Mary Soon Lee is an award-winning poet and author. Her Rhysling award-winning poem, “Alternate Genders,” appeared in Issue 9 of Mithila Review. You can read it here along with her recent publications. Lee is the author of Elemental Haiku, containing 119 haiku for the elements of the periodic table; I loved the book—you can read my review here on Strange Horizons. Her first book of poems, The Sign of the Dragon, is an engrossing epic fantasy told in verse.
Here is part of our conversation:
Salik Shah: Your latest collection, Elemental Haiku: Poems to honor the periodic table, three lines at a time, first appeared in the journal Science. How did the book come about? How has been the response so far?
Mary Soon Lee: The book version of Elemental Haiku is thanks to the efforts of my excellent agent, Lisa Rodgers (JABberwocky Literary Agency), who successfully sold it to Ten Speed Press. I have had a lot of nice comments on the haiku, both from their first appearance in Science and from the book, and I received some unexpected follow-up requests. For instance, the haiku were referenced in a British television quiz show called University Challenge, and I was very honored that C&EN (Chemical & Engineering News) asked me to contribute to their special feature on the periodic table.
Salik: You have written many short stories since the last two collections of your short stories were first published nearly a decade ago: Winter Shadows And Other Tales (2001) and Ebb Tides And Other Tales (2002). Are you planning to collect and publish a third collection of short stories anytime soon?
Mary: It’s very hard to predict what will happen – the first two collections came about because the publisher, Joe Morey of Dark Regions Press, solicited them. I am currently working on other projects, but a third collection remains a possibility.
Salik: In the introduction to Winter Shadows And Other Tales, you said, “I never meant to be a writer.” Do people still ask you “What’s your real job?” Are you a full-time poet and a writer now?
Mary: I’m rarely, if ever, asked what’s my real job. I agree that it can be difficult for authors who haven’t had considerable commercial success to feel comfortable describing writing as their job, even if it absorbs their time and energy. Similarly, stay-at-home parents can feel uncomfortable describing that as their job. For myself, while I’m not a full-time writer, I’m gradually getting closer to it. My daughter is in high school, and I try to only write when she is at school – so I begin about eight-thirty in the morning, stop before three o’clock in the afternoon, and also stop during all the school breaks (almost three months in the summer!) During her school day, I don’t write all of the time: I read for research, read to keep up with the field, submit poems and stories, do household chores, and so forth.
Salik: Why did you choose to write your epic fantasy, Crowned: The Sign of Dragon, in verse rather than prose? I wonder if a novel would have been a natural choice if you wanted to find more readers and “commercial” success.
Mary: The Sign of the Dragon wasn’t planned out from the start. A conventional novel would have been a far more commercial choice! I wrote the opening poem as a standalone piece, but found myself drawn back to the character, and returned to write more and more poems about his story. Even though it may not have been the best marketing decision, I’m very happy with the end result. Of all the things I’ve written, it’s the one that I care about most.
Salik: What is more difficult or challenging — writing a book like Elemental Haiku (where the number of poems or themes are in a sense predetermined by the number as well as the nature of the elements) or a book of related poems like Crowned (where you don’t always know where you are going)? Which took longer?
Mary: They were very different experiences. Crowned took longer and was more all-absorbing, but Elemental Haiku entailed considerable science research, plus the challenge of deciding what each element’s haiku should be about and how to formulate that as a haiku.
Salik: Is it easy to switch between fiction and poetry? Or fantasy and science fiction? Is there an order to your creative process? A daily or weekly quota of words — poetry or fiction?
Mary: I find it fairly easy to switch from fiction to poetry, and from one genre to another, but I like to finish each piece before beginning another. At the moment, I’m writing poetry and short stories, and I try to complete at least fifty pieces a year. If I switch to longer fiction, adopting a weekly word count would make good sense.
Salik: The poems in “Crowned” are about loss and grief, the burden of responsibilities, (gender) equality, the cost of war, also dreams unfulfilled. The poems about the common people — the washerwoman’s daughter and the courtesan — are as moving as the poems about the boy king Xau. How do you go about writing each poem? Do you have an outline of the plot or a larger narrative for the series?
Mary: I didn’t think I was writing a lengthy work when I began, so I had no plan for the overall plot arc. As I added to the project, poem by poem, my understanding of it grew. The earlier poems helped shape the direction of the narrative. I’ve now completed the whole story, which is over three hundred poems long. (Crowned forms approximately the first fifth.) For the most part, I wrote the first draft of the epic in order, but after that I returned to add poems and to revise others.
Salik: Who or what was the inspiration behind King Xau — the almost godlike king? For the South Asian reader, he comes across as a “pious” figure like Rama or Yudhishthira from The Ramayana, or The Mahabharata, respectively. Is he supposed to be a role model? Or is he an impossible ideal for the leaders of our world?
