Classically trained as a composer, bestselling author Elizabeth Lim stepped onto the YA scene with two Twisted Tales for Disney before branching out into her own fantasy duology, Blood of Stars, comprised of Spin the Dawn and Unravel the Dusk. Now, Lim travels back to the same world to deliver a new richly imagined duology, starting with Six Crimson Cranes, a fantastical East Asian reimagining of “The Wild Swans,” which centers 16-year-old Princess Shiori of Kiata. PW spoke with Lim about her inspirations, approach, and research process.
Eagle-eyed readers will notice this is set in the same universe as the Blood of Stars duology. Can you talk about your inspiration behind this new duology?
So Six Crimson Cranes is based on “The Wild Swans” by Hans Christian Andersen, or the Grimm Brothers, depending on which version you go by. It’s always been one of my favorite fairy tales. My parents had these picture books that they bought when we were traveling in Asia, and I would just read them constantly—I guess for a little while, I thought it was an East Asian fairy tale, and later as I grew up, I realized it was actually European. [chuckles] But having had that instilled in me from when I was a kid, and then watching a bunch of international animations of the fairy tale, I was like, “You know what? There haven’t been that many retellings of this. And why not weave some of my favorite Chinese and Japanese legends and stories in with it?” I knew I wanted to stay in the same world as Spin the Dawn because I just loved it, and I had more stories to tell!
Did anything change in your approach as you began the new series?
I actually started out writing not Six Crimson Cranes but kind of like a prequel to it, based on a different character in the book. As I was writing that prequel, I thought about how I always knew I wanted to write Six Crimson Cranes, and that it might be easier to market to my editor if I wrote the meat of the story first. So I kind of switched gears. That was a little tough at first, because I’d written this whole story and then had to just shelve it. But as I got more into Shiori’s story, I just felt really immersed in it.
Was there anything easier or more difficult about writing this book compared to the last?
It was a very different experience because this is a closer read—I’m more faithful to one fairy tale in this story than I was in Spin the Dawn. So even though it’s a reimagining instead of a retelling, it was both refreshing and challenging to follow the structure of the original. Easier in the sense that I knew where I wanted the story to go and how faithful I wanted to stay, but then challenging in that I knew there were things I wanted to change, and I had to figure out what those were.
How long did it take you to write it?
That’s hard for me to answer, because I was working on a bunch of other things at the same time! Which is not how I ideally like to work. Total time would be like two years, but in the middle of it, I was also working on a Twisted Tale, the Cinderella one [So This Is Love: A Twisted Tale], so I had to put it aside for a little while.
Can you discuss how you came up with the blend of western and East Asian folklore? What was your research process like?
I actually just try to feel it out! I find that if I rely on what I know already from childhood, then the nostalgia is more present in my stories. It just feels more… cherished to me, if I’m not researching and find a cool story and decide to insert it there. I might think of a story and then read it again to refresh my memory, but I really try to rely on the feelings that I had from when I was a kid and why I loved those stories. But I’m going to run out of stories eventually, so I’m going to have to do some research. [Laughs.]
You put such a refreshing spin on the evil stepmother trope. What inspired the relationship between Raikama and Shiori?
Thank you! So, in the original fairy tale, it always struck me that the stepmother doesn’t really have a good motive to turn the princes into swans and to do all these awful things to the princess. It’ll just say in a sentence, “Oh, she was jealous that the kids were spending so much time with their father, so she decides to turn them into swans.” And I was just like, “That’s not really rational, you know?” So I thought, “Hey, if I’m going to rewrite this fairy tale, I think she needs a better reason,” and that’s kind of where I started! I love Raikama and definitely wanted her to have a fuller arc than just being some evil stepmother.
Which of your characters do you think you’re most like?
Oh, I don’t know! I think Shiori’s a lot braver than I am, and a lot more reckless; I’m pretty risk averse. Of all my characters, if I’m allowed to go to other books, I would say I’m closest to Maia—at least in the beginning of the book, because I’m kind of a workaholic and am happy just sitting and working all day. [Laughs.] That’s kind of boring, but it’s true.
East Asian YA fantasy seems to be gaining more traction in recent years. Are there any other books in the genre that you’d recommend?
I just finished reading Jade Fire Gold by June C.L. Tan and I really enjoyed it! I also recommend Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao, and I really liked Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan from a few years ago. Oh, and The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh is coming out next year, and that’s one I’m in the middle of reading—it’s really good so far, and it’s got a lot of Korean mythology, which I love learning about.
What’s up next for you?
I’m currently polishing up the sequel to Six Crimson Cranes and just finalized the title for it—I’m not good at coming up with titles, so that’s pretty exciting. And then I’m working on a third book, which is possibly the prequel I was mentioning earlier. It hasn’t been approved by my editor yet, so I’m still kind of praying that she’ll like it—she hasn’t seen it yet. So we’ll see!
Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim. Knopf, $18.99 July ISBN 978-0-593-30091-6