By Michelle Ye, Jia Wen Ho and Leanne Francis
We are thrilled to interview author and editor Joyce Chua for a second time about her Children of the Desert trilogy. Following the release of Land of Sand and Song in 2021, Joyce has since had published the second instalment in the series. We talk to Joyce about her latest novel, Kingdom of Blood and Gold, her experience in the publishing industry, and her plans for the future.
In our first interview, we asked you what your publishing journey was like. Since then, and more experience under your belt, how has your impression of the industry evolved?
When you are not in publishing yet, everything is new and looks very glamorous from the outside. But it's a lot of work and very much a team effort. Publishing is a business. Like with any industry, numbers talk. In order for bookstores or the media to stock your books or feature them in an article, pre-order numbers and releasing numbers have to be there. The amount of exposure your books receive will hugely influence the sales as well.
Before I had my foot in the industry, I thought you just work with a team and publicist, and everything is done for you. But, actually, a lot of the work is author-led. However, I can do all the marketing within my capacity, but without proper distribution, the book can’t really get exposure or visibility. Everything's a chain reaction and there are so many moving pieces. Each piece has to function very optimally and work together.
I was already pitching to agents in 2009. A lot of agents told me that they could not relate to the characters or the setting because the books are set in Singapore. Back then, it wasn't a big thing to publish books that are set in other countries. They also didn't know where to categorise my book. I'd been querying for about ten years until I found Penguin SEA.
I published one book in 2013. It was like my first trial – I didn't even know that I had to market my book. But now, with Land of Sand and Song published, I knew that I had to gather a team or do a pre-order campaign. It's been a very steep but rewarding learning curve. I've also learned that every book is a statistic. In order for your book to stand out, it needs to have a USP (unique selling point), something that will distinguish it from other books on the shelves.
Do I have an answer for what the magic formula is? There is the level of commerciality that the publishers look for. They are always on the lookout for the next runaway hit. But Singaporean stories do hit commercial success like Crazy Rich Asians. No one knew it would be so big, but it was, and nobody knew that the kind of genre would resonate so well with the readers.
On the author’s side, the book is not just another statistic – it's our baby. Just because publishing has moved on to the next book, doesn't mean that you have to. You can keep finding new opportunities to tell people about your book. It always helps to have a new book coming out.
One thing that hasn't changed, and hopefully it never will, is my love for writing and telling stories. The biggest takeaway is that writing is the one thing that I can control. I may not be able to control things within the publishing industry or the response to my books, but the writing, the act of writing itself, is the thing that I can control and it brings me joy. This love for writing has kept me going so far, hopefully for a longer time.
Do you see yourself writing what commercial publishers want instead of what you want to write about?
It's actually something that my writer friends and I have discussed. Since Asian fantasy is the trend right now, a lot of writers are writing Asian fantasy, which is very exciting. Personally, for me, I would rather write the book that I want to write. If I am chasing trends, the trends would change again when my book is completed.
I actually had a hard time pitching some of my books to agents because they were not very commercial and didn't really belong to a specific genre. The closest genre I could find is YA contemporary, which is very broad.
I think because I wrote the stories that I wanted to write, there were some difficulties in trying to fit them into the market. Ultimately, I feel that a good story is a good story, no matter how strange it is, and there will be an audience for it if you believe in it enough.
Kingdom of Blood and Gold incorporates four distinct perspectives. How do you ensure each character has a distinct voice? How much of your writing process is character building?
A huge part of my process is character building. I've always gravitated more towards character-driven stories and would happily read a book with a slow plot but compelling characters. I think the character arc is something that compels the reader to read and to continue reading. I would rather read a book that has a very strong compelling character, no matter how flawed they are.
With this book, I wanted to create very strong characters. I needed to know them very well if I was going to write from four different points of view. It helped me to figure out what each character wanted – their internal and external conflict. Does one conflict triumph over the other, do they manage to get both? How does one affect the other? Everything is predicated upon that conflict and that goal, and that keeps the story spinning. Keeping the character's goal in mind and letting it influence their actions can inspire more conflict, which inspires more action. And before you know it, you have the whole plot and the story is writing itself.
The tension between destiny and autonomy is prominent in Kingdom of Blood and Gold. It’s especially interesting seeing how Rose and Windshadow’s different approaches to the prophecy clash throughout the novel. Why did you choose to focus on this thematic conflict?
I love that you picked that out because it was a very core focus of this book. I wanted them to have very clearly opposing approaches to their destiny, because I think it mirrors how we see ourselves and the agency that we have in our lives. Sometimes we feel like we’re in control, but other times we feel like we're being tossed about by fate, subject to its wind.
Readers don't simply see Windshadow as the antagonist – they see her as a fully fleshed out character who is just trying to survive, or they see Rose as someone who is optimistic, who feels that she still has agency in her life, even though she's a chosen one. The risk of writing “chosen one” stories is that it sometimes seems like everything’s already laid out and the characters lack agency, like they're just being pushed around on the page. I wanted some kind of conflict there, and for that struggle to make them more relatable to the reader.
Aspiring writers are often told to “write what they know” because you can draw from your own personal experiences. Do you think it's okay to step away from that?
I'm a very experimental writer so I wouldn't stick with only what I know, I would explore what I'm interested in. I didn't know much about Mongolian rituals or customs but, because this part of the world hasn't really been explored in YA literature, I wanted to go there. You don't always have to write what you know because what we know is very limited, especially if you're a young writer. But is that going to stop you from writing the book that you want? I don't think so. I think you should step out of your comfort zone and try to understand things from different points of view. Try different things, go where your curiosity lies – it might inform your story better, give it more heart and more inspiration for your next book as well.
Your new book Until Morning will soon be available. Until Morning is quite different from the mythological foundations of Land of Sand and Song/Kingdom of Blood and Gold. What prompted this transition?
I actually started out writing YA contemporary, and Until Morning is a book that I wrote in 2013. Contemporary was something that I felt very comfortable writing because it was the genre I read most, and I didn't have to worry about the historical accuracy of things. Fantasy was something that was very daunting to me because I never really tried my hand at it. Reading the Shadow and Bone series and the Six of Crows duology inspired me to write fantasy. I didn't know that fantasy could be written in a non-Anglocentric style. Back then, there wasn't a lot of diverse fantasy, Asian fantasy, so I decided to write something that I wanted to read.
Until Morning is due to be published November 2023.