A two-sentence summary:
Siew Tsin died young and has been trying to avoid surprises ever since. But her hopes for a quiet death are destroyed when her husband brings home a new wife—a beautiful terracotta automaton who comes with secrets that may overturn the order of the universe.
How did your characters come to be?
They arose naturally from the setting. The viewpoint character being Chinese Malaysian was a bit of a departure from that setting, but I like to include Malaysian characters in my stories where I can.
Why this setting?
Since I first encountered Eileen Chang's short stories, I've been wanting to write an elegant, tragic story about glamorous Hong Kong women leading miserable lives poisoned by family and love. Plus, robots! I can’t remember how Hong Kong morphed into a version of the Chinese afterlife plucked from TVB series and a Singaporean amusement park, but it probably proves that I’m not very good at being Eileen Chang.
The great thing about working off a vision of the afterlife derived from Hong Kong TV is that it allows for deliberate anachronism, which is very steampunk if you think about it.
You’re in an antho of lesbian steampunk stories. Obviously you are writing about lesbians. How does lesbianism fit in your setting?
Lesbianism is marginal, but not unacknowledged. I had the idea of a romance between wives before I read Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life, but in it, he describes how his wife seeks to arrange for a singsong girl to be his concubine because she’s in love with the girl herself. The point is made by a reference to “Cherishing the Fragrant Companion,” a Qing era play by Li Yu about a married woman who successfully conspires to have her husband marry her female lover so they can be together. (This is still performed as an opera, the Fragrant Companion.) So it’s obviously a bit of a cliché!
What was the funnest, or most hair-tearingly frustrating thing in writing your piece?
Nailing down the terrifying but vague childhood recollections I had of the Chinese hell (thank you, Haw Par Villa) by research. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think conversion might not be such a bad idea. At least the Christian hell only features one pit of flame...