We’ve spent August diving into the backlist and current release of one of our favorite writers, Wesley Chu. From his dynamic take on ordinary characters landing in extraordinary circumstances to his most recent fantasy that spins the genre and comfortable tropes on their ears, Chu fashions stories that are well-written and beautifully realized. He’s the kind of writer we want to see on our bookshelves for decades to come.
Recently our own Sharon Browing had the chance to chat with Wesley about his past mistakes, how he delivers relatable, endearing characters to his readers, and the genesis of his creative process.
Keep up the remarkable work, Wesley. We’ll be here ready to read!
LS: In an interview, you once said, “When you want to ask someone how they succeeded at something, ask them about their mistakes.” So…. what mistakes have you made that have contributed to your success?
My very first attempt at a novel was an epic fantasy titled Woes, Toads, and Crossroads. It was a 180K word behemoth that was every sorts of wrong in just about every way. The grammar was bad. The pacing was uneven. The fight scenes were too long…etc. It was too derivative. I could teach an entire semester of novel writing focusing on all the things that were wrong with the book.
In addition to that, I didn’t know how to query, I didn’t know the genre breakdowns, I literally knew nothing, and my dumbass for some reason was too dumb to research the Internet. It had never occurred to me that there were writing forums, literary conventions, or workshops.
The book made the query rounds, and I guess it wasn’t that horrible because it did garner interest from an agent. The bones of the story were good, but everything else about it was a hot mess.
In hindsight, it was probably the most important book I’ve ever written. Doing it wrong taught me how to do it right. I eventually trunked the book, got drunk for a week, and then began working on my next book, which eventually became my debut novel, The Lives of Tao.
LS: From your very first published work, The Lives of Tao, where your main character was an out-of-shape, unmotivated IT technician who went from whiner to warrior, you have this knack for creating relatable, recognizable characters who nevertheless rise to the occasions set in front of them. What draws you to these types of characters and how personal are they to you?
These types of characters are a lot of fun, and I really enjoy following their adventures rising to the occasion. Honestly though, if I were to dig into my psyche, I would say it’s also because it’s something I wish I did more of in my life. Looking back, I felt like I played life too safe, and wish I took more risks. I was the dude whose life goal was to join middle management.
You see, my family moved from Taiwan to Nebraska when I was five-years-old. As immigrants, my family struggled with my dad supporting the family with a teacher assistant’s salary, so we grew up conservative and risk-averse. I had wanted to be an English major when preparing for university, but my parents persuaded me to go into computer science. The idea of being a writer was too risky, too unstable. In the end, I did what they wanted. I graduated with an IT degree and just worked the corporate scene for about ten years. I was never content with what I was doing, and never cared for it. I started doing soul searching and eventually remembered about that dream I had as a kid to write, so I decided to give it a shot. That’s how I started writing.
I like to say that Roen Tan’s journey in Lives of Tao closely mirrors my own transitioning from my previous career into a writer.
LS: You’ve said the War Arts Saga, of which The Art of Prophecy is the first volume, is the “story that I wrote from the dreams inside my head” and “and something I’ve been dying to write and share with the world ever since I began publishing.” When did the seed of the story start and how did it develop?
Writing epic fantasy had always been the goal ever since I began publishing. Starting out as a science fiction novelist was sort of an accident. I always wanted to write a wuxia novel, but the idea of writing a book that flipped the concept of prophecy onto its head didn’t emerge until 2015.
From there, it was just dribbles of ideas and flashes of scenes adding to the simmer. I knew I wanted the older female teacher with the younger male student dynamic, which is a criminally unused trope. I wanted to play around with ideas on government and faith and familial obligations. Then I wanted to write action in a way that really did wuxia justice. It’s a very form of storytelling.
I got pretty busy the next few years. I co-wrote two books with Cassandra Clare and then did a Walking Dead book. After I cleared my plate in 2019, I finally decided it was time to unwrap this idea and put it to work.
LS: No matter what you write, your characters stand out, and the sheer diversity of the main characters in The Art of Prophesy is amazing. However, most of your characters in your works up to this point are ordinary folks who seem to fall into their circumstances by chance. How fun was it to write so many wonderful characters who already had a strongly defined purpose from the get-go?
I think every character, no matter how extraordinary, are still very ordinary because that’s what makes them interesting. I don’t care about Superman beating the Hulk. I care about Superman’s loneliness and questioning soul, and his struggle to suppress his ego and that urge to just rule over humanity as a god king and get it over with.
I really enjoyed writing all of these characters, and they all have layers that are both tragic and hilarious. It’s been a really cool experience to just unleash them upon this world and let them make their choices. I just sort of follow along and write it down.
LS: The fantasy world of The Art of Prophesy is an imaginative mixture of the familiar, the expected, and the incredibly unique – not just the environments, but the trappings and accompaniments – I mean, that whip weapon used by Salminde? Incredible! Tell us where that came from, and what inspired the more unique aspect of the books. And just where did you come up with the names of all those battle stances?
I spent many years training wushu, so I just wrote what I knew, and then added the fantastic elements to them. It was a really cool part of writing this book. I got to design war arts styles and schools, make up weapons and techniques, and try to cobble them together in interesting ways while still being visually impactful to the reader in a wuxia style.
Sali’s weapon, called a tongue, is a hybrid of a rope dart, which was my specialty when I trained, and Chinese spear. I really enjoyed writing the lore for her society. The rest of the naming is just stuff I use to make up as a kid when I played being one of those wuxia characters as a kid.
LS: Back in March of 2021 it was announce that Sony Pictures Television and Original Film had acquired the rights to the War Arts Saga trilogy to adapt it for television. Has there been any more action on that?
There’s been a lot of movement on it. That’s all I can really say about that.
LS: Given your druthers, which would you personally prefer to be: a windwhisper, a shadowkill, or a viperstrike?
That’s a tough one, but at the end of the day, I just have to think that flying beats everything. Regardless of all the other really cool abilities, flying is just so good that it almost doesn’t matter, at least on a personal level.
Professionally, however, I would make a lot more money as a shadowkill, so I would take that. I’ve always had a childish fantasy of assessing superpowers by how to best make money with it. Like, if I were Storm I would charge people to water their crops, or if I were the Flash I would be the best damn courier in the world and make bank delivery same-day mail. I was a really weird kid.