Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Yoon Ha Lee?
I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with my family and a cat with the personality of an unusually submissive marshmallow. My twelve-year-old daughter would like you to know that I have a twelve-year-old daughter.
She also wants to let you know that I write genocidal science fiction. Her term, not mine. Maybe I had better set her up with some computer games or a book and get her away from me…
Solaris are publishing your new novel, Ninefox Gambit, in June. It looks rather fascinating: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
Ninefox Gambit is about a disgraced captain, Kel Cheris, who allies with a brilliant undead tactician, Shuos Jedao, to defend one of her nation’s star fortresses. The good news: Jedao has never lost a battle, and he may be the only one capable of cracking the fortress’s defenses.
The bad news: Jedao once massacred two armies, one of them his own, and if Cheris isn’t careful, she may be next.
The book also features big space battles, magitech weapons like amputation guns, and geese. It’s the first of a trilogy. I’ve already handed in the second book, Raven Stratagem.
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
A couple things. One, I had wanted to write a space opera for a while, but was finding the short fiction form too confining for the big storylines that I wanted to play with. There are probably authors who can write short fiction with an epic scale, but I find it very difficult! Two, I’d come up with the scenario of a general who was apparently perfect until he destroys his own army as well as the enemy’s — why might he have done that, and how would my heroine survive working with him?
Some of my inspirations came from games. I’ve loved games since childhood, although these days I don’t have as much time to play them.
Major influences for Ninefox Gambit‘s setting include Planescape, where people’s beliefs affect reality; Warhammer 40,000, with its generalized grimdarkness; and Legend of the Five Rings, which is samurai fantasy with different clans taking on different specialties. Other inspirations came from a lifetime of reading nonfiction.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
The first encounter I remember with genre fiction was Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight. My best friend in 3rd grade, Gwyn, had gotten addicted to the Harper Hall books, so I thought I’d give one of McCaffrey’s books a try. The dragons were cool, but I remember how the time travel plot completely blew my mind when I was a kid! And I spent years after that writing dreadful imitations of the “Rukbat, in the Sagittarian sector…” prologues to a bunch of my stories.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
What I like about writing is that it allows me to set my own schedule.
I have bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder, so regular hours are difficult for me to keep. Writing also gives me the excuse to do things like research security engineering, game design, and ethnomathematics (as if I need an excuse!).
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I actually drafted most of Ninefox Gambit longhand with a fountain pen (Waterman 52V or Webster Four-Star), because you can get ink in about five zillion colors. I’m afraid the original draft looks like My Little Pony vomit! But these days I’ve switched to using the app Writer’s Block on my Macbook Air, then polishing things up in Scrivener, and then finally exporting to Microsoft Word. It gets pretty involved!
I do a lot of random nonfiction reading and those things make it into my stories from time to time, but I also research specific topics as needed. For Ninefox Gambit, I ended up reading a bunch of military things, like West Point textbooks and military field manuals (I adore FMFRP 12-2 Infantry in Battle), as well as stuff on social engineering and security engineering.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
Third grade, when my teacher Mr. McCracken dressed up as the superhero Story Man to encourage the class to do creative writing. I was entranced by the idea that people made stories! The idea that stories were written by real, live people hadn’t really penetrated before then, so I wanted to give it a go. For years I wrote small, poorly-illustrated stories with a pencil in stapled booklets for my sister.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I don’t read as much as I used to, regrettably, because I read pretty slowly, but I’m very happy to see more diversity in the field. When I was a kid growing up reading this stuff, it was mostly white straight characters. Having a greater variety of characters in all sorts of ways gives readers more choices. My daughter is biracial, and I’m glad she’ll have early exposure to this variety when I didn’t get to experience it myself.
I don’t have a good sense of where I fit in compared to other writers. I’d say that I write science fantasy, often dealing with war and its consequences.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on the third book in the trilogy, Revenant Gun. After that, I have a couple of potential novel outlines to run by my agent, and I probably should get back to working on that Choicescript science fiction game I put on hold last year, Star Spy Academy.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I recently finished Steven Erikson’s wicked funny Star Trek parody, Willful Child, and am now reading Jack Schaefer’s Western Shane, because I am apparently the only person who escaped reading it for school in elementary in the USA. For nonfiction, I’m trying to understand economics better, so I’m reading Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money; Seth Dickinson, author of the fabulous fantasy novel The Traitor Baru Cormorant [The Traitor in the UK], recommended it to me.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I once cross-stitched a screencap of Angel (the vampire with a soul) walking away into an alley — you know, from the end of the opening song of the Angel TV show. It was, er, not good cross-stitch. I have since concluded that I should leave the textile arts to people who are actually good at that stuff.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
My family and I are visiting my mom for the first time in five years this winter; my mom lives in South Korea so the plane tickets get expensive. Besides getting to catch up with family, I plan on eating all the food. The best Korean food, in my not so humble opinion, is the tangerines, which are coincidentally in season in the winter. If you like citrus fruits at all, Korean tangerines are amazing.
Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is published by Solaris Books, on June 14th, 2016. For more on the author’s writing and fiction, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.