Hi everyone, Petrik from Novel Notions here. Today I’m bringing you an interview with M. L. Wang, the author behind Theonite series and the recently released standalone, The Sword of Kaigen. If you somehow missed it, I have read and reviewed The Sword of Kaigen with extremely high praises. To simplify my praises, The Sword of Kaigen hits a lot of new milestones for me:
- Number one favorite self-published book.
- Number one favorite standalone fantasy book.
- One of my favorite books of all time
- It’s literally the only standalone fantasy novel I would rate 6 out of 5 stars if possible.
Yes, that’s how much I loved it! You can check out my review of The Sword of Kaigen on the blog or Goodreads and I hope it will convince you to order and read it as soon as possible. Now, without further ado, here is my interview with M. L. Wang!
- Hi, M. L. Wang! Thank you for doing this interview with me. Please tell us a bit about yourself, your newest book, and the main inspirations behind your work.
Thank you for having me!
I got started in self-publishing with my Theonite Series (now two books long), which combines some of my favorite genres, including magic school, alternate history, and superheroes. Growing up biracial in the weird tangle of racial tensions that make up the USA, I was always morbidly fascinated by racism, prejudice, and the mechanisms behind oppression. This gave rise to what is probably the most distinct feature of the Theonite universe: the planet’s inverted racial hierarchy, with a West African empire having dominated the globe and Europe being the most devastated of its many former colonies. Readers of Theonite, whatever their background, are intended to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
My newest book, The Sword of Kaigen, is a military fantasy that takes place in the Japanese-inspired corner of the Theonite universe, thirteen years before the events of the main series. The Sword of Kaigen spawned from the few-sentence-long backstory I provided to explain the Matsuda family’s anti-Ranganese tendencies and to inject some WW2-esque tragedy into Duna’s history. The middle two Matsuda brothers’ names, Hiroshi and Nagasa, are extensions of that idea, implying national trauma (heavy-handed, I know, but I was in high school when I came up with it, okay? My metaphor game was in its adolescence).
In its original form, The Sword of Kaigen was a serialized story that I released to my newsletter subscribers in monthly installments beginning in 2017. When I realized that my little ‘novella’ had exceeded 100,000 words, I decided to complete the story and publish it as a proper novel. Part of the reason I got so carried away with The Sword of Kaigen was that it presented a convenient excuse to play with a lot of things that had a place in my heart but not in the already very busy Theonite series—Japanese martial arts, Chinese martial arts, complex adult characters, Buddhist and pre-Buddhist Japanese religious symbolism, big battles, and a more personal inverted history.
I’m alive to write this story because, in 1937, in a Jiangsu Province village outside Nanjing, a Japanese bullet missed my great grandmother when she bent down to get a cooking pot. Certain events in The Sword of Kaigen harken back to the Nanjing Massacre, holding true to the guiding principle behind the Theonite universe: the mile walked in another’s shoes. What if you had been on the other side? What if it had been your family?
- What were the biggest challenges you faced during the time of writing The Sword of Kaigen? What made the writing process for this book differs from writing your main series?
The blunt answer to both these questions is depression.
I can’t blame a single project for the malfunction of my brain chemicals—2018 wasn’t an easy year at work or at home either—but I will say that The Sword of Kaigen was rough on my soul in a way that Theonite just isn’t anymore.
Writing Theonite was a deeply emotional experience for me when I was the age of the protagonists, suffering through the same tumult of hormones and identity confusion, but I haven’t been thirteen for a long time (thank goodness!). I have enough distance from my teenage years now that I can work the youthful angst of Theonite without the trauma ricocheting back to me. The Sword of Kaigen contains so many of my anxieties about adulthood, fears that are near enough to be tangible and murky enough to be terrifying. There were times it got a bit too real.
- Is becoming an author something that you have dreamed of since you were a kid? How do you juggle your daily life and writing?
I’ve wanted to be an author since I was nine and I’ve been working on the Theonite universe since I was twelve. During early drafts of the books, I made time for writing at the expense of my homework (much to the frustration of my parents and teachers). For the past few years since graduating college, I’ve worked at a martial arts school that doesn’t open until the afternoon, which has allowed me to mine my insomnia for quiet writing time.
