Fonda Lee is the award-winning author of the YA science fiction novels Zeroboxer and Exo. Born and raised in Canada, Lee is a black belt martial artist, a former corporate strategist, and action movie aficionado who now lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Jade City is her adult debut.
Jade City is the start of an epic gangster fantasy saga centered on a family of Green Bone warriors, the Kauls, and their involvement in a clan war over magic jade that amplifies their fighting powers. All of this takes place on the island of Kekon, a modern, Asia-inspired metropolis. How did the premise come together for you?
In one of my old writing notebooks, there are a few lines that date to mid-2013 when I was brainstorming ideas for what I would write as a submission piece to the Viable Paradise writers workshop. I scribbled, “A city. Jade City.” And then I called it a “wuxia gangster saga” that “takes place in a modern world with guns and cars, but where combat is hand-to-hand and power rests with those that have jade.” That was all I had: just a concept, no characters or plot. I ended up writing another story as my submission piece and the premise for Jade City remained in my notebook along with many other unused ideas. But I kept thinking about it off and on for another year. When an idea lodges in your mind and doesn’t go away, that’s when you know, as an author, that you really ought to pay attention. I had a vision of what Jade City would be: a heady blend of gangster epic, family saga, and martial arts fantasy. An oft-quoted piece of writing advice is to write the book you can’t find but want to read. That was certainly the case for me.
Tell us about where your fondness for mafia and gangster stories comes from. What about them captured your imagination?
I can’t resist the mythos of the fictional gangster: a character who lives not in accordance with the laws of ordinary society but by a harsh code of honor and brotherhood. Almost every major organized crime society has a strongly enforced culture of obedience, loyalty, and adopted kinship. It’s why the Sicilian mafia call their leader “godfather,” why the Chinese Triads have ceremonies where they swear oaths to their “brothers,” and why the Japanese yakuza cut off the tips of their little fingers if they cause shame to their superiors. It makes gangsters in stories far more compelling and relatable than criminals motivated by simple greed, and it offers up all sorts of opportunities for human drama—for stories that can encompass brutal violence yet also devotion and connection.
Were there any gangster stories that inspired you for this novel?
I’m a fan of mafia stories from both American and Asian cinema and television: Goodfellas, The Untouchables, Once Upon a Time in America, and The Sopranos are up there alongside Infernal Affairs, Election, The Killer, and Battles Without Honor and Humanity. The Godfather (the film and the novel) stands heads and shoulders above the others as an inspiration because it made me care deeply about the family at the heart of the story—something that I wanted to create in my own fantasy take on the genre.
Jade City incorporates Eastern and Western influences. In your Powell’s essay about blending Eastern and Western story elements (bit.ly/2jNC43O), you write about the difference between borrowing another’s cultural traditions for exploitative purposes in a work of art and cross-cultural inspiration. What’s your approach to bringing these influences together?
For me, it’s about thoughtfully combining things that I love. As a second generation Asian American, that means finding inspiration from both Western and Eastern stories. I grew up surrounded and engrossed by Western fiction—Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and so on—stories where there were rarely, if ever, any characters that looked like me and my family members. Only in early adulthood did I start really seeking out fiction from Asian sources—kung fu films, Hong Kong crime dramas, wuxia comic books. I found a lot to love, and that cross-cultural pollination in my brain is a wonderful source of ideas for me. In that sense, I think Jade City is a very Asian-American work.
How did you choose jade to be the bedrock of Kekonese society? Not only does it amplify the powers of the Green Bones, it also structures the social hierarchy of the Kekonese and fuels their economy.
The idea of magical gemstones or ores is certainly not anything new in fantasy fiction. Usually, it’s gold or crystals or diamonds. But in Asia, especially China, jade is considered more precious than any of those. For thousands of years, the Chinese have referred to jade as the “stone of heaven.” It was considered a link between the earthly and divine realms and thus used in ceremonies and rites. It was associated with virtue and prized as a symbol of status and wealth. Jade was already figuratively magical in our world; I simply made it literally so in my fictional one.
