An Interview with Sunyi Dean

Sunyi Dean’s debut novel, The Book Eaters was an instant #2 Sunday Times Bestseller in the UK and is a firm favourite among the Grimdark Magazine team (read our review HERE). She is currently nominated for the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer at the British Fantasy Awards and in her spare time, runs the podcast The Publishing Rodeo with fellow Tor author Scott Drakeford. They aim to demystify the publishing industry for those outside of it – so a great place to listen in to learn about the ins and outs of publishing! She is a biracial autistic author who has now settled in Yorkshire after growing up in the US and Hong Kong, so brings a wealth of different experiences with her. We were able to sit her down for a chat about The Book Eaters, writing, and publishing ahead of the paperback’s publication.

cover of The Book Eaters

[GdM] Let’s start off with an easy one, what would The Book Eaters taste like to Devon?

[SD] Gunpowder and peat (a soil found in the moors that gives whisky a smokey flavour) for sure!

[editor’s note: that sounds pretty damn delicious!]

[GdM] Following on from that, if you were able to absorb books like the book eaters, what three books would you choose to internalise and gain the knowledge from?

[SD] The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, which is a wonderful tome that changed my life. (I know we can have three, but that one is so big I think it probably counts as many books in one!)

[GdM] How would you describe The Book Eaters as you’re back into a second promotional cycle, and how has that perhaps evolved since it first came out?

[SD] That probably depends how many words I have, and who my audience is! I think I tended to focus on the book eating aspect initially, but I would probably centre on Devon’s core dilemma these days (needing to feed good people to her evil son.)

[GdM] What was your process for The Book Eaters like? Did you create the characters and the world and story followed or did you rather have the world and themes and find characters to populate it?

[SD] I start with an emotion I want to describe, or a way that I hope readers will feel at the end of a novel, and then I craft the story around that. Anything and everything can change–plot, characters, world, genre, all of it, in service and in sacrifice to nailing a given emotional state.

[GdM] I really loved all the chapter epigraphs throughout the book – how did those come to the story?

[SD] Thanks so kindly! The epigraphs served about 4 functions 🙂 First, I just love epigraphs as a ‘cheaty’ way of doing worldbuilding. Devon’s point of view is so limited, and there are so many things she doesn’t think to wonder about, or has no way of knowing, and this gets around her limitations. Second, I wanted to use Mani’s snippets to showcase some of his character, and help the reader to not forget he existed during the long swathe where he isn’t present. Third, I wanted to reference the stories or ideas that influenced Book Eaters, and help give readers a little context. And fourth, I was trying to use them as a signpost for the timeline switching: fairytale quotes signal past-tense chapters, while ‘research quotes’ from Mani’s book signaled present-day chapters.

[GdM] What have you learned as a writer and professional author between hardback and paperback publication you wish you knew beforehand?

[SD] So much stuff! For example, before publishing days, I didn’t even parse quite why some books are hardcover or soft cover, what that meant, why there was a gap in publication, etc. It was just one of those Mysterious Publishing Things. If I could go back, I think I’d have enjoyed knowing some of the thousands of different factors that can impact the sales performance of those formats, and just a general sense of what to expect.

Author Photo for Sunyi Dean, photo credit Mark Hillyer at True North Studios

Credit: Mark Hillyer at True North Studios

[GdM] What has been the most surprising aspect of being a debut author?

[SD] How much success can hinge on a slew of tiny decisions by individual people in random circumstances. The right editor at the right house, pitched by the right agent. The right sales person liking your book. The right bookseller getting excited about it. The right store buyer taking a punt, the right reviewer getting sent your copy. None of those things will individually make or break a book, but all of those things aligning can launch a novel, and enough of them going right in a row will have a cascading effect in your favour. Likewise, enough of them going wrong in a row can tank a title. It’s daunting to realise how much hinges on so little.

[GdM] How has working on your podcast, The Publishing Rodeo, impacted your own experience of being in the publishing industry?

[SD] … The podcast has been the surprise of the year for me! I know I’ve said this in other places, but Scott and I really did think it would be such a niche topic, of interest to perhaps a few dozen nerdy authors. It felt a bit like shouting “marco” into an empty forest and having all the trees yell “POLO” back at you en masse. That makes it sound like a horror flick, sorry! What I’m trying to convey is how amazing it was to discover other authors and industry folks who were excited to have conversations about publishing in the open, and the great sense of camaraderie that came about from those chats.

[GdM] Why make writing, and reading, such an entirely human ability and pursuit in The Book Eaters?

[SD] I suppose because I think of it as such a specifically human activity. It’s debatable to me whether we really are more intelligent than other animals, since we coincidentally define intelligence as having human-centric traits. But we are definitely, so far as we know, the only species on this earth who read and write for fun as well as function. I think any alien studying us would be drawn to investigate why that is.

[GdM] As a neurodivergent reader, the way the book eaters learn through absorption of theoretical knowledge rather than empirical understanding struck me as a great allegory for neurodivergence in a neurotypical society. Was this intentional?

[SD] Definitely wasn’t! Though that’s a cool idea 🙂

[GdM] Besides The Book Eaters, you’ve also published some stellar short fiction. I’ve particularly enjoyed “How to Cook and Eat the Rich”. How does your creative approach differ for long and short form projects?

[SD] Thanks so kindly! Novels are projects that I sit and work at, like a job. Short fiction I can’t do that; I can’t force it. I write small stories when I have ideas for them, or unusual structures that I want to have fun exploring. When I was figuring out dual timelines, for example, “The Thief of Memory” became a playground for experimenting with that narrative structure. All that said, I think I am more proud of my short fiction than my novels. You have more freedom to be weird and unusual in shorts, with less commercial ‘risk’ and less professional pressure since they don’t pay much anyway.

[Editor’s note: both the short stories mentioned are available to read on tor.com – just click on the titles!]

[GdM] What are you working on next?

[SD] I’m currently working on a historical spec fic novel set in Hong Kong, featuring water spirits, ghost cats, and angry dead women. The story moves between the outlying islands during World War 2, and Kowloon Walled City in the 1960s. It is thematically and structurally very different from Book Eaters, a little slower and more character centric, but hopefully with a few fun twists thrown in.

[GdM] What books or other media have been filling your creative well recently?

[SD] I’m currently reading The Last Hour Between Worlds by Melissa Caruso in ARC format, and recently finished The Book of Doors by Gareth Brown. Both recommended! Television-wise, I always recommend Severance, I’m still working through season 4 of For All Mankind, and also really enjoyed Silo, having bounced off the books (but I might try them again!)

Read The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean

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Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins

Adrian Collins runs Grimdark Magazine and loves anything to do with telling darker stories. Doesn't matter the format, or when it was published or produced--just give him a grim story told in a dark world by a morally grey protagonist and this bloke's in his happy place. Add in a barrel aged stout to sip on after a cheeky body surf under the Australian sun, and that's his heaven.