An Interview With Mia Tsai
By Beth Tabler
A Story that Immediately Grabs You by the Heart
In this xianxia-inspired contemporary fantasy, a Chinese immortal and a French elf navigate romance, family loyalty, and workplace demands. In her debut novel, Mia Tsai has created a paranormal adventure that is full of humor, passion, and depth.
As a descendant of the Chinese god of medicine, ignored middle child Elle was destined to be a doctor. Instead, she is underemployed as a mediocre magical calligrapher at the fairy temp agency, paranoid that her murderous younger brother will find her and their elder brother.
Using her full abilities will expose Elle’s location. Nevertheless, she challenges herself by covertly outfitting Luc, her client and crush, with high-powered glyphs.
Half-elf Luc, the agency’s top security expert, has his own secret: he’s responsible for a curse laid on two children from an old assignment. To heal them, he’ll need to perform his job duties with unrelenting excellence and earn time off from his tyrannical boss.
When Elle saves Luc’s life on a mission, he brings her a gift and a request for stronger magic to ensure success on the next job—except the next job is hunting down Elle’s younger brother.
As Luc and Elle collaborate, their chemistry blooms. Happiness, for once, is an option for them both. But Elle is loyal to her family, and Luc is bound by his true name. To win freedom from duty, they must make unexpected sacrifices.
Taiwanese American author Mia Tsai just released her first novel, a xianxia-inspired contemporary fantasy titled Bitter Medicine. It combines myth, religion, and magic with a splash of romance into an engaging story that I believe even the darkest grimdark readers will enjoy. Mia was kind enough to chat with me about some of her writing inspirations, the concept of code-switching, and how her varied language background influenced her writing.
Is there any part of the process of writing a book that you especially like?
Editing! The good stuff happens in editing, though occasionally I’ll have a nice moment during drafting when I look at what I just wrote and go, “Huh, not bad.” Taking the raw material and shaping it is what I really enjoy, even if sometimes the edits are tough and involve significant rewrites. I’m just not a fan of drafting, so the happiest place for me is in line edits.
As a professed plant geek myself, tell me about orchids. Which ones are your favorite and why?
My personal favorite is the miltoniopsis, which is the first species I was able to keep alive at home. They’re such great indoor plants that don’t require a ton of care once you find the right light conditions, and a lot of them are lightly fragrant and flower consistently once a year for at least a month at a time. They’re not really trendy, but they’re really steadfast and a joy to look at. I also like dendrobiums a lot—there’s just so much variety with dendrobiums, and a lot of the dendrobium nobiles are fragrant, so you can pick up a bunch of dendrobiums and miltoniopses and have a lovely little garden going.
But I think all orchids are super cool, especially the ones that have evolved little moving parts to attract their pollinators, like bulbophyllums. There’s a bulbophyllum, bulbophyllum graveolens, that has this jiggly red tongue to attract its pollinator, which is a type of fly. It also smells gross, like stale water. I also appreciate the orchids that tape their seed pods to whatever touches the trigger hairs! The glue is pretty strong.
Please tell us a bit about your new novel, Bitter Medicine.
Bitter Medicine is an adult contemporary fantasy with romance that has a magic system that’s been inspired by xianxia. So in addition to the flying around that you can get with wuxia, you have a character who can imbue calligraphy with her energy to transform the words into the meaning of the words, who’s able to use traditional Chinese medicine to a degree we aren’t capable of in the real world, who can summon fire, et cetera.
The novel is a romance between our two main characters, but they’re so entangled in their own personal conflicts—Elle with her family, Luc with his incredibly demanding job—that it’s hard to find the space for a relationship, let alone a romance with someone who is likely into you but can’t say it.
How did you decide on the title Bitter Medicine?
The original title when I first started querying was A Brush with Love, but it was rightly pointed out to me that it sounded like a dentistry rom-com. So I went back to the drawing board and did a word cloud and after some light agonizing, decided Bitter Medicine was a much better encapsulation of the themes in the novel and was better able to hint at Elle’s roots, being a descendant of the Chinese god of medicine and all.
