Face masks are required in all City of Los Angeles facilities, including libraries.

Interview With an Author: Zen Cho

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Zen Cho and her latest novel, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
Author Zen Cho and her latest novel, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water. Photo credit: Jim C. Hines

Zen Cho is the author of the Sorcerer to the Crown, The True Queen, as well as the short story collection Spirits Abroad. She is a Hugo, Crawford and British Fantasy Award winner, and a finalist for the Locus and Astounding Awards. She was born and raised in Malaysia, resides in the UK, and lives in a notional space between the two. Her new novella is The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water and she recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water?

As with any story, there were multiple sources of inspiration that coalesced in the story idea. One source was the characters of Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe from the Star Wars, Rogue One movie, played by Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen. I was drawn to the idea of this odd couple, with a pious fighting monk and his disenchanted partner. The characters' dynamic plugs into a long tradition of brothers in arms in Sinophone media and that made me think of wuxia, but the story didn't gel until I decided to set it in a fantasy version of Malaya during the Emergency, the mid-20th-century conflict between the British colonial government and Communist guerrillas.

Are Guet Imm, Tet Sang or any of the other characters in the novella inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I've already named the characters who inspired Guet Imm and Tet Sang. The exquisite and gallant head of the bandits, Lau Fung Cheung, was generally inspired by the sort of dashing and slightly absurd bishounen character you often find in anime.

How did the novella 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?

I outline anything I write that's longer than a short story, but my outline for this novella was unusually detailed, down to the banter between the characters. As a result, the draft was remarkably clean and I didn't do what I'd call major revisions. I don't recall cutting or not being able to include anything I was attached to.

What was it that drew you to write a wuxia fantasy story? Can you explain a bit about wuxia for readers that may not be familiar with this genre?

Wuxia is a popular Chinese fantasy subgenre where roving martial artists fight oppressors and defend the lowly in a lawless society. Jin Yong is the most famous wuxia author. English translations of his Legends of the Condor Heroes novels have started coming out recently, starting with A Hero Born. I recommend them to anyone who's interested in finding out more about the genre—they're real classics and hugely entertaining.

I don't actually know much about wuxia, but it's the sort of thing that was on the TV in the background when I was growing up. The setting seemed inherent to the type of characters I wanted to tell a story about, and I was drawn to it as a way to tell a light-hearted, entertaining story while also exploring, at a remove, a contested period of Malaysian history.

Is there a chance that you may return to this group of characters and tell other stories about Guet Imm, Tet Sang, or the bandits?

I have no fixed plans as of yet, but yes.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Literally, a tub of body lotion, a coaster, and a rubber band. Metaphorically, I'm currently rereading Jane Austen's Persuasion and have just started on The Making of a Gay Muslim: Religion, Sexuality and Identity in Malaysia and Britain by Shanon Shah.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I had so many it is honestly impossible to name one. I didn't have any friends as a kid, but I read a lot of books.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

E. M. Forster's Maurice. I was a teenager, but was genuinely in doubt as to whether my mom would let me read it. It's not like Maurice is especially scandalous, but my parents sometimes had odd ideas about what I should be reading—my mom spent a lot of time when I was a teenager trying to persuade me not to be into Lord of the Rings. She thought it was too dark.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, Edith Nesbit, Patrick O'Brian, and Farish Noor.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I don't actively lie about what books I've read, but don't question me too closely about whether I've kept up with all my friends' publications.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

None come to mind.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Every book that I've loved has changed me, so in a way, they've all changed my life.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I always recommend Karen Lord's Redemption in Indigo to people. It's Pratchettian fantasy, a retelling of a Senegalese folktale by a fabulous Caribbean author.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I'd love to be able to read Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series again for the first time. Or perhaps Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I'd wake up late, have a delicious brunch with my closest friends at a sunlit, hip cafe, have an equally delicious dinner with another set of close friends, and get home early enough to still have some time to read and mess around on the Internet before I go to bed.

What is the question that you're always hoping you'll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I honestly can't think of anything! If I have something to say I generally just say it.

What are you working on now?

I recently turned in a novel manuscript to my editor, so I’m taking a rest while I wait for edit notes. It's due out in 2021 and I'll hopefully be able to talk about the title and what it's about soon.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water
Cho, Zen