Mary: I had no specific inspiration for King Xau. Like the narrative as a whole, Xau arose without planning. Nonetheless, I think my parents’ heritage influenced both Xau and his story. The two main countries in the book – Meqing and Innis – contain Asian and Celtic influences, and my father was ethnically Chinese while my mother was Irish. I drew on things that were familiar to me. While I didn’t write Xau to be a role model, I see how he could be taken that way. And at times I’ve encouraged myself toward better behavior by thinking about what Xau would do! I note that my family, who were my first readers, said that Xau was too perfect, and I definitely admit that he is on the idealized end of the character spectrum, and rather hard to live up to. There is one poem, rather late in the narrative, in which the dragon points out some of Xau’s flaws (“Seventeenth Lesson,” first published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly—the poem contains spoilers for earlier events).
Salik: I wanted to read more poems about Shazia — who has been confined to the palace and a role of a queen, which seems almost like bondage. I wonder who has more freedom — the unnamed washerwoman’s daughter, Moon Swan the courtesan, or Shazia the queen?
Mary: There are some additional poems with Shazia later on in the narrative (after Crowned), as well as other female perspectives. One of the later Shazia poems ends on a more feminist note than those in Crowned (“Hero,” first published in Star*Line), and another later poem (“Stepmother,” first published in Eye to the Telescope) verges on anger about similar issues. I think a couple of the women introduced later on begin with a comparatively large amount of freedom, though one of them then chooses to give that up. Xau himself, by becoming king and then trying to rule well, gives up much of his own freedom. N.B. I loved writing some of the secondary characters in The Sign of the Dragon, such as Tian, the woman who cleans Xau’s rooms, and Xau’s guards, and the dragon herself.
Salik: “Surgeon” was one of the most memorable poems in “Crowned” for me. After a lot of resistance and disbelief, Xau finally won me over when he didn’t see himself as better or superior to his men. Despite his bruises and dislocated shoulder, when Xau said, “We will wait for our turn.” (74)
“Your turn is now,” said the surgeon.
That much clear to everyone in the tent
except the king himself.
While Xau’s attitude can be described as naive or noble, I found the attitude of the surgeon and the rest of the people problematic. In their response lies the fundamental problem with monarchy or charismatic leadership — some men are more equal than others. Is true equality ever possible? Should there always be some men with power over others? Do you see an end to such a system of social or political order? Is it even desirable?
Mary: You raise a lot of interesting points here, and I feel under-qualified to answer them. I will say that I support democracy (unsurprisingly) and that I don’t approve of monarchy, even in a token figurehead form. The world of The Sign of the Dragon is far from a Utopian society.
Salik: What we see happening in India in the name of Lord Rama isn’t exactly pious or praiseworthy. There are dictators with god complex in many countries now. Is there a danger in telling epic fantasies about individual heroes — the superhero narrative — in the age of climate crisis, and the decline of democracy and human rights?
Mary: Again, I feel under-qualified to answer these questions. I doubt that The Sign of the Dragon will have anything like the influence of superhero narratives such as movies and bestsellers. If any of my writing has an influence, I hope it is toward kindness and toward valuing all of us, rich or poor, old or young, regardless of gender, ethnicity, citizenship… And in the case of Elemental Haiku and my astronomy poetry, toward valuing science too.
Salik: “In Honor of the King,” the bard Enlai’s decision — to stay with the king to bear witness to the history and be the one to commemorate it — felt autobiographical. Why do you write? What makes you return to the world of The Sign of Dragon?
Mary: I write because, at its best, I find it deeply satisfying, expressing something I care about, not necessarily a large issue – it might be just a poem about my cats. I kept returning to The Sign of the Dragon because I got completely caught up in Xau’s story. It was almost an obsession. I thought about it when I was vacuuming, or brushing my teeth, or grocery shopping.
Salik: When can we expect the next book in this epic fantasy? How many books or poems do you have in mind to complete the entire series?
Mary: I wish I could give you a definite answer. I’ve finished writing the whole story, which is currently 342 poems and some 97,000 words long. Ideally I would like all 342 poems to appear in a single volume, but that is a marketing/publishing decision rather than a writing issue. My agent, Lisa Rodgers, has the full manuscript, and we are discussing our options.
Salik: You have published nearly 400 poems. Are you planning to collect and publish these in a volume or two anytime soon? Why?
Mary: Not soon. I’ve been gradually working on a set of astronomy poems, adding to the sequence in between standalone pieces. I think my next book is most likely to be either those astronomy poems or The Sign of the Dragon. A more general poetry collection or a short story collection is probably further in the future. But nothing is certain! Thank you very much for your thoughtful questions.
Salik: Thank you so much for this opportunity. It’s always a pleasure and an honor to read and publish your work here on Mithila Review.
PS: You can read my review of Elemental Haiku here on Strange Horizons.