Water. Earth. Fire. Air.
These elements are known to kick off the beginning of episodes of the beloved Nickelodeon animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and its sequel series, The Legend of Korra. While fans everywhere seem to know Avatar Aang and Avatar Korra, they also know that there were many other avatars preceding them, all with stories of their own. While we’ve heard the stories of some of these other avatars like Roku and Wan, there is one that fans are familiar with, but by way of only a tiny bit of information: Avatar Kyoshi.
That’s where The Rise of Kyoshi comes in. Written by F.C. Yee, it is the first young adult novel set within the Avatar universe. The first of two novels documenting her life, readers will get a look at her humble origins before becoming the hardcore, justice-pursuing avatar the world would forever remember her as.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Yee about how he went from being a fan of this world, to being brought on to flesh out the backstory of this particular character, and how he approached doing so.
For those who don’t know, can you explain a little bit about yourself and your previous works?
By day, I work in the mobile games industry where I make everything less fun by adding stuff to the game you have to pay for. My debut novel, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, came out in 2017. It’s about an Asian American teenager from the San Francisco Bay Area who suddenly meets Sun Wukong the Monkey King and discovers she has a portion of his limitless powers. Together they must stop a demon invasion while juggling her mundane responsibilities like schoolwork and college applications. The sequel, The Iron Will of Genie Lo, will be out in January of 2020.
If you had to describe The Rise of Kyoshi in the form of an elevator pitch, how would that be?
“Avatar Kyoshi is such an imposing and uncompromising figure when she appears in Avatar: The Last Airbender. How did her formative years shape her so? What were the challenges of her era and how did she handle them? The Rise of Kyoshi is the answer.”
That’s the pitch if I had boundless confidence. The real pitch is that I hope The Rise of Kyoshi is the answer.
How did you wind up being summoned to write Kyoshi’s story?
My publisher at Abrams asked me out of the blue at a conference if I was a fan of Avatar. I tried to say yes as emphatically but professionally as possible. I think he didn’t want me to get my hopes up about an Avatar-related project, because he didn’t say anything else about the subject until months later, when I found out that Abrams had proposed a two-book series about Kyoshi to Nickelodeon and Nick had approved. I agreed to what was essentially a dream project come true.
Were you a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender prior to working on the novel? If so, how has it for you to be contributing a story to this universe?
Yes. [insert Foaming Mouth Guy gif here]
Contributing to the Avatar-verse was equally an honor and a terrifying experience. Whatever I wrote was going to stick around in lore, so if I did a poor job, it would haunt me personally as a fan. I’ve dealt with this anxiety by trying to make sure what I wrote came from my love for this universe, since that’s a resource that’ll never run out.
Unlike with the graphic novels that follow well established characters from this universe, you’re telling the story of an avatar that fans only have snippets of information about. How did you approach writing this novel with very little canonical material to go off of?
To a certain extent I tried to work backward from what we know and deduce what a previous era of the Avatar world might have been like. As long as the characters and settings could plausibly evolve into what we do eventually see glimpses of, I was able to run with a lot of different story threads.
It was actually kind of freeing to have so little canonical material since I could focus on creating internal logic from scratch. Kyoshi’s long lifespan also helped, since information can be gained or forgotten over the course of centuries.
In what ways is Kyoshi different from the likes of her successors like Aang and Korra?
Externally, she’s not as cheerful as Aang, and she’s not as upfront as Korra. She keeps a lot of things to herself by default and learns to open up over time.
Internally, Kyoshi’s going to have a different approach to problem solving due to her experiences and her innate personality, a combination of nature and nurture. The important consideration is that her way of doing things isn’t better or worse than Aang or Korra’s — they’re simply the decisions of a different human being in a different set of circumstances.
I know that you worked closely with Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko when writing the novel. What was it like having them consult you?
I worked with Mike a great deal in preparation for drafting. I bounced pitches off him and he gave me incredible guidance when it came to characterization and the forces that comprise an Avatar story. It was like having access to an exclusive creative workshop of the highest caliber. We constructed an outline that made the writing process one of the most productive periods I’ve ever gone through. To this day I’m grateful for the trust he gave me in taking care of this universe.
Unfortunately I did not get the chance to work with Bryan, but I would have loved to.
What do you hope for readers to take away from The Rise of Kyoshi?
I hope they come away with a satisfying understanding of Kyoshi’s development as an avatar and human being. It’s not so much that I want them to approve of her choices in this book or her show appearances, but rather that they get a glimpse of her perspective.
For geek’s sake, do you have a favorite character from Avatar: The Last Airbender? Also, do you have a favorite episode?
Toph. Like you have to ask.
I would say my favorite episode is “The Blind Bandit” or “The Ember Island Players,” because they’re good reminders that we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously all the time.
The Rise of Kyoshi will be available wherever books are sold on Tuesday, July 16.