By Anushi Mehta
Today we’re pleased to welcome June CL Tan to the WNDB blog to discuss Jade Fire Gold.
June, your book has everything: Magic, family, romance, trauma, and nail-biting pace! I found it easy to read, yet so beautifully lyrical. Your use of show vs tell is masterful. Can you talk us through your process of writing the book, including your writing routine and space?
Thank you! I feel like fantasy has a little bit of a reputation of being “difficult” to read because of the expansive and sometimes hard-to-follow worldbuilding and relatively slower pace. I set out with the intent to create a story that is immersive and rich, and that has all the details of a fantasy book—without being bogged down by pacing or an overly long setup. Understandably, this is subjective, but hopefully, I did a good enough job.
I had the idea for what would become Jade Fire Gold at the end of 2015, but it was only sometime later in the fall of 2016 that I started truly drafting it properly. I revised it as best as I could with the skills that I had at that time, and participated in DVpit, a Twitter pitch contest, in early 2017. While I had agents asking for and reading the full manuscript, the rejections started coming in, and I knew the story wasn’t ready yet. I could write a good pitch, but I hadn’t mastered the art of telling a story, so I applied for and got selected for PitchWars that year and was under the mentorship of Akemi Dawn Bowman. I took the story apart and rewrote about half of it in the span of two months, which was an exhilarating and stressful process. But I learned so much about structure and finding the heart of your story through that experience.
The book went through another major round of revision after it didn’t succeed on editorial submission in 2018. I was lucky enough to have author friends who knew what kind of story I was trying to tell and who could provide constructive feedback as to how to get to the core of it. Eventually, my then-agent put it out for submission at publishing houses again.
As for my writing routine and space…I would summarize it as “chaotic.” I have a small desk in my bedroom (NYC apartment living means everything is squished), but sometimes I’m writing in the kitchen or the living room, or even on the floor or some other place. There’s an entire chunk of Jade Fire Gold that stayed from the first draft to the published book that was written at a Starbucks inside a Target, on a notebook I bought right there. I was buying cereal and the words and scenes started swarming in my mind so I had to write them down immediately. I don’t write every day because, unfortunately, my current health situation doesn’t permit it. I don’t have a set routine; I write whenever I can.
Wow, what a journey!! Ha, I cannot believe you bought a book at Target and scribbled notes on it, then and there. A true writer.
The story has an all people of color cast and the cutest lesbian couple. In a sense, it joins the long-overdue conversation that we are having about more books with marginalized characters. Why do you think this novel is relevant now and how do you think it can help move the needle going forward?
I’m so glad you like Tang Wei and Linxi! I wrote the story this way as I did not remember seeing any LGBTQ+ representation in the early classic wuxia shows and novels I was familiar with. The world of Jade Fire Gold is, to quote an early reader, “queernorm.” LGBTQ+ characters exist side by side with the other characters without fear of retaliation.
I think that novels with all-POC casts, LGBTQA+ characters, disabled characters, neurodivergent characters, and characters with other marginalizations have always been relevant. Diversity and intersectionality in real life were not created in the 21st century, they have always existed. They have merely been ignored in fiction in a large part of Western publishing. This is probably largely due to who the gatekeepers in publishing were/are, and who was/is even privileged enough to have the time and resources to pick up a pen or a laptop and write.
While there have been some changes in recent years (and a lot of it is due to WNDB), arguably change is slow and resistance persists because change is always frightening to those who wish to hold on to power. But it’s truly exciting to see more and more novels featuring marginalized characters and written by marginalized authors being published. Jade Fire Gold is only a tiny part of this movement, and I do hope that this movement continues and that publishers and readers will throw their support behind marginalized authors and their work.
You are absolutely right about novels with marginalized characters always being relevant and I, too, hope the movement continues.
Jade Fire Gold is deftly written in a dual-narrative. I was rooting for both protagonists all the way through. How did these characters come to you?
It’s cliche, but I had a dream of a girl trying her best to survive in a desert which was actually a growing beast that was killing her world. I knew that she had an adoptive grandmother and that she was desperate to survive and to protect her grandmother. Ahn was the first character that appeared in my head first. In some ways, Jade Fire Gold is her story.
