Fred Lit-Yu: Snow Wolf and American Wuxia
by Grant Balfour
Wuxia stories seem uniquely Chinese, and when you try to describe the centuries-old blend of melodrama, magic and martial arts to someone unfamiliar with the genre, it can sound a little peculiar. Then you shrug and say, "You know ... like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON," and suddenly you see the light bulbs lighting up over people's heads.
If New York novelist Fred Lit Yu has his way, there's going to be a lot more light bulbs lighting up across America and beyond. The first volume of his first epic, THE LEGEND OF SNOW WOLF (BOOK ONE): REINCARNATION, is set to turn wuxia into a household word by introducing English-speaking fans to this traditional genre's intrigue, romance, wandering warriors and amazing martial artists.
GB: I'm curious about your personal martial arts history - you say on your site, "I became one of the few couch potatoes skilled in six different weapons." What disciplines did you learn?
FLY: My main system, and everybody has a main system, was Wu Mei. I did other things for many years also, but when I have to immediately react, that's the one I turn to. I was 19 at the time, and studied until I was 24, when my master died. I also took a lot of Tai Chi - Wu style, Chen style, Yang style - and I joined the Shaolin Temple in New York, where I studied internal arts mostly, and staff. I met a lot of masters and learned what I could. Oh, and I did some Muay Thai when I was younger.
GB: That one doesn't seem to fit with the others?
FLY: That's a thing you do when you're young and can take a beating! Once you turn 30, though... (laughs) The weapons I use mostly come from Wu Mei, except nunchucks. They're really fun to do. And I bought a new spear recently because the main character in the book I'm writing now uses one.
Last week, there was a fly in my house. I had one of those electric flyswatters that are supposed to zap them - this thing about the size of a tennis racquet - but I couldn't reach the fly. It was under my skylight. I tried throwing a towel to get it, but that didn't work. So I got him with my spear and I killed him!
I was feeling pretty good and I told a friend of mine. He said I was just shooting pool - all I did was line it up like an 8-ball. That's not real spear technique. So I wouldn't call that one of the six I'm good at.
GB: What are the six that you're good at? You mentioned nunchucks...
FLY: Double-edged sword. My master chose it for me, because he said if your footwork is fast, use the double-edged sword. I learned from my master's younger sister the single-edged saber, and then from another student the double single-edged saber - one sword in each hand. Then short knife - a yin and yang knife, one in each hand held both ways. Both hands follow a figure-8 pattern - that took me a while to coordinate. Staff . And nunchucks, I always played with.
GB: How might your training have influenced the discipline it takes to complete a novel?
FLY: I can't say there's a one-to-one relationship, because others write novels who haven't studied martial arts. But the ability to stay calm, the willingness to work hard and push - that goes for everything, not just writing. Personally, I feel it has been good for me. Martial arts come in handy every day.
I was just starting to train my daughter, until a master in China told me not to. He said it'd make her wide and bulky and she'd hate me for the rest of my life. I decided I'll wait until after puberty.
But my sister is a martial artist. She has all kinds of trophies - she has more more weapons than I do!
GB: Was the heroine of your book based on your sister?
FLY: Which heroine? Flute Demon? Snow Wolf?
GB: No, no - the girl the medicine student is in love with. Pun! Was she based on your sister?
FLY: Well, I meant her to be a fun, naïve character, and my sister is not like that. I know people like Pun, but not my sister - not quite!
GB: Speaking of the medical student, I'm curious about the sources you used for Chinese medicine and alchemy and neijia in SNOW WOLF.
FLY: I just got back from Toronto, where I went to the funeral of a doctor of Chinese medicine my family had known for a long time. He was 94. If he went out and claimed to be the number two professional in the world, no one would be number one. He was in Taiwan in the 1950s with Chiang Kai Shek and was an imperial doctor back before that. Over the phone, he saved my mother from late-stage cancer.
I'd known him since I was 6, and I learned a lot from him. I've had masters who taught me everything from Chinese medicine through I Ching. None were as good as him. A lot of my knowledge came from him.
Most of the neigong I know is Wu Mei, a little Shaolin - that's mostly Iron Shirt, which is defensive. The neigong I trained in was about striking. I learned fa jin in the Wu Mei system.
There was a senior student, a really tall dude, a Russian guy- At first everyone laughed at how stiff he was. He was a Karate champion in Russia. He was actually in ROCKY...
GB: Oh, yeah!?
FLY: Yeah! He got really into the training. He even kind of overstayed his welcome and became an illegal immigrant for a time, just to study Kung Fu. And one time, I was wearing those thick pads you have for kickboxing, you know? And he struck once, tore through the pad, bruised my whole arm. That's an example of the neigong system of Wu Mei. With Shaolin, it's more defensive.
GB: Did this martial arts experience come into your book in a direct way, or were you being more imaginative with the techniques?
FLY: I was writing in English for a Western audience, so I tried to avoid highly technical names or techniques. I avoided acupoints, avoided using qi to strike. I tried to keep it grounded in reality. The closest I came is the technique I called Flame Cutter, but that's not a prominent thing that everybody used in the story. It's not like running across water in Chinese wuxia. As a martial arts technique, it's not completely imaginative, but it is exaggerated a little bit. You have to exaggerate a little bit.
