Welcome once again to Who Stokes the Fire: a feature on bookdragonism where I talk to content creators who keep the flames burning in our bookdragon hearts. This time, I have R.F. Kuang (one of my most favorite authors) on the blog to talk about her latest book—The Dragon Republic—which comes out tomorrow!
I can’t thank Rebecca enough for agreeing to do this interview with me. I literally cried in happiness when she responded to my email because she’s truly one of the authors I admire the most. I am a complete trash for The Poppy War (and its sequel) so I can definitely say that this interview is one of the highlights of my blogging life so far. I’M SO HAPPY AND BLESSED. Even though Rebecca has broken my heart a hundred times, I still can’t help but be a huge fan because she’s a complete genius.
Let’s get this started, shall we?
Rain: Even after reading it multiple times, the thought of The Poppy War still makes my heart race because it’s THAT phenomenal. How difficult was it to write a sequel to such an epic first book? How different was the experience of writing The Dragon Republic?
Rebecca: That is so nice of you to say. ❤
The Dragon Republic was much, much harder to write than The Poppy War. Second book syndrome is real and it sucks–particularly when the first book did well, because the bar is so much higher. I was so scared I was going to let readers down! But I treated that as fuel. I knew I had to give TDR my all because readers have been so wonderfully supportive about TPW, and I wanted to give them the book they deserved.
Rain: A lot of bookdragons are excited for The Dragon Republic and are probably preparing tissues, chocolates and buckets to store their tears in as we speak. What can your readers expect from The Dragon Republic?
Rebecca: Lots of character development and backstory. I’ve never liked characters who are just plain good or evil. I really love delving into characters’ pasts and exploring what things made them the way they are. I suppose the fundamental question of the trilogy is “what makes monsters?” Of course, the arc over all three books involve the making of one particular monster, but I also try to explore this question whenever I introduce a supposed villain. What made Altan Trengsin so relentlessly cruel? Why does Su Daji alone rule the Nikara Empire? Why is the Lady Yin Saikhara helping the Hesperians? Why is [redacted] such an asshole?
Rain: The Dragon Republic focuses on naval warfare which really drew my attention because I haven’t read any other book that paid great attention to this particular subject before. What was your favorite part in writing this aspect of the book?
Rebecca: The ship porn. THE SHIP PORN! I did so much research on makes and models of all types of old Chinese ships, and I think you can tell from the lavish descriptions in the book that I got really into it. There’s a line in the Dragon Republic where Baji says, “If that ship were a person, I’d fuck that ship.” That is very much how I feel about great bulky warships, small and nimble sampans, and sleek opium skimmers… I got to take all those beautiful, beautiful ships and hurl them into chaotic battle. So fun.
Rain: Your series has some of the most complex characters I have ever encountered. Some of my favorites are Rin, Kitay, Nezha and Altan (he sucks but I love his complexity). Which of your characters is the most interesting to write?
Rebecca: I really do love everyone equally. They’re all trash in their own special ways–Rin was born in a dumpster, and Nezha was born in a Louis Vuitton toilet. But if you really force me to choose, I’d say Jiang. There’s such a huge disconnect between the person he was once and the person he is now. Jiang is a metaphor for ruptured memory, forgotten history, and the difficulty of confronting your past. What happens when we’re forced to face up to what we’ve done? Rin and Jiang both struggle with that, both with disastrous consequences. I’m excited to explore that further in Book 3, a large chunk of which is Jiang’s show.
Rain: Rin is one of the most morally flawed protagonists in bookish history. What inspired you to write such an iconic antihero? Do you see yourself in her in some way?
Rebecca: I think Rin represents my very worst impulses–the ones I would never pursue because unlike Rin, I have a functioning moral compass and an ego/superego, whereas Rin is sort of pure id. I do connect with her drive, grit, and determination–I work really hard to produce at the level I do and I sometimes go to extremes when I’m trying to get work done. I have absolutely employed the insane study methods you might see at Sinegard. But I have far, far better anger management than our fiery little demon-child.
Rain: If your characters were transported to the real world, what kind of music will they listen to?
Rebecca: Kitay listens to a lot of classical music because he finds it mathematically interesting, but he also has a soft spot for moody indie bands. His favorite song, though, is Old Town Road. Rin is obviously a huge death metal fan. Nezha pretends to solely listen to classical music, but his iPhone secretly reveals that he streams Ariana Grande at least ten times a day. The two of them have a hookup playlist that is entirely Lana Del Rey’s album Ultraviolence.
