Welcome back to another interview in our “New Creatives” series at TaiwaneseAmerican.org! With August and the end of summer coming around, avid readers will know that this month brings a plethora of new book releases. One of our most highly-anticipated reads of the summer is A Venom Dark and Sweet, the second book in author Judy I. Lin’s Book of Tea duology and sequel to #1 New York Times bestseller A Magic Steeped in Poison. In the first installment in the series, the protagonist Ning embarks on a journey to the imperial city of Dàxi to find a cure for the deadly poison that courses through her younger sister’s blood. While competing in a contest to determine the strongest shénnóng-shi, magicians who practice the ancient art of tea-making, Ning finds herself pulled into a world of political intrigue, romance, and a danger that may be more than she bargained for. The sequel will follow Ning’s adventure as war and revolution shake the foundation of the nation to its very core.
Lin is a Taiwanese Canadian Young Adult fantasy author of the Book of Tea duology. She immigrated from Taiwan to Canada with her family when she was only eight years old and grew up with a love of reading. She describes reading as “a way for me to escape into another world while trying to figure out where I fit in.” Lin shares that her passion for reading evolved into a love of storytelling, which eventually led to her writing her own stories. By day, Lin is an occupational therapist; by night, she conjures the colorful imaginary worlds that comprise her novels. With that, I’m excited to present my interview with Judy I. Lin, edited lightly for clarity and length.
Alyssa: Hi Judy! It’s a pleasure to meet you and I’m beyond excited to have the opportunity to interview you today.
Judy: It’s great to meet you too! I’ve been looking forward to this as well.
A: I’ll confess that I just finished reading the first book in your Book of Tea duology, A Magic Steeped in Poison, and I was absolutely blown away by the storyline and incredible world-building. In the novel, we follow the protagonist Ning as she travels to the imperial city to compete in a competition to save her sister Shu from the deadly poison that threatens her life. I personally loved the imagery that you use in the book, particularly when Ning or the other shénnóng-shi cast spells; each scene is vivid and really comes to life in your hands. That being said, where did your love for writing first originate? What does your writing process look like?
J: Thank you! I was quite shy as a child so writing always came easier to me than speaking, especially because I felt uncomfortable speaking with an accent and had to adjust to life in Canada. Even after living here for many years and with the accent gone, my interest in writing still remained.
For my writing process, I like to world build first. I need to know the world that my characters inhabit before I can jump into the story. This usually involves a lot of research at the beginning. After I have an idea of what the world looks like, I start on the outline of the story so that I know what will happen from beginning to end. Using that as my guide, that’s when the actual writing begins.
A: There’s a lot of court intrigue, politics, and culture interacting in your novel. What inspired the events of A Magic Steeped in Poison? Any particular histories, myths, or cultural influences?
J: Since I world build first, I knew that I wanted to write a story about tea and magic. However, because it’s a more subtle magic system with limitations, I knew I needed a way to showcase it and ensure that the magic can be utilized by the heroine. That’s how the magical competition came to be!
The basis of the magic system was definitely inspired by the Chinese mythology and Taiwanese folklore I grew up with. When I was little, my mom would tell me not to point at the moon because the lady in the moon would come down and cut my ears off. Living in a Taiwanese household meant our day-to-day lives were filled with these little superstitions and beliefs, so I wanted to make sure that the world I created in A Magic Steeped in Poison felt the same way.
Readers familiar with these myths and stories will notice that I drew upon legends such as the four constellations, but wrote them with a twist so they are both familiar and unfamiliar. My intention was not to create a historically accurate replica of imperial China, but a secondary fantasy world that feels real in its own way.
Living in a Taiwanese household meant our day-to-day lives were filled with these little superstitions and beliefs, so I wanted to make sure that the world I created in A Magic Steeped in Poison felt the same way.
A: I would definitely say that you succeeded on that account! Speaking of the feeling of reality evoked in your work, one of the incredibly powerful quotes that I’ve pondered long after I finished reading your novel is as follows: “Grief has a taste, bitter and lingering, but so soft it sometimes disguises itself as sweetness.” What has been your experience with grief as an emotion, and how do you grapple with its various forms and nuances?
