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Wolf at the Door is the first in a refreshing Urban Fantasy series set in Singapore. Singaporean writer, Joyce Chng, is the woman behind the byline J. Damask. In this interview she talks about inspiration, the struggle for visibility and diversity and influences.

Would you like to share some of the inspiration behind Wolf at the Door? 

Wolf At The Door was a product of a challenge. I basically challenged myself to write an urban fantasy novel set in Singapore with a character I could resonate with and relate to. That with my love and fascination for wolves – and I was set to go. Chinese wolves, why not?

I wanted to see a character who was not your typical urban fantasy (or what the current trend for urban fantasy entails) hero with leather tights and lovers in a harem. I wanted to see a character who is now grown up, married, with kids and with a partner. I guess I am tired of the sexy heroine trope in the urban fantasy glut. I think I wanted my story to be more in line with the gentler and mystical vision of Charles de Lint. The wolves are wolves, not two-legged beasts.

That being said, I wanted to weave Chinese traditions and culture… something I know. The pack culture in Jan Xu’s family is very tight-knit and family IS important.

And I wanted to examine sibling relationships (since I do have two girls who are very articulate and know what they want – witness the fireworks at home all the time!)

What was the most challenging part about writing Wolf at the Door? ( What elements of UF did you struggle with in particular and how did you work through those challenges.) 

I think the most challenging part about writing Wolf At The door was making it feel real. I was writing something I knew (Chinese culture and traditions), but I wondered how they would appeal to a wider audience who may or may not understand them. At the same time, I was confronted with the problem (?) of portraying my main character. The current trend of urban fantasy features the sexy female warrior/empath/werewolf/vampire – which is totally different from what I wanted to portray in my story. Likewise with the location (Singapore). I wrote what I knew.

Then I just wrote on. It was my story after all.

I found Wolf at the Door’s family dynamics and the fact that Jan Xu also has to deal with these familial relationships to be quite refreshing. How much of this is reflective of your own lived experience? 

I have a close-knit family and I think it comes out in my writing. Family, to me, is important. It’s the bonds and ties you form with your family. As a wolf, Jan couldn’t rely on her own wits – a lone wolf is bereft of pack support.

Thinking of your own position as mother, wife, teacher, and writer, how do you balance the various aspects of your life? 

Oh, hehe, that’s the question I often ask myself too!

With a lot of determination, grit, negotiation and time management.

I pretty much end up writing IF I have the time. It’s usually at night and when I have some time to myself. But then again, I am not too hard myself these days – after work, I am mentally drained and writing, I know, is a gift if the words come to me. So, I end up writing in spurts. Of course, it would be great if I could write 1,000 per day. But writing is not a competition and we shouldn’t be measured by the number of words we put in.

What’s the reception like for books like Wolf at the Door in Singapore? Do Singapore readers read local UF? 

Luke-warm to cold?

I do have people who are buying and reading Wolf At The Door, but local UF is not really promoted or highlighted. There are people writing in this genre, but they are not picked up by publishers who still want things that could sell like hot cakes in Singapore: textbooks, assessment books, self-help books. Likewise, publishers are still leery of genre fiction or speculative fiction. The only thing I see thriving somewhat is local horror – but done in a trashy and campy sort of way. But people lap it up.

You’ve been quite vocal about the issue of diversity in SFF. What do you see as being the biggest challenge for you as a writer coming from outside of the Anglosphere? 

The biggest challenge is obscurity. I often wrestle with the doubt and frequent question: “Who am I to fight with the big boys and girls?” Likewise, am I going to be even read by white people?

Then again, language issues come into play. The expectation that I have to write in another language is silly: my first language is English. Just because my last name/surname is Chinese doesn’t mean I have to write in Mandarin Chinese. Or that I am expected to write in stereotypical tropes that border on the exotic. 

I’ve been thinking of this as well, how writers like us want our fellow-countrymen to read our work, but at the same time, we also struggle to have a voice in the wider field of SFF. From your experience, what methods or strategies can we use to accomplish both? 

I think every one of us has our own strategies to reach out to people. Get involved in the local writing or publishing scene. Be vocal. Talk it up. Walk the talk. It can be awfully frustrating even when it comes to wanting our fellow-countrymen and women to read our work. I think it’s double the effort (or triple that) when we try to have a voice in the wider field of SFF, especially when it is dominated by US-centricism and to a lesser extent, UK-centricism. It’s already a big No-No when I open my mouth and say that I write urban fantasy, especially the hard SF (white) people who hate all the girly and paranormal stuff. (I write YA SF and SF in general too – but again, it’s like trying to convince people that I breathe the same air too)

At the moment, all I can say is: get involved. Be active. Be proactive. Start the change. It’s going to take a lot of effort (posting on Twitter, Tumblr, FB or Wattpad). The audience might not appear or be convinced overnight. But someone has to start the ball rolling.

Hehe, I am using a lot of cliches and stock phrases.

But there you go. Another way is to keep on writing, keep on submitting.

I’d like to talk about another work of yours. Rider’s journey is something that I find very interesting. Again, as in Wolf in the Door, we see the importance of family woven in into the protagonist’s life. What was the inspiration behind Rider? 

Rider first came as a flash vignette, like a color movie in my head, before I began developing it further into a proper flesh-out novel.

Inspiration? A girl who wishes to fly, to be like her older sister/sibling. Also my fascination with deserts, desert planets, canyons and ecology. Also exploring family dynamics – in a YA setting/environment, the haves and haves-nots, the expectations we place on our family members and on ourselves.

And just to see flying pterosaurs. 🙂 (I love pterosaurs – they are like dragons!)

You’ve mentioned Charles de Lint earlier. Are there other writers/works that have influenced you in particular? What particular works served as pivotal works for you? 

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.

Frank Herbert’s Dune.

I read them during my teens and young adult years. Deeply influential – though I slowly worked towards my own style of writng.

And of course, all the Chinese legends and stories, like Liao Zhai (a seminal book on ghost stories), the legend of Madam White Snake.

What particular stereotype in UF would you like to see banned from the world? 

Ooo. I have a plenty. Will choose one.

The sexy heroine and the muscle-bound alpha male hero.

Not all people are like that. The things is that people tend to associate UF with paranormal romance and erotica.

Are you working on a new novel? Would you like to say something about it? 

Come November, I will be working on/editing/revising Heart Of Fire, the third book in the Jan Xu series. All I want to say is that things change, people change and oh yes, character death.

I am also working on a spinoff novel/novella based on the drakes (Western dragons) in the Jan Xu series.

Where can we find you on the internet? 

I can be found Twittering on Twittering: @jolantru, Tumblring on Tumblr: blackwolfchng and my blog at A Wolf’s Tale:http://awolfstale.wordpress.com. I can also be found on Smashwords and Wattpad.

Thank you for making time for us, Joyce.

Here’s a link to Weng’s review of Wolf At the Door.