer folks a Harry Potter of their own. I adore Jo Rowling as an ally and I’m grateful for her vocal support and happy to see her filling in between the lines to embrace more representation in the Potter world. However, I also wanted to create an iconic fantasy world that had diversity and queerness baked into it from the outset, and write a plot that could only work with POC and queer characters. Author use of italics usually makes me go “eeww,” but please leave those in to indicate sufficiently the passion of the author on these sentiments.

I think that a lot of the ugly resistance around bringing diversity / representation into beloved existing SFF series, especially Star Wars, is that some folks bonded with the series and felt betrayed when they saw the series marching ahead into the future when they and their values hadn’t kept apace. By building my own Potter / Star Wars that was diverse and queer from the ground up, no one could claim that the series did a switcheroo on them. The diverse and queer elements were absolutely inextricable. You’re in with the lineup from the outset or else you self-select yourself out.

Now, there’s a lot riding on the fight scenes and action sequences in the books. Peasprout has to prove, again and again, her loyalty to Pearl. She’s super-competitive and clearly wants to win. Her friendships hang in the balance of the outcome of these competitions, too. How did you approach the choreography of these scenes?

Well, my goal was to write the flat-out best action sequences ever written in a book. I know how conceited that sounds, and I’m not saying I achieved this goal, but that was the bar over which I strove to hurl myself. I studied iconic action set pieces in films and video games, particularly ones that used the environment in unusual ways. Zelda games were a main inspiration. However, the greatest inspiration for the action scenes was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because each of the fights in that film was about character relationships. The fights were ultimately battles of will as much as physical battles, and the characters came out of each battle with a deeper understanding of their opponents and the relationships between them. I wanted the spectacle to be anchored in emotion and in characters. That’s why the biggest set pieces in the first book are ultimately about Peasprout and fellow student Doi trying to figure out where they stand with each other, as rivals, allies, friends, etc.

You up the ante in book two by having the Empress of Shin declare an invasion on the city of Pearl, and Pearl Famous Academy turns from an arts academy to a military academy. One of the classes Peasprout and the other students have to take is on propaganda. Would you say that the academy’s shift to weaponize literature, architecture, and music is a form of propaganda?

Yes. I’m really curious about the art forms that militaries use as branding vehicles. For example, camouflage for the US military comes in fashion shades that have seasons. Musical genres used, and musical genres avoided, by the militaries in recruitment commercials throughout the decades say so much about their messaging (and the profiles of the youths that they want to recruit).

Reading both Peasprout Chen books made me think of your short story “Bilingual,” published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, because of the running themes of animal welfare and veganism. Peasprout, her brother Cricket, and her friends Doi and Hisashi, eat only plant-based meals.

Being vegan and an animal lover is as integral a part of my identity as being gay and Asian. I’m not one to shame or proselytize. I prefer to focus on the positive. Being vegan gives me so much joy. I’m grateful every day for the beautiful animals that we are so lucky to share this planet with and grateful for a way to express that love with food choices that are good for my health and save the planet at the same time. I also think that animals make people better people. There are also hundreds of years of history behind achingly good plant-based cuisine in so many Asian cultures. To be closeted about this ingrained part of my own culture and myself would have been deeply false and unnatural.

You’ve written other short stories, such as “Supplemental Declaration of Henry Lien,” “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society,” and “The Shadow You Cast is Me,” for older readers. What’s been your experience writing the Peasprout Chen novels for middle-grade readers? What are some differences and similarities you’ve picked up on?

There’s been basically zero difference for me in writing adult work vs. writing middle-grade work. I don’t really approach them any differently. Maybe that means I’m a lousy middle-grade writer. But dumbing down work is excruciating to me. I deferred to my editor Tiff Liao and my publisher Macmillan about what category the books would fit in. To my surprise, almost all the people who have read Peasprout Chen in one sitting or in twenty-four hours have been nine years old or younger.

Wow! That’s pretty cool! And how have kids been reacting to the series so far?

This morning, I got an email from someone saying she was in a restaurant. A kid was throwing a hissy fit, because he didn’t want to leave the restaurant because he was almost finished with a book. Turned out the book was Peasprout Chen. So my book is causing public tantrums. My work here is done.

School visits have been a blast. It’s extremely easy to tell when middle-grade audiences are into what you are doing. At my appearances, they clap along, bounce in their seats, scream, rush the stage, ask for hugs, and basically make me feel like I’m Justin Bieber. It’s pretty rad.

What’s next for Peasprout? Do you have more future stories lined up for her?

I have book three all outlined. This book would conclude the original trilogy. My publisher hasn’t committed to it yet. We’ll have to see if the first two books do well enough for them to pull the trigger and commit to it. Beyond that, I have a whole lot more that I would love to write in this world, including an intergenerational immigrant love story about the two women who invented wu liu (kung fu figure skating) and built the city of Pearl.

Do you have other writing projects lined up that you can tell us about?

I’m working on a couple of things I’m really excited about, but unfortunately, I’m not allowed to talk about them yet. Suffice it to say that I’m as passionate about what I’m working on now as I am about the Peasprout Chen series.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about the series?

A reader pointed out something to me in the first Peasprout Chen book that stunned me: If you do something with the name of one of the characters, it reveals the primary secret in the book. It’s as if someone had pointed out to Jo Rowling that “Tom Marvolo Riddle” is an accidental anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort.” When the reader pointed this out to me, my jaw hung agape so long that I slipped on my own saliva. If anyone finishes the book and can’t see this Easter egg, email me at [email protected] and I’ll tell you in confidence.

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.