I had the idea of giving Ahn a foil of sorts. Someone who seems different at first but with whom she forms a deeper connection later, and that someone became Altan. He didn’t have a POV when I introduced his character. However, I discovered that he’s a character who’s always in his own head. It made sense to give him a POV to express himself directly to the reader since he’s less inclined to express it to the other characters. I didn’t want the romance to be the main focus of the book; I wanted it to be more of an emotional and spiritual meeting between two people who feel very alone in their world. And this also contributed to the decision to give Altan a full POV because, in my opinion, in order for the emotional connection to work, I would have to let the reader into his head.
At the time of drafting, I didn’t feel like there were many people of color Chosen One protagonists in YA, so I wanted to include that trope in the book, but I also wanted to give it a twist. Ahn and Altan each embody traits of the Chosen One archetype in different ways: One is cursed or blessed (depending on whose perspective) with powerful magic that could destroy the world; the other was born into a position to be emperor (a chosen one in this sense), but had that destiny snatched from him. Destiny and fate are themes that appear again and again throughout Chinese myths, literature, and culture, so this is another thread that runs throughout the story, and the destinies of the two protagonists are intertwined.
Your side characters, Tang Wei, Tai Shun, and Leiye are well-rounded side characters, did you have them in your head from the start? Or did they come to you as you wrote?
The side characters came to me at varying stages and in varying forms and some of them evolved along the way as I figured out how they related to the plot, and what the dynamics between each of them and the main characters were. I was certain of Tang Wei’s (the lesbian assassin) personality from the start, and it was super fun to write a sassy, confident, and competent character like her. Tai Shun, the reluctant Crown Prince of the Shi Empire, was probably the most fully formed. I knew that he was someone who never wanted to be emperor or to rule, and that he would be seen as weak by others, but that he was trying his best to live up to familial expectations and putting his own desires aside. I had a clear idea of what his arc would be from the beginning.
As a more mysterious character with a cloaked agenda, Leiye’s character needed more work as some of the things he says in the book have a double meaning, and his actions can be interpreted in different ways. His backstory is one that I find most interesting, though a lot of it is alluded to rather than explicitly stated on-page. I had a lot of fun writing his character! He’s probably my favorite, and if I ever have a chance, I’d love to share his story with the world.
I’ll be the first one to buy that book.
I loved your use of Chinese folklore and excellent world-building. Talk us through the process of getting into Altan and Ahn’s world?
It was easy for me to get into the world as it’s one that I’m familiar with. I grew up in Singapore and spent my childhood watching a lot of wuxia (martial heroes), xianxia (immortal heroes), and Chinese period dramas. Because of the environment I grew up in, I’m also familiar with the myths and legends in Chinese culture and folklore, as well as some of the traditions that were passed down and still carried out and celebrated today. The world of Jade Fire Gold came from that knowledge and experience, as well as my travels to China, Taiwan, and other parts of Asia.
I was lucky enough to see in person some of the ancient Chinese architectural structures and the different landscapes, but I also did a lot of googling to research more details of the geography of northern China and Mongolia. I also visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City when they had an exhibition of ancient artifacts from the Qin and Han Dynasties, and that was incredibly cool.
Some of the worldbuilding in the book is also informed by the political relationships and dynamics in East Asia and Southeast Asia. While the world of Jade Fire Gold and the events in the book are fictional and fantastical, I drew from historical eras and events like the British, Dutch, and European colonization of Southeast Asia, and the Japanese Occupation of Singapore during World War II.
Even though the story may come across as “Chinese,” I would say that it’s a short-hand way of describing it because I wrote it through the lens of diaspora. There are so many regional, historical, and diaspora-influenced differences in all these myths, legends, and traditions, so I wanted to put my own spin on them. The main legend and the mythological creatures you read about in Jade Fire Gold are inspired. For example, the Peaches of Immortality appear in several Chinese myths and also Journey to the West. But in Jade Fire Gold, I used them in a slightly different way and created my own story-based myth by introducing a different character in the fairytale that is told in the book. I think this melding of influences and use of creative license is also something I observe in wuxia and xianxia genres (and beyond) anyway, especially with new generations of diaspora and local (Chinese) writers.
June, you are quite active on Instagram, Tiktok, and Twitter. And recently, I subscribed to your newsletter. How do you keep up with all the different platforms and how important is it for an aspiring, debut, or established author to engage with the audience through social media?
I’m still figuring out how everything works as social media moves fast. I’m not equally active on all platforms, and I often take much-needed breaks from social media. There are many authors who don’t have much of a social media presence at all, and there are established authors who don’t really use social media, so I don’t think it’s mandatory to have a platform. I think authors should decide how they wish to guard their mental and emotional energy because writing itself already takes up a lot of that. If they choose to engage, they could pick a platform they’re comfortable with and that they enjoy using. Many authors who have been in the business longer advise that the healthiest way to be on social media is to be on it only if you want to and only if you enjoy it, and this is the principle I follow.
