Interviewed by Bookstr’s very own Pop Culture Editor, Jordan Gelber, C.B. Lee shared her thoughts and insights on her newest book A Clash of Steel: A Treasure Island Remix which is set to come out on September 7th.
C.B. Lee is a Chinese Vietnamese American author of young adult science fiction and fantasy. Her novel Not Your Sidekick was a finalist for Lambda Literary Awards in 2017. The newest book, A Clash of Steel: A Treasure Island Remix takes place in 1826 in the South China Sea, where two girls are on the journey to search for treasure in the seas.
Q: What inspired you to become an author?
A: I didn’t set out with the intention of it becoming a career. I didn’t know it was a viable career, I loved telling stories and read voraciously as a kid, but I didn’t know it was possible. I wrote a lot, like many middle schoolers, but it was pushed to the back of my mind. I went to college for science and I was really invested in changing the world through academia. I was always drifting, trying to find my passion and coming back to telling stories.
My first novel Seven Tears At High Tide was actually written as a short story as part of a challenge to myself. Interlude Press had a call for submissions on summer love, so then my editor loved it and asked me if I wanted to develop it as a novel. and it became my first novel.
Like I said, I didn’t imagine it would have this reach. I was just writing the books I wanted to read as a 16-year-old. As a young queer teen who wanted adventure and romance and fantasy and science fiction, all these things. So it’s been an exciting journey and it’s been wonderful to get the opportunity to tell stories and I’m excited to be here and to write more.
Q: What was your biggest inspiration as a writer?
A: The idea of escape. I was very excited about adventure, fantasy, and “save the world.”
Q: Did you always know that you were going to write for young adults and middle schoolers?
A: I didn’t always know. It just turned out that these are the stories I wanted to tell. These are the stories that really spoke to me, that resonated with me because I didn’t set out to be like I’m going to be a unit like it just
happened that like these are the stories that I wanted to tell.
Q: So your upcoming book A Clash Of Steel is a Treasure Island remix starring queer Chinese and Vietnamese teens during China’s Chin Dynasty. What was the motivation behind the novel?
A: So the novel is part of the remix classic series which takes a lot of classics and different authors do their own spin on them. I really wanted to take the adventure of Treasure Island, Zheng Yi Sao who totally brought three different governments to their knees and she’s not a household name despite her being the most successful pirate in history.
So Treasure Island was the perfect vehicle for that.
Q: As a queer Chinese-Vietnamese author, how did your own life patterns or background influence your writing journey?
It’s part of me so it inherently informs my writing. I try to infuse the sense of “what is the story I wanted as a teen but didn’t have?” I wanted to show this sense of “hey I see you” and use it to show that we’ve existed in the past because we exist in the present, and I want people to continue to feel hope for the future that they’re going to continue exist.
Q: What inspired you to write a love story during that specific time in history?
A: A, I thought it would be fun. B, I want queer teens to be able to walk into a bookstore or library and find any type of story they want celebrating who they are. Whether it’s in space or in a coffee shop or going on adventures or traveling
to different lands or finding treasures. I wanted to be a part of that and share this story.
As a kid, my first introduction to queer people was that I thought they had to be white. There’s a very specific experience about queer people. We see a limited amount of representation. There’s the intersection that you don’t see between what is on screen, which is predominantly a very able-bodied-cis white male gay experience. So, I didn’t relate to this at all.
Q: What was the research experience like and what were you looking for in particular?
A: It was a lot of work. I really wanted to do a deep dive into Zheng Yi Sao‘s life and it really turned into an investigation of the rise and fall of piracy in the South China Sea. At the height of her power, no one could get in and out of the South China Sea without the pirates’ say-so. She was so badass that they couldn’t defeat her so they gave her a pardon so she would retire from piracy, and she lived and died of old age. But anyway, I had to buy out of print books, looked at footnotes, went to the source, I went and got translations of historical Chinese documents, and accounts of these battles to understand what was happening at the time. I spent a lot of time on JSTOR.
Q: Did you have to translate the books you found?
A: Yes, some of the books I had were in Chinese so I had to have them translated. Shout out to Janette Wu who’s amazing and prolific and was always so on top of it…and excited about my very niche interests…even translating random footnotes and maps.
Q: Do you feel publishers are doing enough to bring LGBTQ+ stories to the forefront?
I think the danger and saying like when people are like “oh like presentation diversity are like buzzwords and it’s a trend. It always makes me uncomfortable when people call diversity a trend because it’s not. A trend implies a fashion,
something that comes and goes like really low pants from the early 2000s. That is a fashion. Whereas people of color, marginalized communities, queer people have always existed and so I think there’s been a lot of great strides made in
the past few years especially with the visibility of things. Like we need diverse books and publishers being more open to supporting authors of color. I think there’s still a lot of room to grow.
Watch the full interview below: