How did “Nine Tails of a Soap Empire” originate? What inspirations did you draw on?
To be honest, I can’t remember, although it may have been the idea of soap and what it represents. It’s fascinating to examine the history and cultural relevance of soap, the way we’ve fable-ized its discovery with this violent, erroneous story (the first soaps weren’t discovered after burning bodies in rivers; they were instead made from heating oil and wood ash), the meanings we’ve assigned to it over the centuries. It feels especially poignant now, when so many are meditating daily on contamination and cleanliness.
As stories go, this one is straight-up vibes, if you know what I mean—it’s so dependent on atmosphere and setting. It helps that I’ve previously spent a lot of time in this world, as it was originally developed for a novel that never quite made it across the finish line with publishers (it was on sub during early COVID.) I’m sure part of me wanted to find a way to reuse this thing I’d put so much effort and energy into creating.
Where are you in this story?
I listen to this podcast, Print Run (I recommend it for anybody trying to publish a novel and understand the industry better), and there’s an early episode in which one of the hosts talks about how, when he was just starting out as an agent, he used to lie in bed at night and just ache to sell a book. And when I first heard him say that, I was lying in bed, desperately wanting the same thing.
My point is that I’m hungry, all the time. The physical feeling, sure, because I have all sorts of food issues I’ve been working on most of my life—but also in the figurative sense. I think most writers are. We’re some of the softest, most emotional people out there, and yet we just throw ourselves into a meat-grinder, over and over, trying to make some words that someone else will read and fantasizing about movie deals that we pretend we don’t want.
I don’t know where my hunger comes from. Maybe it’s from being broke for a long time—there were so many instances I was in this really awful circumstance where the tiniest thing going my way would’ve have drastically changed my life, but I had no way of getting there.
Now that I’m finally finding a small measure of success and financial stability, I find that I can’t escape the stamp of that hunger. Everything I write winds up about being in desperate circumstances and seeking agency in small choices, because we don’t really have any substantive choices in the systems we find ourselves in. And for those of us who don’t start out with a lot, we often find stability by making dicey compromises that we will later have to reckon with—swallowing a coal, if you will.
Is there anything you want to make sure readers noticed?
There’s this common misconception about Korea that it’s this really culturally homogeneous place, where everyone believes the same thing and is obsessed with filial piety, and all of our history has the exact same outfits, the ones you see on Kingdom—but that’s just reductionist orientalism. No place is like that.
In this story, I wanted to showcase some of that texture. There are callbacks to various belief systems, like Christianity, Shamanism, and Buddhism. There are elements taken from earlier dynasties, like the Shilla dynasty, the reverence for antlers and antlered deities—and other pieces that are really quite modern. And of course, you have the narrator, who is obsessed with power and individual gain—just because a culture is more polite or collective on the whole doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out for themselves.
Also, Hanji paper is not only real, I actually under-sold its awesomeness. There are thousand-year-old Hanji scrolls just sitting around under glass in Korean museums. It’s really that resilient.
What would be your advice for other writers?
I answered this question in a previous interview, so I’ll try to say something different.
If you’re just starting out, you probably don’t actually know what kind of writer you are. I’m almost twenty years in, and I’ve only recently discovered that I’m actually a fair hand at suspense and that I have a slamming first-person voice. I managed to write a book last year that my agent called “screamingly funny,” and I was surprised, because I’d never considered myself a funny writer before. Part of the joy of doing this is that you’re going to make new discoveries all the time—but you can’t do that if you don’t push yourself to try things that you wouldn’t normally, that you’re maybe a little bit uncomfortable with.
An easy way to do this for short fiction is sub calls. If you see a call you would normally ignore—take it as a challenge and do your best to reinterpret the theme in a way that speaks to you. It doesn’t actually matter if you send the story to that particular venue or not.
What are you working on lately? Where else can fans look for your work?
I’ve just finished revisions on my upcoming novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief—a surreal psychological suspense with some light fantasy elements—which will be coming out in January of 2023. (Less than a year, now!) I’m also busily drafting another suspense about artists in a collective that leans hard into the gothic.
I’ve been lucky enough to place pieces in a bunch of mags lately, which you can see here: mariadong.com/publications. If you’re really feeling more Korean-based fiction, you might like this story in khōréō (bit.ly/341wmWm), and if you want another story about hunger, there’s this (adorable yet creepy) story in Nightmare (bit.ly/3IY9sxX).
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