J: At the time when I was working on what would become A Magic Steeped in Poison, I felt very demoralized as a writer. The manuscript that enabled me to connect with my agent did not sell, and I was floating between several projects but I didn’t feel very confident in any of them. Just before the proposal for A Magic Steeped in Poison went out on submission, I experienced a personal loss and I was ready to put my dream on hold for a while if this project didn’t sell either. To my pleasant surprise, it ended up selling as a duology, and I finished the book while I was still in the process of grieving. Whether consciously or unconsciously, my grief became a thread that wove itself into the story, and in a way, helped me heal.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, my grief became a thread that wove itself into the story, and in a way, helped me heal.
A: While the story primarily focuses on Ning’s budding relationship with Kang, the mysterious boy whom she runs into serendipitously, it was a pleasant surprise to see Princess Zhen’s sapphic tension with her bodyguard Ruyi. Why did you choose to include Zhen and Ruyi’s relationship in your novel and what do you believe it adds to your story?
J: I am very much influenced by wuxia (Chinese fiction surrounding martial heroes) and xianxia (Chinese fiction centered around Chinese immortals and Taoist mythologies) stories, but was always sad to see that queer romances were often hidden behind the guise of “friendship”. I wanted to make sure that couples existed in my story whose relationships weren’t vague and ambiguous, that they loved each other fiercely for everyone to see. So when people ask me why I wrote a sapphic couple into the story, I always want to ask them: why not?
A: That’s definitely a literary choice that I appreciated while reading. On a different note, the shénnóng-shi draw their power from tea-making, which I thought was an interesting choice in light of its importance in East Asian culture. Why tea? What significance do tea and its histories have on your writing?
J: Growing up, my dad always made us tea in the mornings and throughout the day. When we visited family back in Taiwan, that was always our shared beverage of choice. But it wasn’t until I started researching different types of tea for the book that I learned about Chinese tea ceremonies as well as how well-known Taiwanese tea is around the world. Taiwan has the perfect climate and terrain for growing tea, and it was so interesting to learn about the different cultivars developed in Taiwan and the different tea farms that result in unique types of tea. Writing the story of the Book of Tea duology definitely helped me connect with my Taiwanese roots and heritage.
A: I didn’t know how deeply ingrained tea was in Taiwanese culture either until recently, so that makes two of us! Along the same vein, how does your Taiwanese/Taiwanese Canadian identity inform what you write?
J: My Taiwanese background influences everything that I work on. One of the driving factors of my writing is being homesick for Taiwan. Oftentimes, I’ve found that I use my writing as an excuse to research different elements of culture, history, and food. My stories usually touch upon that feeling of being in-between cultures; my main characters are trying to figure out who they are as individuals separate from their family, whether it’s growing apart from them or coming back to them. That idea is central to my own feelings about my Taiwanese-Canadian identity.
A: That feeling of being in-between is definitely relatable to me as a Taiwanese American as well. With that being said, I’m certainly excited to read the upcoming sequel in your Book of Tea duology, A Venom Dark and Sweet! What do we have to look forward to in the conclusion to your two-book series?
J: A Venom Dark and Sweet takes a darker turn in comparison to A Magic Steeped in Poison. Whereas Ning starts out as innocent to the palace intrigue and behind-the-scenes political machinations in the first book, she is fully immersed in it at the beginning of A Venom Dark and Sweet. Not only that, she discovers that there are consequences to using her magic that she did not foresee. It is not just her family at risk now, it is the fate of everyone in the kingdom. In that way, I think that the second book is more intense since readers will be thrust right into the middle of the action, so to speak.
A: Lastly, any hints you’d like to drop about A Venom Dark and Sweet or any projects in the making?
J: I had so much fun exploring the darker themes within A Venom Dark and Sweet that my next project will really lean into the gothic and horror elements that I love. It also has heavy influences from the xianxia genre, but I will continue to add elements of what I would like to see in those types of stories rather than stick to the traditional xianxia conventions. I hope I will be able to share more soon!
A: This has been absolutely amazing; I really enjoyed speaking with you today and am so excited for your sequel’s release at the end of this month! I’m looking forward to seeing where your writing takes you from here.
J: Thank you! I had a great time talking with you too and am excited for future projects to come.
Lin’s newest release, A Venom Dark and Sweet, will be on shelves in bookstores including Barnes and Noble, Yu and Me Books, and more this August 23, 2022. It will also be available at various booksellers. If you’re interested in learning more about Lin and her works, feel free to check out her social media handles and website linked below.
Bookshop.org (TaiwaneseAmerican.org Affiliate Link):