Waterford alum -- and award-winning short story writer -- Ken Liu releases his debut novel
Ken Liu, a 1994 Waterford High School graduate, has carved out an impressive writing career for himself, with his short stories developing fans not just among regular readers but also among those who hand out illustrious literary awards. His “Paper Menagerie” was the first work to win all three of the most esteemed science fiction/fantasy awards out there: the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy. That was in 2012. The following year, another Liu short story, “Mono no aware,” won the Hugo.
This month, he is moving into a new authorial arena. He is releasing his debut novel, “The Grace of Kings,” published by Saga Press, which is Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint. The book marks the first in Liu’s series of fantasy novels.
Inspired by Chinese history-turned-legend, “The Grace of Kings” spotlights Kuni Garu, who is a bandit, and Mata Zyndu, who is the son of a deposed duke. They bond as they fight an emperor’s tyranny but then find themselves on opposite sides when the ruler is overthrown.
An NPR critic described the tome as “a magnificent fantasy epic that is deeply concerned with the high, the low and the movement of people and power between them.”
A Publishers Weekly reviewer opined, “Liu seasons his fantastical Han Dynasty drama with plenty of intrigue, passion, bloodlust, and even a nod to historical feminism, against a backdrop of magical and technological marvels. Epic fantasy fans will enjoy this large-scale story of political strategy and skullduggery.”
Liu’s journey to becoming an acclaimed writer hasn’t been ordinary, either in the literal or figurative sense.
First, the literal: Liu grew up in China but moved to the U.S. when he was 11 years old, living briefly in California and Stonington before his family settled in Waterford.
Asked whether it was all a bit of cultural shock, Liu says, “I’m not sure I like the term ‘cultural shock.’ People are always moving around and things are always different. So you’re just adapting to a new place.”
This much is true: while a student at Waterford, he liked science and was “reading all sorts of stuff,” he remembers. He ran cross-country and track. He calls it pretty typical teenager stuff.
Now, the impressive scholarly and career journey: After graduating from Waterford High School in 1994, Liu majored in English literature at Harvard, but he also studied computer science. He worked as a software engineer with Microsoft before returning to Cambridge to do a start-up with some friends.
In 2001, though, he left the tech industry for law school — Harvard Law. After that, he clerked for a federal judge for a year. He became a corporate lawyer for seven or so years before shifting to a litigation consultant. In that guise, he helps consult with lawyers on cases involving high-tech issues, such as patents, trade secrets, and copyright infringement claims.
And, yes, even as his writing career is taking off, Liu is still working his “day job” as a litigation consultant. It’s his primary income source, and he’s got a family to provide for. Liu lives outside of Boston with his wife, photographer Lisa Tang Liu, and their two children. (In addition to writing and being a litigation consultant, by the way, Liu translates Chinese fiction into English.)
Liu has published more than 100 short stories starting in 2002. The short story market, though, isn’t sufficient for someone to develop a career in the way that penning novels is.
While Liu knew he wanted to write a novel, he was having trouble coming up with a narrative he thought would work well in that longer form. He and his wife, Lisa, tried to figure whether there were certain themes or ideas he had explored in his short stories that he wanted to revisit. No obvious answer arose.
“A lot of my stories are about families, about family relationships, and a lot of stories are about technology and the way technology can change the way human interactions are conducted,” he says. “Even though I write in speculative fiction, which is primarily science fiction and fantasy, the way I use these tropes and ideas is a little bit different from how people usually think of them. I’m not particularly interested in imagining the future.”
What he is interested in is using the language of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for ideas about humanity, about “our very human, imperfect, flawed nature.”
In “Paper Menagerie,” for instance, the origami animals a mother makes for her son come to life. As the boy grows up, his friends and others view his immigrant mother with racism and prejudice. All that begins to seep into the way the boy views her. The origami animals begin to die — serving as a metaphor for the way the familial relationship is perishing.
As the Lius were discussing possible sources of inspiration for his novel, Lisa reminded her husband that, when she was a young girl in Hong Kong, she used to watch TV historical dramas. He had had the same experience.
“When I was a boy growing up in grade school, I would rush home every day at lunch to be with my grandmother so we could listen to storytellers on the radio who would tell these wonderful stories about the historical romances based on Chinese history and legends,” he says. “Those are the first important stories that I remember and are very foundational to the way I think about literature and about narrative.”
Lisa suggested that he could transform those stories into a new concept — a new way to tell them to new audiences.
Every culture has its foundational narratives that have been reimagined and retold in various ways over time and have become the bedrock of a culture’s literature, Liu notes. In the West, for instance, those foundational narratives include “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” “Beowulf” and “Paradise Lost.” In China, historical romances serve the same sort of role.
Liu took a cue, too, from the history-turned-legend of a story about the Han dynasty, which was the first long-lasting imperial dynasty in Chinese history, and about the two heroes who emerged. He reenvisioned it as an epic fantasy in the Western mold but called upon tropes from Chinese historical romances.
“One of the things I wanted to do is to try to avoid the problems of Orientalism and the colonial gaze in the sort of novels written about China in a fantasy vein,” he says.
To help readers approach things with fresh eyes, he created a new setting, new cultures and new references. He dreamt up an island world, an archipelago named Dara.
He devised a new aesthetic, too, which he calls silkpunk. It grew from his wanting to create a new technology vocabulary. In silkpunk, the technology’s basic vocabulary consists of organic material. So instead of brass, chrome, glass and the other kinds of language seen in steampunk, the materials in silkpunk are bamboo, paper and silk, coconut, corals, fish scales and sharkskin.
The machines in the “Grace of Kings” world are modeled on how nature works. So airships regulate their buoyancy by imitating the swim bladders of fish, and they are propelled by feathered oars that allow them to fly through the air like birds.
“When they’re moving and lit up from within, they move like fish swimming through a sea of stars,” he says.
Narratively, Liu says, he tried “a lot of new tricks” in “The Grace of Kings.” One source of inspiration was the way that Greek epics were constructed. Those epics, for instance, might skip quickly over some important battle scenes and focus on the words between the two heroes on the battlefield.
Liu says his love for classical Greek epics comes in part from his freshman Waterford High School English class with teacher June Hoye. She had the students read “The Odyssey,” and Liu recalls that, beyond just reading the work, it was about trying to understand that world from the inside.
“Mrs. Hoye was very important in the way I could see how these old foundational narratives get echoed and reimagined in contemporary literature,” he says.
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