Mia Tsai is a Taiwanese American author and editor of speculative fiction. Her debut novel is a xianxia-inspired adult contemporary fantasy titled Bitter Medicine, which is published by Tachyon Publications. She lives in Atlanta with her family, pets, and orchids. Her favorite things include music of all kinds and taking long trips with nothing but the open road and a saucy rhythm section.
What inspires you to write? Where do you get your ideas?
My ideas come from everywhere, but usually from interactions with other people or from things I see when I’m out and about. The genesis for Bitter Medicine came from an interaction with one of my students; the seeds for two other stories, KEY AND VALE and SYREN, were inspired by experiences a friend of mine had. I never know where the next idea is coming from.
Tell us about your book.
Bitter Medicine is an adult contemporary fantasy that’s inspired by xianxia and world mythology. It’s about Elle, a Chinese immortal who work a boring job at a fairy temp agency. She’s a magical calligrapher whose talismans and glyphs are used by the temps in their missions. She’s taken this job to hide from the family member who wants her and her brother dead, and it’s her goal in life to protect him, no matter the cost to her.
She has a mysterious client, Luc, a French half elf, with whom she’s struck up a friendship. It’s one of the few bright spots in her otherwise dull life. Also, Elle might also have a little crush on him, and because of that, she’s been secretly using more of her powers than necessary to customize his glyphs. But he’s figured out what she’s doing, which could lead to her identity being revealed. What’s worse, she doesn’t know that he’s been assigned by his boss to find her family—and Luc, who sees his relationship with Elle as a respite from his overly demanding job, doesn’t know about Elle’s connection to his assignment.
Can you pitch your current project?
KEY AND VALE, currently on submission, is a post–climate change science fantasy set in an Appalachia-like region where multiple catastrophes have destroyed records, leaving humans with gaps in their knowledge. Key is a memory hunter, an anthropologist with the ability to experience the memories encoded within DNA, and it’s her job to go out and find useful memories and bring them back to be enshrined in the Museum of Human Memory. It’s a tough job, and as a memory hunter, she’s a walking trove of memories in a society where memories are currency. She’s protected by her guardian, Vale, who is free to use any means to keep Key alive and well. But if Key succumbs to a particularly strong memory and loses her sense of self, Vale’s job is to kill her.
Key’s goal is to become the head curator of the museum, and to do that, she needs to find a landmark memory that will secure her place in history. But when she stumbles upon a memory that throws everything she knows into question—the museum’s ethics, the origin of memory diving, the identity of the people from whom she’s taking the memories—she’ll need to decide how to reconcile her morals with her ambition.
RED ENVELOPE HUSBAND is an adult contemporary speculative romance about Penny, a plus-size twenty-five-year-old Taiwanese American retail worker and designer who lives in Taipei. When her father passed suddenly five years ago, she dropped out of fashion school and moved with her mother to Taiwan, where they could have family support. Now, Penny’s dream is to open Taipei’s first plus-size exclusive boutique. That dream gets derailed when, on a trip to the temple to pay her respects to her ancestors, Penny picks a red envelope off the ground, going against her mother’s warning that she’ll be automatically married to the ghost inside.
Penny isn’t one to believe in superstition, however, so she picks it up anyway—and inadvertently breaks the curse on the ancient Chinese prince who’s been trapped inside for a thousand years. Now she has to figure out how to manage her job, her mother, and her clients and seal the prince back into the envelope (and yes, she’s also married to him)—all while trying not to fall in love with him.
Tell us about your writing journey and how you got where you are today.
Well, for Bitter Medicine, I wrote a draft I was convinced no one would ever see. I wasn’t really a novel writer at that time; I had some longform things I’d finished for other purposes, but there wasn’t anything I considered novel-shaped, the NaNoWriMo drafts notwithstanding. Then, a few years after I finished the zero draft of Bitter Medicine, I took Alyssa Cole’s romance class and needed a sample to work with. I had nothing else, so I hauled out that zero draft of Bitter Medicine. Alyssa was very kind and encouraging, and after the class finished, I went and rewrote a few chapters for an open call at Carina Press.
To my utter shock, Deb Nemeth, one of the editors, requested a full. And so I went back to work, rewriting the rest of the manuscript. The full ended up being rejected, but I figured what the hell, why not query it? So I started querying it. Day one of querying was a roller coaster ride—a full request and a rejection all within an hour or two of sending out my first queries—and I should have taken that as a warning for the rest of publishing, because it has not ceased giving me heart attacks since.
