Do you love a good fairy tale? Then you won’t want to miss Julie C. Dao’s latest: Song of the Crimson Flower. Inspired by a Vietnamese story, this fall must-read follows Bao and Lan on their journey to break a spell that a witch cast over Bao, trapping his soul inside of his beloved flute. Bookish readers know that we can’t resist Dao’s fairy tale retellings, and we loved chatting about her new novel. Read on to learn more about Dao’s inspiration, how music influences her writing, and the way the events of her first two novels impacted the third.
Bookish: You’ve said that this book was more difficult to write than your previous works. What was the most challenging aspect and how did you overcome it?
Julie C. Dao: I’ve never written a book with such a central romance before. I’ve always admired authors who could write beautiful love stories because they are very difficult to execute and make believable. I had to get a lot of eyes on the manuscript to make sure that people liked my characters and wanted them to be together, and it helped a great deal that my editor at Penguin is a successful and popular romance author!
Bookish: Music is an essential part of this new book, and it’s also part of your writing process! You even put together a playlist for Bookish readers featuring songs that inspired you. Did the role of music in this story impact the way you use music as inspiration in your writing?
JCD: I don’t think so. Music has always been a part of my writing process, and I don’t think that will ever change whether my characters are musical or not. I may have listened to more specific music because Bao, one of the main characters in this book, plays a certain instrument, but other than that, my process hasn’t changed.
Bookish: In the book, a witch binds Bao’s soul to his flute. If a witch were to trap your soul inside of an object, what would that object be?
JCD: Probably my MacBook, because I spend so much time on it!
Bookish: A large part of this novel is inspired by “The Boatman’s Flute,” a Vietnamese story. When did you first come across “The Boatman’s Flute”? Which elements of the original tale did you want to keep and which did you want to change or expand on?
JCD: I first learned about the story from my mom, who is Vietnamese, and liked it aside from the fact that the girl turns down the boatman for a very superficial reason: He’s ugly, and not handsome as she expected! I knew that if I kept that part, I would have a very hard time convincing readers to like Lan. So I changed the story a bit in terms of why she’s disappointed that the boatman is who he is. But I wanted to keep the bamboo flute and the girl’s remorse when she discovers what happened to the boatman. Everything else is original!
Bookish: This story takes place years after Xifeng’s dark reign in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Jade’s victory over her in Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. Longtime readers will see how Feng Lu has both changed and stayed the same. When writing, were you thinking about the legacies of these two very different empresses?
JCD: Xifeng and Jade have both had very strong impacts on the world of these books, and I thought a lot about what the kingdoms would look like after eight years of a peaceful, good empress’ reign. I knew it would be unrealistic to portray them as perfect, because there will always be conflict and uprising, so that got me thinking about what sort of people would be hoping to rise up and gain personal power. I had also been wondering what had been happening to black spice, which was first mentioned in Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, and so Mistress Vy and the Gray City were born!
Bookish: Throughout the book, characters draw parallels between Mistress Vy and Xifeng, the anti-heroine of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns. How do you see Xifeng’s rise and fall from power influencing Mistress Vy’s journey?
JCD: One of my favorite things to do in writing is to compare characters with parallel journeys and how they make choices. Their decisions are what color who they are, and it’s a lot of fun to present power to three different women (Xifeng, Jade, and Vy) and show what they do with it. I think Xifeng and Vy are both ruthless and determined, but Xifeng’s motivation was a lot more personal while Vy’s was more along the lines of a classic antihero where she believes she is doing good and must make sacrifices in order to achieve it.
Bookish: Bao is under a curse that can only be broken by a declaration of love. Though love can be expressed in many different ways, saying the words “I love you” is key to breaking the spell. Why do you think fairy tale curses can often only be broken by that specific three word phrase?
JCD: I think it’s very hard to say “I love you,” especially growing up in my family, where those words were never spoken but rather shown. It is the ultimate act of vulnerability to give your heart to someone, no matter what kind of love you wish to give, and there’s something magical about that when the person feels the same!
Bookish: Throughout the story we see characters taking their anger out on others. Tam hurts Lan in his desire to punish his parents, Lan hurts Bao because she can’t yell at Tam, the witch curses Bao for his mother’s sins, and so on. What made you want to use these moments to create conflict and tension in the novel?
JCD: I wanted to give these characters room to grow. I know that when I was a teenager, I had a hard time with confrontation because I was taught by very old-school, traditional parents that women are supposed to hold it all inside and never lose control. But anger has to be vented somewhere. So when I wrote these characters, I thought of that aspect of releasing their emotions in a way that isn’t productive, which definitely creates a lot of conflict and potential to become better as people.
Bookish: This is the third book set in Feng Lu. Do you plan on setting more stories there? If not, what do you plan to tackle next?
JCD: I never want to say “never,” but I am ready to move on from Feng Lu for the foreseeable future. I love this world, but there are many other worlds I want to explore. I have a few projects cooking away and don’t want to say much, but one is based on a real historical place and two are modern-day stories, so I’m switching gears a bit. I will miss Feng Lu, though!
Julie Dao is a proud Vietnamese American who was born in Upstate New York. She studied medicine in college, but came to realize blood and needles were her kryptonite. By day, she worked in science news and research; by night, she wrote books about heroines unafraid to fight for their dreams, which inspired her to follow her passion of becoming a published author. She is the author of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns and Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. Julie lives in New England. Follow her on Twitter @jules_writes.