From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Tony Pi

In this Author Spotlight, we asked author Tony Pi to tell us a bit about the background of his story for Fantasy Magazine, “The Gold Silkworm.”

What inspired “The Gold Silkworm”?

I first wrote a story with word-tattoo magic for The Dragon And The Stars, a collection of fantasy and science fiction by ethnic Chinese living outside of China. But in writing “The Character of the Hound,” I did a lot of side research on Chinese culture and beliefs that I didn’t ultimately use in that story. Three of those ideas seemed to fit very well together for a new story: cricket-fighting, poison spirits, and itinerant female doctors of the Song Dynasty. I started with the villain, and the heroine and plot developed quickly after that.

Both “The Gold Silkworm” and your short story “A Sweet Calling” are set in Song Dynasty China. Could you tell us what you find most interesting about the Song Dynasty?

The Song Dynasty has so much potential for great stories, and every new fact I learn about it makes me want to write more set in that time period. It was a time when the Chinese made important advances in technology, science, and the arts, but it was also a time of conflict, with the invasion of the Jurchen barbarians taking northern China and driving the Song government south. The era also produced semi-legendary figures like the ever-loyal Yue Fei and the outlaws of The Water Margin. Inspiring stuff.

Yan Xue possesses the Five Virtues of crickets and men: trustworthiness, courage, loyalty, knows shame, and is wise and recognizes the facts. Did you have the Five Virtues in mind when you wrote Yan Xue? Or did you start with her and incorporate the Virtues later? Do you have a writing process that usually works best for you?

No, I began with Yan Xue and sketched out her personality first before I decided to incorporate the Five Virtues into the story. I wanted Yan Xue to be a wuxia heroine, which meant that she would hold some of the traits mentioned in the Virtues as ideals. My writing process varies from story to story, depending on I know best in terms of characters, plot or setting when I start. But generally, I would sketch out a through-line with the main scene breaks, so that I know what key elements I needed and when. I then begin writing, at which point I might stick to the outline closely or veer off in an unexpected direction if new ideas make the story stronger.

Yan Xue was originally hesitant to be Cao Shen’s vessel. By the end, she wonders if she has become addicted to Cao Shen’s powers and if the spirit is using her. If you had the opportunity to host a healing spirit, do you think you would accept? Do you find that power or habit is more addictive?

I would think a lot about it before deciding. I’d consider whether the power fit my aim in life and I was able to give it my all, or if someone else more worthy should have the privilege. It’s easy to delude yourself into thinking that anyone can pursue any career; it’s only right if you can pour your heart and soul into what you do.

As for which is more addictive, I would say it depends on the person’s strengths and weaknesses. For me, I think that power is easier to resist. Power dynamics exist everywhere, so people must always step up, take power and lead. It can corrupt but also provides a hero the opportunity to shine. With an addictive habit and instant highs, physiological factors might make it harder to break free of the cycle through simply willpower.

Are you planning to write more about Yan Xue and what you’re working on next?

I have a lot of ideas for Song Dynasty stories, there’s a good chance that Yan Xue will make another appearance. I may even write a novel in that setting starting January. For now, I have a few short stories in the pipeline, including “The Spirit of Wine” (another Song Dynasty story), “Brine Magic” (my take on a Chinese portal fantasy) and “The Marotte” (a fantasy set in the same world as “Silk and Shadow”).

Jennifer Konieczny hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An alumna of Villanova University, she now pursues her doctorate in medieval studies at the University of Toronto. She enjoys working with fourteenth-century latin legal texts, slushing for Fantasy Magazine, and scanning bookshelves for new authors to read.