Author Interview: Mia Tsai

Welcome to the first interview in the 2023 run of my Taiwanese American Heritage Week series dedicated to featuring Taiwanese authors and their work. Taiwanese American Heritage Week occurs every year during the week that begins with Mother’s Day in May, which is also Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. You can find the past interviews and posts in this series via the Taiwanese American Heritage Week tag or through my Post Index.

About the Book

  • Title: Bitter Medicine
  • Author: Mia Tsai
  • Cover Artist: Jialing Pan
  • Publisher: Tachyon Publications
  • Release Date: March 14th, 2023
  • Genre/format: Adult Fantasy, Romance


As a descendant of the Chinese god of medicine, ignored middle child Elle was destined to be a doctor. Instead, she is underemployed as a mediocre magical calligrapher at the fairy temp agency. Nevertheless, she challenges herself by covertly outfitting Luc, her client and crush, with high-powered glyphs.

Half-elf Luc, the agency’s top security expert, has his own secret: he’s responsible for a curse laid from an old assignment. To heal them, he’ll need to perform his job duties with unrelenting excellence and earn time off from his tyrannical boss.

When Elle saves Luc’s life, they begin a dangerous collaboration, but their chemistry blooms. Happiness, for once, is an option for them both. But Elle is loyal to her family, and Luc is bound by his true name. To win freedom from duty, they must make unexpected sacrifices.

Interview with Mia Tsai

Q: What’s your favorite Taiwanese food? (You can choose more than one.)

A: Bubble tea has to be my first answer, of course, but if that one doesn’t count, then… Taiwanese breakfast. All of it. I claim all of it, the full experience of it. I love getting up and going out to the corner stalls and picking up fresh doujiang with shaobing youtiao and danbing, xiao la, and fantuan and black sugar mantou and—

Q: Your book is described as xianxia-inspired. What aspects of xianxia appeal to you, and what aspects of the genre have made it into your book?

A: I love how just about anything is possible when it comes to xianxia magic, except it often comes in the form of a pill, a curse, an item, or something that’s done with qi. People can be so inventive with magic, and of course, basing a lot of magic on traditional Chinese medicine is specifically appealing to me, who has had a love of medicine since I was little. I also love how xianxia these days is faintly ridiculous—who comes up with the names for these curses, for example?—but we still engage with the work and wait for what feel like disparate storylines to come together.

I specifically love qi magic and how that could be combined with written Chinese to create effects, which gets us Elle’s ability to do anything she wishes as long as she uses a character as a focus. I hadn’t watched The Untamed prior to writing Bitter Medicine—actually, I don’t even think it was out yet when I did the first draft—but I imagine what Elle does is similar to Wei Wuxian’s tag magic. Being a descendant of Shennong, too, let me play around with some xianxia-inspired perks, like pulse diagnoses and traditional Chinese medicine being used to great effect for the fae, allowing Elle to have fire powers as a result of Shennong inventing moxibustion, and the classic wuxia ability to fly.

Q: Your main character, Elle is one of three siblings, with two brothers Tony and William, and I noticed that the three share a generational name where they all have Yì/ in their Chinese names. How did you go about coming up with their Chinese and English names? Do they have special meanings relating to the story?

A: I think creating Chinese names is one of the hardest things to do and has an added level of difficulty when you don’t have access to fortune tellers who will gently humor you when you say you’re writing a book and need names that aren’t going to accidentally sound lascivious, invoke bad luck, or reference something you never intended to reference. I actually consulted with a friend who has a much better knowledge of names and meanings of words than I do. When I say consulted, I mean money changed hands.

We thought very hard about the stories of each of the siblings and how they were all raised away from the world at large, and how both Elle and Tony spend a chunk of their lives trying to escape from what’s chasing them. We eliminated characters that would never work in names or would be too outlandish, then settled on Yi as a generational name for both its sound and meaning. For Tony, as the firstborn, he needed something grand, and so yi takes on a double meaning for him as someone who was so preternaturally gifted that he never had to struggle in addition to someone who clearly flees his destiny and, in so doing, becomes lost to most of his family.

I think Elle’s name actually came first—Yiya, or easy elegance as a quick translation (girls must have virtuous names, naturally). And then we expanded to Tony and Will, who as a third child became sort of an afterthought, and that’s why there was less care taken with his name. He had very few expectations heaped upon him.

As English names go, I went with super common English names that Chinese people take. I’ve used Emily and Jennifer before in a different work, so those were out. I’ve met at least half a dozen Tonys in my life; one of them, who is Chinese, is my student’s father, so that wasn’t awkward at all . . . and same with William. These characters are trying to be unremarkable, so they all need to have names that you can remember easily, but also forget easily. As for Elle’s surname, that’s a little in-joke—Mei or May is so often the default name for Chinese women in English literature that it has become, to me, a cliché. And that became Elle’s surname, which can also be taken to mean “beautiful.” Yet another cliché!

Q: Elle makes spells that can do various things such as grant their users agility, invisibility, or enhanced strength. If you could commission Elle for one handy spell, what would you choose and why?