Rain: Let’s imagine that the world is ending and you are on your way to transfer to another planet for survival. If you can only bring three books with you, what books will you pick and why?
Rebecca: This question is so hard. Thank goodness e-readers have really solved this problem. But if I really could only take three physical volumes with me, I think I’d first take Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, because it’s actually one terribly long novel broken up into seven volumes and I’m a cheater. Second on my list is Madeline Miller’s Circe, because that’s one book I can read over and over again. Finally, I’d bring the Dialogues of Plato–there are some really lovely passages about Socrates’ attitude towards death that I think might come in handy if the world had just ended and my future was uncertain. Last month, my boyfriend and I visited Athens and eulogized Socrates at the Agora. (He studies philosophy! Imagine going to Athens with a philosophy student! We spent hours at the Agora and the Lyceum.) One line that really stuck in my mind was this: “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows.” How beautiful is that?
Rain: I am a huge fan of your work and in fact, I always consider reading your books as an emotional roller coaster ride. I’m just curious: why do you always love to break our hearts? (look I had to ask)
Rebecca: Haha. No comment.
Rain: It’s really amazing that you were able to write and publish books at such a young age. What advice can you give to young aspiring writers who also wish to accomplish the same thing?
Rebecca: There’s no age limit on publishing. I think debut authors are trending younger and younger these days, actually. I can count so many twenty-somethings who have books coming out or have books out. I think this may be more common in YA, but I’m not sure; I haven’t seen the numbers. In any case, nobody’s going to reject your manuscript because you’re too young. Be brave and just send your work out there.
That being said, I’ve noticed a HUGE difference between the quality of my writing when I was 19 (when I wrote The Poppy War) and 22 (when I wroteThe Dragon Republic.) It’s hard to acknowledge when you’re young, but time and experience do make a better, more mature writer. Sometimes I wonder if I should have held off debuting for a few years, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. Publishing seems quite obsessed with young talent, and I question sometimes if that’s the best for our careers. But I mean, who’s going to say no to a book deal when you’re 19? The upshot of all this, I guess, is that it’s not a race. Publish when you think you have something good 🙂 The rest will follow.
Rain: Before this interview ends, I would just love to do a bit of a bookish this or that if that’s okay with you 😊
—Series or standalone?
Rebecca: To be honest I prefer reading standalones, because it’s rare to find sequels that satisfy expectations. (That being said I hope mine does–lol.) I might also prefer writing standalones. This trilogy has been fun, but I’m ready to spread my wings and try out new projects.
—Magic earned or magic born?
Rebecca: Definitely magic earned. I hate hereditary systems of power. Star Wars and Harry Potter always bothered me SO much because, like, what if you’re not one of the chosen few? How much would that suck? Like, poor Petunia Evans.
—Friends to lovers or enemies to lovers?
Rebecca: Both. Why not both?
—Dragon or Pheonix?
—Rin or Nezha?
Rebecca: I love all of my trash children equally, except [looks at smudged palm] Altan. Seriously. I hate Altan.
The searing follow-up to 2018’s most celebrated fantasy debut – THE POPPY WAR.
In the aftermath of the Third Poppy War, shaman and warrior Rin is on the run: haunted by the atrocity she committed to end the war, addicted to opium, and hiding from the murderous commands of her vengeful god, the fiery Phoenix. Her only reason for living is to get revenge on the traitorous Empress who sold out Nikan to their enemies.
With no other options, Rin joins forces with the powerful Dragon Warlord, who has a plan to conquer Nikan, unseat the Empress, and create a new Republic. Rin throws herself into his war. After all, making war is all she knows how to do.
But the Empress is a more powerful foe than she appears, and the Dragon Warlord’s motivations are not as democratic as they seem. The more Rin learns, the more she fears her love for Nikan will drive her away from every ally and lead her to rely more and more on the Phoenix’s deadly power. Because there is nothing she won’t sacrifice for her country and her vengeance.
The sequel to R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed debut THE POPPY WAR, THE DRAGON REPUBLIC combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating effect.
R. F. Kuang immigrated to the United States from Guangzhou, China, in 2000. She currently resides in the United Kingdom, where she is pursuing a graduate degree in Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Cambridge on a Marshall Scholarship. Her two great loves are corgis and port. The Poppy War is her debut novel.