Welcome to part two of our interview with Canadian author Jorah Kai. In this instalment, Jorah discusses his latest book, the solarpunk fantasy novel ‘Amos the Amazing’, his future creative plans and gives valuable advice to those approaching publishing for the first time.
At the end of 2022, you released your book ‘Amos the Amazing’, a “solarpunk fantasy novel”. Could you tell us a bit more about this genre?
Solarpunk is an imaginative literary and art movement that speculates on what it would look like if we solved current and future pressing problems such as social inequality due to late-stage capitalism, the climate crisis, global warming, and a lot of other social issues to reshape our society and world into something a lot more like what you saw on Star Trek. I live in a cyberpunk supercity in Asia of 34 million people. It sounds cool and looks great at night, but I want to highlight more than that – actually, it’s inspiring to live in a place that is both the world’s biggest polluter and the world’s biggest provider of solar power. To watch coal power plants transition to wind, water, and solar power, to see Chongqing become a sponge city… like it’s all very exciting for me. Solar punk envisions a world where we have overcome these social and environmental problems using technology, shifting to green energies and away from fossil fuels. Often, it involves a political shift somewhere between socialism and radical anarchism. Still, I’ve even wondered if AI would do a better job than what we’ve got going on now anyway. However we get there, we need to break through the log jam of big industry lobbyism, corruption, and resistance to new energy solutions and create a world where we live in high technology and harmony with nature. Say what you will about them – and I have some tough words for billionaires and how they manage to become real-life dragons, but Jeff Bezos does want to create Earth into a park and offload polluting industries into space, and Elon Musk did really move the needle on electric cars. In China now, there are so many electric vehicles, millions of charging stations, and even hydrogen buses that create water instead of CO2 when you drive them. So it feels very exciting to be in this country now. I hope this book and other solar punk books can inspire young readers to go into the sciences (and magick) and help change the world, recreate it into something amazing, high vibration, full of imagination and potential. We could be so much more than we are, and we have the tools to reach it.
What was your source of inspiration for the story, and what would you like readers to take away from reading it?
Amos was a great mix of many things, it is a love letter to the hundreds of fantasy novels I read as a child, and something I wanted to do for many years: mix science fiction and fantasy, using frames, to create a deeply layered experience. There is a LOT of world-building to unpack in sequels, which I think will be fun. I also choose Chongqing as the setting because it’s a wonderful and surprising city that many English speakers have probably never even word of. I used to take some students from the city to help teach rural village primary school students English on an annual spring trip before the pandemic, and it was quite an experience to watch the city kids adapt to rural life in China. That was part of it, as well. I love the opportunity to create a story that is both western and eastern, and my translator, Dr. Fei Gao, who has been a wonderful source of encouragement and support all along, has been really positive about the work as a cross-cultural achievement that, according to her, is quite interesting to Sinologists and experts in English-Chinese cross-cultural studies, which is, again, really interesting.
As part of my writing process for this book, I was asked to do a reading in Tongliang village, China, for a group of university students from Hong Kong, Macao, and Chongqing and sign some of my past books for them. I decided to write a chapter of Amos from a draft I had done up and read it at the event as ‘part of my next book.’ The response I got was incredibly encouraging, and Dr. Gao, who I met at that event, offered to facilitate a beta reading project with me: she said if I had a book to workshop by September 1, we could teach it to her cross-cultural and literary studies students. So that was, like, mid-June, and I went off for my summer break and wrote the book. By August 31, I had a draft of it, and then we began an intense 15-week course, where I scrambled to get each section polished in time for the students to read and comment on it. It was super intense and very interesting. It’s been exciting to be a writer in a foreign country these past few years. As much as I love my native Canada, I can’t imagine having the same opportunities there as I’ve been lucky enough to have here.
