Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ellen Oh talks about PROPHECY!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!  The Inkpot is thrilled, delighted, and jumping up and down today, because one of the books we have been looking forward to for years is finally out in the world!  PROPHECY, by our own Ellen Oh (whom we know and love as "Ello") has a story to tell that grabs you and does not let go:  "The greatest warrior in all of the Seven Kingdoms . . . is a girl with yellow eyes.  Kira's the only female in the king's army, and she's also the prince's bodyguard. She's a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she's their only hope. . . ."
Anne, on behalf of the Inkpot:  I enjoyed PROPHECY so much!  I was going to say I gobbled it up in one gulp, but maybe it's more accurate to say it swallowed me.  There's not a slow moment in the whole book, and Kira the girl warrior is a such a sympathetic character, as well as being so very strong and mighty.   And there's a lovely map!  Perhaps I'll start my questions by asking about the map.
Ello: Thank you! The map is by my dear friend, Virginia Allyn, who is the most talented illustrator in the world! Ok so I may be a little biased in my statement but I would show my map as Exhibit 1 and our very own Inkpot header as Exhibit 2. Plus you can go here to see just how incredibly talented she is!

Anne:  Of course I had to pull out a map of modern Korea and compare it to your "Seven Kingdoms"!  (I was thrilled to find a picture of the "Nine Dragons
Waterfall" online--so I guess it really truly exists, though I gather it's hard to get to, being over the border of North Korea.)  Are those "seven kingdoms" historical fact?  Or part of Korean mythology?  Or made up by you?  And have you ever been to any of these dramatic and beautiful places you describe?

Ello: Yes, the Nine Dragons Waterfall are in the Diamond Mountains of what is now North Korea. At the top of the waterfall are a series of interlocking jade pools. When North Korea opened its borders to allow visitors to these famous mountains, South Koreans went in droves, determined to see what they believe is the most divinely beautiful place on earth before they die.  Take a look:The Nine Dragons Waterfall!!

I’ve never been there. In fact, I’ve not been back to Korea since I was a baby. I would love to go and see all these places in person and not just by video and photographs.

I decided to base Prophecy loosely on the time period between 300 and 360 C.E. in ancient Korea, when there were many walled city-states and warring kingdoms. Some of these city-states became famous kingdoms of ancient Korea. They were Koguryo, Paekche and Shilla - known as the Three Kingdoms.

So for the Seven Kingdoms of Prophecy, this is what I did:

Hansong Kingdom - based on the walled capital city of Paekche called Hansong. It is the location of modern day Seoul. But the sewer tunnels are completely fabricated!

Guru - based on Koguryo, the largest of the Three Kingdoms.

Kudara - based on Paekche, one of the Three Kingdoms.

Jinhan - based on Shilla, one of the Three Kingdoms.

Kaya - sometimes referred to as the fourth kingdom, Kaya is based on the kingdom of the same name.

Oakcho and Tongey are both walled city-states of the same name.

Anne:  I hope you do get to travel to Korea and see these places in person!  Inkpot Expedition, maybe?  Let me ask you something about your characters:  Kira is isolated by looking and being different from the people around her (how many of us have a nose for demons?), but I loved the way she was also surrounded by good friends, not to mention helpful brothers.  It's nice to see her looking out for young Taejo, whose own situation as political pawn and princeling is not enviable.  I can imagine a middle-grade version of this story from Taejo's point of view!  Were you ever tempted to try that? And did the story or your heroine come to you first?

Ello:  Yes! In fact, the first version of Prophecy was from Taejo’s POV. I wrote it from the viewpoint of a young prince who is said to be the hero of legend but then he is stunned to find out that the true hero is not him but his older girl cousin, Kira. So I wrote it first as a middle grade novel, which is fitting in that it was always my intent to write a book for my daughters. It became young adult when I changed the POV to Kira and when the book itself became darker and more violent. But still, not what I would call an older YA.

Anne:  Your fight sequences are wonderfully precise.  Do you have any martial arts experience yourself?  Your characters really seem to know what they are doing!

Ello: I had only a little bit of tae kwon do training myself. It was too expensive to train with a master. But I had plenty of fighting experience. I fought a lot growing up in NYC. I was always in trouble. I have always had a very smart mouth; the only difference now is that I’m better at keeping it shut. But when I was young, I was not known for discretion. And the one thing that would set me off was and still is, a racial slur of any kind. It didn’t matter how much bigger the other kid was or how many of them there were, I heard the slur and my mouth would go off. They were rip-roaring ugly fights. Nothing pretty or fancy or well choreographed. Just grab what you can and punch, bite and kick the hell out of whoever comes near you. Fast and dirty. That’s how I write my fight sequences. Someone criticized my fight scenes for being boring and over too fast and I just had to roll my eyes. That person clearly has never been in a real fight (When I say “real fight” I don’t mean a hair pulling cat fight or some drunken brawl.) I’ve had knives pulled on me twice (ran like a crazy person both times), I’ve had bones broken, and cigarettes burned into my skin. Real fights don’t last that long. That’s the truth of it. Someone is either running the hell away or getting their ass beaten. I’ve experienced both.

Anne:  Ello!!!  There's so very definitely a whole book right there, in the "rip-roaring ugly fights" of your childhood!  Maybe when your children are a little older?   . . . . Another aspect of your story that rings true is the political complexity of it.  I liked, for instance, the ambiguous and powerful uncle, who manages to be helpful and selfish at the same time.

