Joan He on Strike The Zither and going back to her roots.

We spoke to author Joan He on her latest book Strike the Zither, adapting a classic novel, and going back to her roots as a Chinese American.

Reimaginings are an incredibly popular subgenre at Amplify. We see a ton of classic retellings come our way but very few based on Chinese history and literature. What drew you to writing a reimagining of Three Kingdoms and why? (Side note, I (Xuan) remember studying this in after school Chinese tuition classes. Cao Cao was the bane of my 12 year old existence.)

Don’t hurt me but Cao Cao might be my favorite character from the books! Though naturally Zhuge Liang is also a favorite — no surprise there since Strike the Zither’s Zephyr is inspired by him.

As for why Three Kingdoms — like you, I’d learned about the major figures as a kid, mostly via stories from my parents. It wasn’t until college that I read the classic in full. I was struck by how clearly the characters grouped themselves into archetypes, rarely straying from their main traits and knowingly wielding their reputation as weapons. It reminded me of teens sorting themselves into jocks and geeks in a high school cafeteria, and I knew that it’d be a lot of fun to reimagine in a YA space.

But I can’t really start writing a book until I figure out a central question, from which I tend to construct my midpoint twists. And so after reading the text and analyzing it in class, particularly how the author Luo Guanzhong elevated some characters to almost mythical heights, I found my “what if?” question and began drafting.


What were some of the challenges working off a text as grand and historic as Three Kingdoms? Can you talk through your process of crafting your own story from it?

The main challenge was, like you mention, dealing with the grandness of the text; it features over a thousand named characters! So I knew from the start that I needed to streamline for my audience — while keeping in mind that some of that audience would include readers utterly unfamiliar with Three Kingdoms as well as people like my mom, a person who grew up in China and knows all the common idioms inspired by Cao Cao but has never read the text because, I mean, the thing is 800k words long.

Inevitably, there’s some loss that occurs in the streamlining process, but I also think there’s something to be gained in making the story fun to read for a reader like my mom — and even a bit more fun for myself. There’s so much to love about the classic but also some things that, even as a fan, I’m more ambivalent about, such as the treatment of most — not all, but most — of the female characters. But escapism from the ancient China patriarchy aside, I really wanted to preserve the spirit of my favorite elements of the classic. Those might not be the same as another fan’s favorite elements, and that’s okay! That’s the beauty of reading and of creating; it’s all so personal. At the end of the day I am first and foremost writing for myself, and so I’ll make my story and character decisions in kind.


As a person of Chinese heritage, I find Chinese fantasy to be quite different to western fantasy as there's a bit of cultural knowledge that it's helpful to have before starting. Any words of advice for readers who are picking Strike The Zither up as their introduction to Chinese fantasy?

It was very important to me that Strike the Zither be an easy read for someone with no prior knowledge of Three Kingdoms, and I hope I achieved that. But as I previously touched on, the midpoint twist is my textual response to how Luo Guanzhong, the frequently accredited author of the classic, shaped these real historical figures into bigger than life characters. And so it’s also fair to say that some familiarity with the story might give more context to the twist, for better or worse! If you are looking to get into the classic, I would highly recommend the translation by Moss Roberts.

Other than Three Kingdoms specific knowledge, some cultural defaults are absolutely baked into the story, especially in the relationships between characters. Something I struggled with in writing and revising the book was to resist the urge to give Zephyr an easily-understood-by-the-West reason for her loyalty to her lordess when we first meet her. I’ve read a lot of western YA, enough to know that such a deep inter-character commitment is usually inspired by 1. seeing X character as a family member, blood or found, 2. romantic connection or 3. platonic friendship, or 4. some personal debt (perhaps X character once saved Y’s life!). What’s not so often seen is the kind of service a Confucian-minded strategist would give to their lord for no reason other than that’s just what was expected of them in that era. To give the loyalty a reason other than it just was weakens the deep and historic social mores the classic is steeped in, and while there were some social elements that I definitely tweaked (see the female characters), there were others, like this, that I really wanted to honor.


Who's your favourite character that you've written?

Zephyr, which is surprising for me to say since I usually dislike my main characters by the end of writing the book. What’s the saying, familiarity breeds contempt? But I loved writing Zephyr and Crow, her greatest rival, through the many drafts.


Lastly, an essential question from the Amplify arsenal — when did you first feel represented in a book, and what was it? Why?

Unfortunately I didn’t see as many characters who looked like myself when I was in grade school — certainly not among the very popular books that were always stocked in the library or the bookstore — but I really found a kindred spirit in Ramona. Her awkwardness and anxiety over fitting in with her peers made me feel less alone.

Joan He was born and raised in Philadelphia but still will, on occasion, lose her way. At a young age, she received classical instruction in oil painting before discovering that stories were her favorite kind of art. She studied psychology and Chinese history at the University of Pennsylvania and currently writes from a desk overlooking the city
waterfront. Descendant of the Crane is her young adult debut.

Joan He on Strike The Zither and going back to her roots.

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