An Indies Introduce Q&A with Rita Chang-Eppig

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Rita Chang-Eppig, author of "Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea"Rita Chang-Eppig is the author of Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea, a Summer/Fall 2023 Indies Introduce selection.

Chang-Eppig received her MFA in fiction from NYU. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2021, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, Clarkesworld, Virginia Quarterly Review, One Story, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, the Writers Grotto, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. 

Thu Doan of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, California, served on the panel that selected Chang-Eppig’s debut for Indies Introduce. Doan said of the book, “Shek Yeung is the fearsome pirate queen whose life is radically altered when a Portuguese sailor’s blade slices her husband, the leader of the Red Banner Fleet. Cunning and brilliant in her own right, Shek Yeung navigates new motherhood, politics on a stage with outlaws and ruthless government leaders, and the life she, herself, chooses to lead. Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea is a propulsive seafaring adventure that will capture your attention from the first page.”

Here, Doan and Chang-Eppig discuss Deep and the Sky, Red as the Sea.

Thu Doan: How was your experience with writing and publishing your first book?

Rita Chang-Eppig: This isn’t technically my first book. Prior to this, I’d written an urban fantasy novel. It will never see the light of day, but the lesson I took away from it is that if you’re bored writing it, your readers will be bored reading it. So while writing this, I paid a lot of attention to how I was feeling. For example, was I adding a ton of description because I couldn’t think of anything else to say? If so, then something needed to happen to shake up the plot. 

I loved the process of working with Bloomsbury and my editor Grace McNamee on this novel. Grace understood my vision for this book so well, and everyone at Bloomsbury was a delight. As folks on social media like to say, “10 out of 10, no notes.”

TD: Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea is a historical fiction novel and the main character is modeled from a real pirate. When you researched for the novel, what were some fascinating things you discovered?

RCE: I discovered so many interesting things that I had trouble figuring out what actually needed to be in the novel versus what was just a fun geeky fact! One of my favorites is that pirates at that time frequently sailed with a “temple boat” so that crew could worship while at sea. So, imagine a temple — now plop that on top of a ship. Another fact I loved was how “meritocratic” pirate fleets were. Because life at sea is so tough, people didn’t usually care about your gender or ethnicity or sexuality as long as you could do your job. As a result, women and other marginalized folks who wouldn’t have had any power on land were often given prominent positions at sea.    

TD: Between the action-packed sea adventures to the intimate portrayal of a pirate queen, the book draws you in through and through. Not a dull moment! What was your favorite part or scene to write?

RCE: I absolutely geeked out writing some of the battle scenes. I grew up reading wuxia novels in my grandfather’s library, and when I became an adult, I started taking martial arts classes. I’m not a skilled fighter, but I appreciate the way good fighters move and think. I tried to capture those intricacies in the book. Sometimes this involved me telling my poor friends to hold still while I acted out moves on them to make sure I was getting the mechanics right!  

TD: Can you tell us about the mythology that’s woven into the story?

RCE: Myths about the sea goddess Mazu (in the book, “Ma-Zou”) abound in the book. I grew up in Taiwan, and there, as in many parts of Asia, Mazu worship is still alive and well. There are temples to her everywhere, stores sell products with her image on the packaging — you name it. When I found out during the research process that Chinese pirates in the 19th century also worshipped her, I realized I had to include those myths if I wanted to accurately represent the belief systems of these characters.

I also wanted to explore how human beings use mythology to guide their lives, to justify their own deeds/misdeeds, etc. After all, all of the myths in the book are refracted through Shek Yeung’s consciousness. So it’s less about what the original myths actually said — not that we even have that information, given that every myth has already been shaped and reshaped many times over by the people telling them — and more about what Shek Yeung thinks the myths said.

TD: The book is set during a time when women had less power and typically served as the background for these fantastic stories. But the main character, Shek Yeung, can’t be ignored. What is it about Shek Yeung that makes people want to follow her and allows her to carve her own path?

RCE: I think her story is inspirational in many ways because her intelligence and diplomacy were what allowed her to rise to power and to stay in power during a very dangerous time in Chinese history. But also, I think she was a messy, complicated, and sometimes inconsistent human being, which to me is infinitely more interesting than a #GirlBoss kind of trope. Is she easily relatable or likable? No. But I’m not sure why one would expect a pirate queen who commanded 30K people, who made impossible decisions during an impossible time, and who regularly committed crimes to be relatable.  

TD: I hope that your book is one of many more nods to the person that inspired Shek Yeung. And I’m glad we’re seeing more representation of rad people in history. Who is someone else you would love to see written about?

RCE: This definitely wouldn’t be my story to tell, but I hope someone writes a novel about Mary Fields, aka Stagecoach Mary. She was the first Black woman to be employed as a star route postwoman in the States, a sharpshooter who protected stagecoaches in the Wild West. Widely known for being foul-mouthed and hard-drinking, she was also quite loved by the people in her community.

Deep as the Sky, Red as the Sea by Rita Chang-Eppig (Bloomsbury, 9781639730377, Hardcover Historical Fiction, $28.99) On Sale: 5/30/2023.

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