“Taishi is probably my favorite character of all time, even more than Roen Tan. I have a thing for writing crotchety old people. They’re so much fun and layered, and Taishi just owns the book with her sublime skill, sharp personality, and globs of muck and tragedy that she had acquired over her years as a war artist.”
Wesley Chu is an author who needs no introduction. He has been writing in science fiction and fantasy for over a decade and is the creator of the Tao series, Time Salvager, Io, The Eldest Curses, and now the Wuxia series, The War Arts Saga. Chu was kind enough to sit down with Grimdark Magazine and talk with us about his newest work, The Art of Prophecy, writing in existing fandoms, and so much more.
BT: In another interview, you said you enjoy adrenaline sports and extensive traveling. How are you getting your traveling and adrenaline fix lately?
Hah! That interview must have been before 2016, because I’ve since spawned two upgrades who are now six and three, so now the things that spark joy and excitement are the trivial things in life, like when my eldest successfully builds a complex Lego set (he just finished the Lego Optimus Prime! Boom!) or when my toddler forms a complex and nuanced sentence or sleeps through the night without pissing in his sheets.
I do want to start traveling again. Things have to be different though. I’m not the same person I was even just a few years ago. I’m in a different place with kids and, ugh, responsibilities. Adventuring can no longer be stuff like summiting a mountain or riding horseback through the steppes and retrace Temujin’s journey a thousand years ago. Now it’s more like let’s go glamping or at best pitch a tent on the truck overlanding in Yosemite or Joshua Tree.
BT: Every author has different processes for writing a novel. Some start with sticky tabs, some draw on walls, and some just sit down and start writing. I am curious about your process. Can you tell me a bit about how you create a novel?
Can I tell you a bit about how I create a novel? This is a very existential question. I’m twelve books in and I’m honestly still not sure how it’s done.
The beginning of new projection is often a bundle of random energy. It’s fresh and exciting and often inspired, but it’s also a drag because you’re wading into completely unknown territory. It’s a complete blank slate, which can be exciting but also terrifying. You don’t know the characters, you don’t know the tone, you may not even be sure what the setting is. You’re probably doubting the first sentence, maybe even the first word, but don’t worry because you are one hundred precent going to be writing and rewriting that opening paragraph twenty times anyway.
I’m normally a pretty methodical outliner, but I always try to pants the first three chapters of a new book and let my freak run wild. These three chapters are when I allow myself to just write uninhibited to see what heady and toxic mixture I can create with the characters and the world. It also allows the story to set its tone with me. By allowing the characters tell me who they are, it gives them the opportunity to inform me who they are, why they’re there, and justifies their place in this ecosystem.
I’m a firm believer that nothing exists in a vacuum, even character traits. If someone doesn’t like Airedale terriers, I’m going to automatically assume he’s a terrible person, but I also want to know why he does not like Airedale terriers. The circumstances surrounding that why he doesn’t like them may influence details about him.
BT: What did it feel like to be a part of two long-running franchises? Was there added stress because of the die-hard fan base?
Having the opportunity to play in the sandbox of two iconic IPs was really cool experience. Their fanbases are deeply passionate, so there’s definitely an increased pressure to do right by them. One of the things that was an amazing resource was the deep well of history these properties already had. The Walking Dead had nearly two hundred comic issues, while Shadowhunters had twelve large tomes of history. There was so much lore to draw upon. At the same time, you had to be extra careful with continuity and create conflicting issues.
BT: How did you approach writing in someone else’s world as you did with Cassandra Clare and Robert Kirkman? Did you research their style and adapt to it?
Skybound gave me full creative control over the process so I didn’t have to adapt to a particular style as long as I got the tone of TWD down. I researched by rereading all the issues of The Walking Dead, and then the story sort of told itself.
Shadowhunters was a different story. Cassie is a fantastic and creative writer, and she has created an amazing and deep interconnected world filled with these strong relationships between the characters. To write in that universe, you really had to study these characters and relationships pretty thoroughly.
BT: You have written in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Which genre do you feel most at home in?
Middle grade, easily. I learned English reading fantasy books, but the source of my love for reading stemmed from all those amazing middle grade books I read as a kid. One of these days, I’m going to scratch that itch and try my hand at a cool middle grade book.
BT: You have talked in the past about your journey to represent stronger female roles in your novels; based on the characters in Art of Prophecy, you have come very far on that journey. Would you care to share some thoughts on that process?
I don’t intentionally gender my characters until I start writing them down. They sort of tell me on their own who they want to be. Certain characters were, of course, intentional. For example, I absolutely wanted the older female master and the younger male student dynamic, which I always thought was underserved in today’s stories. Other than Taishi and Jian, however, everyone else sort of volunteered their gender.
BT: Clearly, not every story beat you think of makes it into a book. Can you tell us about a scene you had to mull over, and eventually, you had to “kill your darling?” Why did you ultimately decide to remove it?
I’ve killed a lot of darlings over the course of twelve books, but the first and most painful ‘kill the darling’ was with my debut novel, The Lives of Tao. I had submitted the novel through an one-month open submission period with Angry Robot. They had 996 entries that one month of which five received publishing contracts.
The editor at Angry Robot contacted me regarding their interest in Tao. They had a few notes they wanted me to make though, with one removing an entire plot line in the book, which effectively was like cutting and rewriting a third of the book. I loved that plot line, but I also understood the logic behind it, so I killed that darling and rewrote that plot as summary snippets at the beginning of every chapter. In the end, it was the right decision for the book, but it was definitely a tough one.
