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Q&A with Em X. Liu - The Death I Gave Him

The Death I Gave Him

By Lucy Parry

We are excited to welcome Em X. Liu to The Reading Corner to talk about their new release The Death I Gave Him released on the 12th of September 2023.

Hayden Lichfield’s life is ripped apart when he finds his father murdered in their lab, and the camera logs erased. The killer can only have been after one thing: the Sisyphus Formula the two of them developed together, which might one day reverse death itself. Hoping to lure the killer into the open, Hayden steals the research. In the process, he uncovers a recording his father made in the days before his death, and a dying wish: Avenge me...

With the lab on lockdown, Hayden is trapped with four other people—his uncle Charles, lab technician Gabriel Rasmussen, research intern Felicia Xia and their head of security, Felicia’s father Paul—one of whom must be the killer. His only sure ally is the lab’s resident artificial intelligence, Horatio, who has been his dear friend and companion since its creation. With his world collapsing, Hayden must navigate the building’s secrets, uncover his father’s lies, and push the boundaries of sanity in the pursuit of revenge.

The Death I Gave Him

You have a biochemistry degree and you’re now a published author. What made you decide to work outside of your degree field?

I actually am currently working as a physician alongside my writing career, so rather than working outside of my degree, it’s been more like working two fields! People always call me an overachiever when they find this out, but the truth is that I would be writing regardless of whether or not I ever ended up published. I studied biochemistry and later medicine for very practical reasons—I wanted a job, and when I was a teenager I had a very limited conception of what jobs were available out in the world and I didn’t want to be a computer engineer, so. Of course, later I fell in love with the field too; I think medicine brings you close to human stories more than most other careers—which brings us back to writing. My career in medicine really humbles me and I think that makes me a better writer. I think the key to being a good writer is understanding different human experiences, and no matter what I am always seeking out opportunities to narrow that unbridgeable gap between my own experiences of the world and others’

What was your publishing journey like?

When I was in the middle of it, my publishing journey felt so long and harrowing. But of course, in retrospect, it wasn’t anything outrageously atypical. I started querying my first novel when I started university, which means that novel was the amateur-ish fantasy tome that I started writing in high school. Not to say that high schoolers can’t be brilliant novelists, but I certainly wasn’t. That was actually the first novel I queried my agent Penelope with, and her lovely feedback in her pass is what made me query her again with the manuscript of THE DEATH I GAVE HIM. The process of polishing and selling DEATH took about two years and involved rewriting the book from the ground up several times, but the work payed off because it eventually sold to my amazing editor at Solaris.

Why did you choose to retell Hamlet by William Shakespeare?

I have been obsessed with Hamlet since adolescence, and coming up with different ways to stage it has been something like a hobby for a long time. There was a period where I would make these edits imagining essentially different AUs of Hamlet. So the idea for THE DEATH I GAVE HIM grew out of that space—it actually was the second novel-length Hamlet retelling I attempted to write (the other one was at once too vague and too complex, and in retrospect is more suited for a short story, so I’ll keep it to myself in case I tackle it again in the future.)

What do you consider to be the essential elements of a great retelling?

I think the best retellings are those that engage deeply with the source text and are deliberately in conversation with them. There’s usually a reason or point of tension as to why we approach the texts that we do with the intent to transform and retell, and I think when that is baked into the retelling, the reconstructed story becomes richer for it.

The Death I Gave Him involves many different forms of writing e.g. a memoir, transcripts and letters. It makes the story really dynamic. Was it difficult to switch between these forms when you were writing?

One of my goals as a writer is to be as flexible as I can in terms of range. I love pastiche. I cut my teeth on copying what my favourite authors wrote like, in an attempt to dissect the magic. I think imitation teaches you so much about what makes good prose sing. All that being said, I’ve tried to develop as wide a range as I can when it comes to narrative styles, and THE DEATH I GAVE HIM was very much an exercise in flexing that muscle. It was certainly a challenge—any stylistic deviation can be—but I found it an exciting one that ultimately made me a better writer.

Horatio is my favourite character in The Death I Gave Him. How did you get into the headspace of an artificial being?

