By Karis Rogerson
If you follow Julie Dao anywhere online, you’ll know at least one part of her story: the nearly decade-long journey to publication. Even while she studied medicine and briefly put writing aside, she says she knew subconsciously writing was what she wanted to do.
“Writing is the only thing I’ve ever been good at,” Dao said. “It makes me feel powerful and strong and in control, like I’m a wielder of magic – because I really do think that storytelling is as close to true magic as we can get.”
Dao has been in love with storytelling since childhood, recalling how she used to prefer to spend elementary school recess reading rather than on the playground.
“I devoured everything I could during those hours of solitude…I read every volume of fairy tales the school library owned,” Dao remembered. “Those afternoons are still sort of tinted in magic in my memory, and I started writing my own stories shortly after.”
Dao is the author of the Rise of the Empress duology, a gorgeous pair of novels set in a fantasy world inspired by East Asia that chronicles the story of Xifeng and her stepdaughter Jade.
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, the first in the series, unflinchingly tells the story of a woman’s decision to do whatever it takes to gain power in a world deadset against her; while Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is the story of another woman’s own journey, raising the questions of whether she, too, will allow darkness to reign.
And on Nov. 5, Dao will be the proud author of three novels, as her next book, Song of the Crimson Flower, will be published.
In a sentence, Dao described the book as, “a Vietnamese-inspired fairy tale full of wishes, witches, and war,” which—yes, please.
Using a few more words, she explained that it’s a fantasy based on a folktale she heard from her mother.
“As soon as I heard it, I got the nugget for this complicated love story about two people who are very different and make a lot of mistakes, and who have to fall apart before they come together,” Dao explained. “It’s a tribute to my family and my heritage, and also to the romances I love where the characters are forced to work and change as people in order to get their happy ending.”
As a writer of kidlit, Dao has the opportunity to reach children and teenagers, and she said that aspect is one of her favorite sides of being published.
“Being able to reach and encourage young readers and writers has been the best part, hands down, of getting published,” she said. “I remember what it was like to want something so badly at a young age, and to find your life’s passion so early.”
Dao described seeing her books on shelves in libraries and bookstores, especially as someone who harbored the dream of publication for so long (she wrote her first completed novel at the age of nine!) with a sense of wonder.
“If there was some time wrinkle, that little girl [that I was] might look up at the ‘D’ names and see her future books sitting there, gleaming back at her,” she said. “And it’s always a fun surprise to see my works all over the country, in airports and train stations!
In addition to writing as a kind of magic, Dao said writing brings her joy.
“I write because it makes me happy and because it’s a way to connect to other people,” she said. “I was a very shy, awkward kid, and the idea of communicating through the written word has always been attractive to me.”
One question that was really on my mind when interviewing Dao was what she wishes she could go back in time to tell herself when she was querying. Dao was in the query trenches, and then the submission trenches, for many years; recently, in a newsletter, she shared her blog post from 2015, when she first signed with her agent, which gave me chills and moved me to tears.
“Looking back, I see now how every rejection and roadblock happened for a good reason,” she said, saying she would tell a younger, querying version of herself to be patient. “Most of us want the dream of publication to happen instantaneously, but it doesn’t come to you just because you want it.
“Most of the time, you have to level up in a big way and work hard to improve your craft first so you’ll be more ready for whatever comes, in whatever form it comes,” she added.
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Karis Rogerson is an American, Canadian, pseudo-Italian who loudly (but only sometimes fluently) speaks 2.5 languages and is proud to be of the auburn-haired club. As a reader and writer, her childhood heroes included Anne of Green Gables and Jo March (classic), and these days she admires authors like Angie Thomas, Sandhya Menon, and Heidi Heilig, who are changing the world one brilliant story at a time. Find more of her writing on her website, and follow her on Twitter or Instagram for writing updates and pictures of Italy and New York City.