BT: When you started out as an author, you did not know industry schmoozing was a thing until you went to your first Worldcon. What advice would you give to an aspiring author who has not yet published their first book and does not know what to say or how to schmooze?
Just be cool and respectful Everything else will fall in place. Careers may not be made at a con, but they can get wrecked before they even begin. Make friends, and understand that publishing isn’t a zero sum game. The only real competition anyone has is with themselves.
Bring lots of hand sanitizer, comfortable shoes, and have fun.
BT: Can you tell us about your new novel, The Art of Prophecy?
I could spectacularly fail at describing the elevator pitch to you, because I can’t hand-sell my own books to save my life, but The Art of Prophecy is my most personal work. That’s saying something considering I modeled Roen Tan after myself. Quick segue, when my English Professor father read an early draft of Lives of Tao, he wrote in his notes, “Son, the book is good, except there’s an issue with your main character. He’s likable, but not very likable….is he modeled after you?”
The Art of Prophecy is not only my love letter to the wuxia genre, but also the final product of all of my passions throughout my life squeezed into one epic fantasy. It’s the story I deeply wanted to tell ever since I began writing, combining elements of wuxia and humor, honor and friendship, and high fantasy blended in an Asian setting but in an extremely specific tone that is wholly my most natural voice. This is the most ‘me’ book I’ll ever write.
BT: Did you dream up the plot of Art of Prophecy?
It is true I dreamt the plots for my Tao and Time Salvager series. The idea of Tao came from my alarm clock when my I was training to hike Kilimanjaro. I was in one of those semi-conscious states when the 5AM alarm rang and I dreamt that it was a life coach in my head. With Time Salvager, I had a dream that I was a time traveler who arrived on the Titanic to steal the Hope Diamond. I spent several days on that ship befriending passengers knowing they were all doomed to die, and that I couldn’t do anything about it.
The Art of Prophecy, however, was a dream in the sense that it was a goal. I wanted to tell a wuxia story ever since I began writing. I broke into the industry with science fiction, but the framework around The Art of Prophecy had been simmering in my head since The Lives of Tao ‘s debut in 2013. At the time I had to stay on the science fiction track for a while and, honestly, I wasn’t ready to tackle this project. It wasn’t until 2019, after I had finished the two Shadowhunter and Walking Dead book that I felt like I was finally ready, experienced, and skilled enough to tell this story properly
BT: The cover of The Art of Prophecy is beautifully done, perfectly exemplifying the story’s mood and aesthetic. Were you a part of the art selection process for the cover design?
First of all, big props to Tran Nguyen for the front cover. It’s a beautiful work of art, and such a great ambassador for the book. I also want to credit Sunga Park, the artist who created the map for the series. Both of them just completely nailed it.
As for being part of the art selection, the team at Del Rey consulted with me every step of the way. I’m a fan of subject matter expertise, especially when it comes to artwork. I might have an idea of what I want, but what’s cool inside my head and how it ends up looking on paper are usually vastly different things. There are other factors to take into consideration like how the cover would look on a kindle, or whether the thumbnail of the image would translate well. But really, I also recognize that I often have questionable taste.
Fortunately, Cassie Gonzalez, the art director, and Tricia Narwani, my editor, were the ones who oversaw the process and gently guided and saved me from myself. They listened to my wild suggestions, and reigned me in when I got stupid. It was an extremely collaborative effort from beginning to end.
BT: Tell me about Jian as a character. His stubborn nature must have been fun to write about, especially juxtaposed against Taishi.
Jian is probably the most honest character in The Art of Prophecy. Does he have vices? A mile of them. Is he arrogant and haughty while deeply insecure and stubborn? Sure. He’s probably like how any other teenager would be in his position. What makes Jian unique, however, is underneath his layers of bad nurture and entitlement, he’s got a considerate heart and a good instinct for justice. He’s a good kid. I like writing good kids.
Taishi is probably my favorite character of all time, even more than Roen Tan. I have a thing for writing crotchety old people. They’re so much fun and layered, and Taishi just owns the book with her sublime skill, sharp personality, and globs of muck and tragedy that she had acquired over her years as a war artist.
In many ways, Jian and Taishi are opposites, so it was a blast to put them in the same room and let them be themselves.
BT: This story is written in three distinctive voices. Was it easy to switch between them? Or did you spend one day writing Jian, another as Taishi, and so on?
I hear character voices in my head, so it’s usually not too difficult to settle into their narrative and tone. They just start talking, and we just pick up where we left off. I’ve tried writing both ways. Sometimes, I just draft straight through chapter by chapter. Other times I will write an entire act one character at a time. Sometimes, for clarity and continuity’s sake, I’ll write in one character’s POV for several chapters. Other times, I’ll go straight chronological by chapter, which allows me to keep my tabs on the pacing. Both methods have their merits.
BT: Now that Art of Prophecy is releasing, what is next on the docket?
First on the docket is handing in the sequel to The Art of Prophecy. That should be done by the time you read this (hopefully!).
Next on the docket after finishing a book is usually a couple of months off. I always crunch near the completion of the book, so I’d like to pay my family back for that lost time. After that, I usually need to alternate IPs as a palate cleanser, so I may finally try that middle-grade book that keeps kicking around my head. I also need to finish the Io books, so we’ll see. It should be a fun few years!