An Interview with Ellen Oh
As the mother of three young girls, Ellen Oh is constantly on the lookout for good books that showcase female empowerment. She's found a few here and there -- say, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy by Rae Carson, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, and maybe a few others -- but to ask for characters with whom her Korean American daughters might directly identify seemed too tall an order. So the former entertainment lawyer and adjunct college professor decided to write her own: Prophecy, the first of a planned trilogy, debuts this month.
"People feared Kira," the heart-thumping, fantastical young adult novel begins. With her yellow eyes and unprecedented fighting skills, Kira is hardly the average teenager, much less the picture of modesty and subservience befitting a court royal. Her uncle the King considers her a "freak of nature, and a terrible embarrassment to the royal family," and yet he must rely on her warrior strength to protect his only son and royal heir.
Throughout a fantasy version of third-century Korea, demons, imps, hobgoblins, and shamans threaten the entire peninsula, falling the seven kingdoms one by one. In Kira's home kingdom of Hansong, evil forces are moving through the ranks, possessing even once-trusted officials. The horrific events that the great ancestor, the Dragon King, prophesied are proving true: "Seven will become three. Three will become one. One will save us all."
When and how did the idea for your Prophecy trilogy come to you? Did Kira arrive fully formed like Athena? Or did you struggle to bring her to life?
Kira and [her cousin Prince] Taejo were the easiest characters for me to write, because they did literally spring out of my head, much like Athena -- I love that analogy, by the way. I like pretending I'm Zeus! The cousins arrived fully formed, with very specific details about how I wanted them to be. When the idea for Prophecy first came to me, it was about a young prince who is believed to be the hero of a legend. But as the legend progresses, his female cousin -- who is also his bodyguard and a far better warrior -- turns out to be the true hero. I initially wrote Prophecy from Taejo's perspective, but he was coming out too whiny and jealous. That changed when the point of view switched over to Kira's. That's when the story became more alive, moved faster, and became more relatable, at least to me. Which makes sense because the story was always about Kira -- I just had to let her tell it.
Besides the shift in perspective, did the story change in other ways over the various revisions?
I think, overall, the story became more emotional. As a writer, I tend to be oriented more toward action, action, action. Both my agent and editor were really good at making me pause and ask, "Yeah, but what does Kira feel when this happens, or that happens?" I always knew the "how" and "what," but during the revision process, I had to really work on expressing Kira's reactions, her emotions.
Besides the obvious fact of your Korean ancestry, why did you choose to set your first novel in ancient Korea? As a fantasy writer, you pretty much have unlimited freedom as to where and when.
I chose ancient Korea for two specific reasons: the first was just practical -- I couldn't find anything like a fantasy adventure story set in ancient Korea in libraries or bookstores; the second was more personal -- ancient Korea was such a fascinating, turbulent time with kingdoms changing, collapsing, being taken over, dealing with amazing politics and endless intrigue. But the specific moment I realized I had to write about ancient Korea was when I read a Genghis Khan biography and came to a point in the book when the Mongols invade Korea, and the entire royal court flees to Ganghwa Island (which is at the mouth of the Han River), where the Mongols aren't able to cross the river to get to them. The Korean leaders are out there laughing, while the poor peasants are getting raped and killed by the Mongols. And then the royals, who've been safe and sound in their island fortress, come back to tax the hell out of the peasants and steal all their food. All those layered dynamics between the haves and have-nots were just so visual, interesting, and ultimately inspiring to me. That was feudal society at its best -- from my perspective as someone who's interested in the history -- and at its worst -- from a human perspective because you really see the worst of what people in power do to their citizens. And through it all, the common peasants endure and survive.
How much research did you do to write this series? And given the dearth of materials, how did you go about pursuing sources?
When I first started the research, I could hardly find anything. I came across one general historical text in the library, but it didn't have much detail on the ancient kingdoms. My dad, who is also interested in ancient history, was incredibly helpful; he went to the Korean consulate office in New York City and was able to borrow a bunch of books there. Some were in Korean, so he sat with me and translated passages. I knew I still needed more, and I bought a lot of books off the Internet. When I started teaching at George Mason University, I got access to all the interlibrary books -- I was in heaven at that point, borrowing ten to twenty books at a time, from art to archaeology, on anything that remotely touched upon that time period. Still, there wasn't a whole lot, and I had to piece together bits and pieces: I found information about pottery, for example, from one book, and then something about royal life in another, and that told me about how a palace meal might have been like at that time.
I've been researching ancient Korea since 2000, but the actual story idea for Prophecy came to me in 2008. I wrote two other books before Prophecy -- they're tucked away in a trunk -- one set in ancient Korea, and the other a World War II novel set in the Pacific theater. I wrote the second book because I was told that no publisher would ever buy a book on ancient Korea by a debut author.