- I’m sure that many authors have played a role as your inspirations, but which authors would you consider as the biggest influences behind your work and writing?
Uh-oh. Here’s where I have to admit that I read embarrassingly little for an author, owing to my focus issues. As a middle schooler, I did love the heck out of Suzanne Collins’ Underland Chronicles, which definitely influenced my writing during that formative time. However, my biggest influences have always been the superhero cartoons and anime I loved as a kid. I’ve just recently, by the grace of Audible, gotten into consuming proper fantasy books—my favorite of which have been Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive—but I have a lot of catching up to do.
That said, I am of the unpopular opinion that reading constantly is not necessary to be a good writer (I would be in serious trouble if that were the case) and that you can only get so far basing your writing on the work of others. After turning out some truly stale and clumsy prose in attempt to emulate my favorite authors, I’ve found that my writing is at its strongest when I focus on transcribing an experience in simple English… This makes it sound like not reading is deliberate part of my creative process. It’s really not. It’s mostly my scatterbrain.
- Correct me if I’m wrong, but from your newsletter, I get the impression that you did the cover art of your books all by yourself. Is that correct? (Amazing cover arts btw, especially on The Sword of Kaigen and the third book of the Theonite series.)
Thank you! It’s a relief and a surprise that people are starting to like my homemade covers. I have no graphic design experience – just Photoshop and a stubborn need to control every creative element of my books. Fun fact I like to tell people about my cover designs: almost all the hands are mine. Mamoru’s sword hand on the cover of SoK, Fiki’s flame hand on the cover of Orbit, all mine, recolored to match the cover model. I’m very fussy about hand position.
I’m also glad that you like the cover of Theonite Book 3! While finding the right white girl for Joan and the right black girl for Fiki was difficult, I was honestly worried it would be downright impossible to find an Indian boy to be Daniel. (Stock photo websites aren’t always great in the diversity department). The Firebird coat is also beyond anything I’ve ever attempted in Photoshop, so I’ll probably be tweaking it right up to the release date trying to get it perfect.
- The Sword of Kaigen is your first (seriously, you did an amazing job) adult high-fantasy book, is there any plan to write another book for the same audience in the future?
This is a hard question, since when I write, I think of the stories as being for everyone—or maybe more accurately no one, just myself. Narrowing my audience to an age group comes after the fact, when I look at what I’ve done and go, ‘okay, how old are the characters? How disturbing is the content? How many swear words did I use? Will my ten-year-old karate students like this book? And if they do, will their moms be mad at me?’
While my ten-year-old readers sadly had to miss out on The Sword of Kaigen, my hope is that writing it will turn out to have been good practice for future Theonite books. As those characters age, the writing will age with them, taking on a style and tone more similar to SoK.
For strictly adult SFF fans, my soonest planned release will be the next standalone Theonite spin-off, Jamuttaana. Slated for 2020, Jamuttaana follows an apprentice in the Jamu Kurankite (the Yammanka ‘Peace Army’) struggling with her identity as her traditional warrior’s savior complex comes into conflict with the corruption in her own African-inspired nation and its former colonies. To oversimplify, think super-powered African Peace Corps goes to Third World Europe.
I’ve also written fragments of ‘historical’ fiction from Planet Duna in the style of West African epic songs, which will also fall under the umbrella of adult military fantasy if I ever publish them – and that’s a big ‘if.’ Much as I love world-building, I can’t afford to get derailed by some Fire & Blood nonsense.
- Last question. What’s next after The Sword of Kaigen? What are you working on at the moment and what’s your plan for the future, writing-wise?
Right now, I’m trying to write the next two Theonite books (Theonite: City of Ghosts and Theonite: Masks) back-to-back to tighten up my release schedule. The Sword of Kaigen has left me extra excited to get to Masks, which will take us back to Takayubi in a subplot (I won’t say who, but I found Misaki an apprentice!) When Book 4 is done, I may relaunch that quartet as a Theonite: Year One box set. After that, the next book on the docket is Jamuttaana, followed by at least ten more Theonite books and their spin-offs. Strap in, folks! We’ve got a long way to go!
Ohh yes! That’s so exciting to hear! I look forward to reading all your works! Thank you once again for doing this interview with me!