Some Thoughts with ... Lianyu Tan

13 Aug 2023

The Author/s

Lianyu Tan

Lianyu Tan

Lianyu Tan is a Lambda Literary and Golden Crown Literary Award-winning author of sapphic speculative fiction. She is the author of The Wicked and the Willing, a lesbian gothic horror vampire novel set in 1920s Singapore, and Captive in the Underworld, a lesbian dark romance retelling of the Hades/Persephone myth. Her short stories have been published by Cleis Press.

Lianyu lives with her wife in Australia. Find links to her work at and on social media at @LianyuTan

The Interview

1.- What made you choose indie publishing?
My first book is a dark romance novel, and dark romance was an almost exclusively indie genre at the time, so it just made sense to go indie.
Choosing indie or trad publishing is difficult and there are no right answers; every author has to choose what’s best for them, based on their personal circumstances.

2.- Could you tell more to the readers about Captive in the Underworld?
My first novel is a sapphic retelling of the Greek myth where Hades, god of the underworld, kidnaps Persephone, goddess of spring and new growth, to be his bride. In my version, Hades is gender-swapped cis female, but I’ve retained the setting of ancient mythological Greece.
Captive in the Underworld is a classic dark romance, meaning the darkness occurs between the protagonists. Dark romance is a broad genre rife with violence and sexual assault. The tagline for my book is What Hades wants, she takes. I provide extended content warnings for all my books on my website,

3.- What do you find appealing about horror?
I love that horror lets you put the unspeakable upon the page, that it can illuminate those hidden stories deemed too unpalatable for polite society. And it’s perfectly acceptable for every character to be grossly flawed and simply not very nice, which I think is more realistic.
Moments of beauty and stillness in a horror story are heightened by the knowledge that things are going to get ugly again. The contrast elevates those beats of tenderness and connection.

4.- How do you balance the horror and romance elements in your stories?
To love is to anticipate a loss, for don’t all true love stories eventually end with a death, either literal or figurative? And there’s also the loss of self, losing who you thought you were before being seen by another person.
So I don’t think there’s anything contradictory in pairing romance and horror. To desire to be vulnerable, to open yourself to rejection and corruption, and those are all fertile grounds for horror.

5.- How would you say the idea for The Wicked and The Willing appeared?
For a while, I’ve wanted to write a story using vampires as a metaphor for colonialism. I was just putting it off because I was daunted by the amount of historical research required.
But then I read one of my favorite epic fantasy series, The Masquerade by Seth Dickinson, which starts with The Traitor Baru Cormorant. The titular Baru Cormorant is a marginalized lesbian who witnesses her home island being colonized and decides to take down the evil empire from within its governmental structure, using her superpowers of nerdery and implementing economic policy. The series is painstakingly researched, gritty, and woefully underappreciated.
But by the time I got to the end of the third book, my brain decided to catalog all the micro and macro aggressions and racist behavior directed towards Baru, and then I couldn’t stop thinking about all the similar behavior I’ve either witnessed or been subjected to. Being a visual racial minority and living essentially as a second-generation immigrant, I’ve always felt the pressure not to talk about this sort of thing, not to even think about it. There’s the real horror, that you get so indoctrinated you censor yourself in your own head.
But you always have to just be grateful. And I’m not saying that living in Australia is bad or that I’m not grateful. See? Even in my own interview I have to justify myself, to put all these clauses around it, to coach the language into something that’s palatable.
But I tried not to do that in the book, tried not to censor myself. You get it all: the girl who’s starry-eyed for the glamor and wealth of empire, the vampire who thinks herself a savior, and the butch lesbian who’s just trying to survive in a cruel and indifferent world.

6.- Another interesting detail of The Wicked and The Willing is how you can choose between three endings (two are in the book itself, and one is included in your newsletter). Why did you decide to do this?
I knew from the start that the protagonist would have two love interests, creating a love triangle—technically a love V, or a love corner. It’s a fun way of externalizing choices, letting them be represented by separate characters. But I wanted the protagonist to be malleable enough that she could realistically go either way, and to give that option to the reader.
I’m a video game player, and what I love about games with choices is the branching pathways, the knowledge of the road not taken, which gives more weight to your actual choice. I’d probably never structure a book like this again, but I think the multiple endings suit this novel.

7.- The Wicked and The Willing has won multiple awards. How did you feel when you knew you had won a Lambda and a Golden Crown?
I’m always pleasantly surprised when people find meaning and value in this book. It’s a book that invites the reader to suffer, and not everyone is open to that. Some of its scenes are truly horrific and reading it can be an act of emotional labor.
It’s also been hard finding its audience. Partly it’s because horror is a harder sell for indie authors; all the data confirm that. So I was shocked and humbled when this book was deemed of being award-worthy, and I’m so thankful to everyone who helped me along the way—all my early readers, my sensitivity readers, my language consultants, the historians and academics who generously donated their time and expertise, my editors and cover designers, all the staff and volunteers at Lambda Literary and Golden Crown, and Emily Woo Zeller, who voiced the audiobook version so beautifully.

8.- How do you see your writing evolving in the future, and what kind of stories do you hope to tell next?
I’m constantly pushing myself to do better. I’d like to return to my first love, which is secondary world fantasy, and I’d like to write a true slow burn, where the characters don’t get together until book 3 or 4. And I’ll always be a novelist at heart, but I’m also dabbling in short stories.

9.- Can you describe your process for conducting historical research? Also, why did you choose Singapore in the 1920s for this novel?
I’m a terrible researcher. I never take enough notes, and they’re so badly organized it would make an academic cry.
I’m lucky enough to live near a university library that permits external borrowers, so I read a bunch about the region and then narrowed my focus and read some more. The Singaporean Government has also uploaded an incredible amount of information online that’s freely available—digitized newspapers, historical maps, and audio interviews (with translations) from a wide range of people. Many historians and academics were all kind enough to share their research and thoughts on specific questions.
I originally thought about setting this book in Victorian times, but I wanted my main character to have a school education, and that was implausible for Chinese girls until later. So then I wanted a time where my characters didn’t have to worry about plot-breaking world events, like World War I, the flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II. Hence, the interwar period. 1927 was a great year to start, and it also had the right mix of technology, land use, and social factors that I wanted to write about. Chapter one of my novel ends with the Kreta Ayer incident on 12 March 1927, where police killed six people, but we just see the chaos, the blood—none of the main characters are thinking about politics or following up on this event. Sure, other stuff is happening, but my characters are all too busy being terrible/sexy/gay to worry about it.
I’m from the region—I’m monoracial Chinese Malaysian Australian, and Singapore was part of British Malaya at the time. I chose Singapore over other Malay states because it was the seat of the colonial government and so a convenient base for my vampires, some of whom are involved in local politics.

10.-What are some books that you have read recently that have made a lasting impression on you?
I was moved by Grace M. Cho’s Tastes Like War. She’s Korean American and her memoir explores food and family history, including her mother’s schizophrenia.
I’ve been reading Naomi Novik since Temeraire, but The Scholomance trilogy is my favorite work of hers. It’s so incredibly charming, earnest, gut-wrenching and beautiful. Highly recommended for fans of magic academy.
I also loved Tamsyn Muir’s short story The Deepwater Bride, which is a contemporary Lovecraftian horror-comedy set in a small town.

11.- What can we expect from Lianyu Tan in the future?
I’m working very slowly on my next projects, so you probably won’t see any new releases soon, but the best way to keep up with me is to join my newsletter at
By joining, you can also download a free story and the bonus ending to The Wicked and the Willing. Everyone loves free stuff, right? 😂