Today’s interview is with Tucker Lieberman, author of the book Painting Dragons: What Storytellers Need to Know About Writing Eunuch Villains. His novel is available on Amazon.
About Your Novel:
What’s the title of your book?
What genre is your book?
Literary criticism, suggestions for writing craft, history, and personal essay.
Give us a quick synopsis and tell us what your book is all about!
I show how castrated men (eunuchs) have been vilified throughout history. This happened in ancient Rome, China, Persia. Real people were fictionalized into legend, and these overblown villainizations have crept into modern fiction. The “eunuch villain” is a common gender stereotype, yet many people aren’t aware of it. It’s in our collective unconscious.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was fascinated when, as an undergraduate, I discovered eunuchs in literature. The history of eunuchs was shrouded in legends, rumors, anecdotes, and mystery, complicated by historians’ racism and sexism. I did not understand who eunuchs really were or what they represented, and no one could tell me. They represent many things, and I chose to focus on just one type, the fictional villain, for my book.
Quick — pitch your book in ONE sentence!
If you are writing a novel with a gender-transgressive villain, read my book first and you will not escape without a number of “a-ha!” insights that you can apply to your story.
About Your Process:
Are you a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in between?
This book took me two decades to write. I began thinking about it as an undergraduate. In my early 20s, in my spare time, I pulled together a book-length manuscript, but it was just terrible; I didn’t have a sense of what sources to trust, I mixed reality and myth in my analysis, I didn’t understand my own thesis, and I wasn’t ready. I continued obsessively collecting research notes on eunuchs with the plan to someday rewrite my book, and I remained an avid reader in general. In my late 30s, after I’d quit my day job, it was finally time to write “my eunuch book.” Finally, I understood that writing a book “about eunuchs” would be like writing a book “about men” or “about women,” which is to say it was so vague as to be an impossible, undesirable goal. I needed a real, focused thesis. When I narrowed the topic to “fictional villains,” I was suddenly able to outline, plan, set deadlines, do focused reading, edit mercilessly, and get it done.
Where and when do you do most of your writing?
I write at home. My husband and I each have our own study to do our writing in privacy, though sometimes we sit together in the living room and write side by side. We live in Bogotá, Colombia, and my study has a window that looks east toward the mountains.
When did you first realize, “I want to be a writer”?
My original career goal, when I was about five, was to be a paleontologist. I believed that this involved talking to friendly dinosaurs. As this fantasy drifted away, what was left was writing. This has never been a mystery to me. Writing is part of my life like eating and breathing. What I’ve questioned is more along the lines of what I’m going to write, when I’m going to write it, whether it’s an eBook or a computer game or should be illustrated or translated, and whether it involves dialogue with my inner demons. Sometimes I’ve fought this calling, but accepting it always feels more like a rediscovery of it and a resignation to it. I can’t remember a time before I could read, and I don’t remember when I first wanted to own “writing.” I have, perhaps, mini-realizations every time I read someone else’s book and think, “That. I want to write like that.”
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? Tell us about it!
When I was ten, I once awoke having dreamed of a magical realm, and I reacted by continuing to spin stories about it that were basically fanfiction of The Dark Crystal and Lord of the Rings. These were rarely written down, however. They were in my head. They were not very good anyway.
As an undergraduate at Brown University, I was accepted into a fiction writing workshop taught by Ben Marcus. To apply, I wrote a 5,000-word surreal horror story, really the first serious fiction I’d ever attempted from beginning to end, the night before it was due, and he accepted me into the workshop based on this story. The next story I wrote for the class was speculative fiction about eunuchs in a palace system loosely inspired by imperial China. He told me he was interested in what I’d done with this story and he invited me to come to his office hours to talk to him about my apparent gift. I never went. At that time, I believed I needed to push myself to be a scientist, even though my science skills were subpar and I did not enjoy actually doing science. Creative writing was something I pigeonholed as a self-indulgent hobby, and I was scared to hear that I was talented at it. Somehow I thought that downplaying my writing would free up energy to make me better at science, but that isn’t how it worked. I always wondered what it was that Ben Marcus wanted to tell me about my eunuch story. Several years later, I showed up at one of his author readings, but he seemed not to recognize me. The lesson I took away was that, if people are willing to network or mentor me, I should strike while the iron is hot, but, to do that, I need to see and believe in myself first. I need to believe in my art every single day so that I can receive other people’s fleeting curiosity and goodwill whenever it happens to appear. If I don’t know what I’m trying to do with my art and if I’m playing mind games with myself, I’m not going to be receptive to opportunities. When someone gives me feedback—positive or negative—about my art, I won’t be ready to evaluate and incorporate that feedback if I don’t already have my own baseline beliefs and agendas. Basically, I have to be a person, and I have to be here now. I cannot reach into some other time to find myself nor rely on other people to give me the answers.
Are there any novels or authors who inspire you?
Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat who served as U.N. Secretary-General, kept a diary. It was published posthumously as Vägmärken (Markings) after his sudden death. Part of what interests me is that, after it was translated to English, the poet W. H. Auden further adapted its language. That’s the version I read. It makes me think about how writing, reading, and interpretation are often solitary processes, but they can be collaborative. Sometimes it’s better when it’s collaborative. I wonder what my essays would sound like if they were rewritten by another poet.
Just For Fun:
What is your favorite book / who is your favorite author?
Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is an astonishing fictional story of how we come to process the past, accept what we can never understand, and let go.
You have one day to spend in any fiction world of your choosing; which world is it and why?
G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen because it is a fantastic blend of the bygone and the modern technological world.
If you could give your younger self any piece of advice, what would you tell them?
Spend less time mentally unpacking other people’s obnoxious claims. It doesn’t really matter why someone else is rude and wrong. What matters is that you live free of their backwards stories. Spend energy crafting arguments that are forward-looking and go somewhere useful. If you have to point out something that irks you, at least be the only person in the world who is taking the time to unpack eunuch villains.
Where can your readers interact with you? (Please provide handles or links!)