The idea behind Horatio wasn’t so much a character where I wanted to focus on the parts that make him different from a human—this isn’t that kind of Sci-Fi—but moreso the idea of what would someone made up the composite parts of Horatio who has a fully developed consciousness think like? I love the notion of alternate bodied states, which is something I play with a lot in THE DEATH I GAVE HIM in general (characters are frequently tied to, controlled by, or trapped in their bodies, and Horatio is no exception) and I wanted to emphasize the idea of Horatio’s embodiment both being more expansive than a regular organic—he has access to the building and all the machinery within it—but more limited as well—his experience of the world lacks sensations common to human bodies, such as touch.

Why is Horatio the only character that retains his name from Hamlet?

I wanted to distance Horatio from the rest of the characters from a naming standpoint to again delineate that differing experience of the world. And, there is some irony to Horatio being the character who retains the same name that I enjoyed—he has the most dated appearing name while being the most overtly futuristic entity, he retains his “original” Hamlet name while in some ways being the character with the biggest deviation, etc.

I felt that Felicia Xia has more agency in your novel in comparison to her Hamlet counterpart, Ophelia. Was that something you were aiming for?

Felicia is an Ophelia analog yes, but she as well takes on a lot of the role Laertes plays within Hamlet. Laertes does exist in my retelling, but he is separated out from the rest of the characters. I wanted both of these plot roles to reside within Felicia because I thought a lot of the themes were more interestingly extracted when played out by the same character. There is a lot of paralleling between Ophelia, Laertes, and Hamlet himself that occurs in the play, dealing with themes of parental death, grief, revenge, and “madness,” so by letting Felicia experience first hand and be allowed to play out her grief over the death of her father and then subsequently seek revenge, this puts her as a stronger foil to Hayden. Ophelia’s agency within Hamlet is complicated—certainly the way we read the text marginalizes her, and I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that Shakespeare’s original intent was to offer her agency in a meaningful way, but I do think there is a lot of room in how we then interpret the text in a modern world to give her more narrative agency even within the same story.

Why did you choose a near future setting for the main events in The Death I Gave Him?

I personally really like science fiction that feels only a step removed from our world—alternate pathways to the future that seem plausible from the technological standpoint that we are operating at currently. I wanted to depict a world that was very much speculative—I don’t claim to be making any predictions here—but yet still felt familiar enough for the sentiment to ring true for today.

What was the process behind weaving the theme of madness into your story?

I think “madness” is a tricky word. Obviously we use it in conjunction with Shakespeare, because that was what was used at the time, but in a modern context it takes on a much more ableist and troubling meaning. Of course, in context of the original play, the concept of “madness” is something different from our modern day conception of mental health, but certainly the ways in which there are intersections was something I was cognizant of when writing THE DEATH I GAVE HIM. I think regardless, it is evident that there are aspects of Hamlet that resonate deeply with very human struggles: Hamlet’s morbidity and suicidal ideation for one is something that I think a lot of people respond to when encountering the play for the first time. All that being said, I wanted to more explicitly write about this aspect of Hamlet and offer up an unflinching but compassionate depiction in a way that hopefully does not condemn any of the messy emotions that are oft hand in hand with mental illness.

What are your favourite retellings (they don’t have to be just Shakespearean retellings)?

Hands down my favourite novel retelling is WRATH GODDESS SING by Maya Deane. I think it’s everything I love about retellings—her take on Achilles as a trans woman entirely transformed the way I think about the Iliad, and more broadly the way I think about Achilles as a cultural figure. It both offers a rich and incredibly well researched depiction of the Iliad during the Bronze Age that serves to place the story in context of history as well as distances us from the mythic way we think of Homeric epics. And yet, with the character of Achilles, she is at once entirely different and yet the very same hero Achilles that holds so much cultural power—and that transformation which at once elevates and revives a story we all know is precisely the magic of retelling, I think. I adored it, and I think everyone should read it immediately if you haven’t already!

The Death I Gave Him

Em X. Liu is a writer and biochemistry graduate who is fascinated by stories of artificial intelligence and Shakespeare in equal measure. Chronically cold-blooded, Em nevertheless resides in Toronto, Canada.

Em's Instagram: @emdashliu


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