Write the Story You Want to Read: An Interview with Joyce Chua
By Shaniah Shields, Jia Wen Ho, Michelle Ye and Leanne Francis
We are so delighted to interview Joyce Chua, the author of Land of Sand and Song. Hailing from the metropolitan city-state of Singapore, Joyce Chua is a sub-editor by day and an author by night. After a wonderful conversation, we gained an eye-opening insight into the publishing landscape in Southeast Asia, and her writing and publishing journey.
What was your publishing journey like? Did you face any challenges as you published in a non-western country where the publishing scene is smaller and access to resources is limited?
It was definitely a challenge. The literary scene in Southeast Asia is very nascent compared to the UK, US and Canada. Since our publishing scene is smaller, there are limited platforms and avenues you can use to sell and promote your book. The size of the audience here is also limited. There is a lack of the culture of reading for pleasure, especially in Singapore. We are a nation of textbooks and assessment books.
Exposure is another factor that adds to the challenge. We have, at most, regional exposure, even though our books are available internationally. Most of the titles are printed on demand. You don't see them on the shelves because they're only available when customers order it or request it. If people don't see them, they don't buy them because they don't know about them.
Southeast Asian authors aren’t on the same playing field as authors published in the US or the UK, as authors from the US and the UK dominate the market. These countries have got the Big Four, a bigger budget and a bigger platform. Our books don’t get featured on Goodreads newsletters or any of the big media platforms that readers typically get exposed to for new books. Southeast Asian publishers try really hard, but unfortunately they still have limited influence on these platforms.
As for my publishing journey, I spent the last ten years querying agents from the US and the UK for various manuscripts before I finally decided to go with Penguin Southeast Asia (SEA). I was in the middle of querying for Land of Sand and Song when Penguin SEA offered the contract. In 2019, I went for a speed pitching session that was in the middle of a conference for young adult and middle grade writers. I went there and I didn’t hear back from them for almost a year. I gave up hope on it. I thought they probably were not interested and went back to querying.
I heard back from Penguin SEA in 2020 and the book was launched in August 2021. It definitely feels like a long time coming. I debated on whether to continue querying agents or go with Penguin. With the former option, there are many unknowns. I could continue querying agents and get rejections, or I could go with this opportunity that has come knocking on my door. I decided to go with the latter and I don't regret it. Penguin SEA is a smaller publisher compared to Penguin US, UK and Australia, but they've been growing steadily since 2019 and have been acquiring very good titles. I'm very honoured to be among the authors that they work with.
The narrative feels more intimate and immediate through the triple narrative point of view we get from Desert Rose, Wei and Meng. Why did you decide to present the story from multiple narrators, and which character resonated most with you?
I love writing multiple POVs. It lends so much more depth and layers to a story because you get to see the same event from a different perspective, creating a better picture of the events that unfold. For instance, how Meng sees Desert Rose and how Wei sees her are very different. Meng sees Desert Rose as a gateway to the larger world, representing a life that he longs for. A life that is free of duty, obligation, expectation and decorum. For Wei, Desert Rose is more like an equal. A companion with as much fire, passion and a strong sense of justice as he has. He doesn't idealise her but sees her as she is. Feisty. Flawed. She's trying to find her way around a complicated world, so he sees himself in her.
I wanted to present the story from these perspectives because there are so many things happening in the story. It can get very one-dimensional if the story is only told from one character's point of view. For the second book, I’m going to add one more perspective, just for the fun of it. I think you can guess which character it’s going to be.
In terms of the character who resonated the most with me, I see a lot of myself in Desert Rose. She's very close to her father. She's persistent and protective of her friends. She's also very curious and imaginative. Desert Rose is definitely someone who follows her heart. I really enjoyed writing her character.
The characters and the setting of the novel are enhanced and brought into greater detail with the languages you chose to incorporate, like the desert tongue and the Oasis language. What made you decide to incorporate distinct languages and how did you determine when to use them?
I love that language gives a very distinct taste of a place, its culture and its history. It reveals a lot about the hierarchy as well, like who's allowed to use what kind of language, so I think the language that someone speaks and their colloquialisms reveals a lot about where they stand in their society, where they stand in their community and where they stand in the world. I think it's very important to me to distinguish between the languages and the areas in which they use these languages. Then again, because it's a made-up language, I cannot have my characters having full conversations in those tongues, as nobody could understand them and I’d explain too much. I only chose to keep the essentials and add some flavour without having to over-explain in case it slowed down the prose.
Family and friendships run in parallel with the intense battles that your characters experience. How did you balance these various aspects when constructing the novel?
I think a character's journey is a combination of every aspect of their life: family, friends, personal goals, romance and so on. I don't find it believable when the character's arc is only made up of one aspect, so I try to challenge them in all areas, like their relationship with their family, tribe and even their enemies or ‘frenemies.’ There are so many things happening at once in the novel, so you want to witness the emotional arc that goes along with the external, physical arc. There’s a battle, there are trials and sword fights, but you also need something that has emotional weight and gravity. Adding that emotional layer through friendships and relationships gives more depth to the character.
The excerpts and sayings at the end of certain chapters contribute greatly to the overall mythology and worldbuilding. What led you to structure the novel that way?
I love it when stories provide a deeper and more extensive view of the landscape, be it geographical, historical or cultural, so that was what I wanted to do with the story. It adds a lot more layers to the story, and I think it provides a lot more room to explore the world. In fact, because of all these explorations, because of all these developments of supporting characters and different communities within the world, I am actually developing a spin-off series. So, you heard it here first. Because there's so much worldbuilding involved in epic fantasies, right? It can get pretty dry if we make our characters explain the backstory and history of a place for no reason; it feels very heavy and unrealistic in terms of conversation. So I thought interspersing it with these little excerpts from a made-up book written by a made-up wandering poet might help to get the information across without dragging the pace of the main narrative.
I loved that the book incorporated so many Chinese drama themes, tropes and culture. What made you write Land of Sand and Song and what inspired you?
Primarily, my inspiration comes from Chinese dramas. One of my favourite dramas is called Scarlet Heart. I watched the Korean version that stars IU. I really loved it, from the storyline, the plotting, the pacing, the cinematography and the soundtrack. Everything was just perfect. I wanted to write a story like that, with so much emotional weight. I was also inspired by Descendant of the Crane by Joan He, Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton and the Grisha trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. That was the first time I read something that was not medieval fantasy, not the typical kind of white fantasy that you usually see on the shelves. It made me realise that I could write a story that is not based in England and rooted in other cultures. I wanted to see something that wasn't usually on the shelf, something that I really wanted to read. So I wrote it.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, particularly those who wish to write diverse fantasy stories?
Believe in the story that you want to tell. Think about that one person you want to write for. And that could be yourself, you know. If you want to read a book that is not on the shelves yet, write it for yourself. Just indulge in that story and believe that there's someone out there who will appreciate and believe in it as much as you do. I think the rest will take care of itself.
When can we anticipate the release of your next book, and where can readers buy it?
I submitted the manuscript for the second book to my editor in mid-September. It's going to go through a few rounds of edits, so hopefully I'll have more news to announce in the next six to nine months. In the meantime, for readers who haven't read the first book, they can find it worldwide on Book Depository and Amazon. I think that the best way to get bookstores and local libraries to notice the titles that they don’t usually stock is to request the books so they can restock it.