Inspired by wuxia martial-arts dramas as well as the centuries-old ballad of Mulan, The Magnolia Sword is perfect for fans of Renee Ahdieh, Marie Lu, or Kristin Cashore–a thrilling, romantic, and sharp-edged novel that lives up to its beloved heroine.
We had the pleasure of chatting to author Sherry Thomas about her new novel, The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan, including its inspiration and the challenges she faced, along with book recommendations, what’s next for her, and more!
Hi Sherry! Tell us a little about yourself!
I am a writer of genre fiction. I’ve always said that my goal in life is to write every kind of fiction that I enjoy reading. So far, I’ve written romance, mystery, fantasy, wuxia (Chinese martial arts epics), and have dabbled a little in SF via a somewhat space-opera-y SF romance novella. I have written for both the adult and the young adult audience. And although I have set my stories in the future and the present, I seem most drawn to writing books set in the past.
I guess in the context of this book I should also mention that I was born and brought up in China and came to the US when I was thirteen.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It happened in a single afternoon when I was 23, a young stay-at-home mom, and encountered a book that disagreed with me violently. I informed my husband that evening that I was going write some books. It was a wonder he didn’t think I’d lost my mind, as I’d never mentioned anything about writing fiction before—or indeed had any intention of doing so!
Your new novel, The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan, is out now! If you could only use five words to describe it, what would they be?
Epic adventure, epic love story.
What inspired you to write this novel?
I was asked by Cheryl Klein, editorial director at Lee & Low Books, if I would be interested in writing an adaptation of the original Ballad of Mulan. When I saw that the original ballad said nothing about Mulan’s time in the military or really anything about her, I realized that I could take this adaptation in any direction I wanted.
Immediately the idea leapt to mind of marrying the story of Mulan to some traditions of wuxia, a uniquely Chinese literary genre that explores the themes of honor, sacrifice, vengeance, and forgiveness through the deeds of almost mythically adept martial artists. So that’s the direction I went in because I love writing wuxia.
Did you have to conduct any research?
So much. It was only as I began writing that I realized how little I knew of 5th century China. I had to look up everything, what people ate, what they wore, what they read. The geopolitical situation came as a complete surprise to me too, as Northern Wei, the time and place where the Ballad of Mulan is usually considered to have taken place, was not ruled by Han Chinese, but ethnic minorities.
Were there any parts of The Magnolia Sword that challenged you when writing?
The research was a huge challenge, as I mentioned above, both in terms of cultural and political background, and in how and where was going to place Mulan and her companions, to make sure that their movements were feasible.
It was also a challenge to get to know the characters in the beginning. I’ve been writing a historical mystery series in recent years and have come to know the cast very well. This was the first time that I’d created completely new characters in a while and took me some time to get those muscles working again. Such a relief when the characters became real!
What is a typical writing day like for you?
A lot of distractions. I think I said in an interview years ago that my books are written 50 words at a time and that really hasn’t changed.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read the best books you can find and aim to surpass the books that you find scarily good.
Also, read one-star reviews of your very favorite books. It’s good to realize early that no story is for everyone.
What’s next for you?
THE ART OF THEFT, book 4 of my Lady Sherlock historical mystery series, featuring a Charlotte Holmes, a consulting detective in Victorian London with the nom de guerre of Sherlock Holmes, comes out October 15, 2019. And I’m working on book 5 in the series as we speak.
Lastly, do you have any book recommendations for us?
I’m really late to the game but I finally started Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and am enjoying myself!