A: Oh, that’s a tough one. I’d probably commission Elle for a spell that’s repeatable, which means it’ll cost me quite a bit more than her standard ones. But what to ask her for? If I ask her for “whatever,” a sui bian, does that mean it becomes a roulette spell? That’s too open-ended, probably. Okay, I’d ask her for a renewable spell that conjures my specific bubble tea order (Muzha Iron Goddess oolong, half sugar, no ice, bubbles).

Q: The choices we make as writers when writing fantasy, whether it’s in a secondary world or not, have political implications. Bitter Medicine is a contemporary fantasy that involves grafting magical elements onto a fictionalized version of the real world. What aspects of the worldbuilding did you find challenging or engaging in terms of teasing out the implications? In particular, I’m curious about your thoughts on borders and nationalism as they are implicated in your story, given that some of the characters have lived long enough to predate the modern nation-state formations that are often taken for granted.

A: I’m so thrilled you asked this question because it’s such a meaty one and I haven’t really been asked it yet! And as a Taiwanese person, nationalism is such a delicate issue. What does it mean to be Taiwanese when many don’t consider it sovereign, and how do Taiwanese people build a national identity across so many disparate groups of people? Do they truly need a national identity, or is it only necessary because of outside factors? As I ponder this, I think my position trickles down to how my characters view themselves.

Luc’s origin in particular presented multiple issues because he’s French, and the French at the time he was born were busy having revolutions but also colonizing the world. The region he’s from, Alsace, is also a region that’s had its borders shift frequently. I had to think carefully about when he was born and where he’d come from, because there are certain stories that are not mine to tell and I don’t want to take up those spaces.

Borders change quickly on the whims of rulers, but a community’s traditions change slowly. Luc, then, is strongly tied to his region, but not his nationality. Language is a cultural tool, for good or ill, and at the time of Luc’s birth, though Alsace was part of France and French was spoken, many people spoke Alsatian until French was forcibly imposed later on. He didn’t form his national identity until he was taken by someone who wasn’t French and had those cultural and linguistic norms imposed upon him. That’s sort of like how a border doesn’t exist until people start crossing it. Luc is very much someone who lives in a liminal space, who understands the mutability of borders and nationalities. The things he holds dear are regionally specific: the food, the land, the rhythm of life, the values.

Elle presents much more as a xianxia or wuxia heroine, whose original concept of the country is closer to the jianghu. There are benefits and drawbacks to living a sequestered life in the mountains, far away from rebellions and wars, though China has never lacked for conflict with itself. She, too, has a strong cultural identity, though the worldbuilding in her case got to be handwaved a little by setting her origin in a fae space.

Ultimately, I hoped that Bitter Medicine would stress the importance of cultural origin and identity, though nationality is a well-leaned-on shorthand.

Q: I know you work as an editor for other people’s manuscripts, but editing other people’s work is not the same as editing one’s own work. Do you struggle at all with editing your own work, and what strategies do you find helpful for taking a critical eye to one’s own work?

A: It really depends on the project. With Bitter Medicine, the edits were mostly painless. I say mostly because one time, my CP told me she felt I could insert one more chapter, and I was so sick and tired of working with the manuscript and ready to be done that I burst into tears. The current revision I’m in is much more difficult because the roadmap is blurry. With Bitter Medicine, the path was clear, like a trail worn in the tall grass. With the current work, I’m standing in the middle of a meadow and I have no idea what direction to go.

I do think it’s good not to be precious about your work. They’re just words; you can always rewrite them. Distancing yourself, too, is important, whether that’s time or emotional distance. And the strategies change from project to project, so I can’t even answer the question on editing tips! I’m not a reverse outliner or a scene mapper, though I think that kind of rigid structural analysis is useful for some. I do sometimes graph tension and conflict per chapter for clients, but that’s more to give them a visual of my gut instincts. Anything and everything can be a good editing strategy. I’m sorry, that’s not very helpful, is it?

Q: What part of the writing process (e.g. brainstorming, research, drafting, revising, reading notes from CPs/betas/editors, etc.) do you enjoy the most and why?

A: I love editing the most—I hate writing. I love having written. And I love sitting down to work at the line and chapter level. I love working with imagery and the cadence of the language, the implications certain words bring, the inferences I want the readers to make. The broader picture requires more writing, so I try to avoid that by having a good outline or idea of where I’m going before I sit down to draft seriously (I do unserious drafting as well, where I discover write and don’t judge myself).

Book Links

Purchase Bitter Medicine from another bookseller:

About the Author

Mia Tsai is a Taiwanese American author and editor of speculative fiction. Her debut novel is a xianxia-inspired adult contemporary fantasy titled Bitter Medicine, which is published by Tachyon Publications. She lives in Atlanta with her family, pets, and orchids. Her favorite things include music of all kinds and taking long trips with nothing but the open road and a saucy rhythm section.

Photo Credit: Rebekah Chavez Wynne, Wynne Photography

Author Links:

Thanks for reading this interview! If you’re enjoying my Taiwanese American Heritage Week posts and would like to show your appreciation by tossing a coin to your blogger, please consider donating that coin to Ren Kanoelani, a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), Taiwanese, and Japanese friend who needs help with rent payments during this Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Thanks!

1 thought on “Author Interview: Mia Tsai

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s