(This interview was originally posted on my Patreon. Thank you, patrons!)
RS: You own birds. Tell us about the birds. Provide pictures of the birds.
I can only speak about the parrot family. Parrots, including small parrots like my two conures (miniature parrots), give us a fascinating glimpse into evolution. They are like a combination between dogs and cats. They are so smart, like little dogs that can fly and sing or talk and they are very relational, including with their humans. They have huge personalities for just 30-50 grams of pet. On the other hand, their moods and emotional landscapes are so complicated and swiftly changing, like cats. But because they are as relational to humans as dogs, they are never aloof. When they are pissed at you, they don’t go off and sulk. They let you know it and aggressively punish you for it. They are very good at communicating their moods to you with every method of expression they have, including calls, songs, and biting. When you spend time with parrots, it is easy to imagine that some form of dinosaur might have evolved to human-level intelligence in the past 65 million years if that asteroid hadn’t struck. I, for one, would welcome a planet ruled by parrot overlords.
Pictures of my parrot overlords attached.
RS: Can I come meet the birds sometime? Do they like people? I promise not to bring the cats.
They love human visitors! They have free reign of my house, so they will land on you and answer when you talk to them and generally be very social and relational. Until you do something that startles them and then they will fly away and scream because you have turned into a horrible monster. Their worlds are filled with drama.
RS: Your fiction often takes place in a fictional Hong Kong where a number of East Asian cultures are blended. What does this allow you to do, and what challenges does it cause for you?
It’s more of a fictional Taiwan that I call the island of Pearl. The blending of East Asian cultures is intentional and authentic. Taiwan was colonized by the Japanese for fifty years. My parents’ generation grew up with Japanese names and spoke Japanese and love Japanese food, music, etc. The relationship between China and Taiwan is very complex. When the Nationalists came over from mainland China and took over from the Japanese, they massacred tens of thousands of intellectuals and other figures perceived as threats in the Taiwanese populace. So Taiwan is a complicated, divided culture, which I find so interesting, and I reflect that in Pearl. Further, I feel strongly that fantasy writers of East Asian descent should be allowed to experiment and blend and play with East Asian culture. Writers of Western fantasy get to mix influences from multiple European cultures at once into their invented cultures. Neighboring cultures influence each other. The patterns of trade, war, conquest, and interaction mean that it is unrealistic to expect any but the most unusually isolated of cultures to remain uninfluenced by neighboring cultures. I love exploring cultural fusion in my life and in my writing.
RS: Skating is a major theme in your young adult novel. Do you skate?
I took figure skating and kung fu lessons as research for my stories set in the world of Pearl, including the PEASPROUT CHEN novels, which features a form of martial arts on bladed skates. My skills in both sports were appalling. But that was instructive. I learned that those are two sports where balance and flexibility are at least as important as brute strength and that there are things that lithe girls and young women can do that no man could ever do. I wanted to invent a sport that played to girls’ strengths and how girls are physically different from boys. My failures on the ice helped me write a book that was all about girl power. Also, the books are actually middle grade, not young adult, although they read like YA because they are intensely ambitious and the prose is quite elevated.
RS: Can you link to one of your favorite artists and describe what you love about their work?
I hope this isn’t spammy but actually, my Dad. I make my living as an author now but still deal art for fun on the side and he’s my top-selling artist. He does photography, including infrared photography. I’m a wordy person but it’s hard to put into words the emotion in his work. Here are a few images:
He only started less than three years ago, after he retired from being an engineer, but he’s taken off like a rocket. His work is already in museum and corporate collections. Art has given him a new life at this late stage of life and our relationship is so much richer because of it. I call him The Artist Formerly Known As Dad. Here’s his website: www.fongchilien.com.
RS: What’s the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
Hard question. I’m a shy, introspective, cautious, and solitary person by nature. But I also know that my life will be richer if I force myself to widen my comfort zone. I’ve made some whiplash career changes, including going from lawyering to dealing art and now to be a working author. I would say that the most adventurous thing I ever did was enter into a relationship with my former partner knowing at the outset that he had terminal cancer and then devising a logical, working system to continue communicating with him after he died. And then sharing that story very publicly. You can read it here. http://interfictions.com/supplemental-declaration-of-henry-lien-henry-lien/ Every bold and frightening life decision I have made has enriched my life. They have given me the sense that the world is filled with mystery and meaning and adventure, if you decide that it is going to be so.
RS: My favorite thing about “The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society” is the wealth of rich, often disturbing detail you collected from the Gilded Age. Can you describe how you did that research? Was there anything amazing that didn’t make it onto the page?
I did a lot of reading about the social lives of the Grandes Dames of the Gilded Age and spent a lot of time at the spectacular Huntington Library and Gardens. The research wrote much of the story for me, because every one of the outrageous, excessive, repulsive parties depicted in the story was real. The breathtaking arrogance of the Gilded Age towards animals, the environment, and the working class and other disenfranchised populations provided such fertile, infuriating material to work with. The suffocating social strictures placed on women of this class were also great material. It was fascinating and depressing to learn what women of clear intelligence and talent did when they were allowed no meaningful endeavor towards which to employ their gifts. Nothing amazing failed to make it onto the page, but one thing almost failed to get included because I didn’t know about it. Connie Willis mentored me on this story at Clarion West. She was the one who told me the true story about the dinner party held by a society dame where the table was lined with a sand dune in which were buried real emeralds, rubies, and diamonds, which the guests were to search for with a shovel and bucket, as party favors. Thanks for that one, Connie. The story is available for free in print and podcast form here.
RS: Will you provide us with a vegan recipe?
I love sharing vegan recipes! The problem is that I never measure anything. I just look and taste. Here is a three course Taiwanese meal that I made recently. All vegan, soy-free, gluten-free, lowish-carb. Picture attached. If anyone is really interested, email me atinfo [at] henrylien [dot] com and I will jot down measurements next time I make it.
a. Cucumbers marinated in Bragg liquid amino (soy and gluten free soy sauce alternative), sesame oil, chopped garlic, and red pepper flakes.
b. Bean sprouts, celery, shiitake mushrooms, peanuts, scallions, stir-fried in sauce made of Bragg, sesame, white pepper, and star anise, garnished with cilantro.
c. Green beans stir-fried with button mushrooms, scallions, Beyond Beef pea protein beefless ground, stir-fried with white wine, Bragg, sesame oil, sriracha.
RS: Anything else you’d like to say? Say it loud, say it proud, say it here.
I’m really proud of my first novel PEASPROUT CHEN, FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD, which the New York Times described as “Hermione Granger meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets the Ice Capades meets Mean Girls.” And the sequel PEASPROUT CHEN: BATTLE OF CHAMPIONS is even better. I write theme songs to accompany the PEASPROUT CHEN books and Idina Menzel, the star of Frozen, Wicked, Rent, and Glee, sang one of them with me at my book launch in April. I’d be honored if you’d take a look at the video of us singing it here: www.henrylien.com/peasproutchen.
RS: Now, dear reader, as your reward — have more parrot pictures.