Vo’s debut novella, The Empress of Salt and Fortune (Tor.com, Mar.), draws from myth and history to tell of the rise of Empress In-yo and her relationship with handmaiden Rabbit.
The novella is framed by cleric Chih and talking bird Almost Brilliant as they listen to Rabbit’s stories. Why did you choose to enter the story through these outsiders’ perspectives?
Part of the reason is because they came first. But there are several reasons why they stayed rather than being discarded as I got to know more about Rabbit and In-yo. I really liked the distance that they give between the present day and In-yo. This novella was also inspired by my conflicted love of museums and how much of the story we’re missing, that we’re always going to be missing. Chih and Almost Brilliant already know how the story goes, or they think they do. More than this story being new to them, it challenges things they thought they knew, and that’s always a good time.
There is a beautiful closeness between Rabbit and In-yo. How would you describe their relationship?
Rabbit and In-yo are very aware of the differences in their statuses and how their respective places force them to interact with the world. The place where they really meet is the one where they figure out how useful it is when they treat this as something mutable.... In-yo’s left large and obvious prints all over the world in her ascent to power. Rabbit’s prints are far more subtle, but no less vital and important. It is not an equal relationship, and it is not a fair one, but it is perhaps the most important relationship in each of their lives.
The world and characters are extremely well-defined for such a short novel. How did you land on the form their story would take?
The truth is that I’m a short story writer first. I think in short stories, and I plan in short stories. Early on, I realized that The Empress of Salt and Fortune was probably too long to be a short story, so I took the opportunity offered by Tor’s novella program to stretch a little. I write very compact, like I’m ready to take my stories and run—so with Empress, I unpacked things, let them out, allowed them to breathe, and it was a fantastic experience. There’s this level of worldbuilding in everything I write, and it’s so neat to be able to show that off a little.
What do you hope readers will come away with?
I hope it reminds readers about the stories that we walk through every day, in the things we touch and the things we allow to touch us. I would like them to remember that everyone tells stories. We all do it, so we should keep in mind the stories that we are telling and the ones that will someday be told about us.