Shelley Parker-Chan is an Asian-Australian former diplomat and international development adviser who spent nearly a decade working on human rights, gender equality and LGBT rights in Southeast Asia. Named after the Romantic poet, she was raised on a steady diet of Greek myths, Arthurian legend and Chinese tales of suffering and tragic romance. Her debut novel She Who Became the Sun owes more than a little to all three. In 2017 she was awarded an Otherwise (Tiptree) Fellowship for a work of speculative narrative that expands our understanding of gender. She currently lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her family.
What inspires you to write? Where do you get your ideas?
I’d love to describe myself as a fount of originality, but I’m more of a mashup artist. I think it’s super fun to take an episode of high-stakes history, structure it like a Marvel movie, flavour it with cdrama romance tropes, and use it to explore contemporary identity issues. Using familiar elements brings resonance to a story, and if you use them in unexpected combinations it still feels fresh. I read a lot of nonfiction—history, memoirs—so I’m always coming across fascinating characters and events that I’m itching to transform and use as the basis for something new.
Tell us about your book.
SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN is a queer, subversive reimagining of the 14th century rise to power of the peasant rebel who expelled China’s Mongol rulers and became the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty. It’s a bit literary, a lot tropey, and hopefully a fun ride.
Tell us about your writing journey and how you got where you are today.
A group of friends and I became frustrated when we couldn’t find the kind of books we wanted to read, so we decided to write our own. In my case, I desperately wanted a queer, English-language version of those kinds of tragic, romantic, epic stories you find in Chinese webnovels or TV dramas. So I started writing what would become SWBTS. I never thought it would sell! There was nothing like it at the time, and it didn’t fit neatly into the historical or fantasy or literary fiction genres. But SWBTS took so long to write that in the meantime US genre fiction became much more diverse, and fortunately my agent found a wonderful home for it at SFF publisher Tor.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers & creators from marginalized/underrepresented backgrounds?
Find trusted critique partners who share your background. There’s nothing less motivating than showing early work to people who have no idea about where you’re coming from and what you want to achieve. Chances are, the editors and other publishing professionals who’ll give you feedback on your work won’t share or be familiar with your marginalisations. When you inevitably get the feedback that certain aspects of your story aren’t working, your critique partners will be able to help you figure out if this is due to a failure of your craft, or because the reader has approached the story with a different set of cultural assumptions. (Or both!)
How do you weave your culture(s) into your book(s)? How do(es) your culture(s) influence your writing?
I’m a member of the Chinese diaspora, and I’m mixed race, so my culture is both Chinese and western—and the stories I write are likewise Chinese and western. SWBTS is a western hero’s journey mashed with a classic East Asian tragic romance. I have both those things in my storytelling DNA, so it’s authentic to me. I’m not aiming to speak for anyone other than myself.
What is your writing process like?
I start with archetypal characters and a basic plot, which I jot down in bullet-point form for the main beats of action and dialogue. Then I go through in multiple rounds, fleshing out the bullet points into paragraphs and each time adding layers of character and theme. The characters and themes affect the shape of the story, and the shape of the story requires the character arcs to bend in certain ways. It’s very iterative, and I don’t usually know who my characters really are until the end of the process.
What are you currently reading?
Currently: THE UNBROKEN by CL Clark, which is a fantastically sharp critique of colonial empire; the gorgeous nature-essay collection VESPER FLIGHTS by Helen Macdonald; and with great anticipation I’ve just started Tasha Suri’s sapphic fantasy THE JASMINE THRONE.
What was your last binge-read?
My last all-nighter was for HEART OF STONE by Johannes T. Evans, a gloriously slow-burn 18th century romance between a vampire with ADHD and his autistic secretary.
What is your writing style in a few words?
Ugly emotions in beautiful locations.
What’s your favorite part of the writing process? Your least favorite part? Why?
I love planning a new project—that point when it’s fizzing with possibility, and everything you read connects to something else already in your brain and sets off a shower of new ideas. I hate drafting—that’s when you have to close off those possibilities to make the story concrete. As Ann Patchett said, it’s like slamming a beautiful butterfly between the pages of a book, so what’s left is sad and flat and dead.
What superpower would you like to have?
Understanding exactly what other people are feeling at any given moment! I gather that it’s not actually a superpower, but it feels like one to me.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
Two years—but anyone in publishing will tell you I should be doing it in half the time.
How do you deal with critiques of your work?
Cry, wallow in self-pity for a day or so, then get on with fixing what needs to be fixed.
If you went on a desert island and could only bring two things, what would you bring?
The entirety of the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own, downloaded onto a convenient reading/writing device. And a sarong—they have a million uses!