Interview With an Author: Justinian Huang

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Justinian Huang and his debut novel, The Emperor and the Endless Palace
Author Justinian Huang and his debut novel, The Emperor and the Endless Palace. Photo of author: Benjamin Yi

Born to immigrants in Monterey Park, California, Justinian Huang studied English at Pomona College and screenwriting at the University of Oxford. He is now based in Los Angeles with Swagger, a Shanghainese rescue dog he adopted during his five years living in China. The Emperor and the Endless Palace is his debut novel, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Emperor and the Endless Palace?

In 4BCE ancient China, there was a real-life emperor who fell in love with one of his men, a beautiful youth named Dong Xian. Emperor Ai and Dong Xian were barely in their 20s when they met, but they had a passionate affair so profound that when they both died young and mysteriously, the first Han Dynasty fell with them.

When I first heard of this secret history, I knew it was the greatest love story never told. So I decided to tell it but added in a metaphysical hook, in which the souls of this emperor and his lover are reincarnated over and over again, from ancient China to present-day Los Angeles, as swoony but doomed lovers.

Are River, Joey, Calvin, Garden, Winston, or any of the other characters (or their counterparts in alternate times) in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Every character I write is loosely based on folks I know—it's how I present them all as individualized beings. In the present-day timeline in this book, River and Joey are actually inspired by the two men that I fell in love with during my five years living in Asia from 2015 to 2020. I worked for DreamWorks Pearl in China during those years until the pandemic happened, and I moved back home to Los Angeles, where I spent lockdown in my mom's attic. During that summer of 2020, I wrote the first draft of The Emperor and the Endless Palace, thinking about those two men and processing what had happened to me during my years abroad, very thrilling times indeed. Maybe someday I'll write memoirs about those years, but for now, they spiritually live on in this debut novel of mine.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Originally, the three timelines covered in this book (an ancient Chinese palace in 4BCE, a remote inn in the Asian wilderness in the 1700s, and present-day LA) were completely parallel storylines, only thematically related. But as I continued to develop the novel, I realized that they were begging to be twisted together somehow. When I had the aha moment of using reincarnation as the central throughline of my book, that's when they began to physically weave together until all three lifetimes collide together into one shocking climax at the conclusion.

Is the Yellow Peril Party a real event (or is it based on something that is held)? Have you ever been?

I wish the Yellow Peril Party was real! There are now some amazing queer AAPI events in Los Angeles that I didn't have growing up here, such as QNA and Switch, plus Gameboi is pretty iconic. But a party to the scale of Yellow Peril doesn't exist yet in the West—that imaginary party is more based on the circuit parties in Asia, such as in Bangkok or Taipei. I'm just trying to manifest an L.A. party like that by writing it first!

Same questions regarding the Songkran Festival in Bangkok (especially the water-gun "fights"!)?

So that is all real. Songkran is the Thai New Year and is a countrywide water gun fight that occurs every April, where worshippers and revelers alike go around "cleansing" one another of bad luck. I will actually be in Bangkok this April to celebrate, so if anyone is there as well, say hello!

How familiar were you with late BCE and 18th century China prior to writing The Emperor and the Endless Palace? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write your novel?

I grew up watching Chinese palace dramas with my grandmother, which were informative to how I crafted the shifty intrigues of the ancient palace timeline in my book. However, when it came to research, I really was boots on the ground. During my tenure at DreamWorks Pearl, I visited many Chinese universities to recruit artists, and whenever I could, I would sit down with professors and scholars to ask them about the Han Dynasty, about Emperor Ai and Dong Xian, about fox spirits, etc. So I slowly gathered the information I needed to craft something authentic from these great teachers.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

The villains of my book—and they are indeed delicious villains--are based on real-life people from Emperor Ai's reign. His grandmother, the Grand Empress Dowager Fu, had such a fascinating backstory that I had to retell it in my book. And his cousin, Commander Jujun, displayed treachery that just amplified my stakes even more. So, including the real history of this screw-up royal family fascinated me constantly as I wrote.

The House of Windsor has Nothing on the Han Dynasty! (Though I am concerned about Kate Middleton, along with the rest of Tiktok.)

Is there an equivalent jade artifact in China’s history to the Heirloom Seal of the Realm? If so, does it still exist or has it been lost to history?

The Heirloom Seal of the Realm is an imperial seal that was passed down from emperor to emperor and represented the Heavenly Mandate, a divine symbol that demonstrated an emperor's legitimacy. It is very real, and it is indeed lost to history...but in The Emperor and the Endless Palace, it appears!

Have you ever visited Bangkok? If so, do you have any favorite places? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss?

I have visited Bangkok many times, and each time I go, I find a new favorite place. My best advice for a first-time traveler would be to go with an open mind and an open heart and let the city discover you as much as you discover it. But definitely hit up a ladyboy show! They are seriously the greatest performers on earth.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

If you want to publish a novel, you have to write it first! Then, it is a combination of talent and luck that will get you published... though there may be more luck involved. The manuscript of The Emperor and the Endless Palace floated in the ether for nearly two years before an agent discovered it, so do not get discouraged.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I just finished Casey McQuiston's The Pairing (fabulous and spicy), and now I am about to crack open The Palace of Eros by Caro de Robertis.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

If screenwriters can be considered authors, here are mine:

Bong Joon-ho
Wong Kar-wai
Park Chan-wook
Wang Hui-ling
The Coen Brothers

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Probably one of the Narnia books... hard to choose which but for some reason, The Horse and His Boy pops up first in my mind.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

By the time I was a teen, I loved Jackie Collins, and I had to hide her novels because I stole them from my most fabulous aunt. The fact that Collins's estate and I are now both repped by the same agency is pretty mind-boggling.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I was an English major, so I have faked reading countless books.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Many Harlequin Romance novels.

Is there a book that changed your life?

I was raised very Christian, and my great-grandfather was a famous Lutheran pastor in Taipei, so I would have to say the Bible.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Am I allowed to say my book?

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

The Chronicles of Narnia, which I loved so much as a kid. I was bullied a lot and would wish that my closet could lead me to a fantastical world, so those books were such an escape for me.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I just watched Dune Part Two, and I thought it was a thrilling film. But more importantly, it is an important lesson about the dangers of extremism.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Definitely on a warm beach with someone who is both a good view and good conversation.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

"Did you get turned on while writing the steamy scenes in your book?" Answer: "If I wasn't, they wouldn't be in the book!"
On that note, there is a spicy scene near the middle of my book that is so scandalous that readers won't know whether to be terrified or aroused. Page 142, to be exact.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my second novel, a sprawling family soap opera that I describe as Succession meets Beef.

Book cover of The Emperor and the Endless Palace
The Emperor and the Endless Palace
Huang, Justinian