The Big Idea: Marjorie M. Liu

In its review of The Iron Hunt, her latest, Publishers Weekly called Marjorie M. Liu “one of the best new voices in paranormal fiction” — and given how hot the field is these days, that’s not a small compliment. The Iron Hunt finds Liu doing what she does best: Creating a strong character who stands between humanity and the demons who, as you might expect, do not exactly wish us well. It’s always something. But the roots of the book arise out of ground you might not expect, or eve have been aware of. Here is Liu to tell you how a quote from one of the fathers of modern Chinese literature set her on the path to The Iron Hunt.

MARJORIE M. LIU:

Every writer searches for that meteoric fragment of inspiration, and the following quote from Lu Xun was mine, from the beginning, as I began the mental somersaults that would take me into the creation of The Iron Hunt:

“Imagine an iron house having not a single window and virtually indestructible, with all its inmates sound asleep and about to die of suffocation. Dying in their sleep, they won’t feel the pain of death. Now if you raise a shout to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making these unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you really think you are doing them a good turn?”

“But if a few wake up, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.”

There. The Big Idea. But let me backtrack for a moment.

My first big idea was an old idea by the time I got around to writing The Iron Hunt – the sequel to a novella penned almost two years ago. Called Hunter Kiss, its central conceit was born from watching the news, my evenings exposed to stories of kidnappings and bloodshed; reports of mass rapes, mass murder. Fearsome crimes. And I would sit – as many do — safe on my couch, staring at the television, and ask myself, “Who does that? Who is capable of that?”

Better yet, why? No doubt there is an occasional madness to human beings – and while some insanities are delightful and quirky, and become the eccentric mainstay of some talented individuals, it’s those other, darker urges that electrify, terrify – and that remain, at their worst, unfathomable. All you can do is brace yourself.

Yet, that’s how the first idea started, and it could not have been simpler: Some people are evil. Of those, not all become wicked by themselves. I envisioned the spiritual manipulation of humans in biological terms. Demons – so to speak — riding on the backs of souls, feeding like parasites on the energy of strong emotions. Needing human pain to survive.

Alien creatures, not of earth. No hell, no heaven, just an invasion from another world. An army, locked inside a prison located in a dimension beyond ours, from which demonic rats and scrappers occasionally escape through cracks in the veil separating us from them – becoming malevolent shadows, whispering in human heads. Not the worst of the demons, either. Not by a long shot.

This was something I wrote down after a particularly bad dream. I didn’t think much would come of it, until I saw a documentary on tattoos around the same time I had a novella to write (and never underestimate the inspirational qualities of a deadline). As I rested in bed, watching some dude covered head to toe in scales and monsters and swords, I remembered an old Sci-fi Channel commercial – also about tattoos — and thought, “How cool if those were alive.”

And Maxine Kiss was born. The last Prison Warden. Covered in living, breathing, demonic tattoos. Part of a symbiotic relationship inherited from mother to daughter. Maxine was the first Big Idea – after the demons, before Lu Xun: loner, nomad – the iconic gunslinger — no friends but the demons who live on her body; and totally clueless about the vast history of her legacy, or how much danger the world is in.

A world unabashedly influenced by my obsessions with C.S. Lewis, Hans Christian Anderson, and Jorge Luis Borges. If you read too much of them, ideas are bound to get stirred up, inspired by orphans and magic, quests and destiny — and those damn labyrinths. Add a dash of quantum physics, and an alien race that treats genetic manipulation like a divine art, and you’ve got urban fantasy blended with science fiction. Part of the Big Idea — but still not the Big Idea.

Which takes me back to Lu Xun, who was a wanderer, a man keenly aware of the natural oppression of society, as well as his own intellectual loneliness. Swallowed up by the world — which will kill any individual, slowly, who stands alone. And plenty do, whether they realize it or not. The end of the world happens every day, for some. Might not have anything to do with demons or prison veils, or aliens from other dimensions and planets, but in the end, in your heart, you give up, succumb to apathy, die alone – or you search out others of like-mind to share the burden of living, and fight for something better.

