was published on September 12th by Harper Voyager.
: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?Maggie
: Thank you for having me. It is a real pleasure for me to tell your readers about my book.
I studied English literature in college and have been an avid reader my entire life. I took one creative writing class in college and have always dreamed about becoming a writer some day. About ten years ago, when my youngest child started middle school and I had more time at my disposal, I sat down and gave writing a serious try.
I discovered that I really liked inventing stories, puzzling together scenes and situations, and polishing sentences over and over until I got them right. Writing suited my temperament and helped me find myself after a decade and a half dedicated to raising my boys.
I am very fortunate to live next door to Stanford University, and I started taking creative writing classes there.TQ
: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?Maggie
: I have been both a plotter and a pantser. An Excess Male
is my first published novel, but my second attempt at writing one. My first effort, Fortune’s Fools
, was written with an outline which I found very comforting at the time. I did not always follow it, but I had a fuzzy idea where I was heading. An Excess Male
was a writing experiment and an education every step of the way. I first wrote “Ball and Chain,” a short story which was published by Asimov’s Science Fiction
. I was intrigued by the experiences of each member of this potential family and wrote alternating chapters from their points of view. I liked their voices but had no idea where they would lead me. It was fun and, at times, nerve-racking.
I thought I was writing a modern twist on the marriage plot with a male protagonist at its center. A fifth of the way into the writing, I realized that I also had a speculative dystopian novel on my hands and had to learn about the genre.
When I was at 90,000 words, I experienced a small panic attack. I didn’t know if my year-plus effort had an ending. I still remember meeting for coffee with my writing group pal, M.P. Cooley, and the two of us forcing each other to think through to the conclusions of our respective books.TQ
: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?Maggie
: Not get distracted by email and all the tantalizing things on the internet is my biggest challenge. I think best with my fingers on the keyboard, and I find that if I am able to do that, the words and ideas usually come.TQ
: What has influenced / influences your writing?Maggie
: I think my greatest influences first and foremost were my writing teachers at Stanford Continuing Studies. I’ve had the fortune to learn from Professor Nancy Packer and Stegner Fellows Eric Puchner, Thomas McNeely, and Otis Haschemeyer. They taught me the craft of writing and much, much more.
In writing An Excess Male
, I looked to a number of books for guidance. The Handmaid’s Tale
is quite similar thematically to mine. It fascinated me that the draconian measures in both The Handmaid’s Tale
and in my book began as well-intentioned efforts to solve serious crises. The theocracy in The Handmaid’s Tale
was facing an eroding environment, sharply declining fertility rates, and possible extinction while the State in An Excess Male
was contending with overpopulation and mass starvation. The original intent in both cases was good, yet the practice in actuality was the legislation of what can and cannot be done to women’s bodies.
Another book that was very much on my mind was Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son
. My book also had a situation where an entire citizenry was made disposable by a national narrative, a setting where everyone was aware of the unspoken subtext in public utterances, where it was not always safe for one’s outward actions to mirror what was in one’s heart. I was really inspired by a passage in The Orphan Master’s Son
—a talk every parent must have with his or her child about how they must speak and act in the way expected by the State, yet inside they must still be a family and their true selves. They must hold hands in their hearts.
Some other books that helped me with world building and speculative dystopian novels: Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro, Vampires in the Lemon Grove
and St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
by Karen Russell.TQ
: Describe An Excess Male in 140 characters or less. Maggie
: Under the One-Child Policy, everyone plotted to have a son. Now 30 million of them can’t find wives, and the State must intervene again.TQ
: Tell us something about An Excess Male that is not found in the book description.Maggie
: The many hours I spent at children’s laser tag parties helped me dream up scenes in this book.TQ
: What inspired you to write An Excess Male? Maggie
: I got the idea five years ago when I opened up the morning paper and read about the gender imbalance in China brought on by its One Child Policy and cultural bias for male heirs. By the year 2030, 25% of men in their late thirties—nearly 30 million people—will never have married.
I learned that the natural sex ratio at birth is about 107 boys to 100 girls. The skew is nature’s ingenious way of making up for the higher mortality rate among males. During the 37 years in which the One Child Policy was law, the ratio got as high as 137 to 100 in some rural provinces.
Even with the phasing out of the law starting in 2015, this society will be testosterone-fueled, prone to aggression and crime, and plagued by an undercurrent of loneliness and dissatisfaction for decades to come. And to make matters even more intriguing, all of these unmarried men are the only children in their families, accustomed to the undivided attention of doting parents and grandparents.