You’ve been through a change of imprint, three changes in editors, but yet managed to sell foreign rights and create an incredible buzz about your book. How did you take care of your own mental health at this time?
It’s been a strange rollercoaster ride, and it feels like I’ve had many different experiences coming together in a short span of time. For a while, there were definitely way more downs than ups in my publishing journey and more trials and tribulations. For better or worse, I kind of go by the ‘what doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger’ mentality, so I try to take the negative things in my stride and find lessons to learn from them.
There’s no guarantee of success or stability in the publishing industry even if one works hard unless an author hits stratospheric levels of success for a sustained period of time, and that tends to be reserved for the very few outliers. Sometimes, luck is involved and that’s not something anyone can control. I think it’s important to be realistic (but not pessimistic) about how the industry works, especially as an author of color, and to go in with your eyes wide open.
One thing I try to do to counter the negativity on my mental health is to focus on the positive things, however small they may be. When I receive a positive comment from a reader or positive news about something, I give myself the time and space to appreciate it and find joy in it. Sometimes when something good happens, I get a mini treat like cake, other times it’s taking half a day off to do nothing and watch anime! Movement also helps, I think. As authors, we can end up leading pretty sedentary lifestyles and for me, the lack of movement can contribute to a bad headspace. It’s also important to have a good support network—and it doesn’t matter whether the people in your network are involved in writing/publishing or not, all that matters is that they’re people who care about you as a human being and who want the best for you.
Thank you for answering the questions with so much honesty. Now I’d like to move on to the Rapid-Fire questions.
Ahn or Altan?
Leiye (sorry! He’s my fave.)
Without summarizing it in any way, what would you say your book is about?
Family—lost and found.
Can you discuss the various influences on your book without naming other authors or books?
Wuxia tv shows and films, xianxia and c-dramas, donghua (Chinese animation), Chinese mythology and culture.
If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?
Does your epic pitch of Jade Fire Gold from 2019 still hold true:
If you like
100% POC cast
a prince who doesn’t want to be emperor
an outcast seeking revenge
a girl caught in the crossfire
adorable lesbian couple
hot dodgy priest
I think it does!
Top 3 YA books from the last five years?
Descendant of the Crane by Joan He.
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black.
We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.
The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan.
What’s next for you?
Writing and publishing more books, hopefully!
Dream project for you?
Every project is a dream project because I get to write it 🙂
June CL Tan grew up in Singapore where she was raised on a diet of classic books and wuxia movies, caffeine and congee. She holds various degrees in communication studies, education, and film. After teaching for a few years, she took a detour into the finance industry. To no one’s surprise, she soon realized her mistake and made her escape. Now, she resides in New York City, talking to imaginary people and creating fantastical worlds under the watchful eye of her crafty cat. She enjoys telling stories that draw on both the traditional and modern to create something fresh to the eye, but familiar to the heart. Jade Fire Gold is her debut novel.
Anushi Mehta is a first generation Belgian-Indian who grew up in charming Antwerp. She pursued degrees in psychology and primary teaching at Warwick University and met her husband while working in London. Now, they live in Mumbai and everyone from her two-year-old to her 88-year-old grandma teases her for always feeling cold. After moving to Mumbai, Anushi completed an introductory course on learning disabilities and ‘Yoga for the Special Child’ by Sonia Sumar and then worked as a special educator until her son was born. Moreover, she oversees a primary school in her ancestral hometown, where she focuses on raising literacy levels. Anushi discovered the power of voice when she began inventing stories about spunky Indian girls for her daughter. It is her dream that each of her stories feature masala chai. In addition to honing her craft with courses at Highlights Foundation and The Writing Barn, she is an active participant of 12×12 and Desi Kidlit, a community of writers from the Asian Diaspora. Anushi has also been selected by WeNeedDiverseBooks as one of the “sixteen creative, rising voices” in their 2020 Mentorship Program. Alan Gratz is mentoring her for her MG, LEVEL PLAYING FIELD. She is also a chronicler at #LOVEnotfear, a mental health awareness campaign on the psychological impact of the pandemic encouraging values of love, hope & unity, one story at a time. Finally, Anushi is an interviewer at WeNeedDiverseBooks and a contributor at The Word – A Storytelling Sanctuary.