R.F. Kuang’s superlative fantasy debut, The Poppy War, follows ambitious orphan Rin as she enters prestigious military academy Sinegard, attempts to survive her crushing workload and vicious fellow students, and discovers her shamanistic powers—as well as the ability to communicate with the gods through hallucinogenic drugs.
The Poppy War enthralls readers with a textured, well-crafted world inspired by both 20th-century and Song Dynasty China, before growing steadily darker and more mature as Rin and her companions encounter the brutality of war outside the classroom and Rin tries to come to terms with her destructive power. We talked to Kuang about discovering her inner editor and creating a heroine that represents her worst impulses.
Since this is your debut novel, what were the greatest challenges you encountered in the writing or editing process that you might not have encountered in writing workshops or during school?
I actually hadn’t taken received any formal writing training when I finished The Poppy War. That was weirdly liberating—I wasn’t aware of all the things that could possibly go wrong, so I just had a good time writing a story that I enjoyed. But that’s not a sustainable path to improving your craft, because it means you remain ignorant of your own faults. After The Poppy War and its sequels sold, I went first to the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writing Workshop in 2017. That’s when I developed some serious imposter syndrome and second book syndrome. All the techniques that felt so intuitive and effortless to me when I was writing my first book now seemed impossible (I always compare this to Lyra of The Golden Compass and her alethiometer). It took a long time for me to trust my writing voice again. But now I have a confident writing voice and a harsh inner editor, which is a good place to be.
The Poppy War draws inspiration from Chinese history. What periods of China’s past resonated most with you when writing? What resources proved the most helpful?
The book draws its plot and politics from mid-20th-century China, and its aesthetic from Song Dynasty China. I read all the standard Western historical works—Spence, Fairbank, Dikotter, the Cambridge History of China series, what have you. On the Chinese side I was reading historians like Ray Huang. I also drew heavily from Iris Chang’s work. Her historical analysis has been challenged by many historians since The Rape of Nanking was first published in 1997, but it touches on many themes—outrage, intergenerational memory and trauma, nationalism and erasure—that are defining features of the study of the Rape of Nanjing today.
The island nation of Mugen seems to reflect World War II-era Japan with its military might. Does The Poppy War seek in any way to reflect on Chinese-Japanese relations throughout history?
The Poppy War has deliberate parallels to Sino-Japanese relations during the 20th century. (So deliberate, in fact, that whenever I describe the world I just say “faux China” and “faux Japan.”) The map in the hardcover looks almost identical to the East China Sea! The similarities aren’t just aesthetic. The Poppy War’s plot is mirrored almost entirely on the Second Sino-Japanese War (World War II). You see a deeply militarized, westernized society invading a comparatively backward, huge but fragile empire. You also get a fantasy version of the Rape of Nanjing, the experiments of Unit 731 and the Battle of Shanghai. And the themes of the book are, of course, intergenerational trauma and cycles of violence—extremely important topics in Sino-Japanese relations today.
There’s a great deal of detail and care given to the scenes in Sinegard, where Rin and her fellow students learn the ways of war. What was it like to write about student life? Did you find yourself feeling nostalgic or reliving your own experiences as a student?
I am still a student, so I wouldn’t say that writing about student life was nostalgic as much as it was cathartic. I like writing about the high-pressure academic rat race. I don’t think that many fantasy books explore the ways that students develop their own kinds of addiction to success and external praise. That mindset can ruin you. We should talk about it more.
As the war continues, Rin and her compatriots discover scenes of increasingly monstrous acts committed by the enemy. Was it difficult to conceive of and write some of the more intense scenes of brutality that your characters witness?
It wasn’t difficult to conceive. It’s never difficult to conceive of inhuman brutality—you just have to open a history book. But many scenes were very, very difficult to write. Parts one and two flew by during the drafting process, but parts three and four took me much longer because I could only write a few paragraphs at a time before I had to step out and take a walk.
In many ways, The Poppy War can be seen as an examination of the effects of suffering. Physical, psychological, mental and spiritual trauma informs the identities of many characters. Was this by design? Did the suffering these characters experience make for better or different decisions in your writing process?
Yes, The Poppy War was intentionally a study on pain, sacrifice, vengeance and trauma. There are two separate themes to tease out here. The first is pain as a necessary sacrifice for power. Rin has to give up so much, has to suffer so much, for where she ends up. She self-mutilates. She has a hysterectomy. She puts herself through brutal torture, both mental and physical, to keep her place at Sinegard. Was it worth it?
The second theme is the question of whether past trauma ever justify future atrocities, even if it explains them. The Poppy War explores this on both an interpersonal and international level. Take Altan. He’s been through so much shit, but he takes his inner issues out on others in a way that is inexcusable. What do you do with that? Do we forgive him for being both emotionally and physical abusive towards Rin just because his childhood was a string of horrors? Then take the Nikara Empire and the Federation of Mugen, who have been abusing each other (and Speer) for centuries. When your foreign policy decisions are motivated by national trauma, when does the cycle of violence ever stop?
Rin is a flawed and fascinating heroine, and the beating heart of this story. Do you see yourself in any part of Rin's character? How are you different from her?
I think Rin and I are quite different! I’m generally quite positive, and she’s generally quite . . . not. I just want to become a professor, settle down with my boyfriend and live a happy life with our two corgis (we don’t own them yet, but we will). Rin wants to . . . burn cities, I guess.
That being said, I think Rin represents my worst impulses, exaggerated to the extreme. I get angry. Rin rages. I’m ambitious. Rin is addicted to her ambition. She’s impulsive, furious, vengeful, over-the-top angry. These are all the things that I try to rein back in myself.
What was your favorite part about constructing a universe full of gods and shamans? What other fantasy worlds gave you inspiration?
My favorite part by far was writing about psychedelics. It’s impossible to take a scene seriously if everyone in it is tripping balls. I haven’t seen this particular mechanism used as a magic system in other fantasy works before, so I wouldn’t say I drew magical inspiration from any fantasy worlds. It all comes from history. I’ve been obsessed with the Opium Wars for a long time, and it’s interesting to entertain a world where opium is not just a source of Chinese debilitation and humiliation, but also of unfathomable power.
When you reflect on the time you spent writing, what passages or sequences do you remember most vividly?
The chapter about Golyn Niis–that chapter–was extremely difficult to write. I remember that week very vividly. I did my research in the morning, took a mental health break, wrote in the afternoon and took another mental health break. I cried a lot. I was getting so depressed that my roommate made me stop working on the manuscript for a few days.
On the lighter side, I love the scene where Rin and Nezha fight back to back during the battle at Sinegard. It’s such a pivotal point in their relationship. It transforms from a petty schoolyard rivalry to something bigger.
Can you give us any information about the next installment in Rin's story?
Only that a draft of book two has been finished and you can expect it around a year from now (:
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Poppy War.