This news story had more zip than my morning coffee, and I was convinced right away that it held the premise for an interesting novel.TQ
: What appealed to you about writing a near-future novel about what might happen due to China's One Child Policy?Maggie
: After the Great Leap Forward, China was facing food shortages and mass starvation. Population control was essential, and the One Child Policy was China’s answer to a very serious crisis.
This policy also became one the largest scaled and longest lasting social engineering experiment of all time. It was enforced by Chinese officials and at times, by its citizenry in ways that often violated widely accepted rules of ethics and human decency. Despite the cultural bias for male heirs and repeated warnings from census data, the law remained in effect for nearly forty years.
It was an experiment that created serious unintended consequences, a true cautionary tale against man’s attempt to interfere with the natural order.TQ
: What sort of research did you do for An Excess Male?Maggie
: In the process of writing two books, I discovered that for me research could become an excuse for not writing. After doing some reading on the subject in newspapers and magazines, I did internet searches as I wrote when the need arose. I also searched for appropriate photographs online to help me visualize settings and capture moods. Researching in this manner saved me time and made me focus on the story, and the material I found was exactly what I needed for the scene I was working on.
I joke with my friends that I should thank Google’s search engine in my book’s acknowledgement page, but it is really not a joke. It is mind-blowing the amount of information that is at our fingertips. Except for my visit to Beijing, I was able to find everything I needed online. TQ
: Please tell us about the cover for An Excess Male. Maggie
: The cover was designed by Kapo Ng. I loved it at first sight. The very modern male figure with the movie-star good looks pulled me in right away. I felt compelled to focus on him only to discover that his substance is composed of his city scape. He is a man defined by his homeland. The two bold, diagonal red stripes seem to place him behind bars, to circumscribe him in a way. Despite his winning looks, “An Excess Male” is nevertheless stamped across his visage, and the rather unforgiving, institutional labeling with the Buran USSR font (love that name) of the title further restricts him. The color scheme completes the cover by perfectly encapsulating the authoritarian elements of the story.
When I received the finished copy of the book, I was pleasantly surprised by the gloss that was added to the red stripes and title. It made the cover even more eye catching.TQ
: In An Excess Male who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?Maggie
: I found XX the easiest and the most fun character to write. He was on the autism spectrum and had a very distinct voice, one that was so logical it defied logic. There was no artifice to him. He began the book with the least amount of influence and power within his family, yet by just being who he was, he was able to make himself indispensable during a family crisis. Achieving that kind of reversal for a character was immensely satisfying.
I found my central female character, May-ling, the most difficult to write. Women were so rare in this society, they became nearly subhuman, a resource to be protected, commoditized, and allocated. She was the product of greedy daughter breeders. I wanted May-ling to be true to her upbringing and environment, and I had a difficult time with her youth and naiveté. She was initially focused solely on her relationships with her husband and son, and it felt stifling to confine her powers to the domestic realm. What she most desired—true physical and emotional connection with Hann—was absolutely crucial to her marriage, and her ability to vocalize and assert her need was instrumental to her growth. But the day-to-day drama of it began to feel repetitive and petty. It was when she moved out of the domestic situation into the the bigger world—into confrontations with other mothers at the park, with MONKeyKing, and with Tommy and Quality Gao that she comes into her own for me and finds agency.TQ
: Which question about An Excess Male do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!Maggie
: What is your favorite scene in the book?
My favorite scene is the last merengue at the TV station. The book starts out with the dance and comes full circle in this scene. I love the cacophony of the crashing heels, the pathetic step and drag of the movement, the helplessness and desperation in the gesture, but also the power in these small acts of rebellion. TQ
: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from An Excess Male.Maggie
: How about three quotes that together sum up the premise and tone of the book?
“The government has awarded us—members of ‘The Bounty’—official status, investing in public campaigns to make the phrases ‘unmarriageable,’ ‘excess,’ and ‘leftover’ men unpatriotic and backwards.”
“The distraction and physical exhaustion of a thoughtful exercise plan are as non-negotiable for [members of ‘The Bounty’] as sleep, food, and weekly, State-arranged sex.”
“These days, only fools speak freely amongst strangers.”TQ
: What's next? Maggie
: Here is one of the ideas I’m playing with: In addition to 30 million unmarriageable men, the One Child Policy has produced yet another set of victims—girls whose hukou
or household registration were saved by their parents for a younger brother. These girls, called heihaizi
or shadow or ghost children, are undocumented, illegal, and non-existent in the eyes of the law. They have no rights to health care, education, or legal protection. They cannot ride public transportation, marry, obtain or inherit property, or have children. The 2010 Census estimated the number of “nonpersons” to be at least 13 million. You can read my short story at: https://maggieshenking.com/companion-story-invite/TQ
: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.