Jenna Chen is understandably excited. The local author just finished Comic-Con and has been meeting fellow authors and fantasy fans for most of the day. So, while one would think she would be exhausted after a full day, the enthusiasm surrounding her first novel makes her clamor.
“It’s been great so far,” Chen said aloud, adding that she had another day to promote her new novel, “Violet Made of Thorns” starting in the morning.
The uproar surrounding the novel, which has just been released in Delacorte Press, was as clear as Chen’s excitement. A YA (young adult) fantasy about a satirical witch, complete with a clever spin on a European-centric fairy tale, “Violet” has already received plenty of praise from other reviewers and novelists. Not bad for someone who, just a few years ago, was writing fan fiction online in her spare time and thought she’d probably work in technology for the rest of her life.
“I didn’t really start writing until I went to college,” recalls Chen, who majored in computer science at the University of California, San Diego. “I even think programming can be a very creative endeavor, but I think all these kinds of creativity are in my mind in the same place.”
Chen really had no sense that she would become a novelist, let alone be on the verge of releasing her first novel with a major publisher.
However, she found the reception she received from strangers online for her fan stories to be very encouraging.
“A lot of people have noted that they liked it, but some people are sending me paragraph-long comments about how they relate to my characters and how they’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Chen. Some people might say it’s their favorite story ever, including published stories. I was just a college student writing these stories for fun. I never expected this kind of response.”
The question she was almost always asked, however, was whether she had plans to publish a book with her original characters. Chen says that at first she wasn’t sure how to respond, but the idea slowly started to creep in with her. She admits that she gave up the habit of reading novels while in college, so after graduating in 2014, she began indulging in books like Naomi Novick and Zane Cho.
“I think I’ve always had a lot of ideas live in my mind already,” says Chen, who dedicated Violet “to readers who believed in me before that.”
“I think for a lot of people’s first accounts, they tend to just throw out all of this stuff that’s already living in their minds and on the page,” she continues. “This is what happened to me. I think this fairy tale world was already there for me. If I were to make a world, this is the world I would make.”
It really is a world of his own making. The first book in a planned diology, Violet Made of Thorns, focuses on a prophetic witch (Violet) who finds herself in a respected role within the king’s court in the kingdom of Sun Capital. The problem is that she lied, erred, and prophesied incorrectly in order to get where she was, not exactly the traits one might necessarily want for a book hero aimed at young adults and teens.
“I am a liar better than a prophet,” Violet narrates early in the book. “I don’t think there is a reason for our destinies. I don’t think the world is just. I believe in wolves – in crooks and crowned men who dress up evil as if for talent. Who does not seek judgment before they devour what is theirs.”
“I’ve always been drawn to action figures, because that’s me,” Chen said when asked why she designed her protagonist as a cynical and cynical magician. “The kind of values I grew up in were more like taking care of yourself and doing these things in order to be successful with yourself.”
She goes on to say that her own experience and upbringing, and the values of self-reliance and self-sacrifice that were imparted to her, informed Violet directly.
“I taught myself the kinds of things I would sacrifice for future success,” says Chen, who was raised the daughter of immigrant parents in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles. “Because of that I think I was drawn to characters like that. The magicians who lived in the forest… the people who actually use their hands to work and make things and build things.”
What’s more, Chen says the multi-million dollar YA fantasy industry has evolved a lot over the past decade, giving way to characters that don’t fit within the structured heroic chests the genre is known for. She says that when she was growing up, she couldn’t stand it when she was reading a book and there would be a cold and sarcastic character, but then that character would eventually reveal herself as the all-time heroine. As for Qin, she really wanted her hero to at least be seen as something of an Ante-hero, yet the reader would root for her anyway.
“I think what I’m trying to do differently is that often these characters, which are intended for children or young adults, might be a good role model,” Chen explains. “There is an expectation that they have to be brave and have people’s best interests at heart when, frankly, I feel, at least to me, that I was my worst self as a teenager.”
There is a bit of romance in the book, with a sluggish attraction between Violet and the prince of the kingdom. However, readers should not go expecting romcom-style encounters and banter. Ironically, Chen says that some of the biggest influences on the world she built in the book are actually Disney versions of fairy tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast,” but only because she sees “Violet” as a “response” and responses to the cliches. The happiness that children often grow up with.
“It’s a fairy tale upside down,” says Chen. “One of the things the book flips over is the commercialization of romance and especially fairy tales, because that’s what’s being sold to people.”
In fact, she sees the novel as a modern story, albeit set in a fictional kingdom with magical and strange creatures.
“I tell people it’s a contemporary story, but with a fairy tale on top of it,” says Chen. “Fiction as a literary genre has specific things that people expect – world-building heavy like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Game of Thrones.’ But my story is a modern one that happens to be fairy-tale.”
Thus, while “Violet Made of Thorns” took four years to write, Chen is satisfied with her future as a writer. She is already working on the sequel and says she has a lot of new ideas for future fantasy books.
“I think about and write all of these separate things, and at some point in the process, they slowly come together,” Chen says. “I have all these separate things but eventually I will figure out how to slap them all together.”
She laughs and keeps her humble.
“Of course there will be reviews and it will take many, many tries before me truly Find out.”
Mysterious galaxy presents Jenna Chen
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 26
where: Mysterious Galaxy, 3555 Rosecrans Street 107, Midway District
Combs is a freelance writer.