INTERVIEW: Yoon Ha Lee, author of “Counting the Shapes”

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

For me, the story is about how mathematical imagery is magical all by itself, not in a literal “I cast fireball for 6d6 damage” kind of way but just the sheer beauty of it.  It also talks a little about family and trust, but honestly I feel like I was so young when I wrote the story that it was kind of presumptuous of me to tackle those themes.

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

I started this story in high school, and it came out of the idea of a mathemagician as kind of a pun.  I had this whole plan to write a dystopian fantasy about living in a demon empire and wine of immortality, but I didn’t have the tools at the time to pull it off, so I ended up scrapping the whole immortality angle.  But I had gotten to the point where I didn’t hate math anymore, and I spent a lot of time reading books on popular math: Ivars Peterson’s The Mathematical Tourist, Philip J. Davis & Reuben Hersh’s The Mathematical Experience, Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and a whole bunch of others.  I became fascinated by the idea that you could use mathematical imagery to inform a story.  (I admit I’m a little scared of what a real mathematician would make of the story!)

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

The hardest part of the story was actually not the math!  It was the fact that Biantha, the main character, is a mother.  I finished the story when I was in college, and not only did I not have a kid at the time, I’d never done babysitting, and most of my younger cousins are relatively close to me in age, so I just had no experience in what that was like.  My writing group at the time, Chymera, was incredibly helpful here, because the other members were all parents and they told me what bits did not make sense.

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

In a way this story grew out of my learning to love math.  People sometimes think I came wired that way, but I really didn’t!  I hated math for the longest time.  And then I learned that all this stuff has reasons behind it — high school geometry was very good for that — and that there were some really mind-blowing concepts.  I wrote this story because I wanted to share that feeling of wonder.

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

I think the two mathematical things I got the most mileage out of were topology and fractals.  For the former, I got the general idea out of an encyclopedia article (or I guess these days you’d go to Mathworld or Wikipedia online), although I did take a course in point-set topology later.  I think I owe most of my fascination with fractals to James Gleick’s Chaos.  Really, it involved reading books that I was going to be reading anyway, so it wasn’t any hardship.

What is the appeal of wizard fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers love it so much?

I imagine some of it must be wish-fulfillment?  Personally, I often like looking at well-constructed magic systems.  The problem is that they’re frequently lack complexity.  This is probably just me, but a lot of magic systems end up feeling like toy systems because they’re so simple: you can easily state all the rules and figure out the implications, and yet they’re being treated as this sort of adjunct to physics, and if that’s the case I want them to reflect some of the complexity and wildness of real physics.  So when a writer (or game designer, or whatever) gets this balance right, it’s immensely satisfying.

What are some of your favorite examples of wizard fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

Let’s see: Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane (I didn’t like the sequels as well), because the witch protagonist is a middle-aged woman struggling to find a balance between devoting her time to nurturing what power she has and her family.  It’s not the usual “oh, here’s the upstart prodigy mage prophesied to overthrow the evil empire” shtick.

L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s The Magic of Recluce.  Probably not for everyone, but I really liked Modesitt’s handling of order and chaos magic.

Helen Keeble’s “In Ashes,” which is an unrelenting look at the human cost of trying to protect a fire elementalist.

For manga, Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist, which has a complex, careful, intricate plot involving two brothers, both alchemists, who are searching for the Philosopher’s Stone so they can heal themselves, and then they discover more than they reckoned on.  The implications of alchemy figure prominently throughout the whole thing.

Also, I realize this is a tie-in, but I am still very fond of Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman’s Legends Trilogy for Dragonlance.  You have a mage who is trying to be become a god, conflict between twins, and time travel!