Migrating to a Whole New Water World with Eliza Chan

Horror Tree
6 min readMay 9, 2024

Migrating to a Whole New Water World with Eliza Chan

An interview with Eliza Chan

By Sarah Elliott

Hold your breath. We may be spending some time underwater. Let’s dive in and find out about Eliza Chan, author of Fathomfolk No1 Sunday Times Bestseller. Bring arm bands if you must and remember to pack a snorkel. We could be going deep.

Eliza Chan is a Scottish-born Chinese-diaspora author who ‘writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and reclaiming the dragon lady, but preferably all three at once.’ Eliza’s work has been published in The Dark, Podcastle, Fantasy Magazine and The Best of British Fantasy, and her non-fiction has appeared on Tor.com. She lives in the North of England with her partner and young child. Fathomfolk is her first novel. @elizawchan

Sarah: Who is your favourite anime character and why?

Eliza: Anyone from Fullmetal Alchemist, but probably Roy Mustang is my favourite. Mustang is introduced as a womanising layabout who sweeps into action to steal the glory, but slowly is revealed to be both incredibly smart and compassionate and it is such a brilliant journey to watch.

Sarah: What is your favourite Studio Ghibli film?

Eliza: This is such an impossible question! I grew up on Totoro and Laputa, Castle in the Sky; my comfort watch is Howl’s Moving Castle; I love the Japanese mythology in Spirited Away; but my favourite would be between Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke. There’s something about the otherworldly forest that I adore. On first viewing of Princess Mononoke, I found it incredibly bewildering as I didn’t know who to side for. The more I watch it — or possibly the older I get — the more I realise that’s the beauty. Each person is both a hero and a villain to someone.

Sarah: Are there any specific books/films/TV series that have influenced your writing?

Eliza: Books, I’ve been influenced by the likes of Fonda Lee, Zen Cho and Ken Liu to write Asian characters, and write whatever I want to write rather than trying to fit the market. Film and TV-wise I watch a lot of animation and definitely think shows like Avatar the Last Airbender and Arcane have influenced me.

Sarah: You describe yourself as a Scottish-born Chinese-Diasporan author. For readers who may not be familiar with the term diaspora, what does it mean, and more importantly, what does it mean to you?

Eliza: Diaspora refers to anyone who lives in a country geographically different from their culture or racial heritage. My parents moved to Scotland before I was born, therefore I consider myself part of the Chinese diaspora here. I am glad there’s a positive term to describe this, as growing up, knowing how to describe myself was such a loaded question. I never felt Scottish enough or Chinese enough. To me, it means being proud of these differences and how diaspora communities have evolved their own traditions and identities.

Sarah: You draw partly on your cultural roots for inspiration for Fathomfolk. For writers who may want to write East Asian inspired stories, what advice would you offer with the consideration of cultural appropriation for those not from East Asian cultural backgrounds?

Eliza: I can’t answer this question to be honest. It feels like trying to speak for Chinese or East Asian people everywhere and that’s something I can’t do. All I can advise is you listen to more than one opinion, you reflect and you research.

Sarah: Was Fathomfolk always intended to be part of a duology, or did this happen organically?

Eliza: Fathomfolk was written as a standalone with sequel potential. That’s the industry term for it. This meant I had a vague idea for book 2 and was willing to write it but the whole plot was certainly not envisaged at the time I got the book deal!

Sarah: The themes in Fathomfolk reflect many modern challenges. Did you set out to write a novel with themes of “discrimination, diaspora identity and the cost of change” or did the themes evolve when writing?

Eliza: I set out to write a book about diaspora people in a secondary world fantasy setting. It was a kneejerk reaction to hearing other BIPOC authors discuss being frustrated their stories and character opinions were being treated like history and biography rather than fiction. I wanted to show intracommunity differences through a range of characters and opinions that are not necessarily visible from the outside. This then evolved into how the individual characters respond to a prejudiced unjust system.

Sarah: How did your novel come into being? What is your general writing practice like?

Eliza: Kicking and screaming through many many drafts! I can’t say my process was efficient or replicable as I pulled the whole thing apart and did massive structural edits at least two times. It went from being set in a pseudo-British setting, to East and Southeast Asian; one POV to multi POV over the course of about four years.

Sarah: Is there anything that you would love to write a novel about if time and resources were not an issue?

Eliza: So many things. I want to do a fairy-tale retelling, especially from the POV of the villains. I want to do something vaguely Arthurian. Something wuxia. I’m tinkering away at a book about Chinese hopping vampires in mid Opium War era Hong Kong at the moment.

Sarah: In Fathomfolk, was the character Mira inspired by anyone (real or imagined)?

Eliza: Not anyone in particular, but I wanted a lawful good second-generation character who believes in change through the system rather than tearing the system down, in order to be a foil to Nami (who most definitely does want to tear everything down).

Sarah: Who would you most like to play Mira in a movie or TV adaptation?

Eliza: My dream casting would be someone who looks stunningly beautiful (she is a half-siren after all) but also incredibly pissed off. Possibly Simone Ashley or Sobhita Dhulipala!

Sarah: Tiankawi (the fictional city in Fathomfolk) is the home of sirens, seawitches, kelpies and kappas. Which is your favourite mythological creature and why?

Eliza: I love them all, so this answer varies on when I’ve been asked it! At the moment I’m going through my kelpie moment. Kelpies are Scottish shapeshifting water horses, coming on land often as handsome men rather than the stereotypical women seductresses of the sea (mermaids, merrows, rusalka, selkies… I could go on). They entice innocent women and children, a bit like a cute my little pony or virginal unicorn, and then carry them off to drown them at sea. Lovely, eh?

Sarah: Which magical power would you most desire and how would you use it?

Eliza: My childhood and current love of dragons means it’s always been flying. I remember being so disappointed on my first plane journey that you couldn’t feel the wind in your hair! I would use it to go travelling all over the world.

Sarah: Any advice for aspiring writers, novelists in particular?

Eliza: Keep writing. Take any bit of advice and try it, if it works, keep using it; if it hinders, throw it away. There’s no winning formula I’m afraid. We are all individuals so what works is also individual. But as long as you keep writing, no matter the pace, you’ll get to the end eventually.

Why you should grab yourself a copy of Fathomfolk

‘A richly envisioned world and finely crafted tale, Fathomfolk is a luxurious and thrilling story full of political intrigue, heart-wrenching characters and edge-of-your seat tension. A glittering and magical novel from a glorious new voice in fantasy’
Bea Fitzgerald

‘Eliza Chan is not just a writer; she is storyteller. In her deft hand Fathomfolk bursts with complex relationships, original world building, and timeless questions. With the confidence and command of a seasoned master, Chan weaves a riveting tale which seized me from the first word and did not let go until the end. A triumph of imagination, birthed from the mind of one who loves stories and knows how to tell them well’
Tobi Ogundiran

Ready to dip your toe in the water? Fathomfolk is available from major booksellers. You can visit Eliza here: Instagram and Twitter @elizachanwrites and www.elizachan.co.uk




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