An Interview With Fonda Lee

fonda lee

Last Updated on February 12, 2024

Fonda Lee is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of the Green Bone Saga, beginning with Jade City and continuing with Jade War and Jade Legacy. Her latest work, Untethered Sky, is a coming-of-age novella inspired by Middle Eastern folklore. Fonda is also a black belt martial artist and a former corporate strategist.

We recently had the pleasure of discussing with Fonda Lee about the Green Bone Saga, Untethered Sky, and her future plans.

fonda lee[GdM] Five years after its publication, Jade City has been named as one of TIME magazine’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time, a list that also includes such classics as Le Morte d’Arthur, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and The Lord of the Rings. Congratulations! How does it feel to be included alongside such masterpieces? When you first wrote Jade City, did it feel like you had a future classic in your hands?

[FL] When I was writing Jade City, I had no idea if it would even be published, much less if it would be critically or commercially successful. It didn’t fit neatly into any fantasy sub-genre, nor were there any comparable titles, but it was a story that excited me and that I wanted to read. I told myself that even if it didn’t go anywhere, I would be proud to have written it. So seeing these books resonate with readers and find their audience has been incredibly meaningful.

[GdM] When you wrote Jade City, did you already have a plan for the main plot points of the trilogy, or did you find that the characters took the story in unexpected directions during Jade War and Jade Legacy?

[FL] I had some sense of where I wanted to take the story if I was given the opportunity to write more books, but I didn’t have any firm plans. Only when my publisher signed me for three volumes did I start to structure the arc of the trilogy. Some of the main plot points I knew very early on; others came to me unexpectedly while I was writing, because of the characters. From the start, however, I knew that at its heart, this was a family saga, and that overriding vision drove my narrative choices.

[GdM] Your background in martial arts has clearly helped you with writing convincing action scenes. But could you discuss how your experiences as a corporate strategist influenced your writing of the economic and political aspects of the Green Bone Saga, especially with respect to Shae’s role as Weather Man of the No Peak clan?

[FL] My business background influences how I view worldbuilding, and that invariably affects the story. A fantasy world doesn’t feel real to me if the economy isn’t well thought through. If magic exists in a fictional world, I consider the way it affects how that world functions and how people live their daily lives by following the principle of, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Writers always put something of themselves and their experiences into each story and each character, so it was enjoyable for me to write a character like Kaul Shae, the Weather Man of No Peak, who isn’t just a great fighter, but who can propose trade embargos, negotiate business alliances, and set in motion long-running marketing campaigns to give her clan the edge.

[GdM] You are especially adept at drawing the reader into a story. Reading the Green Bone Saga feels like being an extra on the set of a movie, up close and personal with all the action and drama. Could you describe your approach to writing in this engaging style?

[FL] I’m a spare and direct writer. To me, ideal prose is lean and sharp and immersive, occasionally hitting hard with the perfect phrase or description but rarely drawing attention to itself. A lot of my creative inspiration comes from cinema so that no doubt influences my style. I want the story to visually unfold in the mind as effortlessly as possible.

[GdM] What inspired you to pursue a new direction with your delicate coming-of-age novella, Untethered Sky?

[FL] After the behemoth of a project that was the Green Bone Saga, I wanted and needed to write something different and to stretch different creative muscles. I’d never written a novella before, but I was excited by the idea of writing something short. I’d written an epic trilogy with a large cast of characters; this new project would be close and contained. Janloon is gritty, urban, and modern; my next story took me into ancient, wide open countryside. The Green Bone Saga is steely, bloody, and glamorous; Untethered Sky is raw, delicate and contemplative.

I was (and still am, to be honest) nervous about writing something so different from the Green Bone Saga, and worried that readers wouldn’t come along with me. But I believe it’s important, in the long run of an author’s career, at least for me personally, to explore the range of stories that interest you and push one’s storytelling craft in different directions.

[GdM] Untethered Sky incorporates mythical beasts from Persian and Arabian folklore. How did you first become interested in Middle Eastern mythology?

[FL] Actually, my interests started not with mythology but with falconry. When I was a child, I loved wildlife stories and animal companion stories like My Side of the Mountain, Julie of the Wolves, and Where the Red Fern Grows. Several years ago, I read a memoir called H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald, about the author’s experience of training a goshawk, and I watched a fascinating, stirring documentary called The Eagle Huntress about Mongolian hunters who train golden eagles to hunt wolves. After WorldCon 2019, I went on a hawk walk in Ireland with a professional falconer. Of course, being a fantasy author, I started picturing a version of this ancient tradition involving gigantic monsters. Instead of hawks and rabbits, or even eagles and wolves, I imagined a coming-of-age wildlife memoir with rocs and man-eating manticores.

