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SPIES, SHAMANS and a young girl who can bring the dead back to life. Forest of Souls – the first book in a new YA fantasy trilogy – has racked up a slew of rave reviews since it came out earlier this summer. And we expect its author, Wisconsin’s own Lori M. Lee, to become a fixture of the YA literary community in the years to come.
Did you grow up reading fantasy novels?
I actually read a lot of horror as a kid – I was fascinated with all things supernatural. And I think that’s because I grew up hearing Hmong folktales about ghosts and tricksters and other supernatural beings.
When did you start writing your first book?
I wrote what could arguably be considered my first novel shortly after finishing The Hobbit, in fourth or fifth grade. I worked on it off and on for years. It was 300 handwritten pages. Then I just rewrote it over and over again throughout high school.
You weren’t able to sell the first novel you wrote as an adult. How did you push past that sense of frustration?
It was definitely hard. There were times when I questioned whether writing was something I should be doing. I kept all of my rejection letters. There are over 100 of them.
Ultimately, though, I think it just came down to desire and passion. I knew from a very early age that this is what I wanted to do. I had to hold onto hope.
Tell us about the aspects of Hmong mythology that you incorporated into the book.
In Hmong mythology, the natural world is full of spirits, and those spirits maintain a sense of balance. That idea became the base of the magical system in the book.
A lot of it is pure fantasy, though. I didn’t want people to go into it looking for a lesson on Hmong culture.
Do you think that the fantasy genre currently lacks diversity? Either in terms of the genre’s authors or protagonists?
I think it’s not as terrible as it used to be, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. It wasn’t so long ago that a lot of people lost their minds because Peter Jackson dared include an Asian extra in the last Hobbit film.
But I think we’re seeing greater representation in YA books, which is a definite step forward. I grew up thinking that if I wanted to write fantasy I had to write about white, straight protagonists, because that’s what I read. It was difficult being an Asian American, feeling like I didn’t belong because of the way I looked.
What do you want readers to take away from Forest of Souls?
Forest of Souls sort of unintentionally became the book that I would have wanted to read as a kid. It became a mashup in some ways of Hmong culture and traditional fantasy. The Asian diaspora belongs in the fantasy genre as much as anything else.