Bitter Medicine is your first novel. What has the publishing experience been like from start to finish?
It’s been a lot of waiting interspersed with heart attacks. That’s one of the worst parts, the waiting. There will be months where nothing happens on your end and nothing is in your control, and it takes some time to reconcile that. It also takes time to internalize how impersonal the feedback you get is, sometimes. Rejections aren’t direct attacks, they’re just vibe checks you failed. And I still get rejected quite often, so I keep that muscle strong.
I’ve been very fortunate to have a pretty smooth publishing journey; I haven’t struggled too much but for the waiting! I’m already an editor, so taking edits wasn’t too difficult. I thought I’d be anxious for launch, and I was, but I calmed down before it and it’s been a good, positive experience.
The world you created is so fascinating. It is a combination of myth, religion, and magic. What was the catalyst for the world?
My student had lost a tooth, and I asked if the tooth fairy was coming. Now, my student is first-generation Indian American, so it’s not guaranteed that a tooth fairy will show up at all, and my student said she didn’t. I joked that she must have had a sick day, which then kicked off the idea of the fairy temp agency.
I did then start wondering whether other cultures had any lost tooth traditions, and as it turns out, they do! There are tooth mice, for example. So of course, in the fairy temp agency, the world needed to be expanded so temps could fill niches internationally, and soon I had a globe-spanning agency with boards of directors for each continent and a foundation for many, many stories.
Tell me about Luc’s and Elle’s characters. What are they like, and how did they develop that way?
They sort of appeared the way they are! I like characters who are a little goofy and silly, and Elle is definitely that, despite being well over a hundred years old. Maturity-wise, she’s in her thirties, so she’s very capable at doing Adult Things like holding down her job, paying her bills on time, handling the small mundanities of grown-up life. But she also likes being lighthearted and is a curious person. And by curious I mean a person who has retained her curiosity and not a person who is curious and odd, though she can be that sometimes. The levity is important to have for someone in her situation. She’s definitely the kind to break tension with a bad joke, and she hates it when other people are fighting. She’d rather everyone get along or work out their problems in a non-contentious way.
Luc is someone who, if you looked in the dictionary to find the definition of serious, you’d see his picture there. I always thought of him as impassive but secretly caring; the stoicism and ability to compartmentalize, sometimes to the detriment of his emotional health, was necessary for the job I gave him. He’s long-lived as well and has kind of a hectic career, so he’s more the type to slow down when he’s not working, to relax at home and enjoy the pleasures of life, whether that’s good food and drink or sleeping in half the day.
There is a beautiful lightness to the romance in Bitter Medicine. It feels effortless. Did the lightness between Elle and Luc develop organically?
It did, surprisingly! I’m not much of a plotter when it comes to writing. I’ll use tentpoles to get through the story once I figure the characters out, but the first step is to figure out the characters. The best way for me to do that is to throw them into a room and see what happens. To my delight, Elle brought out a humor in Luc that I hadn’t planned for, and when he’s around, she’s able to reach the harmony and lightheartedness that she values.
Elle uses a logographic magic system which seems like dancing when employed. How do you imagine Elle’s movements? Was it akin to dancing or painting? Do you have a reference book of glyphs for Elle?
It’s definitely painting. I did Chinese brush painting as a kid, so all the ink grinding and prepping for painting is taken directly from my sense memories. Calligraphers are magical to me in that they have to be in the correct mindset and confident in their movements prior to painting a character, and any hesitation ruins it. It’s like a performance; the show must go on. I watched a lot, and I mean a lot of calligraphy videos on YouTube to observe how different each artist is.
I don’t have a reference book of glyphs because some of them are simply Chinese characters, but I do have reference books for the etymology of Chinese characters, which was necessary because Elle is armed with that knowledge and can change how her magic manifests by using different scripts and characters from across Chinese history.
Can you explain code-switching and how you used that in the novel?
