Novels about writers stealing each other’s ideas are nothing new, but it’s hard to think of a writers-behaving-badly novel that’s as shockingly current as Yellowface (Morrow/HarperCollins, May 16), the latest by Babel author R.F. Kuang. When disappointed novelist June Hayward witnesses her much, much more successful frenemy Athena Liu die in front of her, she stumbles on an opportunity to steal Athena’s unpublished manuscript, rewrite much of it, and pass it off as her own. June gets propelled into the career she’s always felt she deserved, but of course, the telltale bestseller slowly corrodes her soul, one lethal subtweet and Goodreads review at a time. Although Yellowface is written in the tone of literary satire, it’ll give anyone familiar with the industry cold sweats with how hyper-real the depictions of social media scandals and racism in the book world are. “Every single thing that happens in this book is milder than scandals that happen every other month in publishing,” says Kuang in a recent interview over Zoom. “It doesn’t even get to some of the more malicious and deceitful things people have done in this industry, and that’s because I don’t have 800 pages to cover it.” Here, Kuang tells us more; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On the face of it, Yellowface seems like a big departure, genrewise, from your Poppy War trilogy and Babel, both of which are rooted in history and fantasy. Was it actually a major departure in your mind?
People keep asking me what it is like to write in such a different genre, and I don’t really understand the question, because it makes it sound like there’s something exceptional about fantasy or that modes of storytelling are inherently different. I think it comes from a place of looking down at fantasy. For instance, recently there was a headline that said “R.F. Kuang Makes Her Literary Debut.” And I thought, “Is this my debut? Really, after Babel, I still haven’t had my literary debut?” And I think about how, for instance, Kazuo Ishiguro clearly is writing science fiction and fantasy, but we don’t shelve his books under SF/fantasy.
Even if there aren’t literal epic battles happening in this book, you made the process of June’s rewriting and editing Athena’s work just as dynamic, if not more so, than any fight scene. Was that difficult to do?
Oh, writing about writing is the easiest thing in the world. When you’re writing about people having sword fights or doing magic, there’s so much research involved. I’ve never been in a fight for my life involving magical weapons, but I write all the time. I think there are really good literary models of how to make writing about writing seem interesting, and I’m thinking of Stephen King’s Misery. And Sally Rooney, who I love, also writes a lot about writers thinking about writing. I mean, those are the trenches that we’re familiar with. Those are the battles that we’re used to fighting.
There’s so much that June does that’s completely reprehensible, but as someone who also does creative work for a living, I found myself siding with her more than I’d like to admit. How intentional is that?
A lot of my BIPOC writer friends who have read this tell me, “I can’t believe it, but I kind of side with June here,” and that’s absolutely intentional because, first of all, I never like to create a villain that you can’t somewhat relate to—otherwise it’s like watching a random object sow chaos. I’m much more interested in villains who have clear goals and motivations and whose wicked schemes are quite understandable.
Also, June is relatable because the things she struggles with in publishing are so universally relatable—we’ve all been made to feel like June. This industry grinds us to the ground. Nobody really talks openly about the mental toll that being an author takes on you.
From an outsider’s perspective, your career seems more like Athena’s right now, but talk about a time you’ve felt more like June.
I’ve felt more like June for most of my career. The Poppy War trilogy never hit any bestsellers list—when it first came out, I thought it had flopped. I thought there was no way it was ever going to earn back its advance. I’ve had that experience of sitting at a signing table for two hours and not a single person coming up and buying the book. I mean, it’s excruciating and humiliating and you feel like your career is never going to recover.
The books ultimately got legs of their own and spread really through word of mouth…but that took a long time to build. It wasn’t evident in the first few years of my career that this would ever happen, so we were all astonished when Babel did as well as it did, because I thought that if Babel didn’t do well, then that was the end of things for me. It just goes to show you never feel quite secure. Wherever you are in publishing, it can all disappear beneath you.
Because this book deals so directly with publishing and how readers interact with authors, does it feel like you’re opening yourself up to criticism in a new way?
I guess I don’t really think about criticism or backlash to my books because I don’t read Goodreads reviews [laughs]. At the same time, a conversation is kind of the point of this book. People are supposed to engage with it, people are supposed to have strong opinions about it, and I would welcome people disagreeing strongly with arguments in the book. Those disagreements are generative, and those are the conversations we ought to be having about the industry. So we knew that this book was going to cause very strong reactions, either positive or negative, but the book exists to be a conversation starter. It doesn’t exist for everybody to agree with it. If it gets people talking, then I will consider that mission accomplished.
Stephan Lee’s most recent book is K-Pop Revolution.