GB: Are you stretching out for your next book, working in a little more wuxia?
FLY: I've tried to go a little farther, alright, but still avoiding acupoints and striking with qi. I don't want to alienate the audience.
GB: A good story can carry them along.
FLY: I remember when I went to see CROUCHING TIGER in the theater, the audience was laughing, laughing at the film, not with the film. I learned a lesson: if people are going fly, you have to explain why. Superman can fly, and people accept that.
GB: I was thinking of superheroes as having something in common with wuxia.
FLY: Sure! You could send Spider-Man and Batman back in time, and in China, they'd fit in with this kind of story.
GB: I was thinking of the AVENGERS movie - you've got all these characters with different abilities coming together from different places, and there's so much melodrama. That seems sort of like wuxia to me.
FLY: Yeah, yeah. I guess I can see that. I was not a big comic fan as a kid. I didn't have money to collect comics, so I didn't get to know those stories until much later. I did become a big fantasy fan, though.
GB: Which was your first favorite book?
FLY: Fantasy! Oh, the DRAGONLANCE books. Those were great.
GB: Oh yeah! Those kept you turning the pages.
FLY: My daughter's reading them now. I still have them on my shelves.
GB: How old is she?
GB: It's probably a little old for her, but did she read SNOW WOLF?
FLY: She didn't put it down! She finished in two or three days.
GB: High praise!
FLY: Ha ha ha! The book used to be more violent, but my editor thought is was better to target a young adult audience. In the end, I think it works. I didn't drop the martial arts, just the gore.
GB: I didn't miss a thing.
FLY: That proves it wasn't necessary.
GB: I'm curious if you were intending your book to serve as a kind of introduction to Chinese history. There were various scenes in there that seemed like an overview of, for instance, the Opium Wars. There's a drug scene, and that's an important part of the story. Or the Cultural Revolution, with the villagers shouting slogans as they're turning on Snow Wolf.
FLY: I don't know if that was consciously intended. Growing up, hearing stories from my parents, all the betrayals, backstabbing - those stories ingrain themselves in a person's soul, almost.
When you write, you're going to see some of it come out. I didn't intend to sit down and write something political. Even in more recent times, my wife was in Tiananmen Square. She was taking photos and was targeted by a tank, chased by a tank down the alleys. But even worse were the betrayals by her friends afterward. History keeps repeating itself. It's the same everywhere.
GB: Kind of along those lines, has SNOW WOLF been released in China? Do you think it would be well-received?
FLY: It should be well-received because wuxia is a big genre in China. But this was written for a Western audience. I took great pains to make the names easy to pronounce, the ceremonies or rules easy to relate to.
GB: Yet you worked in something like Chinese five-element theory, which was something I appreciated.
FLY: My editor actually wrote me a note on that scene - she didn't get the five directions. Where you're standing is the fifth direction. I had to spell it out more.
The key is to make it not absolutely necessary to the plot, so if you miss something, you can still follow the story. We've got plenty of of blood and guts and violence to carry it along, and betrayal and heartbreak, and love and friendship and compassion - that too!
Each book I work on, I try to put a little Chinese philosophy behind it. This one, I started out from chapter one with the cycle of heaven. The very first hexagram of the I Ching sets out the cycle of heaven. Everything will grow, then decline and become dormant and then grow again. The novel starts in Mongolia with the great hunt; that will come again, later in the book. It's all in cycles. At best you can accelerate the cycle, but you can never avoid the cycle.
GB: Did you throw hexagrams to help plot out your book?
FLY: I learned I Ching from an old master, and you have to know what's happening now to know what's in the future. Throwing coins, yarrow sticks, that's leaving it up to chance, like letting a blind force change your life.
I learned you simplify, narrow down based on omens you see, time and change. Look where you are, you see where you're going to be. I don't throw coins.
GB: Besides what you're writing, what's the best entry point to wuxia in English?
FLY: There's a lot on Netflix, if you can read subtitles. The film HERO, I really liked. Jet Li did a lot of great movies.
I really liked DRAGON INN - that's an old one.
THE BLADE - very crazy, but believable martial arts. It's so high speed, you wonder how a guy could do it, then you see how he trains and it's real.
With books, they're all in translation. There are two translations of Jin Yong - his English name is Louis Cha - and both are horrible. When you translate it out of Chinese writing, it just doesn't make sense. There are technical - I don't want to call them problems, but differences in Chinese writing. Point of view changes. It's really impossible to translate. It doesn't follow the same rules. But even so, he's a real page-turner. THE DEER AND THE CAULDRON is the better translated one - it's a three-book series.
GB: The better of the horrible translations?
FLY: This one's actually readable. You know, it's classical storytelling like THE ODYSSEY. Storytelling like the old days. But you know, THE ILIAD is hard enough to read!
GB: So when do we get to read the second half of SNOW WOLF?
FLY: The second book is coming out at the end of the year.
GB: Looking forward to it!
FLY: Thank you.
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About Grant Balfour:
Grant Balfour is a tabloid poet, bon vivant, traveler and family man based in South Florida. He studied Yang Taiji with Weilun Huang, but today spends too much time reading about the I Ching, Taoist meditation and foreign ports of call and not nearly enough time actually practicing. For more information on THE LEGEND OF SNOW WOLF (BOOK ONE): REINCARNATION,visit China Books.