One thing about speculative fiction I have always loved is getting to explore an entirely new and different world. But historical fiction can provide much of the same wonder – especially when written about a period or people not many of us know about.
When I stumbled across Caitlin Chung’s novel, Ship of Fates, I was very intrigued by the place, time, and people of history she was exploring. Not to mention throwing in some magic too!
What was it about gold-rush era San Francisco – an uncommon setting in genre fiction – that made you want to set your story there? Why did you want to write a magical realist story as opposed to historical fiction?
The Gold Rush itself is enchanting. I mean, can you imagine? Cross-continental communication is pretty weak, and then all of a sudden a rumor spreads that a seaward journey promises to end in riches. How kooky is that? Now there’s this city that developed so haphazardly on a foundation of hearsay, and people keep coming in – fast – from all over. There was a huge influx of Chinese people, which carried its own sense of wicked mysticism. All of it, it’s just begging for some other-worldly mischief.
I have to admit, the setting came secondary, maybe even tertiary, in my writing process. I had all these characters with nowhere to be, magical things with nowhere to wreak havoc. I don’t think I ever grew out of a grade-school relationship with history, and as weird as it sounds, I didn’t really see the Gold Rush as history. It felt more like a backdrop that I could just borrow. The magical is so much more natural to me than the historical.
Ship of Fates highlights the Chinese immigrant experience of the time, something many readers won’t have prior knowledge of. What challenges are there in bringing to life forgotten and marginalised experiences like this, especially when blending the real with the fantastical?
I think my biggest challenge was that I wanted to tell a story, not educate on a topic. I don’t see myself as having any particular expertise and I think it’s probably a fear of mine to be mistaken for someone who does. I tried really hard not to think about a lack of prior knowledge. The experiences of a marginalized group are unique, but they have significant emotional similarities. I tried to stick with the universal qualities, and let the historical context develop alongside the story. Blending the real and the fantastical is all about finding the right balance of the truth and the absurd. I wanted to keep the impression of the time true and the illustration of it absurd.
Your novel features multiple female characters sharing a life-changing experience. Why did you want to have multiple women in this situation, rather than a single female protagonist?
I have so many answers to this question!
To grossly oversimplify, plot is really an ever-evolving exchange of power, and power tends to be a very masculine goal. I wanted to write a power struggle between women, especially hapless ones. I became very interested in female characters’ agency. The first character I developed was a young girl that’s been completely isolated her entire life and had no agency. But a character with no agency begs the question of who took it away. I knew I wanted it to be a woman, a much more powerful woman with total agency. Then, I had these two characters that represented a rather binary attitude toward female agency, so I wrote more women into the story in the middle of that spectrum. I think I needed more than one woman’s story to really accomplish that tension over owning one’s life.
One of my favorite aspects of fiction is backstory. My mind naturally begins a story at the climax, and I love puzzling backward to discover why a person is the way they are, or how they ended up where they did. Working backward like that really lets me get the backstories all twisted and tangled and dependent, which I love to do. I think backstory is more essential to female characters than male. Readers tend to want reasons or explanations to why a female is the protagonist. If a woman is in power, a reader wants to know the why and the how. If a man is in power, that’s enough all on its own. And it’s all women – queens or whores, witches or mothers – women’s origins and motives feel more necessary to storytelling, so I’m naturally more drawn to writing them. And, backstory being my favorite part of writing, the more characters I have, the more backstory I get to write.
Stylistically, I’m drawn to omniscient, voice-over type narration with a cast of characters. Not only is that a natural tendency of mine, it feels most fitting to the fairytale style. Fairytales originated as an oral tradition, and oral stories are almost always told from a removed omniscience. The story opens to a world, not a person’s judgment of it, and having multiple protagonists fit that narration style better than having just one. There’s a piece of a draft floating around somewhere that I attempted a first-person point of view. It’s not very good.
Okay, I’ll stop there.
What are some of your favourite relationships between women in genre fiction? Are there any tropes around female relationships you’d like to see retired?
I mentioned really liking power struggles, or agency struggles, between women, and I suppose that could happen between any two women, whether family, foe, fairies, or whatever. I also love relationships, both outward ones and the relationship a woman has with herself, that challenge femininity. I’m interested in how femininity is understood and utilized in a story, whether weaponized, commodified, or coveted. It’s even better if femininity is challenged outside of male manipulation altogether.
What I’d like to see retired is the single female heroine among a cast of all men. I think sometimes [male] writers feel the need to write a female protagonist because they can pat themselves on the back for it. They feel like they “did their part” or that they proved their inclusivity. But often, once the female protagonist is in place, there are no other women populating the world. I think that’s why so many men can’t capture the female experience – because, in their story, they only wrote one. That’s so narrow! It doesn’t accurately reflect the human experience. So, it’s not so much that I want anything retired, I want the rest of the story balanced.
Pitch us Ship of Fates! Why should our readers pick up a copy?
Ugh, the most difficult question!
Ship of Fates is a fairytale, an origin story, an urban legend, a myth, a curse, an exploration of history, a snapshot of the Chinese immigrant experience, and it’s all about women. Specifically, it is about a woman doing anything she can to break her curse. More specifically, it’s about a ship and a lighthouse. It’s short, tight, and lyrical – perfect for either a single-sit read or a slow amble.
Caitlin Chung has lived in the Bay Area her whole life. She is a teacher, an expert eavesdropper, a fan of infomercials, and is known to be a supporter of superstitions. She has on many occasions been justly accused of being a Luddite. She lives in Oakland with her husband and their cat.