The heart of The Iron Hunt is quiet, and very simple. Rooted in character. Our world, and the world of the book, might be a difficult place, and dangers abound – but you have a choice whether to see only the suffocating walls, without hope. You have the choice to do good or evil; or to coast, in apathy, within the deadly status quo. And that choice – for the heroine, Maxine, for the friends she finds — is what rests at the core of The Iron Hunt.

The Iron Hunt: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt or listen to an audio excerpt of The Iron Hunt here.

16 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Marjorie M. Liu

  1. And I would sit – as many do — safe on my couch, staring at the television, and ask myself, “Who does that? Who is capable of that?”

    Everyone. Ever heard of the Milgram experiments?

  2. The excerpt is…intriguing.

    I’m on Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” right now, but I think I may just bump “The Iron Hunt” into my reading queue after that one.

  3. My only question is why the lady on the cover found it necessary to stab herself in the leg? That looks painful.

  4. #7 wrote: “At least she has a head, though, unlike most of them. :)”

    Ha! Of course, if the cover illustration were decapitated, it would have to be re-titled… something like, The Prison Warden’s Daughter (a novel).

    Joking aside, thanks for posting this. The book is certainly going on my list.

  5. We just got the book in stock this morning. I know what I’m doing tonight!

    You know, besides waiting for WILD ROAD.

  6. Dianne wrote:
    Everyone. Ever hear of the Milgram experiments?

    Dianne: Thank You It was when reading this Big Idea that it really crystallized for me what has been bothering me about a large chunk of modern fantasy – the notion that there are the Good Guys (us, of course), and the Bad Guys, and that some people are Just Evil. And that the bad things in this world happen because of the Bad Guys, and only the Good Guys can fix it. Or something like that.

    No. All humans are capable of evil acts. I’d even go so far, as a social psychology grad student, to say that all humans are *likely* to commit ‘evil’ acts, put into certain circumstances.

    I think the notion of people who do evil as being somehow different than the rest of us is one that is destructive of the health and well-being of human society, both from the perspective of those who deplore what happens but feel helpless to change it (‘well, some people are just born bad’) and from those who end up doing bad things and then feel helpless to change (‘I must just be bad’).

  7. All right. I know what I’ll be reading this weekend. Thanks for introducing me to another author, Scalzi. Add this to my hate mail: Every time you post a Big Idea it costs me money and time. Even worse, I feel both well spent.

  8. A world unabashedly influenced by my obsessions with C.S. Lewis, Hans Christian Anderson, and Jorge Luis Borges.

    I am sorry, but this is going to compel me to read this book more than anything else you said.

    Tracey C @ 10

    It was when reading this Big Idea that it really crystallized for me what has been bothering me about a large chunk of modern fantasy – the notion that there are the Good Guys (us, of course), and the Bad Guys, and that some people are Just Evil. And that the bad things in this world happen because of the Bad Guys, and only the Good Guys can fix it. Or something like that.

    You might be interested in John Connolly.

  9. On the subject of the good and evil in us all, I recently finished one book (James Butcher’s Cursor’s Fury) and started another (Thomas Harlan’s The Shadow of Ararat) which deal, respectively, with someone who is about to begin redeeming himself, and another who is, all unknowingly, about to start on the path to damnation via the ever popular good intentions.

    But then Butcher’s character also started on the path to the dark side through good intentions. Though in his case, he thought better of his decision. Harlan’s character is not so sagacious (now that my mental health is better and I can focus on what I’m reading, I’m giving Harlan’s Oath of Empire a re-read). As a result he ends the tale thinking he is doing good, not aware that he is doing evil beyond most people’s comprehension.

  10. Sigh. You’re lucky I love you, Marjorie, or I’d be compelled to write you hate mail too.

    Fast. Furious. Fantastical. And at the core, a mystical respect for culture. That’s why I love Marjorie’s books.

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