After that, I applied to Pitch Wars and was a gracious first loser. I revised the manuscript yet again after some feedback, went on a second round of querying, picked up an agent, went on submission immediately, and a quick nine months later (not actually quick), had myself a book deal! And now here I am, eight years after I first started putting words down.
What advice do you have for writers?
Finish your work. It doesn’t matter how ugly that draft is. The important thing is to finish it. Nothing counts until you do finish it. Once it’s finished, you can go back and edit; you can throw it into the trash; you can do whatever you want with it. But finishing something proves you can finish things, which begets more finishing. Finish your @#$%. That’s a gift from you to you.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers & creators? What advice do you have for aspiring writers & creators from marginalized/underrepresented backgrounds?
Be unapologetically yourself. Write the unhinged stuff that makes your heart sing. You can always edit later. But you should be very honest with yourself about what you need versus what you think you want. What you need is a story that can only be told by you, informed by your experiences. What you want may be all the other things surrounding writing, like publishing. Fulfilling your needs will develop you as a writer and creator. Chasing the wants can and will result in heartbreak because so many of the things surrounding the writing are completely out of your control.
How do you weave your culture(s) into your book(s)? How do(es) your culture(s) influence your writing?
I go to things like language or code switching, food or musical customs, or approaches to family and community, and not necessarily things that are specific to being Taiwanese, though things like the Taiwanese two-string moon guitar can show up. Extended family often plays a role, grandparents especially, and they have a strong influence on my characters. Food, of course—my characters, the working-class ones, at least, tend to eat family-style meals or visit street food vendors.
Being Taiwanese, I feel like I’m extra sensitive to imperialism in stories, so I do my best to be as anti-imperial as possible in my worldbuilding unless the imperialists are there on purpose as villains. Other than that, I try not to import too much of myself into fantasy worlds, or else I may end up with unintentional parallels. I like to have a general idea, like “this culture has a strong oral tradition,” for example, and then I start thinking about what those traditions entail. Sometimes, Taiwanese customs dovetail very nicely with those ideas, like traditional yueqin playing and singing, and sometimes there’s no intersection at all.
What is your writing process like?
Long. I often come up with concepts well before I write them. I have lots of ideas, but I also think ideas are easy to come by, so whenever I do get an idea, I sit and wait and see if I’m still excited about it later. If after several months or half a year or a year I still find the idea fresh, then I make concrete plans to drop a zero draft to begin fleshing out that idea.
I’m an old hand at NaNoWriMo by now, so I NaNo myself through fifty thousand words while hopefully having lots of fun, then I tuck the draft away and let it slow cook for about three years, give or take. I don’t usually mean to let the ideas marinate for that long, but it seems to have averaged out to that period of time. Once I know exactly how a story ends, I start scheduling “real writing” sessions, which unfortunately get built around the other work I do.
And then the real crying begins. About a year later, I have a decent draft.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite part? Why?
I love editing and I hate drafting. I cannot believe I have to create the words before I can fix the words. When I’m drafting, it sometimes feels like pushing a car through deep mud. Editing, though, that’s where the joy is—when I edit, the pieces start to fall in the right places, and then they cohere. It’s like having court vision, which, if you aren’t familiar with basketball, means you have the ability to look at the players on the court, see how all the pieces are moving, and predict what will happen. Editing allows me to set a clear goal and work toward it, as opposed to drafting, which, despite knowing the end and all the tentpoles of the story, can be tedious and frustrating. Editing also lets me play with craft, which isn’t as possible when I’m drafting because I’m too in the weeds to think about it. I like to mess around with structure and atmosphere and voice, and the editing stage is where I get to shape the clay of my story into something that can go into the kiln.
How do you deal with critiques of your work?
If the critique is from readers, I ignore it, for the most part. Those critiques aren’t for me; they’re for other readers. The critiques that matter are the ones that come from my critique partner, beta readers, agent, and editor. For crit that does have an impact on my work, I feel like I’m pretty easygoing and take crit well; if the edit letter has a bunch of small-to-medium changes, I’ll make them without argument. I rarely dig my heels in on proposed edits and just find a way to work around them or compromise.