What would they like to take from it? I don’t want to spoil that, but I hope it inspires them to read more, believe in magick, and maybe help this world become a little more solarpunk. If I can inspire some clever kids to go into STEM fields and help invent the technologies I dream up and make our world a better place, that’s amazing. Also, with all this war machine saber rattling, I’d like my readers to know my experience. China has been a great place for me to live and work. It’s a lovely place to live. The food is juicy and delicious, and the cost of living is affordable. I think a lot of western leaders and media need an adversary to point at so people don’t ask them the hard questions about why inflation, addiction, and the environment are so out of control or why lobbying makes it legal for big corps to bribe leaders to do bad things instead of responsible ones. Still, if my books can shed some light on the beauty of other cultures and the wonders of China, too, maybe a few people will open their eyes and turn the conversation back to making their own country better rather than trying to bomb ones that are just doing their best and to be honest, the amount of work I’ve seen happen to encourage clean energy, electric and hydrogen cars, etc. in China is amazing. If the West doesn’t get its act together and step it up, China might just save the whole world by itself.
In the end, I moved to China by chance, but also, it’s very interesting to be in this ancient culture and also a very powerful nation, and have, what I hope, is a positive effect as a cross-cultural ambassador. Also, if you love Chinese food, you’ll never have as authentic Chinese food as if you come to China. It’s the real deal.
Any other interesting writing projects in the pipeline?
I’m almost done proofing the Amos the Amazing audiobook, read by award-winning voice actor Christian Neale and that’s super exciting. The way he brings the characters to life is incredibly entertaining, and it was really cool working with him to realize this project. I’m also working on rewriting a novel I wrote (drafted) about four years ago, and I think it’s time to get it out and done. I hope to get it translated into other languages and also write it as a screenplay when it’s done – it’s very cinematic and, I think, has commercial appeal. I’m working on a few experimental forms as well that are exciting because they’re ambitious and strange and feel like very new territory. After centuries of writers saying all stories have been told, we have some really new territory to break bread with, and that’s thrilling. I am going to write a book about the history of Solarpunk, but at the moment, I’m weighing out making it a nonfiction book or a fictionalized novel – I actually have drafts for both, and both have pros and cons. I believe it deserves a nonfiction treatment, but the audience for fiction is much bigger, and I want to reach as many people as possible, so I am leaning towards a cyberpunk-style adventure with possible solarpunk futurism, inspiring people to create a future worth living in. My Chinese publisher wants me to write many more Amos stories, so I will return to that world after a little break and a few other books because I want to be a better, more cohesive, and clearer writer when I return to it. As my protagonists age, I think the demands for a more mature voice will push me to take it to higher heights, but it’s another great challenge I’m also looking forward to.
As a very experienced writer, what advice would you give to aspiring authors approaching publishing (or self-publishing) for the first time?
I get a little surprised to hear myself described that way, but I’ll take it. I guess if you do anything for long enough, it’s inevitable. Whether you choose to go down the route of traditional publishing, self-publishing, or hybrid publishing, it’s a lot more work in social media, marketing, and promoting than you probably realized. The great thing about traditional publishers is you just give them the book, and they guide you the rest of the way. The problem is they may say no for a long time before one says yes, and they may require a lot of sacrifices or compromises you might not want to make. For self-publishing, it’s the converse, you dictate the timing, the material, and absolute creative control, but it’s also on you to get your cover done to a standard that someone might find appealing, recruit your team of beta readers and editors, and decide what quality of book is enough for your purposes and your audience. I’ve done both, and they both have their advantages and disadvantages. Working with my friend Garrett to create More Publishing as a micro ‘boutique’ imprint that primarily is focused on amplifying English voices and telling stories of China which is relevant to our daily lives here (I’m in Chongqing, he’s in Chengdu, about an hour away by high-speed rail). By publishing Amos in English first, I was able to get it to a level I think is about as good as it is going to get now, meaning that the Chinese translator and the traditional publishing house in China are getting a better Chinese product in the end, and I get to share it in my native language this year instead of in 5 years or so, so we were all happy about that. I’ll give you some advice that works for me, the students I’ve taught over the last decade, and advice we’d give to prospective writers hoping More Publishing might want to publish their novel; I think, in general, it’s reasonable advice for any writer.