Code-switching is the ability to go in and out of different languages or dialects as you’re speaking to someone who also understands the languages or dialects you’re using. Sometimes, the other language just conveys the meaning better, or you yourself speak differently when you’re using the other language. It’s a daily part of life for a great many people on this planet, including for the characters in Bitter Medicine, who mostly speak English as a second (or third, fourth, fifth, you get the idea) language.
The characters code-switch for multiple reasons, one of which is so that another character can’t understand them. I think most people feel that’s why others will speak in another language, even if that’s not true. The characters also code-switch to purposely bring up memories, as language is intimately tied to time and place, and to express sentiments that English can’t. And of course, the characters will code-switch with each other because they’re most comfortable in a non-English language and that’s the language they reach for first.
In the afterword of Bitter Medicine, you spoke about language. Could you elaborate on that? You came from a varied language background; how did that influence your writing?
It’s true that I’ve had lots of experience with languages I don’t understand being spoken around me! I was born in New York City and for a time lived in Brooklyn, so the languages I heard were English and Hebrew, with Mandarin at home. I don’t think there’s ever been an extended period of time when I wasn’t being exposed to languages I didn’t understand—I listened to a lot of international music growing up, including Japanese rock, which I never fully understood but liked anyway. I sang a lot in other languages for choir and had to relearn Mandarin when I was in Taiwan. And they code-switch willy-nilly over there; you can be having a conversation in Mandarin and the other person will switch to Taiwanese Hokkien or start heading that direction by altering their Mandarin accent to get closer and closer to Taiwanese.
So I didn’t really have to think about including it in a contemporary, international story of my own making. It was just there because I do it myself. It’s not a conscious decision to go from thinking in English to thinking in Mandarin, for example. And I long ago learned that language choice is about the speaker’s comfort, not the listener’s, so if you’re eavesdropping on a conversation that isn’t in a language you understand and you get upset that they won’t speak X language, that’s more on you than anything else.
I read your blog post about the decolonization of science fiction and fantasy and found it fascinating. “Did it mean consciously removing colonialist and imperialist thinking? Did it mean exploring non-three-act structures and educating Westerners on what they were, their history, and what to expect? Did it mean creating fiction set in post-colonial worlds?” How does this idea of decolonization relate to Bitter Medicine?
I think the most decolonial thing about Bitter Medicine is the code-switching without translation, or maybe the parts where I decline to explain in excrutiating detail what certain cultural elements are. Otherwise, it’s built on a pretty colonial world! English is the lingua franca, with Mandarin close behind; Western systems really dominate. Even the two-act structure I use in Bitter Medicine comes from Western art, like musicals and operas. I’m not saying that being expressly anti-Western is what it takes to be decolonial, though. There’s plenty of colonial and imperialist thinking in non-Western countries. I am saying we should examine ourselves and figure out whether our expectations in fiction come from a colonial mindset, where things exist to be explained or conquered instead of being left to exist without interrogation.
You write like someone who loves books. Who is in your bookcase?
I do love books! My bookshelf at home is mostly fantasy, nonfiction, and reference, with some poetry. So I’ve got Robin Hobb on the shelf, a lot of Garth Nix, Anthony Bourdain books, Toni Morrison, orchid care books, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and multiple other mythology books, and my favorite young adult and middle grade books from when I was growing up. At the studio, I curate a 90% BIPOC collection, so it’s a mix of contemporary and speculative fiction in the adult and young adult categories, some early readers and picture books for my students, plus a lot of music scores.
What is next for you! Please tell me there is a sequel in the works with Elle’s brother!
I’d love to tell you that The Book of Tony is coming, but alas, I cannot! I’ve got an adult science fantasy on submission right now called KEY & VALE, which is about an anthropologist with the ability to experience epigenetic memories whose job it is to find lost knowledge and bring it back to the Museum of Human Memory and what happens when she finds a memory that calls into question everything she’s on which she’s built her paradigm. I also have a number of other projects in early development and I can’t decide which one to work on! Maybe I’ll just take a break for a couple of weeks.