Interview: Marjorie Liu

Marjorie Liu is the author of 12 novels in the paranormal romance series Dirk and Steel, seven in the urban fantasy series Hunter Kiss, nine novellas, and comics as diverse as Black Widow, Astonishing X-Men, and Star Wars: Han Solo. She also teaches a course on comic book writing at MIT, and participates as guest lecturer at the VONA/Voices Workshop at UC Berkeley.

Her comic series Monstress, illustrated by Sana Takeda (X-23, Ms. Marvel), is set in an alternate 1900s Asia, and tells the story of a teenage girl named Maika Halfwolf who shares a psychic link with a monster of enormous power during a war between magical creatures called Arcanics (of whom Maika is one) and an order of sorceresses called the Cumea. A narrative full of dark magic and powerful womanhood, with a visual style that incorporates elements of steampunk and manga, Monstress is truly unique. Geeks OUT was able to talk with Liu at BookExpo America about her Hugo-nominated series and some of the personal experiences that inspired her to write it.

Michele: Before you started writing full time, you had studied law and pursued a career as an attorney. What was the impetus for that career change, and can you describe the transition?

Marjorie Liu: Well, I loved studying law, but I didn't actually like being a lawyer, and I really didn't ever plan to be a novelist, at all. I loved writing, I loved reading, but I didn't think that would be a very practical career, and the idea of actually publishing anything seemed really far away. But after law school when I was actually looking for a job I had some free time, and I had this impulse to actually sit down and write, and try to actually write a novel, and so I did. I wrote a novel, and I wrote it very, very quickly and it was my first romance novel, and I spent a couple months revising it and then I sent it in to various publishers and got a ton of rejections, but finally the last publisher I sent it to, the manuscript ended up on the desk of the editor and he loved it, and so he offered me a four-book deal, and so that's how I started writing professionally.

Matriarchy is a strong theme in Monstress, and a large majority of the characters are female. In other interviews, you've shared that your family, especially your grandmother, is a strong influence on your writing. Did your maternal relatives influence the story of Monstress?

I would say that having strong female role models in my life absolutely influenced, not just my writing, but me as a person. And so I've always been surrounded by very strong women, the popular culture that I've been attracted to: the books, the TV, the movies, have always featured very strong women. And so I was very fortunate, I would say, to have great role models, but also I was determined to surround myself with great role models, whether they were fictional or real. And so that said, yes, of course, that absolutely influenced the work of Monstress, which features a cast that's almost entirely made up of women, and which really what I hope works to do is reverse what I see to be a trend in our popular fiction, where we see a lot of movies and TV shows and books that feature primarily men, and hardly any women.

How much of your family history and culture heritage has influenced the world of Monstress?

I would say that my personal family history has definitely influenced the characters of Monstress, and that my experiences growing up Asian-American, my familiarity with Chinese culture, with all my travels throughout Asia, have certainly influenced the world of Monstress. The one thing I wanted to do was reverse what is typically sort of the Eurocentric fantasy novel, and tell a story, tell an epic fantasy story that's set, you know, in Asia, and explore what that would look like, and who those people would be, and so that was one of my main goals when I was working on the book.

Monstress is set in a very Asian-influenced society, with visual elements that resemble Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asian cultures. Was that an intentional cultural combination similar to the symbiotic connection between those cultures in real life?

Of course it was intentional. I wanted to tell a story that encompassed what I've always experienced to be the very hybridic nature of Asia. The historical quote-unquote Orient always encompassed not just Asia, but North Africa, the Middle East, and I wanted to bring all those elements into the book.

What advice might you give to someone who is unsure about incorporating their ethnicity, especially their mixed ethnicity, into their writing?

I think that if you are a person of color, now more than ever, it's incredibly important for you to express yourself in fiction, in poetry, in art, in whatever is driving you creatively, and that it's really important as a person of color to take up space and not be afraid to reveal that side of yourself, to not fully express yourself in all of your sort of beautiful glory. And you know I think that the hardest thing really is to battle the instinct to hide. I think we're taught so often that silence is safe, that we need to be small and hide, and not show too much of ourselves because that's a risk, that's dangerous. You know, we might get hurt. But now is the time to be really brave and actually just say "No, I'm going to be me, I'm going to tell my story," and just go for it.

As a writer, do you feel you are contributing to your cultural heritage and the woman's canon?

You know, that's a really big question. I think that as a writer, as a woman, as a woman of color, and as someone who just loves to live in my imagination and tell stories, I'm doing my very, very best to tell stories that fully express who I am. And because I am a person, because I am a woman, telling stories that fully embrace who I am, by definition deals with all these different issues of race, of gender. And if that is, you know… I don't know how much that's actually contributing to anything, but my hope is that someone will read the story, and say "Hey, you know I see something of myself in this," and even if it doesn't happen, that's OK, but I'm just trying to tell… how do I put this? I'm trying to express parts of myself in story that live very deep inside of me, and that are very, very quiet, and that only emerge when I'm writing fiction, and I don't know if that contributes to anything really, and when I'm writing I'm not really thinking of my work in that regard, but I just hope that someone can take something from it one day.

Monstress Volume Two collects issues 7–12 and is available from Image Comics on July 5