The Green Bones that wield this magic jade enforce an elaborate chain of command in their clans. How did you come up with the hierarchy and the terms that designate clan roles? I’m especially curious about the terms Lantern Man, Weather Man (strategist and brains behind the scenes), and Horn (tactical warrior). The others—Pillar, Fist, Finger—are pretty self-explanatory.
I was inspired by the flowery, esoteric titles used by the Chinese Triads, which have title ranks such as “Incense Master,” “Straw Sandal,” “Red Pole” and “49er”—but of course I wanted to make up my own hierarchy and titles for the Green Bone clans. From the start, I envisioned there being two sides to the clan—a military side and a business side—so I brainstormed lists of words that were not obvious titles but evoked a sense of the nature of the role. A “Pillar” is foundational, central. I settled on “Horn” as a title that connotes strength—a natural weapon. “Weather Man” suggests a person whose job is to be perceptive of the environment, to forecast the future. Fictional words and titles also reinforce worldbuilding; the “Lantern Men” are so named because of their historical role as civilian collaborators who hung lanterns as secret signals of support and allegiance to the Green Bone warriors during the years of foreign occupation a generation ago.
In the novel’s structure, I like how the three interspersed interludes tell short creation myths and tales of Deitism, the religion that lays the foundation for the Kekonese way of thought and warrior culture. They add yet another rich layer to the worldbuilding. How did you come up with these passages?
I really enjoyed creating the Deitist mythology that’s interspersed as interludes in the novel. The first function they serve is to make the island of Kekon and the culture of the Kekonese people that much more real. Often in fantasy novels, we’re presented a fictional society as it is now, but not told how it got to be that way. I wanted to give Kekon a sense of history. The short myths explain a great deal in a very economical way; they tie into sayings and attitudes and cultural references in the main story. The other thing they do is punctuate crucial moments in the novel. In an early draft of Jade City, I wrote an extended and rambling passage of mythology as part of my worldbuilding work, but didn’t know if and where to include it in the book. Later, I figured out that I could turn it into these short interludes and use them strategically to reinforce the narrative.
This is your first novel written for adults. Your previous ones are for young adult readers. In your experience, what has been a major difference between writing for adults and young adults? Some authors have talked and written about how YA novels make more allowances for violence while keeping out as much sexual content as possible.
I enjoy writing both young adult and adult novels, but I must say that I’m reveling in the sense of freedom I feel writing adult fiction. Not merely in terms of content (while there certainly is sexual content in young adult literature, my novels are sold directly into schools, so my publisher is more stringent), but because, frankly, looking at YA shelves, you’d think that everything interesting in the universe happens only to sixteen-year-olds. Obviously, that’s not true, and furthermore, there’s only so much life history that a sixteen-year-old can have. In my adult fiction, I can have a cast of adult characters of different ages, each with their own history, relating in all sorts of interesting ways.
You said in a previous interview about your first novel Zeroboxer that you prefer young adult novels because they’re centered and grounded in the struggles of one main protagonist. Jade City is a multi-narrative with several intersecting character arcs. What made you change your mind about centering the story on one main protagonist?
Part of it is my development as a writer—I simply couldn’t have successfully tackled a narrative with the complexity of Jade City earlier on in my career. I’m very glad that I wrote young adult novels that trained me to tell tightly-paced, single protagonist stories; it helped me immensely to stay narratively focused in a project like Jade City that might have sprawled out of control if I had been less experienced. In contrast to my previous novels, I knew from the outset that Jade City would be about a family, and that demanded a different approach—a strong cast of characters as well as a leveling up in my writing.
I noticed that Jade City shares in common with your previous books, Exo and Cross Fire, the setting (and theme) of a peacetime era coming to an end with the start of a war.
There’s even more to it than that; the other thing that both Jade City and Exo have in common is the legacy of a devastating prior war hanging over the society. The social scars and consequences of that have festered for a long time and are now inciting the start of new conflicts. I’m very interested in creating worlds that feel as though they’ve been around for a long time and are now on the cusp of another chapter in history. I think it creates a lot of fertile ground to explore all sorts of analogs of in our own world—something that I love to do as a writer—and it also helps to give the story a propulsive momentum that is going to sweep up the characters whether they want it to or not.
