STORYFOX Interview: Yoon Ha Lee

If you’ve perused the Storyfox Database, you’ve surely come across Yoon Ha Lee’s poetry and fiction. My personal favorite is the story “The Contemporary Foxwife,” but I recommend that you explore Yoon’s other work as well; it’s all quite excellent. After you’ve done that (or before!), be sure to read the following interview. Much gratitude to Yoon for agreeing to answer my questions!

Finally, if you are a writer (or videographer, game designer, painter, or creator of any sort) of fox stories and want to be interviewed (or know of someone you’d like to be interviewed here) or have your narratives archived in the database, please contact me in the comments section of this post, on my contact page, or via twitter. Guest posts about foxes and/or fox stories would be most welcome, as well!

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A Korean-American sf/f writer who majored in math, Yoon finds it a source of continual delight that math can be mined for story ideas. Yoon’s fiction has appeared in publications such as F&SF, Tor.com, and Clarkesworld Magazine, as well as several year’s best anthologies.

You can find Yoon on Dreamwidth and on Twitter as @motomaratai, or by email at yoon@yoonhalee.com.
Website: http://www.yoonhalee.com/

INTERVIEW WITH YOON HA LEE

Just to get a glimpse of your broader context, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I live in Louisiana with my husband and daughter. During the day I write. I’m also interested in game design, interactive fiction, cartooning, and composing; I like to keep busy.

When and why did you start writing?

I decided in 3rd grade to become a writer because my 3rd grade teacher, Mr. McCracken, really encouraged his classes to do creative writing. I realize that this is a little early to make a career choice but I didn’t realize that at the time. I wrote stories for my little sister at first (even to this day she is one of my beta readers), then decided around 6th grade that I wanted to sell short stories and, eventually, a novel. The novel hasn’t happened yet, but I started submitting short stories in 6th grade. I got my first acceptance six years later, as a freshman in college.

Beyond the stories, what sort of relationship do you have with foxes? Has your interest in them always been narrative, or did it have another source?

It’s nothing deep, I’m afraid–I think they’re incredibly attractive animals, and as a city-dweller who has never seen one in the flesh, that’s it for me. (I’d love to spot a real fox, though.) If I lived in the country and kept chickens I’d probably feel differently. I did have some early exposure to Korean folktales of gumiho (nine-tailed fox spirits), who are shapechangers who seduce and usually kill people. (I think; it’s been a while.) I was also enchanted by Kij Johnson’s novel based on Japanese folklore, The Fox Woman, which I read when I was in college.

I also love The Fox Woman, deeply. What about it did you find enchanting? Are there any other books you’ve found similarly enthralling? (Fox-related or otherwise!) What about them drew you?

What I loved about that novel was that it really delved into the fox’s viewpoint, which I don’t think I’d seen before.  The idea that the fox had fallen for the human as well as causing the human to fall for her was a reversal that I hadn’t considered, and Kij Johnson really did a heartbreaking job of portraying it.

A non-fox-related book that evoked a similar feeling from me was Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane.  At the end the protagonist, a human woman, has the opportunity to become a dragon.  She is also a mage who has limited power, in part because of the demands of her struggles to survive and her family.  But she meets a dragon who falls in love with her (as much as dragons ever do, anyway), and she decides to go with him, rather than stay with the man who loves her, and who watches her go because he knows he can’t make her stay with him.  (The husband is actually one of my favorite characters ever, although I also really like the female mage.)  Anyway, after some time as a dragon, the protagonist decides to return to being human.  It’s incredibly bittersweet, because she can’t, in fact, have the best of both worlds.  She has to make do with a compromise, be one or the other.

When did you first begin writing about foxes? What first pushed you to write vulpine-inclined tales?

I started writing about foxes in flash fairy tales that I sold at $6 a pop up-front to raise quick cash for small purchases. I believe the first one would have been “The Fox’s Tower,” which I posted on my DreamWidth blog (also my former LJ, although it’s since been deleted) on January 9, 2010 (http://yhlee.dreamwidth.org/117509.html). The flash stories are done to a one- or two-word prompt from the purchaser, and while people don’t necessarily specifically request foxes, some of the prompts just seem to come out as fox stories.

Mostly, foxes seemed both mysterious and attractive, adaptable to a variety of fairy tale scenarios. I particularly like their trickster and shapeshifter aspects, which is odd, because ordinarily trickster archetypes drive me up the wall. I was also maybe a little frustrated with the way foxwives got treated in Legend of the Five Rings (roleplaying game/collectible card game setting, Asian-inflected); in the official fiction the foxwives usually fall in love with jerks and have their hearts broken, and don’t get to be foxily awesome at all.

