We are thrilled to include an interview with Maria Dong, author of the newly released Liar, Dreamer, Thief. Maria’s story “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” was published in khōréō’s very first issue and was later reprinted in 2022’s Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Her debut novel is a fast-paced, genre-bending story of Katrina Kim, a young Korean woman who grew up loving a book called Mi-Hee and the Mirror-Man. Now, she can see an overlay of Mi-Hee’s world in her day-to-day life; people and places have analogues to the various locations in the story. Sometimes, she sees it because she chooses to—and sometimes, it foists itself upon her. Liar, Dreamer, Thief is a stellar exploration of mental health, magic, and the secrets we all keep.
Aleksandra Hill: While Mi-Hee and the Mirror-Man isn’t real (I wish it were), I think most folks who’ve been readers since they were kid have a book that got under their skin and stayed there through adulthood (for me, it was The Wheel of Time—still wish I could be Green Ajah!). Is there a particular book or series that inspired Mi-Hee’s story and Katrina’s relationship with it?
MD: Yes, although I think it would be more than one book. First, there was Echoes of the White Giraffe by Sook Nyul Choi, about a fifteen-year-old Korean War refugee. It’s not the kind of thing I normally would have read at that time—I was really into fantasy and mystery, surprise, surprise—but I was in an area with almost no Korean people and knew very little about Korea, despite having lived there as a child. This was a time when you couldn’t just YouTube a travel video or have Amazon deliver an eBook to your Kindle—information about Korea was hard for me to come by. Most of my peers had no idea what Korea was, and I was frequently mocked when any part of my mother’s culture bled into my day-to-day life.
I think I read that book a thousand times. It was such a lifeline for me, understanding something about the history of my mother’s family—even now, many older Koreans cannot talk about the effects the Japanese occupation and the Korean War had on their families and our culture. It’s just too painful.
As for the more fantastical elements: as a kid, I loved and read all of Redwall, all of the Oz books, and all of the His Dark Materials series, so I’m sure some of those elements filtered their way in.
AH: Music weaves its way throughout the story. Not only was Katrina once a musician, but she has specific rituals/compulsions around when she’s safely allowed to listen to music, and various classical pieces weave their way through the story. How did that facet of her develop, and how did you choose the pieces that appear?
MD: I think when you first become an adult, you have an idea of the kind of person that you are and the kind of things that you do. And then you add new interests and hobbies, and commit to spending your time in new ways, and at some point, you realize that you don’t have room or time or energy for everything. You’ve got to let some things go.
I think music was kind of like that for me. As a young person, I was really passionate about being a musician and practiced endlessly. I really saw that being my future, and it formed such a huge part of my identity. If you had told twenty-year-old me that actually, there would come a time in my life where I’d mostly hang it up, I wouldn’t have been able to understand it.
I think that writing that aspect of myself into Katrina was almost a way of sort of saying goodbye. Honoring this person that I used to be, while also making space for the person I am now. In addition to being selected for how they fit the mood and symbolism of the story, all the pieces selected were personally relevant to me and my growth as a musician. In fact, I did an annotated playlist explaining some of the big ones that you can read and listen to at this link.
AH: One of the things I loved about this book is how real the fantastical element is, even though there are consistent reminders that all of this could just be in Katrina’s head. In fact, the book deals with mental illness in a really marvelous way; I saw my own depressive episodes reflected back at me as well as my ADHD tendencies, and Katrina’s compulsive behaviors were described in a way that made me feel so empathetic to them. Can you talk a little about what drew you to exploring fantasy vs. reality and mental illness in this way, and how you approached it?
MD: I knew very early on in the story that Katrina would have mental illness. I, personally, was in the middle of a really difficult time in my own unending journey with mental health when I drafted this book, and I think so much of the writing here was in conversation with that place, trying to approach it with empathy and curiosity instead of self-disparagement.
All books, including this one, are a kind of translation. What I mean by that is that I realized early on in drafting Liar, Dreamer, Thief that if I just portrayed mental illness in this hyper-realistic way, a reader who didn’t have that experience would get the factual details, but they wouldn’t feel any of it—the pressure, the anxiety, the moments of relief or elation. By moving into a somewhat fantastical framework, I could come at it sideways. You wouldn’t know what to expect from the story, in the same way that I don’t always know what to expect from myself.
Speaking of ADHD tendencies: a lot of people have commented (sometimes with hatred, sometimes with glee) that Katrina makes a lot of bad decisions in the book. It wasn’t until after I drafted this book and it sold to an editor that I found out that I have ADHD, and knowing that now and looking back at this book, I’m surprised it ever escaped my detection.
AH: One thing I love about your writing is how slippery it is in terms of conforming to genre or expectation. I had no idea where the story was going when I started the book, but I was hooked from the first page and absolutely willing to go wherever you wanted to take me. Is that ‘slipperiness’ something you do intentionally, or is it a factor of something else?
MD: I think it’s both. On one hand, I read really widely. I also consume media across genres and from outside of the US, which I think sets you up to think more creatively in how you approach narrative. A great example of this is Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite—the reveal in it is so huge, it essentially uproots the movie from its starting genre and moves it into another one (and it’s really wonderfully, masterfully done.)
Another piece of it, though, is that I have this deep understanding of our understanding genre as a commercial, capitalist construct. We are taught the rules for what books are and aren’t allowed to do by sheer repetition, and many of those choices come from a really fraught relationship between creators and the people that finance them—and often from inside of a deeply colonialist, individualistic mindset. (I talk a bit about my personal pet peeves in Apex Magazine, using the framework of the survivalist show Alone)
I admit that I take a particular, spiteful glee in subverting whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. Part of that is that I’m just a contrarian person. I also get bored so easily—the only way to keep myself interested in a manuscript through entire year it takes to write it is to throw myself some interesting challenges and curveballs.
AH: You published “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” with us back in 2021. In Liar, Dreamer, Thief, you also make mention of han. Can you talk a little about what draws you to the term and how it impacts the stories you tell?
MD: I’m obsessed with the concept of Han: its anti-colonialist and cultural roots, its applicability as a symbol, the possibility of a deep, burning, rightful anger and grief that we transmit to the next generation.
I can’t really explain it—I feel it in my own life, as maybe only the child of an immigrant can, in the conversations that we have not been able to have or the experiences that we cannot share. But I think ultimately, so many of my stories examine that idea of isolation: how loneliness happens, how it affects the people we are, how we then go on to affect others. Loneliness is the inversion of connection, but it’s also the product of it, in that if there was a world without connection, it also wouldn’t have loneliness, either. And I think there’s a kind of loneliness that goes hand in hand with grief, so maybe that’s where it comes from.
AH: Liar, Dreamer, Thief is definitely a standalone, but you leave room for a series at the end—one that I would love to read. Do you have a sequel planned? Please tell me you have a sequel planned. (You don’t have to answer this one especially, but if you want to, you can!)
MD: On January 10th, when this book came out, I had zero ideas about a sequel. I’ve been kind of shocked by the response to this book, particularly the number of people who’ve asked about Katrina and if she’s going to show up again. I honestly wasn’t planning on writing one, but you never know.
Thank you for your time. I really loved Liar, Dreamer, Thief and read it in just over a day, absolutely breathlessly. I think our readers will love it too — read more about it and purchase it at this link.