In the Peasprout Chen series, Henry Lien introduces the titular character, a 14-year-old girl studying wu liu, or martial arts figure skating, in the fabled city of Pearl. The headstrong Peasprout has to deal with bullies, prejudice, academic pressure, and the threat of a war between Pearl and her own homeland of Shin. In Battle of Champions, Peasprout faces possible deportation if she does not excel in a series of competitions at Pearl Academy, while a newcomer from Shin complicates matters. PW caught up with Lien to speak with him about his writing, influences, and background.
Your first few publications were aimed at adults, including several which were nominated for the Nebula award. What prompted you to write for middle graders?
To tell you the truth, I did not set out to write a middle grade novel. I approached this the same way I do my adult fiction, and left it up to my publisher to make the ultimate decision as to how to market it. But middle grade fiction is a literature defined by brightness and hope as constant foundations, where you can still explore ambitious, weighty, deep, dark material. You end up with some light at the end of the tunnel in middle grade, and I think that’s why Peasprout ended up defined as such. I just wrote the book I wanted to write. Since then, I’ve immersed myself in this world. I see it as a literature of optimism, which I respond to because I’m an optimistic person. I’m very happy in middle grade.
Several of your earlier stories are set in the same world as Peasprout. What can you tell us about them?
They were like my proof of concept for the novel. “The Great Leap of Shin” is set 200 years earlier and is about the historical events leading up to the building of the city of Pearl and the tensions between Pearl and Shin. I wrote it at the Clarion West Writers Workshop for George R.R. Martin. He quoted Faulkner, “There is nothing worth writing about except the human heart in conflict with itself,” and I took that and ran with it. That idea of internal conflict was the driving theme for how I approached Peasprout Chen. The other story, “Pearl Rehabilitative Colony for Ungrateful Daughters,” was also written at Clarion West, for Chuck Palahniuk. It’s told from the viewpoint of Suki, one of the villains in my book. I wanted to test my powers of ventriloquism by writing in a voice that was very far removed from myself. She’s a mean girl, and quite a pill, and I’m a sweet, loving person. Chuck taught me that writing from a voice outside of yourself and different from your own values is an exercise in empathy, and I wanted to practice that. When I started writing Peasprout, who’s closer to my own personality, I felt comfortable with her specific voice as a result. This story gave me the confidence to write in these different voices. (See more info here.)
What was your inspiration for the series?
It started with me writing to entertain myself. I was interested in figure skating, because of the Olympics, and I also love martial arts films, especially arthouse films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I’m also very much into architecture. So I mashed together all of the things I enjoyed, and this was the result. I wanted to create my own private Disneyland. But as I researched this world, I realized that if I was going to create something as wacky as kung-fu figure skating, I needed to get some experience, so I actually took lessons. It turns out I was appalling at both kung-fu and figure skating.
I realized that these were two sports that rewarded balance and flexibility far more than strength, that they were better suited for young people and girls rather than grown men because of the way they’re built, and I realized there was a huge girl power subtext to it. So I wanted to work with the idea that there are things in the world that reward the ways in which we are different from each other. It became very much about girl power and about turning disadvantage on its head and showing that it’s actually an advantage.
On top of that, I came to literature later in life. I gave up on reading when I was young because I couldn’t find books that resonated with me. I came back as an adult, when I discovered Harry Potter, especially The Prisoner of Azkaban, which I consider one of the best children’s books of all time. I loved the world-building and construction and I wanted to do something like that. I wanted to give diverse and queer kids their own Harry Potter or Star Wars, something that had diversity and inclusivity baked into it from the outset. And I decided to tell it from the viewpoint of a young woman because I think young people and women are the future in many ways.
What was it like to go from writing short stories to full-length novels?
For me, it didn’t feel all that different. I’d already done a lot of world-building for the short stories, which were pretty ambitious. I come from the art world, and there’s something we call the level of investigation, which means you don’t paint everything in equal detail; the artist chooses a focal point to spend more time on, while allowing other elements in the composition to be more abstract. But it creates a sense of verisimilitude because in seeing one part clearly, you understand that the rest of it is equally realistic. For the short fiction, I chose a narrow focus and investigated particular parts of the world, but that didn’t mean the rest of the story wasn’t fully imagined. It just didn’t make it onto the page. With the novel, because I had the luxury of more space, I was able to apply an equal level of investigation to every aspect. I could expand on what I’d already developed. I have a 90-page encyclopedia of the world of Pearl, its history and cultural details, so it feels as real to me as my childhood home.