You mentioned that most trickster archetypes aren’t exactly your thing—do you think foxes contain a deeper sense of motivation or emotion, or interiority, perhaps, than other tricksters? Why do you think you find foxes more resonant than other tricksters?

For me, it’s definitely that sense of motivation.  I’ve read some stories where the tricksters seemed to be doing random things just for the hell of it.  I guess that represents the chaotic and sometimes inexplicable forces of nature, but I’ve never found that very satisfactory in a narrative sense, especially in a character.  With a fox, I have a sense that there’s some strategy even if I don’t necessarily know what that strategy *is.*  That the fox is doing these things for a goal.  I guess I like clever characters!

In both your poem “Foxfeast” over at Mythic Delirium, and your short story “The Contemporary Foxwife” in Clarkesworld, you’ve written about foxes in a science fictive setting. Can you talk about where these pieces came from, and any other thoughts you might have on foxes in science fiction?

When I wrote “Foxfeast” I couldn’t recall seeing (many?) instances of foxes in space, even though it seemed to me that a mythological animal as adaptable as a fox would still find a way to make itself felt in the future. Also, the foxes in my flash fairy tales (collected at http://www.yoonhalee.com/?cat=3 — they usually have “fox” in the title somewhere) are, hmm, kind of nerfed. They’re very nice.  For “Foxfeast” I wanted to write more dangerous foxes like the ones I remembered from the Korean folktales, foxes with teeth.

“The Contemporary Foxwife” goes back to a nice fox, mainly because I partly wrote the story as a bit of a joke. There’s a character in an unpublished novel I wrote (it’s out on submission) who is associated somewhat with foxes, and things do not end well for him. I wanted to write a version of him that got a happy ending. Said version of him is hardly recognizable, but that’s where the story started. I mean, I usually write about genocides and massacres. “The Contemporary Foxwife” may be the nicest, least genocidal story I have ever written.

Among many other things, a number of your fox stories have dealt with gender, language, and family. Are there particular themes or issues you find most potent and/or pertinent when writing about foxes? Why? Do those stories lean toward certain forms/structures/characters/settings, etc?

I guess I think of gender as a natural theme to tie in to foxes because of the fox’s mythological reputation as a shapeshifter. Going from there to foxes who don’t care about gender variance seems natural. I’ve dealt with issues of language in other stories, so I don’t think that’s particular to foxes, and I hadn’t noticed that about family before, although I think you’re right now that you’ve pointed it out! In the case of family I think it has to do with issues of trust–foxes are so often portrayed as tricky and devious, but I wonder what it is that they’re tricky and devious in service of, if that can’t be turned to good (or anyway, to some purpose beyond tricky-and-devious-for-the-hell-of-it).

Do you have any thoughts on why they often have this shapeshifting nature?

I think of the saying “crazy like a fox” and their reputation for deviousness when being hunted.  I wonder if people think that foxes are clever enough to adapt to any situation, and if their shapeshiftiness symbolizes that.

Why do you think people–especially in the science fiction and fantasy community–are drawn to telling stories about foxes? Do you consider yourself to be in conversation (intentionally or not) with any of these works–and if so, who, and why?

Partly because they’re gorgeous, partly because they have mythological roots to work with (both the Reynard stories in the West and the kitsune/gumiho/huli jing in the East, I’m sure there are others), even things like Disney’s animated movie Robin Hood. (I had a crush on Robin.) So maybe they’re not quite as popular as dragons (my 5th-grade daughter is big into dragons!) but they still have a respectable following.

I don’t read much in the genre anymore, mainly because I read so slowly these days, so I’m hardly even aware of what’s out there. In that sense I’m not really operating in conversation with the rest of the sf/f community.

For the sake of fun and curiosity: have you a favorite kind of fox?

I have to go with the classic Vulpes vulpes here. Their coloration is so handsome! I have a Tumblr that I hardly know how to use, but I’m subscribed to an account called thelittleredfox that delivers up pretty fox photos. Also on Twitter there’s @emergency_fox. And on FaceBook I follow the National Fox Welfare Society (based in the UK somewhere, I believe), which rescues foxes and posts updates on how they’re doing–they help some, they lose others, but learning about the habits of foxes is very interesting and it’s another source of photos.