INTERVIEW: Ken Liu, Author of “The Veiled Shanghai”

Ken Liu (http://kenliu.name) is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won a Nebula, a Hugo, a World Fantasy Award, and a Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award, and been nominated for the Sturgeon and the Locus awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.

Tell us a bit about your story.  What’s it about?

“The Veiled Shanghai” is a steampunk fantasy set at the time of the May Fourth Movement in colonial Shanghai. Dorothy and her ragtag team must find the Great Oz, save a revolution, and defeat the Wicked Warlord of the West.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the May Fourth Movement, an important watershed moment in modern Chinese history. Whatever I think about a lot tends to end up in my fiction. I’m also not aware of any speculative fiction using it as background, and I like finding opportunities like that.

The idealism of the May Fourth Movement also seemed like a good match for the idealism of Dorothy and her companions.

Was story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

This one actually kind of flowed out of me rather smoothly. I enjoyed re-imagining the tale of Oz in this new historical setting, and lots of elements just came together.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

The May Fourth Movement defined much of what it means to be “Chinese” in the modern era (culture, language, the legacy of colonialism, the struggle for freedom, etc.). Almost a century later, I still feel a keen sense of connection to those men and women because the revolution in many ways continues to this day.

This story is, in a sense, written to honor them.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

I re-read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

What is the appeal of Oz? Why do you think readers/viewers love it so much?

I think The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a story that can be appreciated at many levels. Reading it as a child and reading it as an adult are very different experiences. It has a great deal of moral force without being preachy.

And it offers a rich source of content for other writers to mine and craft their own work. Maybe that explains why there are so many Oz-derived tales.

What are some of your favorite Oz memories (whether from the books or the various movies, or other “reimaginings”), and what makes them your favorites?

My favorite part of the book is the origin of the Tin Woodman — it’s so dark and evocative, and doesn’t fit the image some of us have of the more innocent world from the movie at all.

What do you think about the new Oz movie coming out in March, Oz: The Great and Powerful? Excited? Dubious? Some combination of both?

I love seeing old works re-imagined. It allows us to see them in new ways and to derive new pleasures. And it allows artists to have a conversation with each other, something that’s becoming harder and harder under our increasingly draconian copyright laws.

I can’t wait to see what the filmmakers have done.