In preparation for the release of her new book, The Wolf of Oren-yaro, K.S. Villoso kindly agreed to an interview with me (Tam). Below we talk about the book, inspirations, and Kay’s writing, as well as a bit about Kay herself.
Kay, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your upcoming book, The Wolf of Oren-yaro
So is this like those job interview questions where you’re not supposed to go on and on about your life?
I was born in the Philippines and migrated to Canada at 13 years old. I’m a mother and wife, my educational background is in civil engineering, and I’ve been writing for…damn, well over two decades now. The Wolf of Oren-yaro will be my fifth published book and the start of a new series entitled Annals of the Bitch Queen, which is a character-driven epic fantasy told in first person, from the point-of-view of a queen. It starts out with her attempting to reconcile with her husband, from whom she’s been separated for five years. As the story progresses and we get further and further into her personal narrative, we also start to peel back layers of the plot, exposing politics, scheming, magic, and creatures, all of which are threatening to consume her nation.
Annals of the Bitch Queen takes an interesting approach to epic fantasy, because it’s patterned like a sword-and-sorcery…a singular narrative where you see the bigger picture only from her eyes. Instead of having everything laid out via exposition from the beginning, you learn more only around personal stakes, with everything unfolding as you go along. It’s a project that’s even more ambitious than my last series, The Agartes Epilogues, because it takes my usual approach of using in media res and restricting the reader’s knowledge, but now I only have just the one character to do it with. The end result is a true epic adventure, which only gets bigger with each book.
The second book, The Ikessar Falcon, is currently in beta-reading mode and I’m hoping to release it between spring and summer of this year. I’m currently busy on the third and final book, The Xiaran Mongrel, which I’m hoping to have ready by fall.
What specific cultures inspired your new book, and how do they affect the setting and characters?
When it comes to my worldbuilding, I try to avoid swapping out one culture for another. My intention from the beginning was to create a fantasy world like many others, but using Asian elements more often than European (though both are used).
This serves several purposes. One, it prevents me from appropriating certain cultures. Two: it allows me to celebrate the diversity of being Asian, which is a lot more rich and colourful than people realize. The Philippines is a great example of this diversity. Our food, for example, has Spanish names, but an often Asian base (soy sauce and fish sauce, with sourness either coming from vinegar or Calamondin limes depending on the dish). We still call on deities and spirits in everyday life, even though the main religions are both Christian (mostly Roman-Catholic) and Muslim. A lot of our superstitions stem from Chinese influences. The specific “Filipino look”—that of small, brown people—is a stereotype, as we come in a variety of skin colours and appearances. I have Japanese ancestry, one of my best friends has Chinese ancestry, and when we’re together with my husband, it looks like we all come from different countries…but we don’t.
So I often use the Philippines as a basis (I often like to say that my worldbuilding is a love letter to the Philippines), and then take it into an extreme direction or another. In The Wolf of Oren-yaro, two nations play a big part. One is Jin-Sayeng, which is a smaller nation that is then dwarfed by the empire of Ziri-nar-Orxiario. In this instance, Jin-Sayeng is at its heart what the Philippines might’ve looked like under the influence of other Asian nations if it hadn’t been colonized by the Spanish (and wasn’t an archipelago, and had dragons and city infrastructure that relied on dragonfire 😉).
In its dealings with the larger empire, certain elements of the Philippine-China relationship surface—an odd combination of history, respect, and fear. Queen Talyien speaks the language of the empire fluently, an echo to how the Philippines—particularly people from well-off families—tends to be bilingual depending on which larger nation had us under its grip. The characters are just…people, with a variety of skin tones and appearances, and are affected by whichever cultural background and life circumstances they come from. The manner of eating surfaces, too—traditionally, Filipinos eat with their hands, which looks odd to some other Asian cultures and makes us feel self-conscious, but which we insist makes food taste better. The politics in the nation of Jin-Sayeng is also inspired by Philippine history, with our penchant for arguing amongst ourselves (mostly between provinces and/or clans) and being unable to commit to a single ruler without wanting to vilify them and blaming them for everything, even when you chose that ruler in the first place.
I know this is a very long answer to a simple question, but I’m a bit passionate about the subject (don’t even get me started on food, I can write an entire article just on Asian cooking). The worldbuilding is done to echo real life without doing an exact swap.
The Wolf of Oren-yaro was written in first person instead of third person, a contrast to your Agartes Epilogues series. What made you choose first person narration this time?
