YA author Traci Chee debuted in 2016 with the speculative fiction The Reader trilogy, and surprised readers by writing a work of historical fiction for her following book, the 2020 We Are Not Free, about the Japanese American internment during World War II, which was a National Book Award finalist. She describes her newest book, A Thousand Steps into Night, as a Japanese-influenced fantasy about loud and clumsy Miuko, who is unexpectedly cursed by a demon’s kiss that begins to transform her, too, into a deadly demon. Desperate to undo the curse, Miuko embarks on a dangerous journey. PW spoke with Chee about her childhood dream of being a video-game designer, the challenges of making up a new language, and the power of speculative fiction as social critique.
With A Thousand Steps into Night, you’ve returned to writing fantasy. Did you always want to be a writer of speculative fiction?
I have been a reader as long as I can remember, and have always been drawn to magic. I read the Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey when I was in fourth grade—when I was way too young for it—but I fell in love with those books. I went on to read the Redwall books by Brian Jacques, and all of the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time over and over. I so identified with nerdy, angry outcast Meg—and I was fascinated that she was a girl who could direct things, make things happen, go on adventures through space, save her brother, and defeat the villain, armed with nothing but her love and her faults.
Even though I was such a big reader, it wasn’t until after middle school that I realized I wanted to be a writer. And it was all because of a video game. When I was in sixth grade, my mother finally let my brother and me have a PlayStation console, and we began to play a video game called Final Fantasy 7. It’s a very immersive role-playing game, where you control the characters and build worlds—enormous, expansive suck-you-in-worlds. I felt, “Wow!—this is what I want to do. I want to be a video game designer.” It was the late ’90s, though, and things like coding classes, etc., didn’t exist. Today kids who want to design video games have many avenues for pursuing this passion, but all I had was pencil and paper.
So I wrote my own video games. I spent much of seventh and eighth grade creating this epic video game story, inventing weapons and magic spells, drawing characters, and making maps of the worlds I was writing about. I even faxed a letter to Square Enix, the makers of Final Fantasy 7, telling them that I had a great video game idea. (They never wrote back.) But gradually I came to realize that what I loved most about designing a video game was writing the story, and that's when I started writing fiction.
By the end of high school I was very invested in being a writer. I went to University of California in Santa Cruz where I studied literature with a specialization in creative writing, and then got a master’s degree at San Francisco State University.
Almost all of the fantasy books I had loved as a child were written by white people about white boys, so that’s what I was writing. But when I met with my instructor at Santa Cruz, Karen Yamashita, to talk about my writing, she said, “Why are you writing about white boys? They write enough about themselves.” Those words really stuck with me. I remembered them, and when I began writing The Reader, I made it about a girl like me.
In a 2018 interview, after you had completed The Reader Trilogy, you were asked about the process of world building. You said, “I would do it differently if I were to write another world-building fantasy. I would try to be more organized and have a story bible with geography, clothes, culture—everything. I wouldn’t have to pore through old journals to find one piece of information!” So—with A Thousand Steps into Night, did you live up to those plans?
Oh no no no! (laughing) I feel so called out! I was feeling optimistic about my future books when I said that. But I’ve come to understand that I’m not a “story bible” kind of writer. There is still information about A Thousand Steps into Night scattered throughout my journals. Except for the made-up language, though. That was carefully constructed with my friend Ariel Macken, a writer and linguistics major. I wanted the language to sound Japanese-inspired, so we decided to make it a language based on syllables, not individual letters. Then, to further differentiate it from Japanese, we included additional sounds, like “va” and “dra.” I wanted the book to read as though it were a “found” manuscript, as if a scholar had discovered it and translated it into English, so I added this imaginary scholar’s explanatory, often tongue-in-cheek, footnotes to help the reader understand this invented culture and language.
That’s an intriguing aspect of the book: the footnotes with pronunciation guides and definitions of the made-up words, which make the reader think it might actually be a real language. What about the Japanese influence on the story itself? Are there elements of Japanese folklore in the book, and how much liberty did you take in working them into this story?
It’s all made up! I was inspired by Japanese children’s folk tales, which were always in the background as I was growing up. The stories were about very humble characters stumbling into miraculous situations—but not grand miraculous situations, like in Western folk tales. My main character Miuko embodies this idea that even the most ordinary of us should have adventures like in folk tales—all kinds of people should be able to have encounters with the magical. In these Japanese folk tales, the miracles were always modest ones. For example, there’s this story about a magical tea kettle which, when placed over a fire, sprouts the legs, head, and tail of a tanuki—a Japanese racoon dog. At first, the kettle is owned by someone who mistreats him, but then he’s sold to a poor peasant, who treats him well, and together they perform tricks and make money and live happily ever after.
Folk stories like that were a huge influence on this book, and I also delved into folklore from the Edo period, lots of ghost stories in particular. All these stories influenced my thinking, but nothing from any of them is actually in my book. I wanted to create a secondary world that has the feeling of Japanese folklore, but is not Japan.
How did you go about creating the character Miuko?
When I started writing this book, sexism in our society was really rearing its ugly head. There had been a very public calling-out of misogyny, followed by a backlash against that calling-out. I wanted to write about what it’s like to exist in that kind of society, and what kind of hero that society might need.
So in addition to being influenced by Japanese folklore, the book is also a critique of American patriarchy. In the world of A Thousand Steps, Miuko is a character who doesn’t have any of the stereotypically desirable female qualities, like beauty, serenity, or grace. Instead, she’s the very plain, very loud, and very clumsy daughter of an innkeeper. It just occurs to me now that she’s a little bit like Meg Murry in her inability to fit into her community! And I wanted to explore how these qualities make her an outcast in society, but also empower her on her adventure. She’s a monster for stepping outside of her socially sanctioned role, but there’s also freedom in being a monster, because she can finally operate outside the rules she’s always had to abide by and finally discover who she really is without those constraints. I’ve never written a fantasy that is also such a pointed social critique, but I think the power of speculative fiction is that it shows us ourselves in an incisive way. I hope that the story reads both as a thoughtful commentary on the ways sexism manifests in our society and as an exciting romp through a lush, magical world filled with demons, spirits, and uproarious misadventures.
A Thousand Steps into Night by Traci Chee. Clarion, $18.99 Mar. 1 ISBN 978-0-358-46998-8