Author Interview: Ellen Oh [in Bloom]
Ellen Oh, author of the acclaimed Prophecy trilogy – starring a third-century, yellow-eyed, teenage supergirl demon slayer – is channeling her own colorful fighting spirit. Two-thirds of her series, Prophecy and Warrior, are available now. King hits shelves this coming December.
In the meantime, Oh herself has gone all warrior as the founding president of the viral social media campaign, #WeNeedDiverseBooks. She’s getting expert at practicing her own “kick-ass strong female” powers, even as she empowers others along the way.
When and how did the idea for your Prophecy trilogy come to you?
Back in 2007, I was stuck in [Washington, DC] Beltway traffic staring at the unmoving bumper of the car in front of me when the idea hit: What if there is a legend about a great hero, and everyone thinks it is this young prince but then it turns out to be his despised girl cousin? I wrote the whole outline on little pieces of paper as I was stuck in traffic and ended up writing the whole book in five months. Of the three books [in the trilogy], Prophecy [the title of the first book, as well as the full series] was the one that came out so smoothly, so easily. It felt like it was meant to be told.
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 surviving 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 10 to 20 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.
So, third time’s the charm, so to speak. Your third book (which turned out to be three books) finally got you published. And after 40 – not that anyone is counting, of course! But that’s why we’re here at Bloom. Do you think you could have written Prophecy when you were younger?
I have no idea. I didn’t give myself license to be creative until after I had kids. I think it was having my daughters that finally gave me a creative outlet. Before that I was just a really uptight, very factual, very rational lawyer. Now if I hadn’t gone to law school? Maybe then I might have reached it earlier. I found being a lawyer made me very rigid and unimaginative.
Let’s backtrack a bit … since Prophecy was your third book, what happened to #1 and #2? And can I ask what they were about?
They’re tucked away in my hard drive. My first ever novel was set in ancient Korea and was all about a murderous princess who then becomes queen of Japan. I loved that story but I was told that nobody would ever buy that book as my debut. So I started a World War II novel set in the Pacific theater. That book took me years and was the most difficult, painful thing I’ve ever written. Partly because of the subject matter, and partly because it was also the longest book ever. It was a draining experience.
Have you shown those novels around for other opinions? Might they ever see the light of day?
Yeah, I shared them in writers’ workshops with other authors. I actually shopped the World War II novel with 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. 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.
And why did you choose to write Prophecy for a younger audience?
I think because it is my favorite genre to read. Picture books, middle grade, young adult – I love them all. I write for younger audiences because you get to tell them stories without the bullshit. Children’s books are storytelling at its finest. And that’s what I love about it.
Having young daughters, too, must have inspired you, too?
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 much misogyny and racism there is in our world. I wanted my girls, and girls everywhere, to realize that they could be the heroes of their own stories. For me Prophecy is about girl power, and that is a message we need all of our children – regardless of gender – to learn at a young age. [click here for more …]
Author interview: “Q&A with Ellen Oh,” Bloom, September 10, 2014
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult
Published: 2013, 2014