As it turns out, both rocs and manticores originate from Persian mythology. Falconry itself was birthed in the Middle East and Central Asia. It was only natural that I honor that source and create a world around my story that reflected where rocs and manticores would be found in their “natural habitat” and where “ruhking” would first develop. That led me to deep dive into researching pre-Islamic ancient Persia during the Achaemenid Empire of Cyrus the Great. What I learned inspired the kingdom I created, Dartha, and the culture and people found in it.

[GdM] The relationship between the ruhkers and rocs is beautifully written in Untethered Sky, capturing the love and respect that the human trainers have for these enormous predatory birds, as well as the inherent danger in this relationship. Could you describe how you developed the concept of the ruhker profession and how the challenges of being a ruhker reflect the real-world challenges of your readers?

[FL] I was trying to capture not only the relationship between trainer and bird, but to delve into the personal meaningfulness of the practice for someone wholly dedicated to a difficult, all-demanding, unpredictable calling. I researched falconry in depth, but more importantly, I also had the good fortune of having master falconers beta read the manuscript and tell me it rang true.

Untethered Sky is about monster hunting, but for me, it’s actually about writing. I put the obsessive drive, the emotional ups and downs of success and failure, the time and effort and sacrifice of a creative profession into Ester’s personal journey with her roc, Zahra. I hope and believe that anyone who’s ever felt a deep compulsion toward something they love to do—a hobby, an art, a sport—will find something emotionally authentic in Ester’s story.

[GdM] The worldbuilding feels so natural in both the Green Bone Saga and Untethered Sky. What is your approach for introducing the elements of worldbuilding in such a natural fashion, without any awkward info dumps?

[FL] Worldbuilding is one of my favorite parts of being a fantasy and science fiction writer. There are so many things I could say about it, but I think the one crucial personal guideline I employ is to make the world feel as real and lived-in as possible. It all comes down to the tangible details that surround the characters as they move about in their daily lives.

[GdM] How have you seen genres of science fiction and fantasy evolve over the course of your career as an author? What are thoughts on future direction of SFF?

[FL] My first novel released in 2015. Eight years isn’t all that long when it comes to to publishing timeframes, but it feels like a long time because the landscape has changed considerably, even since 2017, when Jade City came out. We’re now well past the point where fantasy is synonymous with medieval European tropes and milieus. There’s so much more variety in stories and voices, and also the lines between genres and subgenres are more porous. Authors are moving more easily than ever between traditional publishing and self-publishing, and speculative fiction as a whole has never been more culturally mainstream.

I believe all of that will continue, but we’re also in a challenging time to be a creative professional because it’s hard to stand out amid all the online noise and the sheer magnitude of entertainment available. It puts more pressure on writers be adaptable, connected, and savvy.

[GdM] You are an inspiration for many young writers. What advice do you have for young authors who are working on their first novel?

[FL] That’s very kind of you to say. My advice for new writers is always to focus on the craft and to write for themselves first and foremost. Write the story you most want to read that hasn’t been written yet. If it scratches your deepest itch, there are others out there who will want it, too.

[GdM] We are very excited about the announced TV adaptation of Jade City. Any news you can share about this new series?

[FL] Jade City was initially optioned by Peacock, but they decided last year not to go ahead with developing it. It’s now currently in the process of being optioned elsewhere; I can’t provide any further details until the ink is dry on the contract, but it’s exciting and I’ll share more once I can.

[GdM] What’s next for Fonda Lee after Untethered Sky? Any new directions you are planning to explore?

[FL] I have a Green Bone Saga short story collection, Jade Shards, coming out this summer. That’ll be my last foray into the Green Bone Saga world, at least for the foreseeable future. I just signed two new contracts to write four more books, so I’m going to be very busy for a while. One project is a collaboration with Shannon Lee, the daughter of Bruce Lee, on a young adult fantasy duology inspired by her father’s scripts, his life, and his philosophy. The other project is an adult science fiction duology that I can’t tell you about because it hasn’t been officially announced yet, but I’m very excited to get working on it and to share more about it soon.

 

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.