Talyien is a very interesting character: the entire trilogy revolves around her life, her personality, and her many fraught relationships, the two major ones being with her father and her husband. There is a larger story at work here, but her personal narrative takes the forefront, and while there are plenty of adventures, action, battles, and intrigue going on, we’re seeing it through the eyes of someone who is a real person thrust into a position that would break most people. She’s not just dealing with how other people see her and how she sees herself, but she’s got a ton of expectations to live up to—she’s recovering from the effects of emotional abuse through her father’s narcissistic parenting, as well as dealing with the isolation and loneliness that comes with her title.
Now, keep in mind that even when I do write in 3rd person, it’s a very limited 3rd person point of view—the reader never knows much more than the characters themselves. So the decision to write this in first person lay solely in being able to indulge in more introspection, in allowing the story to unfold in such a way that the reader is supposed to feel what this character is going through—whether they like her or not. The kicker here is that I can’t tell you exactly why, only that the climax of the trilogy revolves around this. I want this trilogy to truly make the reader see the effect of “This is all up to you,” with all the desperation and fear such an idea could bring.
I felt like with this stylistic choice that only first person could do it justice.
Were there any parts of your book which you found particularly difficult to write?
While Talyien’s story came at me like a charging bull—I wrote it in under three months with very little adjustments—the hardest part must be that last chapter, which we can’t spoil for people who haven’t read the book yet. It was a culmination of everything that had happened in the story so far, and seeks to pull the rug from under people’s feet to tell them (at least, those who don’t know much about my writing tics yet) that this story is not what it appears.
It was a delicate balance. I didn’t want the reader to feel cheated from the experience—I wanted them to be swept with a mixture of emotions reflected from Talyien’s own. I didn’t want to say “This person is evil,” or “She made a mistake.” I wanted readers to feel the sting of devastation and desperation, to see her actions under a different light. And it was so difficult to write because more than just laying things out, I needed everything to feel like a punch to the gut.
I’ve had readers comment about how they needed to sit back and digest that last chapter for a bit, or how they don’t know how to feel about certain characters afterwards. That’s what I was hoping for that last part, because it all builds up from there, it all plays a part—that punch in the gut is supposed to give birth to the fire that will take her, and the reader, up to the climax of the third book. And as with all my stories, it’s not so much about coming to certain conclusions, but resolving, understanding, and accepting their truths.
When reading The Wolf of Oren-yaro, I found your characters, particularly Queen Talyien, to be very interesting and realistic. Do you have any advice on how to write good characters?
People are an endless source of fascination for me, and I tend to appreciate hearing about the lives and interests of those who are different. I pay attention even to people I may not agree with. So even if I may not like someone very much, I still like learning about them and listening to what they have to say, and figuring out where they’re coming from. I have a tendency to just let people chat about their day, for instance…I don’t do this for story ideas; it’s just my nature.
How this applies in my writing: I tend to treat all my characters like real people from the beginning, so I don’t so much as “write” them as I “discover” them. Experiencing seeing things in shades of grey in real life helps a lot in defining characters as I go along. Many are often shaped by their environments, though some (like Khine Lamang) attempt to go against the grain. I always think about what they want out of life, their motivations, their fears, their hopes, and their dreams. I don’t typically think about superficial details until much later on, and yet these characters are well and fully alive in my head.
So my advice to people looking to write better characters is to pay more attention to others and be more open-minded in your dealings with other people, especially those who are unlike you. Learn not just about what they want, but care—really care—about it. Because if you apply the same attitude to your characters, you can create magic.
It also helps if you’re drunk a lot.
If you could take any experience from your life, sprinkle some magic on it, and write a book about it… What would it be?
All my books tend to echo my life experiences in some way or another—I just draw them out, or throw them into “what-ifs” situations.
Apart from your own books, are there any other releases that you’re excited about this year?
I’m quite behind on my reading and so tend not to focus on new releases, but I’m pretty excited to know that Glen Cook’s The Black Company is getting a new book, Port of Shadows, and that it takes in between books that I’ve already read. I hope we get to find out more about those characters!
Your celebrity crush has just tweeted about how much he loves your book. How much does your husband have to worry?
The man is pretty smug about the fact that between him and my writing, I don’t have a lot of room left for distraction.
However, if Gerard Butler did just that, I think he’d get excited enough to wet his pants, because we have him pegged to play/voice Gorrhen yn Garr from The Agartes Epilogues…
K.S. Villoso’s new book, The Wolf of Oren-yaro releases on the 29th of January 2018. I was lucky enough to receive an Advanced Readers Copy as well as this interview, and you can read my review here.