Traci Chee is a best-selling and award-winning author of books for young people, including the instant New York Times bestseller and Kirkus Prize Finalist The Reader and Printz Honor Book, Walter Award Honoree, and National Book Award Finalist We Are Not Free. Her forthcoming title is A Thousand Steps into Night, a Japanese-influenced young adult fantasy. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, egg painting, gardening, and hosting game nights for family and friends. She lives in California with her fast dog.
Voyage: What was the inspiration behind your novel, A Thousand Steps into the Night? What made you want to tell this story?
Traci Chee: A Thousand Steps into Night is a Japanese-influenced feminist folktale featuring an ordinary girl named Miuko who is cursed, one ordinary day, to transform into a demon. Banished from the only home she’s ever known, she must embark on a journey to a far-off temple to remove the curse and restore her human soul, but on the way she discovers that there’s power (and fun) in being a monster, and she’ll have to decide whether regaining her humanity and rejoining her village is worth the sacrifice of her newfound freedom and sense of self.
The inspiration for this story comes from a number of places, and one of them is absolutely the Japanese folktales I read when I was a kid. I grew up with these stories about humble farming couples and old woodcutters who are totally ordinary but find themselves in the most extraordinary circumstances, meeting the most extraordinary of creatures, from dancing tea kettles to songbird maidens. Even though the mythology of A Thousand Steps is completely made up, I wanted to capture the feeling of those old folktales, with all their curious creatures and strange adventures with the supernatural, so even though there aren’t any tanuki or kitsune in the book, there are plenty of other tricksters, other shapeshifters, other animal spirits, and other forest-dwelling gods for readers to meet and enjoy.
V: When you write your stories, what is the one thing you hope readers will take away?
TC: For me, every book I write is so different from the last, so every time I hope readers take away something a little different. This time, I hope that even as readers are swept along this rollicking fantasy road trip with Miuko and her bird-friend Geiki, they’re also thinking about the various ways that sexism manifests both in the world of A Thousand Steps into Night and in our own world as well. There’s the “benevolent” sexism of the lugubrious, halitotic priest who believes that all women are so weak they must be coddled, sheltered, and infantilized. There’s the brooding, abusive demon prince (handsome, yes, but literally a demon) who seeks to isolate, dominate, and control Miuko even as she comes into her own power. There are women who commit atrocities to protect the same patriarchal institutions that make them desperate enough to commit those atrocities in the first place. I think the very best speculative fiction reflects sharply on our own culture and society, and I hope that A Thousand Steps does that as well.
V: What was the hardest scene of A Thousand Steps into the Night to write?
TC: After Miuko is exiled from her village, she quickly finds herself embroiled in a world of spirits and demons, and her first real look at this world is through a meeting with a snake demon who runs a gambling parlor beneath one of the capital’s largest temples. I love games, and I’ve always wanted to invent a real, playable card game for one of my books, so initially I thought I’d do that here. However, this scene also had to function as an introduction to the spirit realm, with all its different rules and all its different types of characters, including ogres, tree spirits, monkey spirits, and a lost-in-the-snow demon, and trying to do all of that in a single scene just proved too unwieldy! In the end, I had to cut the made-up card game and one of my favorite spirits, a tskemyorona, or a heebie-jeebie spirit who looks like a shadowy centipede with glowing eyes. (Although I did manage to sneak it back into a later chapter!)
V: If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?
TC: Once, when I was in graduate school, I turned in this fairy tale retelling, with talking frogs and passages in second-person and scenes told multiple times from different perspectives. I loved that story for its surrealism, its exuberance, and its experimentalism, but it was almost universally panned by my classmates, who wanted to strip every last bit of weirdness and magic out of that project. They wanted to make it linear and subdued and… well… boring. I spent the whole workshop sitting there, silently listening to every one of their critiques, feeling more and more frustrated and more and more alone. But then, after class, when I was at my most demoralized, one of my cohort members came up to me and told me to hold the course. He said there’d always be people who wouldn’t understand what I was doing but keep doing it anyway, because what I was doing was awesome.
And you know what? It was, and I’m still doing it today.
At the same time, the other thing I’d tell my younger self is to always keep learning. Keep reading. Keep taking classes and reaching out to peers and mentors. Keep seeking out the unfamiliar and the unknown. Keep growing, as a person and as a creator. I think there is a spark in all of us, a spark that tells us when we’re onto something good, something real, something relevant and essential and true, and I think this work is the way we uncover that spark. We must broaden and deepen our views and horizons and creative toolkits because that allows us to discover what that spark really is, what we really have to say, and why we have to hold the course.
V: What are your writing must-haves?
TC: Every day when I sit down for work, I have to have a cup of tea and my notebook. All the rest varies day to day depending on the process and project!
Head to our Instagram page (@voyageya) to hear Traci read the first page of A Thousand Steps into Night! Find Traci’s video under the video tab.