Interview with Sunyi Dean (THE BOOK EATERS)

I had the opportunity to review Sunyi Dean’s The Book Eaters here earlier this month for its release from Tor Books, and the novel is now out in the UK from HarperVoyager. Tor and and Sunyi graciously agreed to an interview, and I’m excited to present her wonderful answers here! If you haven’t gotten The Book Eaters yet, you can check out my review at the link above to read more about Sunyi’s debut novel (including the official synopsis).

I also split this interview with my reviewing colleague over at Fantasy Book Critic, Shazzie, who interviewed Sunyi separately. You can read that coincident interview here.

Photo Credit: Richard Wilson of Richard Wilson Photography

The characters in The Book Eaters often do horrible things, but they don’t necessarily seem to be bad people. Rather, it seems as though circumstances and limitations seem to create the badness, for simple ease or dire survival. The vicar says something along these lines in the novel. Is this something fitting specifically for the novel, or would you view this as generally true for life?

It’s definitely a view I hold personally. People are complicated, life is a mess, and almost none of us are capable of being truly good all the time. The best we manage is good to some other humans. On the plus side, very few people are entirely and unapologetically bad.

One of the epigraphs appearing in The Book Eaters comes from George MacDonald’s The Day and the Night Girl (The Romance of Photogen and Nycteris). Nycteris also appears in your Twitter handle, is this all from a love of bats, MacDonald’s Victorian-era novel, or both?

Aww, that made me laugh! I do like bats, but not that much. “The History of Photogen and Nycteris” is probably my favorite all-time short-story (it’s only 16k words long, so I can’t quite claim it as a favorite novel.) He is a little obscure, but his work was enormously progressive for its time period, and he wrote one of the earliest true adult fantasy novels (Phantastes). He had a lasting impact on Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Wolfe, and also mentored the much-more-famous Lewis Carroll. It’s an astonishing literary legacy for an author who so few people have read today.

You’ve said that “This is not a novel I ever thought I’d write…” Books are also not ever for ‘everyone’. Is there are point where The Book Eaters surprised you by becoming something for you, connected to feeling a natural outcome of yourself?

If you’d told my teenage self that I’d one day have a debut novel about lesbian (book) vampires, I think she would have fainted! Epic fantasy was my childhood love, and later I obsessed over social scifi (e.g., Philip K Dick) in my twenties. I think I always assumed I’d write in one of those two genres.

The Book Eaters is rich in its physical setting of Northern England and the Scottish border. To what degree did real locations inspire the novel – or did the ideas and setting of the novel in your mind inspire you to explore the real locale more?

Both! Many of the locations are placed I’ve been to or lived in or otherwise visited. I like getting a feel for a place, and making it real for others. (Devon’s impression of Brighton is similar to my own feelings on it.) Some I visited for the book – notably Traquair House, which is a real manor in Scotland.

Did the editing of the novel prove more challenging for you than the initial writing? Were there changes that had to be made that really affected you?

I edit as I go, dipping back and forth as needed! But the book went through immense adn intensive edits after Tor picked it up. I did not mind any of Lindsey’s (my editor’s) notes on the story, and I felt like she taught me a lot. However, I did struggle with the title change. I understand why they wanted to change the title, but I’d gotten used to it being called Paperflesh.

You identify as a biracial autistic author who has lived in many spots around the world. What are some of the ways in which these aspects of your life influence your writing?

When you are mixed race, constantly moving country, and a different neurotype, being an outsider is consistently your experience. I tend to write stories with humanoid non-human protagonists, who do not fit in well or easily with humans, and The Book Eaters continued in that trend.

Where is your go-to environment for writing?

Anywhere! With small children and not much space, I learnt very quickly to not be picky about my writing conditions. Most common place is probably the kitchen table, with a laptop.

What sorts of stories do you still hunger for?

Strange, weird, liminal, surprising, subversive! I adored many of the books that came out during the New Weird wave of the 00s, and was a little sad that it seemed to have petered out a bit. Hopefully it comes back.

If I recall correctly, you had a Star Trek-related backdrop for your TorCon remote Q&A session. Is there a particular Star Trek series you’d love to write for, or a specific character?

I adore Star Trek but would be terribly unqualified to write for it! I did read some Trek novels when I was younger and liked the ones with Q in it, or any of his strange beings / race.

What would be the most delicious book you could think of to eat? Would you go for simple flavors, or crave genre mashups that combined contrasting ones?

I would try a very wide range of them, if that’s okay to say! I think poetry would probably be the most beautiful to eat, though.

Thanks again to Sunyi Dean for taking part in this interview, and to Sarah Reidy and to Giselle Gonzalez from Tor Books in helping make it possible! If you haven’t yet, please be sure to check out The Book Eaters, and be on the lookout for her upcoming short story “The Thief of Memory” on Tor.com on 31st August.

Cover art by Su Blackwell; Design by Jamie Stafford-Hill

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