Uncle Rick sat down with Yoon Ha Lee, author of the latest Rick Riordan Presents novel, Dragon Pearl, to discuss Yoon’s inspiration. Together they cover everything from shape-shifting to magic sporks, Korean shamanism to Korean junk food.
RICK: I was delighted when you submitted a proposal for the imprint, because I had recently read your adult book Ninefox Gambit and loved it. What inspired you to write for younger readers? Was it a very different experience?
YOON: I’d never imagined that I might write for younger readers, but my agent came to me with word of the imprint and said that, due to my Korean background and habit of including mythical influences in science fiction, it might be worth trying. Also, my daughter—now fourteen—is a huge fan of your books and would have killed me if I hadn’t tried it.
Writing for a younger audience was definitely an adjustment. Shorter chapters, less convoluted prose, and more propulsive action and humor were all things I had to learn. But it was a great experience!
I hope they have as much fun reading it as I did writing it! —Yoon Ha Lee
RICK: I’m fascinated by the way you wove Korean mythology into a space opera. Did you grow up with stories about fox spirits, dragons, and goblins?
YOON: I did! I spent half my childhood in South Korea, and I had Korean storybooks about mythological creatures, and I liked reading folklore and folktales. Also, my parents would sometimes tell stories to my sister and me. They had this frustrating habit of telling me half of one and then saying, “Well, I don’t remember how it ended . . .”
RICK: Your main character, Min, is cunning and deceptive, as a fox should be. Would you call her an anti-hero?
YOON: I think that’s a fair description, yes. She’s clever and determined, but her main solution to trouble is to lie or trick her way out of it!
RICK: Min’s family has suffered as a result of prejudice, poverty, and class warfare. Why was it important for you to portray life on the planet Jinju that way?
YOON: As a practical matter, I needed to give Min a motivation to think of something bigger than herself. And, for someone who’s never been off-planet, Jinju literally is the largest thing that matters to her.
On a more personal note, I’ve seen prejudice and so on play out in my own life, and I thought it would be useful to acknowledge that it happens. I lived in Missouri for a year when I was six—my dad was a US Army surgeon stationed at Ft. Leonard Wood—and my friend Rebekah lived in the house to our left. Her family was warm and welcoming, and I played with her all the time. I have no memory of the people who lived in the house to our right. My mom told me years later, when I was an adult, that a white woman lived there, and she took one look at us—Korean, very definitely not white—and refused to let her daughter talk to me or play with me. I wanted readers of Dragon Pearl to know that if they’ve gone through something like that, they’re not alone.
RICK: Your characters’ powers—shape-shifting, Charm, controlling weather—are so cool. If you could conjure any snack food with Sujin’s magic spork, what would it be?
YOON: For pure Korean junk food, I would have to go with shrimp crackers. My grandfather used to give me pocket change to buy some from the corner store in Seoul!
RICK: Speaking of Sujin, I love that they are non-binary. What prompted that decision?
YOON: After writing my adult science fiction books, I wanted to give a non-binary character a larger role. I’m always sort of behind the times and I was late finding out about non-binary folks, so I figured I would try to do better going forward. I have friends now who are non-binary, and they deserve to see characters who reflect them in some way, too!
RICK: Among everything else, there are also a lot of ghosts in the book. Do ghosts play an important part in Korean folklore?
YOON: They do—probably more than I realized growing up. I’m told they’re also popular in horror movies and so on, but I’m too chicken to watch horror in any language! They also show up in shamanism. Korean shamans are women, and as I understand it, their usual shtick is to figure out what the spirits want so they stop making a nuisance of themselves to the living.
RICK: Your depiction of the inner workings and layouts of the various space ships is so convincing. Did you do any research for this? Do you draw things out on paper? Tell us your secret!
YOON: I should draw things out on paper, but I’m no engineer! Truthfully, I just made things up based on what seemed reasonable after a lifetime of watching Star Trek, Star Wars, and various sci-fi anime. My husband, who’s also a sci-fi fan and is a gravitational astrophysicist, helped me figure out what kinds of rooms you would have on a ship and what the right terminology was. I’m afraid that, left to my own devices, I’m hopeless with naval terms.
RICK: Is there anything else you’d like readers to take away from Dragon Pearl?
YOON: That science fiction and mythology can coexist happily!
I hope they have as much fun reading it as I did writing it!
RICK: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions, and thank you, especially, for Dragon Pearl. I can’t wait to see readers’ reactions!