We truly loved The Grass King’s Concubine and we are so pleased to share this interview with author, Kari Sperring. For our review of The Grass King’s Concubine, you can go here.
Reading the Grass King’s Concubine was quite an immersive experience. According to Weng,she felt compelled to just keep on reading. How do you keep a the tension going in a full-length novel and how did you experience the writing of it?
I am a very disorganised writer, so I tend not to know exactly how I do anything. I start with characters and an idea and see where they take me, rather than planning. With Grass King, I decided to use a braided narrative style, inter-twining the stories of Aude, Jehan and the twins. I mostly did it as a way of keeping the three stories separate in my head. But it also turned out to be a useful way of handling tension, as it allowed me to change focus after certain events.
Having said which, I often ended up cursing myself for choosing this structure. I write lineally — I start at page one and go forward to the end, rather than jumping ahead or following particular threads. I got lost several times and had to back up and rewrite to get the whole thing back on track.
I’m very glad you both found the book immersive and compulsive. I tend to think of myself as a very slow writer (in both senses) and I really struggle with pace. I’m still learning not to let myself meander through descriptions and inner monologues. My natural writing voice tends to the discursive and descriptive, so I’m always more at home in the scenes where a character sees or explores than in the action scenes.
The Grass King’s Concubine is more complex than it appears. There is a hero’s journey, but it’s not your traditional hero’s journey. What was the inspiration behind your hero/heroine’s journey?
Thank you. I think some of the layering is down to the braided structure, It really is two stories in one: that of the twins and Marcellan on one hand, and Aude and Jehan on the other. It started with two images: one of a young woman with an unearthly quality wandering through a rice field by moonlight, and the other was of the Stone House and Cadre. For a long time, I thought these belonged to separate stories. The first was about a runaway solider who falls in love with a spirit woman, the other about portals to other planes. But neither quite worked when I tried to write them. It was only when I realised that they were part of the same story that it came together. In early drafts, Aude was the same person as Tsai, though and again it didn’t quite work: the two cities were the last element to fall into place. As a spirit, she was passivce. As a young human woman in serach of class justice and her origins, she became much more forceful and vivid.
I really regret the influnce of Joseph Campbell and the ‘Hero’s Journey’ thing on fiction in English. It’s restrictive and reductionist and appropriative all at once — it assumes all mythologies and stories can be reduced to the same set of rather mundane and very modern and American meanings. I didn’t want to write that kind of story and I don’t really enjoy reading them. I’m a historian by training: I’m used to seeing sources are overlapping and representing multiple, shifting meanings and narratives. And I’m much more drawn to stories about networks of people and places rather than ones focusing on one or two special individuals. Society is a tapestry, not a series of separate threads. And, to top it off, I’m an old fashioned British socialist. I can’t not think about class, about race, about equality and the different ways power manifests. All that fed into the book.
Plus I really like ferrets.
I confess to a fondness for Yelena and Julana. If you were to cast them as characters in a play, who would you pick to play them and why?
Goodness, that’s a hard one. Maybe the Hong Kong actors Gillian Ka-Lai and Charlene Choi Chuk-Yin, of the (disbndned) pop-group Twins. They are both eccellent comedy actors, and they have an energy together that is both playful and powerful. Not that either of them look remotely like ferrets. But the sort of energy and verve they brought to their films would work well for Yelena and Julana.
You didn’t ask me, but in my head, Aude looks very like the Indian actor Vidya Balan. Jehan would be Ajay Devgan, but less handsome.
I know that some writers have rituals that they go through before they write. Do you have any? If so, would you care to share some of them?
I don’t, in fact. I usually check my email first and sometimes look at LiveJournal, but I can write anywhere. I found myself starting to develop rituals some years ago and deliberately chose to suppress them, as I am far to good at procrastination already.
Who would you say are the major influences on your work?
Above all, Alexandrer Dumas, who has been my favourite writer for most of my life. I love the energy of his books and his ability to make you care about his characters. And the swordfights. Otherwise, Samuel R Delany and Tanith Lee, both of whose ability with words awes me. The Russian dissident writer Ycvgenia Ginsberg, whose prison camp memoirs were my first introduction to the intense political power of words and the ways in which societies lie, misrepresent and distort in order to control people. The British writer Rumer Godden is problematic in a number of ways, particularly in terms of colonist gaze, but the way she constructs words on the page was a very early influence on me.
In terms of historically plausible, textured fantasy worlds, three American writers, Judith Tarr, Kate Elliott and Sheila Gilluly. And two Chinese film-makers: Fok Yiu-Leung (Clarence Ford), who has a wonderful way with atmosphere and pace and and sharp eye for pretension; and the extraordinary Tsui Hark, who codes discussions of power and gender and society in so many complex, challenging, beautiful ways, and is additionally a master of timing. I aspire to getting to be around 1/32nd as good as any one of these.
If you were to speak with one of your influences today, what would you say was the most important lesson you learned from them and how have you applied this to your work?
Thank you, mostly, for the worlds and experiences they have shown me, the things they have taught me, the emotions they have shared. For showing me there is space for a writer like me — political, female, obsessed with water and swordfights and light and atmosphere. For demonstratting how to keep going and how to find new stories from the mess in my head. For showing me different ways of being.
I’ve had the privilege of being about to say this to Judith Tarr, Sheila Gilluly and Kate Elliott, all of whom were very nice about my gushing. When I sold my first novel, I went to Paris and put flowers on Dumas grace as a thank you, too, because he really has been a huge inspiration. I have a picture of him over my desk, too.
What are you working on right now?
I’m doing rewrites on the follow-up to Grass King, which takes Jehan and Aude back to the Brass City. It’s about revolution and class and cloth mills and underground printing, about female rights to property and the definition of madness. And elemental magic. The twins aren’t in it, alas, but two of the Cadre (Liyan and Qiaqia) are major characters. I’m also working on a murder mystery set in ninth century Wales, which draws on my academic background.
Where on the net can we find you?
I have a website
with an occasional blog and links about my books and my academic work.
I also have a LiveJournal account
I’m on facebook (Kari Sperring) and twitter (@karisperring)