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Find the Story that Calls to You: An Interview with Joyce Chua

By Nadia Freeman, Nadia Shah, Michelle Ye and Yumna Iqbal


Following the completion of her trilogy, Children of the Desert, we are delighted to interview Joyce Chua for a third time. Not only do we discuss her latest novel, Empire of Gods and Beasts, but we also delve into publishing trends and writing advice.


You have now published an entire trilogy along with two other novels with Penguin. Tying back to our first interview, how has your publishing journey evolved over time?


I'm genuinely grateful for every opportunity that has come my way. Writing has been my passion since my teenage years, and seeing my books on shelves, in the hands of readers, is truly precious. Now that I’m more aware of the industry's workings and evolution, I’ve learnt that authors today wear many hats – social media manager, designer, marketer. Juggling these responsibilities can be challenging, given the expectations placed on us. Initiatives are often author-led, and selling your book has become a job in itself. There are times when I just want to retreat into my writing cave without worrying about sales or social media reach. However, being an author in this age means adapting, learning new skills and actively marketing our books alongside writing rather than relying solely on the publisher. I strive to balance these demands without burning out or letting them interfere with my day-to-day life, job and other responsibilities.


What challenges have persisted, and what obstacles have you overcome?


I think the biggest challenge for me is exposure, because with Penguin Southeast Asia we're not, like, one of the ‘Big Five’, and they don't have huge marketing budgets. In this corner of the world, our exposure can be quite limited, so sometimes we don't get to reach as many readers as we would like, even though we distribute around the world. So, I guess exposure is one thing. With social media, you just feel like there's always so much more that you can do. I think the challenge for me is to know when to take a break, know when to just step away from it all and focus on the writing, which I feel like is the most important thing, ultimately, at the end of the day. The book is what matters, not so much your videos, your reels or your TikToks. That's kind of the challenge for me, especially as many writers are introverts, and we would rather just be with our books and be with our writing, rather than being in front of the camera. But it's been nice it's been a steep learning curve and I've met a lot of great people along the way, including yourselves. It's a very interesting journey, and I'm really excited to see how it develops from here as well.


We discussed publishing trends in our second interview, and since then the number of fantasy novels featuring BIPOC leads has continued to grow. Given your experience writing in various genres, do you observe the momentum of BIPOC leads expanding across genres?


Yes, I do. I'm truly excited to see more backlog stories being published, not just in the fantasy genre, where it all began, but also in other genres. For instance, Ann Liang has found success in the YA contemporary romance space, and Katie Zhao has carved out a niche with Asian-inspired dark academia. However, I hope this trend extends to BIPOC authors beyond the US and UK. I think there’s a trove of authors and stories waiting to be discovered in places like Southeast Asia and various other parts of the world. They deserve recognition and their stories should be told. Take, for example, Hanna Alkaf in Malaysia, who writes authentic middle-grade and YA stories deeply rooted in her culture, her history and her country's narrative. Many other authors share this authenticity and their stories deserve to reach a broader audience than they currently do.


There is an underlying implication throughout the trilogy that history should be remembered and not buried, particularly in fantasy books inspired by historical mythology. Did this theme consciously propel the construction of your novel?

 

Actually, I didn't think that much about it to begin with. It wasn’t until I wrote the second book that I realised history, and how it's being told and who it's being taught to, is really important because it shapes the way each character looks at the world. For instance, the capital girls think that they are the victims being threatened by the outside world. And the desert girls think that they are being invaded and oppressed. Both sides see the same situation differently and that boils down to the way history is being taught in the tribe and in the capital. This plays a huge part in how a character responds to the world and how they look at other people who is an enemy and who is an ally. If you think about it, these are just girls, they are growing up in the same kind of way and they want essentially the same thing. They want a purpose  they want to belong somewhere. So, it's quite amazing how the way we look at the world so differently can tear us apart, and I wanted to show that through the way they learn history and how they relate to each other. Especially in the first book, there was a scene in the classroom where the characters were talking about how the desert people were the ones being oppressed, but the capital world thought that their kingdom was under siege from the outside world and magic was being twisted in a way that would threaten them and their survival. That was what I was trying to show with that juxtaposition of their versions of history.


Windshadow’s death is a pivotal moment that is impactful for both Desert Rose and Meng’s journeys. Seeing as Empire of Gods and Beasts is also the end of the trilogy, how do you decide when to end specific characters’ journeys as well as the story in general in a way that is satisfying and meaningful?

 

First of all, I'm so glad you felt that way about her death because it was quite a pivotal moment for me to write as well. I think I knew since the first book that Windshadow was here for a good time, not a long time, so I wanted her presence in the story to really hold some weight and be significant in Desert Rose’s arc. And obviously she deserved her own arc. The arc is her discovering that she actually has a heart she’s not just this stone-cold assassin here for revenge. With every character arc, I think it helps to dig really deep and understand what it is that your character wants and the direction that they can grow in.

 

Only you yourself know intuitively when a story has ended. Often if I have something more in the world that I want to explore, I let myself see if I can come up with a story that is strong enough to stand on its legs and isn’t too similar to the previous one. If an idea has legs, I’ll just run with it but, at the same time, you need to know when not to beat a dead horse. With my standalones, I have no desire to write a sequel because I feel like those standalones are usually character-driven stories and, once a character’s arc is complete, I don’t see the need to reopen that story. It really depends. With contemporary standalones, usually one book is enough. What you said about the story never quite ending is especially true for fantasy, because there are so many parts of your world that you want to delve into and explore. My spin-off is actually going to take place in the same world, but at a different time. It’s going to focus more on the shouren.


Previously, you also spoke about revisiting past ideas and unfinished manuscripts. How do you decide when a story idea is at an end or if it has more to give?

 

I think it’s always a personal thing. It has to call out to you, it has to mean something to you. You don’t want to write something that is just good for the market but that you don’t really care about. So, I think to begin with, go with the story that really calls to you and really understand why you want to write it  what character calls out to you most. You want to write a story that can sell. Publishers will always ask you, what are the unique selling points about this book? What’s special about it? So, for me, I usually just write my story and then once I have the finished product, I’ll think about marketing the commercial angle of it.


What are you working on now? What can we expect in the future?

 

I'm actually done with all my books that are contracted with Penguin. I'm working on the spinoff and I'm also working on two other manuscripts. That’s just how I roll  I like to work on different things so that I don't burn out. I work on very different stories across different genres. Right now, I'm working on a contemporary romance that is kind of like Gilmore Girls meets How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, as well as a YA urban fantasy, and, of course, the spin-off to the Children of the Desert trilogy, which is going to be called Children of the Moon. That one is the one that I’m making the most progress with at the moment. Hopefully I’ll get the draft out by this year.


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