Author Peter Tieryas wrote the critically acclaimed cyberpunk dystopian novel United States of Japan, a novel inspired by Philip K. Dick’s Man In the High Castle that explored its twisted, alternate future from an Asian perspective.
Tieryas’ newest novel, Mecha Samurai Empire takes place in the same universe as United States of Japan, continuing to expand the Empire’s world and culture. The book has already received a great deal of attention and support.
Legendary video game designer Hideo Kojima of Metal Gear Solid praised the novel, declaring “Intermixing the experience of cinema, literature, anime, comics, and gaming, this is the new generation of Science Fiction we’ve been waiting for!”
Academy-award winning director Guillermo del Toro could only respond with “Wow!”
AsianCrush was lucky enough to privately interview Peter between signings and appearances at this year’s NYCC.
Otter Lee (AsianCrush): What was it like growing up as an Asian-American and how did it influence your work?
Peter Tieryas: Specifically for this book, it played a really big role because this book is about being Asian-American in that alternate history. On one side, the Empire of Japan won, but on the other side, there are the Nazis whose sole purpose is getting rid of anybody who isn’t like them. That sort of idea of your existence being threatened just by your ethnicity and who they’re born as, and how these characters deal with these people existing.
It’s a core theme, and it’s surprisingly more relevant than just with what’s going on right now. When I started researching for this book, I never thought I would have to explain why Nazis are bad.
Yeah, they’re bad, and there’s been a resurgence of them lately…. So you weren’t aware of that at all while you were writing?
No. With books it takes a couple years before you send a draft out, but it evolved as it started happening and became a little more concrete. It’s also about how you find yourself in terms of identity. When I write my books, I don’t want it to be a checklist where I’m like I need to get the diversity and have these token people. It’s more that I want my authentic experience. It’s about me, which is why my main characters are usually Asian, that’s what I relate to. All the other characters are diverse, but they’re inspired by real people, so that’s how it kind of came about.
In terms of being an Asian-American, one thing that’s really important for me is—I recently had a daughter and I went to Toys R US and I was like “What toys should I buy for her?” And I looked around and there wasn’t a single Asian character. Growing up, I remember asking myself “Which Asian American characters can I look up to as heroes?” And there weren’t many. Almost all the Asian characters I could think of were from Asian literature. So that’s why for me, writing Mecha Samurai Empire and having Asian Characters who aren’t really quirky or weird or like super geniuses.
My main character is very ordinary. He has a big dream, he wants to be a pilot for mechs, but he has to struggle hard for it. He fails a lot. I wanted a flawed Asian character, so that people could read and say “That’s like me. I’m not this perfect SAT score, Straight A-Student.” Those were the Asian characters I always saw on TV and media. This character fails tests,
What do you think about the enduring fascination around mecha-armor suits and giant robots?
A lot of the mecha stuff that I love, like Metal Gear Solid and Patlabor 2, the mechas are a sort of symbol, but it’s really about humans and how they use or misuse that technology. It makes people essentially superhuman. It’s something that makes a person a superhero or villain, without superpowers, but now it’s more scientific.
It’s like a world of scientific superhumans where anyone can become it and it’s so exciting. Technically, if you started training for it, you could become a mecha pilot, if it existed, whereas, you can’t become Superman or Flash or Spiderman no matter what. So I think it’s that sense of science making people superhuman and how that impacts or influences you and the way you approach life. How do these superpowers change the power dynamic and political landscape?
The best mecha stuff is really about the pilots, so that’s where I spent most of my time. Even when there’s a couple big battles, the biggest thing I spent time on was the dialogue because otherwise, you have what I call mecha porn, which you get bored of really fast. It’s like “whoa this is SO cool” then after the first minute it’s the same thing or explosion over and over again. And after awhile you’re like “When’s this over?”
If they’re interacting and there’s stakes and you care about the characters, it takes on a whole different poignancy.
What sorts of research do you do in terms of history for your novels?
For this one, I did A LOT of research. It started when I was growing up because I heard a lot of stories about what happened during World War II in Asia. I was stunned because in America when you study WWII there’s almost nothing covered on the Pacific side and Asian fronts. It’s all Douglas MacArthur, we won, and then the nuclear bomb.
It was like “Who fought on the Japanese side? Who fought on the Chinese side? And all the different factions: the Thai, the Filipino, the Korean. Who were the people? And there’s no information about any of that spread in America. So I started there and did a lot of research on that. I wanted to show American audiences that there was more to this war. And what happened back then still has an impact now. All the divisions now have their roots from back then.
Your previous novel was inspired by The Man in the High Castle. As a writer, how do you balance paying homage to something in your work while also making it your own piece?
That’s a really tricky one because when I started the book, there was no Man In The High Castle TV show. Before then, I thought of it as one of Philip K. Dick’s lesser known works. When I was first writing, everybody knew Blade Runner and Minority Report, and I wanted to pay homage. I modernized it, set it in the 80’s versus the 60’s, so it’s more contemporized. A big part of why I wrote it was that Philip K. Dick wanted to do a sequel to the Man in the High Castle but he just found the material so disturbing. I wanted to do something like that, but focus more on the Asian side.
For United States of Japan, I spent a lot of time trying to balance it. If there are any regrets, it’s maybe that I paid too much homage in my book, to Philip K. Dick and a lot of other things.
With Mecha Samurai Empire, I feel like it’s my own book and that I was having fun really exploring that universe.
As an Asian storyteller, have you ever felt that you faced any discrimination or pressure in the literary industry?
That’s a great question, and I’m glad to say that I’ve been really fortunate with my current set of editors and publishers—they’ve been unbelievable, like super supportive.