Speaking of analogs, the action of the novel takes place a generation after the Many Nations War, the devastating prior war in which Kekon fought for independence. Is there a historical reference point for it?
Yes, the Many Nations War is analogous to World War II in our world, which is why the technology level in Jade City corresponds closely to that in the 1960s-’70s.
Early in the novel, Hilo, one of the Kaul siblings and Horn of the No Peak clan, comments that the changes taking place in Kekon’s capital city of Janloon are too fast. Is there a historical analog for Kekon’s growth?
Kekon’s growth was inspired by the rise of the four “Asian Tigers” of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea in the latter half of the twentieth century. Times of economic development and social change are also times of opportunity and prosperity for organized crime—think of the Chicago Mob during the Roaring Twenties and the heyday of the Five Families of New York during the 1950s-’60s. Although the Green Bone clans are not technically crime groups, I wanted to evoke a sense of increasing wealth in a city that’s on the ascent, and the battles for turf and profit that invariably spring from that.
One of the themes I saw emerge in the novel was the illusion of choice. Kaul Lan, Pillar of the No Peak clan, tells his adopted cousin Anden that he doesn’t have become a Green Bone after graduating from the training academy if he doesn’t want to. When Lan’s sister, Shae, returns to Janloon after spending years abroad in Espenia, he tells her she doesn’t have to get involved in clan politics if she doesn’t want to. But Lan’s rule of the clan takes place primarily during a period of peace. Then No Peak’s rival, the Mountain clan, begins a war over jade with them. Do you think choice is only possible during periods of peace?
One of my beta readers noticed that a common theme in Jade City is characters being forced to do what they don’t want to do. They want to believe they have a choice, but often that choice turns out to be an illusion when life doesn’t go as planned. I think this is true for all of us. For example, today I can say, “I choose to make my living as an author instead of working a salaried job.” But what if, God forbid, my spouse fell sick and lost his job and needed medical care? To meet the needs of my family, I would do whatever I had to, including things I wouldn’t want to do. That’s what war does in Jade City—it forces the characters away from the options they have in peacetime, and into positions and roles they don’t want to assume. But they do it because they feel they must.
The martial arts fighting in the war, as well as the other action sequences, have high emotional stakes for the characters. How do you strike a balance between choreography and characterization when fight scenes usually take place in a very short time span?
I don’t think of the fight scene as being just the physical action. I consider the lead-up to the scene and the aftermath of the scene to be vital to making the fight itself work. A fight scene shouldn’t detour or pause character development; it is character development. There are scenes of violence in Jade City where my hope is that when they occur, they come as a surprise yet they feel entirely inevitable because by that point, the reader should know exactly what the stakes are for the characters and why this is happening.
The fight itself needs to have a tone. There’s one fight in the book that’s a vicious, sudden ambush. Another that has the feel of a very formal and deliberate ritual. And yet another that’s a planned act of war. I’m trying to evoke all that in the fight itself. And then the consequences of those acts of violence reverberate through the rest of the story.
Jade City is the first book of the Green Bone Saga. When can we expect the second book to come out and what can you tell us about it?
The next book of the Green Bone Saga is scheduled to come out in 2019. I’m hard at work on it now. I normally write a book a year, but the Green Bone novels are twice as long and about five times more complicated than my previous books, so readers will have to be a little patient. I can tell you that there will be new threats to the No Peak clan and to the country of Kekon; you’ll get to see other parts of the world impacted by jade; and there will be more scheming, betrayal, vengeance, and bloody jade-enhanced fights. The story will remain centered on the Kaul family, however; that’s a very strong part of my vision for this trilogy: that it be, at its core, a story about this family.
What other projects are you working on that you can tell us about?
Cross Fire, my next YA science fiction novel and the sequel to Exo, will be released in June 2018. I’m excited to be continuing my alien occupation story. I have several ideas for future projects as well, but I’ll be focused on the Green Bone Saga for some time.
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