Nghi Vo is the author of The Chosen and the Beautiful, as well as the acclaimed novellas When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain and The Empress of Salt and Fortune, a Locus and Ignyte Award finalist and the winner of the Crawford Award and the Hugo Award. Born in Illinois, she now lives on the shores of Lake Michigan. She believes in the ritual of lipstick, the power of stories, and the right to change your mind. Her new novel is Siren Queen and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Siren Queen?
I was briefly very fixated on movie stars of the 1930s a few years ago, and one night, it all crashed together with Fairyland, and I just went from there! The more parallels I found, between the promises of immortality, the seductive bargains, and the hidden monsters, the more compelling the world of Siren Queen became.
Are Luli, her sister, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Luli takes some inspiration from Anna May Wong, Greta came from my crush on Greta Garbo, Harry Long is based off my wanting a kinder fate for Ramon Novarro, and Luli’s sister came from a lot of reading I did on the Forbidden Palace in San Francisco.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
Essentially, I wrote Siren Queen, entered it into a novel competition, lost, and then started submitting it to agents. Diana Fox, my agent, offered to represent it, and then she said “Okay, now we need to make it stop being three novellas in a trench coat.”
We spent a lot of time hammering it out, and we actually didn’t lose anything, I don’t think. We had to add a lot because I write pretty short, but it really did make the whole thing more cohesive and a lot more like a novel than it was before.
How familiar were you with Hollywood’s “golden age” before writing Siren Queen? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write Siren Queen?
I definitely did some research specifically for Siren Queen, but a lot of the stuff about the stars themselves came about from research I had done years earlier, just because I found the subject of fame and how we’ve dealt with it fascinating. Early celebrity is both very familiar and very foreign to how we deal with it today, and I read a lot on the first movie stars and how Hollywood lumbered off the ground.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
That the early movies actually didn’t have end credits! In the early days, the studios thought that no one would care who the people on the screen were.
Do you have a favorite actor or actress from Hollywood’s “golden age”? A favorite film from that era?
I was pretty fascinated with Greta Garbo, but my favorite film from the era is probably Design for Living, which came out in 1933. It’s a perfect example of a movie you couldn’t make after the Hayes Code dropped in 1934, a sly comedy about two men and a woman deciding to live together and love each other no matter what the world thought of them.
Was The Siren inspired by a particular film or performance?
The Siren Queen movies are basically a mash of the Creature of the Black Lagoon movies and the gothics that got very popular in the 30s.
Are you a fan of the classic horror films of the 1930s-50s? If so, do you have a favorite?
I remember watching Bela Lugosi in Dracula when I was really young, and that left an impression! I don’t even remember all the particulars, but as a kid, I was fascinated by how mobile his face was, and how the black and white gave him this stark, barely human quality, and how wonderfully creepy that was.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
A pen, a notebook, and a sea urchin shell, it looks like.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Ha, nope. My parents let me read whatever I liked, and the minute I got an adult library card, I absolutely did.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
I’ve been 'getting around to reading Othello' for like twenty years now.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Is there a book that changed your life?
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Nah, I think everyone’s different, and we need different things.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. I would love to really analyze the creeping sensation of dread that I got from that book the first time I read it. It was spooky and kind of heart-stopping, and I’m still not sure how he did it.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
A couple days ago, I read Tracy K. Smith’s poem "Ash" for the first time. I read it, and I remember thinking "Okay, I guess this is a part of me forever now."
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I’m probably wandering around a busy city I’ve never been to before. I get to know the public transit, I hang around in a library. I pick up whatever food I can eat while walking, I go down to the water, I call someone I love very much. I get to see some art I’ve never seen before, and I probably buy something I don’t need. Around dusk, I meet up with someone, and we decide what we’re going to do that night. Likely something like that!
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
“Would you like some sushi?”
What are you working on now?
Right this moment, I’m just trying to keep up with all the interviews and things that go with recently releasing a novel, but I recently finished up a novella sequel to The Chosen and the Beautiful. I’m working on the fourth Singing Hills novella, which will be followed by the fifth, and then a third novel that takes place in roughly the same world as Chosen and Siren Queen.