You were born in Taiwan; how did that influence your writing?
Obviously, I drew upon my heritage and culture. When I first came to America as a kid, I didn’t speak English and I had a tough time finding books in the library with characters that looked like me. It ended up being the best possible thing for me, because I was a very self-involved, overconfident kid, and being forced to read about characters with different viewpoints and experiences, backgrounds and values from mine really helped. It made my childhood infinitely richer. So when I wrote this book, I wanted to give something back to America, by sharing my culture the same way America shared its culture. My idea was to show that culture and history can be as cool as any magic, so I imposed an edict on myself: no magic in the world of Pearl. I built a fantasy by taking out the primary thing that defines most fantasy, figuring I could always put it in later if necessary. But after spending 10 years looking at the world, I realized I didn’t need the magic. It felt like a crutch. Hopefully I’ll inspire kids to look at their own culture and backgrounds, and see the magic in them.
So there’s no magic in this series at all?
Everything is based on real-world research, even the pearl that makes up the city. The world is filled with fascinating things that can give a sense of wonder without using actual magic. The art of wu liu is exaggerated, but if you watch Olympic skaters or gymnasts or parkour artists, you’ll see equally physics-defying things.
What did you do before you became a writer?
I was an attorney for 10 years and then I was an art dealer for 10 years and I also taught law at UCLA. I still teach law on the side, but now I’m primarily an author. It seems like those are whiplash changes in career, but they all fit together. I drew upon the law while writing Peasprout, because it’s all about research and building a vision. As a lawyer, you’re tasked with reducing your client’s life story and viewpoint to compelling words, and the stakes are usually very high. I used those skills to build a convincing world.
This book is very visual, and my work as an art dealer informed the writing as well. Scenecraft is the conscious and careful manipulation of the elements that make up a scene—dialogue, a viewpoint, prose, and the characters. I thought very hard about scenecraft from a visual perspective. I’d sketch out some of the scenes, where characters were standing in relation to one another and to their environment. The Pearl Academy where this all takes place, and the city that serves as a backdrop, are very much stars themselves in the book, and I had to consider how it all worked together. I had to understand the dramatic and emotional texture of each scene, and the choreography, so I drew these crude stick storyboards of each chapter and its pivotal scenes. My art background helped tremendously.
You’re also a songwriter and musician, and you’ve actually performed some of the songs in Peasprout. What can you tell us about that?
I’m not really a songwriter or musician... I’m a dilettante with access to some instruments, with the power of the Garage Band app on my iPad. I dabble in music and I have a lot of fun with it. I wanted to create an artifact wrested from Peasprout’s world because it was so vivid in my mind and I’d invested so much into it. I wanted to make at least one artifact to actually exist in our world to say, “Look, this is real. And therefore by extrapolation, everything else in the world should feel as real as the actual artifacts.” So I created a couple of songs that made sense in the plot, which had a prominent emotional role. I knew they had to have elements that sounded like Chinese folk music as well, although I took some liberties. But in their core, melodically and harmonically, they’re folk songs with a modern twist because that’s what happens with culture. I wanted to create something that felt fresh and vivid as if it were pulled out of that world into ours.
How on earth did you manage to get Idina Menzel to perform with you at your book launch event?
We’re actually represented by the same agency, ICM. She got ahold of the galley of Peasprout Chen, and fell in love with it, and asked her agent if they’d set up a meeting with me. We had lunch, and really hit it off. She’s become a good friend and a great champion of the book, and I’m just so proud that it resonated with her because she’s a goddess among girls and an icon for starring in projects that exalt friendship between girls.
(See Lien and Menzel perform the theme song from Peasprout Chen here.)
And what’s next for you, after Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions comes out?
This series will either be three or four books all together. There’s a lot I want to include. I’m also working on another middle grade series, which will star young female protagonists and characters of color. It’s a STEM adventure about girls building machines. It’s very different from Peasprout, but I love it just as much and am excited to share it with the world. However, it’s still very much in the development process.
Peasprout Chen: Battle of Champions by Henry Lien. Holt, $16.99, Jan. 22 ISBN 978-1-250-16575-6