In spite of such unsupportive comments, have you ever shown those other novels around?
Yeah, I shared them in writers' workshops with other authors. I actually shopped the World War II novel to agents, and realized it really needed a lot of work. I shelved it for the time being because Prophecy came to me so suddenly and quickly. Prophecy was so easy to write -- so unlike the other two which were like pulling teeth to set down. Prophecy just flowed out of me. It was just the right idea that I was ready to write. The timing was perfect: maybe I had finally done enough research, and that all pulled together on its own in my head. The story would come to me vividly in my dreams, and I would wake up in the middle of the night and take notes. Of course, I usually couldn't read what I wrote in the wee hours, but the ideas were somehow still there.
In the end, how much of the Prophecy trilogy is history, how much is a product of your imagination?
The trilogy is all my own imagination, but I incorporate the legends and myths of Korea, as well as some historical events. The scene in which the court ladies jump off the cliff to their deaths -- that actually happened when the Tang and Shilla kingdoms were invaded by the Paekchae and 3,000 court ladies plummeted to their deaths to avoid capture. When I read about that, I thought that had to be in my book. Also, there's another pivotal scene that was based on a historical event, too. When Japan invaded Korea in the fifteenth century, a court entertainer tried to seduce a Japanese general and wrapped her arms around him, then jumped off a cliff, taking him with her. There was a lot of cliff-jumping back then!
Uh... like lemmings?!
Oh, no! Koreans are like lemmings?! I can't say that! That's terrible!
Okay, forget the lemmings... Let's move on to your readers-in-waiting. So why did you choose to write for a younger audience?
When I started writing Prophecy, I wanted to make sure the book would be one that my girls could read. I wanted to create a heroine they could see themselves in, who would be a totally kick-ass strong female -- that was most key for me. With three daughters, I'm still regularly amazed at how misogyny is so alive and kicking, in this day and age, even in this country. I've had one of my daughters come home and say, "The boys wouldn't let me play soccer today because I'm a girl!" That sort of thing starts young! I constantly tell my girls that they can do anything any boy can do -- period.
What Prophecy tells readers is that girls are stronger than society thinks they are. We are so strong and yet we've always had this societal bias that says we are the weaker sex. Really, if men had to give birth, the human species would have died out a long time ago! Women tolerate incredible pain, emotional upheaval, and anything else thrown at us -- and we survive. Women are all survivors.
Speaking of women, your eight maidens who guide Kira in the cave -- do they have any historical references?
The concept of those maidens comes from a real Korean myth: these ethereal women come down to play in a heavenly pool, and a poor woodcutter happens upon them; he falls in love with the most beautiful of them, and steals her other-worldly clothing which prevents her from returning to where she came from with her sisters. In the original, the other maidens that get to go back aren't really that interesting; they're just in the background so not a whole lot happens to them. So I thought, let's use them in Prophecy, but change up the story -- let's make them important to the whole world!
Might we get a little sneak peek at the rest of the trilogy?
I had two favorite things about writing book two, which is called Warrior and should be out January 2014. First, I incorporated a kumiho, which is a nine-tailed fox demon, who can shape-change into a beautiful woman and wants to become human but can't; I think she's possibly my new favorite character -- I just loved creating her. And second, I also added dokkaebi, which are monsters that carry large cudgels and can be created from inanimate objects; the ones in Warrior are created with the help of a shaman from Kira's blood and answer only to her.
The third in the trilogy is King, which will probably be out January 2015, and the biggest thing that happens I can't tell you about because that would spoil everything. What I can tell you is that all-out war comes to the seven kingdoms, and the Demon Lord finally manifests himself and becomes the world's greatest threat.
When you were writing the trilogy, were you ever concerned you might be charged with selling the exotic?
Besides creating empowering stories to share with my daughters, another reason I wrote Prophecy was in hopes of broadening kids' minds to the idea that western history is not the only interesting history out there. But I hate to think that "non-western" might equate to the exotic; it's just very different from western sensibilities. And yes, Asian history can be just as interesting. Serendipitously, the timing is definitely in my favor right now -- Korean dramas are really popular outside Korea, K-pop is hitting the top of all the international charts, and PSY's "Gangnam Style" couldn't be more ubiquitous. I hope to ride this Korean pop culture wave a bit, and at the same time open kids' eyes to the fact that Asian history is even older than that of the west, and might even be more interesting.
What I wrote is a purely fantasy book, but I used real history to tell the story. I'm not sure how adults will react, but I wrote this for kids to give them a different perspective from what they might be used to. Now is a great time for kids to see that the world is not just white.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.