We’re so excited to have one of our favorite people on the blog today–Julie C. Dao!
So, story time! Julie and I actually met during Camp NaNo two years ago when were both invited to join the same cabin by a mutual friend. At the time, Julie was working on this book that sounded super cool. I had no idea what it was about, but from the title alone, I was hooked. You can probably guess where i”m going with this, but that WIP was indeed FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS.
Julie and I became friends not long after Camp NaNo, but I never forgot that title. I always hoped that some day I would get a chance to read that story. And now that I have, I can say it is absolutely INCREDIBLE.
Thank you so much for joining us Julie and answering some of our questions!
1. We loved how you retold an Evil Queen origin story in China using classic Snow White markers–the obsession with beauty, the mirror, the Huntsman, the heart–which fit so seamlessly into the culture and setting. Could you tell us more about the process of weaving the story of Snow White into a Chinese setting?
FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS is not historical fiction, so the setting is a fantasy land that merely draws inspiration from Imperial China. I did extensive research on the food, clothing, politics, and day-to-day palace life of that particular country and period of time, shaping and molding the information I found to fit my plot and characters. I wrote FOTL in honor of my mother and chose this backdrop because she has always loved Imperial Chinese dramas! The book’s palace intrigues are very much a tribute to her and the films she enjoys.
I’m Asian-American, so my story too is a blend of East and West. I had never seen the European fairy tale of Snow White reimagined with an Asian aesthetic and was intrigued by the idea of an Imperial court setting – with its backstabbing and power plays – as the background for a conniving queen battling the threat of her stepdaughter. Everything else fell into place after that!
2. There are a lot of female characters in FOTL and Xifeng has very complicated relationships with all of them. How did you go about creating such nuanced female relationships?
Some of the most profound relationships I’ve had have been with other women: my mother, aunts, cousins (who were more like sisters growing up), and best friends. Romance is at the forefront of many stories, but I wanted to explore familial and platonic bonds between women because they can be some of the strongest you’ll ever find, yet also delicate and require balance.
I challenged myself to write a cast of well-rendered, very human women, each powerful in her own way, and mix them together to see the push-and-pull of their longings and conflicted loyalties. There is Xifeng, ambitious, power-hungry, and devoted to Guma – the woman who raised her – yet drawn to the Empress, the mother she longs for. Then there are Guma and the Empress themselves, who are not as different as they may seem, though one is abrasive and the other gentle, preferring to keep her strength hidden; they are both driven by love for a daughter or a daughter figure. Other women in the story struggle with them and alongside them.
Relationships are complicated, messy affairs, because humans are complicated and messy, and I wanted to portray this in all of the female bonds and conflicts I touched on in the book.
3. One of our favorite things about the book is how the reader is 100% on board with the choices Xifeng makes. She doesn’t always make the best decisions, but we always understand why she makes them. What drew you to writing a flawed character like Xifeng?
I have always been drawn to villains! I’ve always enjoyed coming up with backstories for them and imagining why they do the things they do, where they’ve come from, and what they want. Painted with a more human brush, villains can all become antiheroes, defined as the lead character in a work who does not have typical heroic qualities. Don’t get me wrong, I love a Harry Potter or a Frodo Baggins as much as the next reader, but there’s something about a character who’s not that noble, not that brave, not that good, that really gets me excited.
As a reader, I like to see a book character who struggles with fear, anger, greed, and vengeance – someone who isn’t right and honorable all the time, someone who’s human and makes bad choices. Obviously, what Xifeng does in FOTL goes well beyond mere bad choices! But I hope her horrible deeds and awful decisions make sense for her character and her over-the-top inspiration of the heart-eating, magic mirror-wielding Evil Queen.
4. We know we’re not alone in being inspired by your amazing publishing journey. We love how open you’ve been with your whole process. Do you have any advice for writers when they’re facing a letdown in their publishing journey? What kind of things have you done to get back up and not only survive but thrive?
The hardest realization for me has been that writing is a business. Writers have this passion, right? This wondrous, all-consuming love of writing that compels us to hunch over a computer for years, building entire worlds on the page. And then, to take those precious pages and hold them out to strangers, begging them to transform the words into a published book, and hearing “No, this isn’t good enough. YOU are not good enough” is devastating!
The key is to never forget that passion. No matter how many no’s you hear, do not lose that magic that pushed you to write in the first place. At one point in my writing life, heartbroken and discouraged from years of rejections, I decided to step back. To stop querying, stop researching agents, and just write for fun and to make myself happy. Sometimes you need to turn off social media – where it seems like everyone is getting agents and book deals while you linger on in quiet hopelessness – and go back to the basics: a story that consumes your heart, a character who speaks to you, a world you don’t want to leave.
And then, when you’ve healed, try again. If you truly want this dream, you will pick yourself up (when you’re ready) and get back out there. The day you give up completely might have been the day before your dream came true. So don’t give up!
5. What villain would you want to see Xifeng go up against?
This is SUCH a hard question! I would like to see her go up against another powerful woman. I’m kind of curious to see how she would do in the world of Westeros, George R. R. Martin’s backdrop for his A Song of Ice and Fire series. So maybe Cersei Lannister? They’re both complex, morally challenged women who don’t shy away from blood and gore!
6. Okay honestly: do you drink the lifeblood of your enemies? IS THAT WHY YOUR SKIN IS SO BEAUTIFUL? But really though, tell us about your skincare routine!
You guys are the sweetest, thank you! I hope you don’t hate me, but… I don’t have a skincare routine. I’m extremely low maintenance. For work, I put on moisturizer – either Cetaphil or a lightly tinted BB cream with SPF – and mascara and eyeliner. That’s it. No concealer, no foundation, except on the very rare occasion that I break out before my period or when I’m extremely stressed (hello, Book Expo). When I have an event, I add a bright cherry or deep red lipstick; my current favorite is Sephora’s liquid lipsticks, which last all day for $14 a pop.
Maybe that’s the key? Not wearing a lot of makeup? I don’t drink lifeblood (ha!), but I DO drink a ton of water (three liters a day; I keep a huge bottle with me at all times) and I always remove my makeup and wash my face with a simple drugstore cleanser, like Neutrogena.
Genetics also plays a big role, because the women on my mom’s side of the family all have good skin. It makes up for our thinning-on-top, ultra-fine hair!
Julie C. Dao is a proud Vietnamese-American who was born in upstate New York. She studied medicine in college, but came to realize blood and needles were her Kryptonite. By day, she worked in science news and research; by night, she wrote books about heroines unafraid to fight for their dreams, which inspired her to follow her passion of becoming a published author. FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS is her debut novel. Julie lives in New England. Follow her on Twitter @jules_writes.
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