It’s all a bit meta: A bestselling novel about a bestselling novel, profiled in a column about bestsellers.
This self-referential tangle comes to us courtesy of Rebecca F. Kuang, author of Yellowface, the psychological thriller that’s spent weeks on The Globe and Mail’s fiction charts, with similar success around the world. But she isn’t too fussed by the Inception-y circularity of it all.
“The kind of bestseller that is described in the text is not the book that I wrote, or ever hope to write,” says Kuang, nodding to the historical epic that kicks off the action in her own novel. “There haven’t been too many moments where I feel like life is just recreating art.”
She’s very aware, however, of the performativity that can sometimes surround an author becoming aware their book has made one of the bestsellers lists.
“The joke, right, is that authors find out hours before the list goes public that they’ve made the charts, but everybody’s posts about it hours later are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m overcome, I’m shaking,’ in the moment,” Kuang says.
It’s exactly this sort of behaviour, in fact, that she skewers in Yellowface. It’s a razor-sharp ride through the publishing process where no element of the book world – from the almost-arbitrary anointings of singular “stars” to the industry’s often ham-fisted attempts at diversity and the treacherous waters of social media – is spared her incisive gaze.
Kuang’s first novel, The Poppy War, was published in 2018 – the first instalment in an East Asian history-inspired trilogy that Time magazine would rank among the “100 best fantasy books of all time” in 2020. In addition to her science-fiction prizes, including a prestigious Nebula best novel award, Kuang has degrees from Cambridge and Oxford, and she’s at work on a PhD at Yale. (“I’m stressed all the time, but it is fun switching between a writer identity and academia because nobody cares that I’m an author in the classroom,” she says.)
Oh, and she just turned 27.
The Globe chatted with Kuang about taking on the publishing industry, her writing process and what’s next after this.
Yellowface skewers – so brilliantly – so many aspects of publishing, and the book world at large. Was there any trepidation associated with taking all that on?
Not on my part. You just can’t think very much about how people are going to react to your work because then it just gets too distracting. I let other people do the worrying for me. If there was any trepidation, it was my agent and editors who were feeling it. I just told the story that I wanted to tell.
Why was now the right time to tell that story?
Publishing has been in crisis mode for a while, and we’ve been talking for a long time about the ways in which it’s broken. The time was right to just say out loud a lot of the things that people were feeling.
You say you didn’t feel trepidation about writing about the broken publishing industry, but was there a burden of being the person saying this stuff out loud?
Not really, because it’s not like I’m the only one saying it. Publishing this book is less like putting out a manifesto, and more being part of the conversation. There are plenty of people agitating for change in publishing. For instance, all of the wonderful folks in the HarperCollins union who went on strike; all of the wonderful folks spearheading efforts to diversify publishing lists and advocate for marginalized writers. I’m only one of those many, many voices. I just happened to tell this story in fiction, and give people a text to ground things. It doesn’t feel like I’m a lightning rod.
Have you found there’s been a different reaction to this book between publishing-world people and regular folks who just love books, and have never really thought too much about how the sausage gets made?
The main difference is that folks who are outside publishing are horrified that this is how the industry operates, and the people on the inside just groan and chuckle because it’s too real.
In the books you’ve written so far, you’ve played around a lot in genre, and moved effortlessly, it feels, between three very different sorts of modes of writing. Is this just because you’re interested in everything?
It’s rare for somebody’s reading tastes to stay the same throughout their entire life. I’m not the same reader that I was five years ago. I find different stuff appeals to me. It’s natural that I should take pleasure from different modes of writing as well. Stagnation is death. We need to be undergoing metabolic processes as creatives for there to be purpose and drive. I just experiment with every new project because doing the same thing over and over again feels horrible.
Is what you write a reflection of what you’re reading?
It’s a circular process, right? What I write is a reflection of what I’m reading, but I also select texts based on the person I need to become for this project. It’s all a process of making myself a new person to be worthy of the project, and then selecting new projects based on the person I’m becoming.
What does that process actually look like, to become a new person for every project?
It doesn’t feel that exceptional. Everybody’s growing all the time. I’m 27 now, I’m very different from the person that I was when I was 22. I think hopefully smarter, hopefully more responsible, definitely more nuanced in the way I think about the world and the way I form arguments. This is something that every single person goes through, and it’s also not necessarily something we have control over. Things happen to us, we go through things that force us to adapt and change. Growth is natural, and I think every author goes through this.
In terms of the leap from Babel to Yellowface, what things were happening in your life that made you go from historical fiction to psychological thrillers?
Frankly, I think my brain broke from being in lockdown. I lost all ability to just focus on anything for a sustained period of time, which I gather is something that happened to a lot of people who lost their attention spans in these fragmented and disorganized ways because we were inside all of the time. Thrillers were the only thing that could hold my attention, the only books that I found I could finish – so I tried writing one.
Where do you go from here? Another thriller? A romance novel next? Are you taking on non-fiction?
I’m contracted for three books at the moment, which is a scary thing to say because I don’t like to be under contract for more than one at a time. I’m working on Katabasis, which comes out in 2025. We keep trying to put genre labels on it, but nothing is sticking because it’s just such a weird book. It’s about hell and academia and logic paradoxes and the immortality or not immortality of the soul, and Dante’s Inferno and World War Two and medics. It’s been really fun to sit with, and research. It’s really strange.
It’s just a weird book, and I’m not sure that anybody will be interested in reading it. But I’m having fun writing, and that’s all that matters.