When I was first beginning, as a literary writer, there was—I wouldn’t call this racism, but an encouragement to say “Write more immigration or family type stories.” And I was like “But I just wanna do sci-fi, fantasy, and weird fun stories!”
One thing I want to do is bring up that NYCC is pretty diverse, but sometimes you go to science fiction conferences and I was stunned by this, I looked outside at one and I’m in a panel, a full room, and I was the only Asian person in the room. It was almost entirely Caucasian. That to me, was a little bit stunning because I wasn’t used to that. My hope is that with books like mine and other Asian writers like Ken Liu, that we bring more Asian Americans in or at least excited enough to show up to these events.
What sorts of pop culture do you consume?
I’ve been playing so many video games—that’s like my love! Recently, Persona 5, Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey. Because we’ve had the baby, I haven’t played as many games recently because I’ve just been like holding the baby.
Are you going to get your kid into video games?
Absolutely. I’m like, waiting. You know, when I was growing up, and this is in Mecha Samurai Empire too, I would ditch class to play games. It didn’t matter. When the new Final Fantasy VI came out, I called in sick and played all day. I just love games, and that, for me, ended up being a great thing because everyone was always like “study, study, study, study,” and I studied, but I wanted to do what I was passionate about, which was reading science fiction and playing video games. And that ended up working well for me when it came to writing and my career. When I worked in video games, it really paid off.
And I think it’s changing for a lot of Asian Americans, where for us, the stereotype was become a doctor, become a lawyer, or you’re a failure. “What? You’re an artist? How can you make a living off of that?” When older people ask me what I encourage their kids to do, I’m reluctant, but what I want to say is “Play more video games? Watch cool shows! Read science fiction books!” It’s definitely not just study!
As a writer, what would you say the most important facets of worldbuilding are?
That’s a really hard one. For me, it’s the really minute details that make or break a world. Obviously a big one is consistency because without that, there’s no rules and everything falls apart. Where I find the consistency is in the minor things. In my alternate histories, I love talking about food because that’s just part of my life. I love going out to eat and—that’s what I do with my friends. I’m like “Hey, let’s go out and find a new place to try!”
It’s really interesting because in Japan, it’s a really popular activity.
Oh, I know all about that! I think I tried seven different ramen places when I visited Japan two years ago.
Exactly, it’s an adventure! It’s funny because sometimes, Westerners, or I should say people who are less familiar with Asian culture, read the book, they’re like “Why is there so much food stuff?” The people more familiar with Asia or those foods are like “I LOVE THAT!”
Really, it’s the details. I love spending time and figuring out what’s their breakfast, dinner, lunch, what sodas or treats!
Would you ever do a cookbook for the world of Mecha Samurai Empire?
If there’s an audience or reader demand for it, I’m up for anything, but I’d probably get someone else to do it.
What are your favorite foods? There are so many good ones, I can’t narrow them down—it literally depends on the week for me. Korean, Chinese, Japanese—everything! Hong Shao Rou (Braised Shanghaii Pork), Kimchi-jjigae. There’s like that Army Soup where you put in ramen, spam, sausages. I just love stuff like that. Oh, and Mapo doufu.
I love trying new stuff. Like we went to Shengdu province and tried a bunch of Szechuan spices and it destroyed my stomach for a couple weeks, but I loved it.
What are your favorite anime?
There are so many. Battle Angel Alita, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira, anything by Miyazaki, more recently, Knights of Sidonia, Aldnoah Zero, Attack On Titan—haha, that one’s just brutal.
Do you have any advice for young writers of color who are looking to break into sci-fi or fantasy?
In terms of writing it’s really hard, but at the same time, there are more opportunities than ever. There are so many diverse voices and ways to get yourself out there, but that’s also why it’s hard, because now you have so much you’re competing against. I’ve found really talented writers that became discouraged whether because of the business aspect or just rejections. That’s just a normal part of being a writer. I had years where I didn’t get a single acceptance after just rejection after rejection. It left me wondering “Am I even meant to be a writer? What am I even doing?” And I’ve found people who maybe weren’t as good but were persistent and made it. It’ all about persistence and luck.
There are also those people who get a book deal when they’re 21 and have a New York Times bestseller right away, and then there for the rest of us, who are like struggling to make it out, I would say persist, work hard at it, and believe in yourself.
How do you motivate yourself to write? It can be hard. That’s why I like watching and playing good stuff whether it’s a video game or a Netflix series, or an anime. Those things get me excited and inspire me. I think right now, more than ever, good stories are important. There’s so much going on in the world, so much turmoil and chaos, but I also think that’s good for diverse stories and stories people can relate to. Even if you don’t relate, just learning how people think is very valuable. I think everyone should work to move forward, have unity, and understand each other.
It feels like a lot of what’s going on is because of miscommunication. Whether it’s like how people are threatened by the idea of diversity and trying to explain to them, we’re not trying to threaten you, we just want more of an equal voice. Hopefully we can accomplish that empathy through storytelling.
Another way I find motivation is when people I really respect and admire reach out with support or a positive reaction.
For Mecha Samurai Empire, I don’t even care what anyone says anymore because Hideo Kojima, the guy who created Metal Gear blurbed it and said he really liked the book when it came out in Japan. And I was like “Okay, I’m done!” Because I grew up playing Metel Gear. Things like that!
Part of being a writer can be being really sensitive and always doubting ourselves. If you’re super confident, you’ll never want to change, but if you’re always doubting yourself, you might be trying to improve, but you’re also just wracked with anxiety. “Is this crap? Am I going to release this? Everybody’s going to hate this!” Just having support in the community has been really great.