First, dream it, and then work like you want your dream to come true. You have to make space for your dream to grow and then wake up every day and work like you believe your dream will happen. Inspiration and perspiration. Two, plan and outline. Take your book and break it into bite-sized chunks. One day, write a logline; the next, give me a paragraph showing 3 act structure. Break it into chapters the next day and tell me the beats you want each chapter to hit, then wake up and give me 2000 words for Chapter 1 before lunch. If you can’t write a scene in artistic and literary glory, give me the bullet points of what happens, and know you’ll get back to it to fill it in later.
When you’ve got that glorious first draft, that’s great, but the job is only beginning. Be ready to work on those lines and scenes 70 times if that is what it takes to get it right, and find beta readers who can give honest feedback and fill in your gaps. Want to write an action scene but never held a gun? Just do your best and then find someone with that experience to help you get the weight right later. Rewrite and revise until you’re ready (or have) to let it go. I had to let Amos go in 2022 because the translator and publisher were hungry for it. I could have written it for 3 more years, and it would have been a better English book, but I had to take the chance that I did when I did it, and we’re still cleaning up typos here and there, but the editors did a great job and I think it’s a lovely story. I want the next one to be 1000% better, so I’ll keep pushing myself harder to learn and grow. Lastly, if you write for everyone, you’re writing for no one, so consider your audience. Picture someone and tell the story as you want them to hear it.
In the end, what I learned from my diaries/nonfiction trilogy, The Invisible War, and replicated with Amos and other books going forward, is the difference between a hobby writer with a draft on their shelf and a published writer with thousands of copies sold is a mindset. As Stephen Pressfield so eloquently says, if you want to go pro, you’ve got to act pro. It’s about not giving up when you get to the end but pushing on harder than you’ve ever pushed before. They call them book babies for a reason and it is labor – but it’s a labor of love. Treat it like it matters and needs to be born for the world, and you’ll get it done.
The first one is the hardest. You’re proving to yourself and to the world that you are a writer and you have at least one good book in you. It gets easier after that. You have a roadmap, you’ve done it before, and you just have to do it again. Don’t worry about being a genius, don’t worry about anything, just do your best, show up to the desk and write and welcome the muses when they come. If you write a bum book, maybe you just had a bum muse. Write another one. They’ll get better, and so will you.
If I could leave you with one final idea, it’s the duality of this: Writing is Magic. You are sharing your mind and yourself with the world, and if you do it well, people who aren’t even alive yet will spend time with you in close communion years after you’re dead. But writing isn’t magic. It’s a job, and it’s hard work. And you may dream of being a writer, but until you show up at your desk every day and make the time to get your books done and meet your muses halfway, you are robbing yourself and the world of your potential. So get to it, and show us what you’ve got.
Thanks so much for your time! Really appreciate speaking with you and hope your readers get something out of this.
With warm regards and twinkly toes, as we spin purposely about on a beautiful blue ball through the endless vast emptiness for what seems like an awfully long time,
Editor’s Note from Alex: During our numerous online conversations and throughout the interview, Jorah shared meaningful insight on the challenges he faced growing up and the sense of ennui he felt numerous times in his life. I believe these are feelings we can all relate to as human beings, and having struggled with mental health myself, I’d like to share links to two UK charities very close to my heart, in the hope they might help if you too feel overwhelmed.
Mosaic LGBT + Young Person Trust | A charity aiming to support, educate and inspire young LGBT+ persons and those around them by providing accessible activities, programmes and services (including counselling) to empower community members, provide essential resources, advocate for young LGBT+ rights, and embrace, promote and endorse the diversity of young persons.
Mind UK | A charity fighting mental health, ‘for support for respect, for you’. Mind operates in England and Wales, supporting minds and making mental health an everyday priority. It offers help through information, advice and local services and brings together a network of individuals and communities – people who care about mental health to make a difference.
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1 thought on “Life of an Artist: in conversation with Jorah Kai (Part Two)”
Having known Kai before he became successful and semi-famous, I can say that he continues to be approachable, modest, and a genuinely nice guy. I enjoyed reading this interview because he reveals sides of himself and depths of professionalism I was not aware of. I hope for his continued success as a writer and a role model for young people and authors. – Randy Green, Chongqing,China