Ello: I’m so glad you got that! That was what I wanted to come out of him because that felt right about royalty during ancient and dangerous times. There is no such thing as the perfect benevolent monarch. Both of Kira’s uncles are powerful kings who are flawed in very different ways. King Yuri of Hansong is small-minded and biased and insular in his thinking while King Eojin of Guru is power-hungry and ambitious.

Anne: Did you think up your title, or was that your publisher's choice?  Is PROPHECY also the name of the series, or just this first book?  What is the second book's title and when does it appear?  By the way, I thought you did a perfect job of ending at a satisfying point, while still leaving enough strings dangling to make us hungry for Book Two:  good job!  That's hard to do!

Ello: Well, I originally queried it as The Seven Kingdoms. Graceling hadn’t been published yet and we were in between the Song of Ice and Fire books 4 and 5. So it was The Seven Kingdoms when it sold. And then my editor asked for some new names so my agent and I brainstormed and came up with Prophecy, Warrior, and King, the Dragon King Chronicles. But then we dropped the Dragon King Chronicles and it became the Prophecy series.

Anne: You have encouraged so many would-be writers over the years!  Was there any particular piece of advice or comfort that kept you going, when times got rough or the waiting seemed particularly endless?

Ello: My personal mantra is more true now than ever before “Don’t let the Naysayers get you down!” There’s always someone trying to put you down. I don’t know what it is about human nature that likes to hate on people. It tends to trouble me because I truly love to celebrate people’s successes. But there is always going to be someone out there who feels like it is their job to put you in your place. Like you don’t have the right to try for a dream or succeed. Sometimes that person is yourself. You have to find some way to turn that voice off and just not listen to it.

Anne:  That's so true.  Every writer should have the entire previous paragraph taped to his or her wall! 
Kira has a tiger spirit that inspires her during hard moments.  If you had an animal spirit of your own, what do you think it would be?

Ello: Oh, I definitely relate to the tiger spirit. You see when my Mom was pregnant with me, she had a dream about a tiger. She was sitting in a meadow, perched on a rock when she noticed yellow eyes gleaming from the bamboo patch. The next moment a great big tiger leapt out of the bamboo and raced toward her. She fell off the rock and flung her arms over her head, thinking she would be eaten, but nothing happened. When she sat up, she found the tiger in front of her, just staring at her. It lifted up a paw and placed it on her knee and in its claws was a red peony. She went to a fortuneteller who told her that the tiger was the spirit of her baby, who would be a strong spirited child. That was me. Well, at least that’s what my mom always said.

Anne:  While I'm waiting IMPATIENTLY for book two (and hoping there will be more Jaewon in it), are there other good books about or set in Korea or fictional Korea-like places that you might recommend?  Your locations were so vivid that I really did not want to close the book and "come home."

Ello: Oh boy, I was immersed in a lot of history books and art books so it is hard for me to answer this question. To be honest, other than Linda Sue Park’s award winning book The Single Shard, I can’t think of any books like mine set in Korea. It is really a strong reason as to why I wrote my book. But my friend, Christy Farley’s fantastic book Gilded, which I was so lucky to read early on and is coming out this year, will also be set in both contemporary and mythical Korea. So maybe Christy and I can start a new trend!

Anne:  And now . . . the lightning round:

1. What are you working on just at the moment?

Ello: Revising book 2 and drafting book 3.

2. What books are you reading right now?

Ello: I beta for Marie Lu so I got to read the last of the Legend series and I want the world to know how AWESOME it is! I can give absolutely nothing away except that it is sheer and utter BRILLIANCE! And I have a bunch of books on my TBR pile that I’m just dying to get to like Throne of Glass, Days of Blood and Starlight, Girl of Nightmares, and so many more! I just need more time during my day just for reading!!

3. What other book out there do you wish you had written?

Ello: There are so many books that I jealously wish I had written but the one that makes me insanely jealous would have to be Robin LaFevers's Grave Mercy. I just adore that book so much!

Anne: (Oh, YES!  Grave Mercy just sweeps a person away!)

Thank you so much, Ello, and CONGRATULATIONS on this wonderful, amazing, fun
book you've written!

Ello: Thank you so much! I’m just overjoyed and thrilled every time I hear that someone enjoyed Prophecy. It feels like a dream come true.


  1. Wow, I love this! I'm so excited to get your book! (And the Nine Dragons waterfall is definitely on my list now.)

    Congratulations Ellen! *hug*

  2. Great interview, Anne!

    Ellen, I knew you had a rough childhood, but wow, knives? Yikes. (I love that I have no problem picturing you fighting back :) )

    Can't wait to read my very own signed copy of PROPHECY! I saw it (face-out!!) in B&N last night. Get ready for greatness, lady!

  3. I want to read the story of your childhood, Ello! But also I can't wait to read Prophecy. And I think your timing is excellent--there's a lot of interest in Korea building up right now.

    And thanks for the mantra. Turning off the naysayer (inside and out) is a huge challenge for so many of us.

    Congratulations on writing such a stunning book!

  4. Virginia, thank YOU for making our website--and Ellen's map--so beautiful!

  5. Thanks everyone! It's so exciting to see my book out in the wild!!!

  6. Hooray! So excited for Ello! And YAY for a GILDED shout-out! :)

  7. It was my pleasure. Just give me a shout when you are ready for an update. (I think we need to add a few books to that dusty shelf!)


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