Ryka Aoki is the author of novels, stories, poems, and a children’s book, and her work has twice been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Light From Uncommon Stars (Tor, Sept. 28) is a singular work of science fiction involving a runaway, a violin teacher, and a doughnut maker with alien connections; Kirkus called it an “uncommon gift” and just named it one of the Best Fiction Books of 2021. Aoki answered our questions over email.
What was the original inspiration—a character, a scene, an image—that started you writing Light From Uncommon Stars?
One night, I was flying back home to Los Angeles. I was returning from a reading, my head full of poetry and dreams. As the plane approached the city, it banked, and for a moment I lost track of up or down. For a moment the lights of LA looked like the stars and galaxies of a pulsing and vibrant universe. And later, driving home from the airport, my little Honda felt like a space runabout. As I drove past Randy’s Donuts—it’s a Los Angeles icon in the shape of a giant plaster donut—it was illuminated and radiant, with a line of patient cars at the drive-thru. And I thought, “What if that giant donut were actually a functioning stargate?” I’ll leave it there because I don’t want to reveal any spoilers.
We’ve read that you studied violin in order to write the novel. Are you still playing? And can you make donuts as well?
Ironically, because I’ve been so busy with this book, I’ve let my violin playing slip. (I apologize to the violin gods.) But there is my violin, right next to my writing desk, and I pick it up from time to time (and marvel at how quickly I have lost my technique). Once the push for Light From Uncommon Stars levels out a bit, I’m looking forward to playing her more often. I’m especially looking forward to the holidays because Christmas carols are a lot of fun to play on violin.
As far as donuts—my next donut will be andagi, a type of round fried donut from Okinawa. Andagi are crisp and crunchy on the outside, yet soft and chewy on the inside. They’re supposed to be spherical, but mine usually come out a little free-form. Still, really yummy!
What was it like having a book come out in 2021? How did you connect with readers in this socially distanced year?
Pandemic aside, my experience of social distancing was largely sweet and affirming. I know this may sound odd, but writers are used to communicating remotely, over distance, even across generations—this is why some people become writers. And so, through the pandemic, I felt very grateful to be a writer. Of course, there were health and logistical concerns. I had some embarrassing technical mishaps. And nothing replaces being able to tell somebody in person, “Thank you for reading my book.”
However, writing is writing, and the writing continues as always. Moreover, technology has allowed me to make some wonderful friends as well as meet fantastic booksellers, librarians, writers, and readers from all over the world. If that’s not something to feel grateful about, I don’t know what is.
What work of fiction most dazzled you this year?
Hasn’t this year brought such brilliant and necessary work? It’s an amazing time to not only be a writer, but a reader. However, for delicious spectacle and dazzle, one can’t do better than Jenn Lyons. In 2021, Lyons released The House of Always—the fourth of her five-book A Chorus of Dragons series. The vision and thought that Lyons has put into this series is mind-blowing. This is mythic, tectonic worldbuilding on the grandest scale—like its predecessors, The House of Always sizzles with intrigue and queerness, outrage and delight—and some of the most entertaining footnotes that you’ll ever read.