Author and Illustrator Grace Lin has been writing children's books and novels since the early 2000’s. For the better part of the past decade, her writing has focused on infusing her Chinese heritage into her stories, which earned her a Newberry Medal of Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. She recently published a prequel novel for Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan called Mulan: Before the Sword, which finds Mulan going off on her first adventure to find the ingredients for an antidote to save her sister from a rare and deadly spider bite. On her journey, she is befriended and thwarted by characters from Chinese mythology. I recently had the opportunity to interview Grace Lin about her most recent novel.
Alex: Being based on an upcoming adaptation of Mulan that you didn't get to see when you wrote Mulan: Before the Sword, what materials did you use as reference to keep continuity with the upcoming film?
Grace Lin: Disney sent me the script, artist concept art, still photos before I started writing so that I could get an idea of the characters, the landscape and costumes. I’d often ask specific questions or ask for certain images and they were pretty good about getting me what I asked for.
Alex: In the Author's Notes, you talk about how Mulan was one of the few films in pop culture at the time with an Asian character. It's been twenty years, do you feel like that landscape has changed in a positive way?
Grace Lin: It has, but, surprisingly, only very recently. I am so gratified to see the success of a show like Fresh off the Boat and a movie like Crazy Rich Asians –these signal that change is finally coming. However, those are just a couple of small stars in our enormous media galaxy. I really hope there is much, much more change coming and that Asian-Americans and our culture are embraced as part of the mainstream, not as a fleeting curiosity.
Alex: For this story, you went back to some Chinese folklore to add friends and foes for Mulan's story. What was it about the Jade Rabbit and Lu-Ting Pin that made you want to include them in this story?
Grace Lin: I often weave Chinese folktales in my novels—I did so in my books Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and When the Sea Turned to Silver so I was guessing that one of the reasons why Disney came to me to write the prequel was because they liked that. And since Mulan is one of the most beloved folktales in China—her story interwoven with other legendary folk heroes seemed fitting as well as irresistible for me!
Alex: You've clearly done a lot of research on the story of Mulan and how it has evolved over the centuries. Do you have a favorite version of her story?
Grace Lin: Hmm, that’s tough. I guess I like The Ballad of Mulan picture book retold and illustrated by Son Nan Zhang because it tells the story in the most bare-bones way—allowing me to imagine all the extra details and emotions. That said, if I were a child, I’m not sure if I would say that one would be my favorite. I’d probably prefer the graphic novel format Hua Mulan: Legendary Woman Warrior by Xu Deyuan & Juan Wei. But there are so many versions to choose from!
Alex: Mulan: Before the Sword is really about a girl risking her life and facing some extreme obstacles to save her sister. Do you have your own siblings that you used as inspiration for their relationship?
Grace Lin: I have two sisters, an older and younger so I understand the push-pull of jealousy as well as love and pride of those kinds of relationships and I do think it helped me write Mulan’s relationship with Xiu in a more authentic way. That said, I can’t say that my sibling relationships were the inspiration for Mulan and Xiu’s dynamic—their caring relationship was already established in the movie script.
Alex: Mulan faces off against some magical beings in the story. What is it about her that gives her such courage and resilience in the face of extreme danger?
Grace Lin: That’s a question we ask of everyone—what makes us decide to fight or flee? In Mulan, they talk about her qi—her life energy–being especially powerful and strong. That energy, coupled with Mulan’s deep desire to bring honor to her family, has created an instinct in Mulan that makes her always fight.
Alex: What do you hope readers take away from Mulan: Before the Sword?
Grace Lin: I hope they take away an exciting story that they want to read again and again! And, as with all my books, I hope they give people an appreciation of the beauty and wonder of Asian culture and a bit of inspiration from the heroism of the characters in the book.
Alex has been blogging about Disney films since 2009 after a lifetime of fandom. He joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and covers films across all of Disney’s brands, including Star Wars, Marvel, and Fox, in addition to books, music, toys, consumer products, and food. You can hear his voice as a member of the Laughing Place Podcast and his face can be seen on Laughing Place’s YouTube channel where he unboxes stuff.