Zoe Hana Mikuta: Stitching Together Monsters

(photo: Khanh Dinh)

Zoe Hana Mikuta is a Korean American YA author, currently attending the University of Washington in Seattle. She is the author of the YA sapphic mecha sci-fi novels Gearbreakers and Godslayers. When she is not writing, Mikuta can be found embroidering runes on her jeans pockets or curled up with a cup of caramel coffee and a bloody but heartwarming book. She recently spoke with Shelf Awareness about Off with Their Heads (Disney Hyperion, April 23, 2024)--a YA fantasy horror reimagining of Alice in Wonderland--genius versus madness, and building an eclectic body of work.

What differences and common elements should fans of your mecha duology expect to find in this new story?

Besides the general genre shift, I would say Off with Their Heads lacks the overall softness of the Gearbreakers duology but, at the same time, is told with a more whimsical tone by a classic fairytale narrator who's a bit of a sadist. Though I've written a sapphic romantic subplot again, it's far from being lovey-dovey like my mecha duology. Honestly, you'll find no heroes in Off with Their Heads. Everyone is being generally terrible all the time. Common elements include angry girls.

This book is a whirlwind of timeline shifts, magic, elements of classic fiction, and horror. The word "ambitious" barely touches it as a descriptor.

I was definitely trying out a new writing style in Off with Their Heads, and I had a lot of fun working with such a lighthearted tone even as horrible, horrible things were going on. My editor has called it my Wonderland prose.

This book was also my quarantine project--for months and months it was just me and Caro and Icca and Hattie. I think having that solitude helped to get it all out. The majority of the challenge was, frankly, getting over myself. I wanted to do the story I had in my head justice, but because Off with Their Heads isn't my debut, I felt a lot of self-pressure to show my growth as a writer. It totally terrified me that, as the manuscript got longer and longer, it was all going to fall apart, and because I want to do stories as multilayered as this one in the future, it'd mean The End.

But it's done!

I'm gravitating toward having a career of eclectic books; I want them all to be distinctly different, because I want to try out myriad writing styles and genres. With Off with Their Heads, the first book I've done in the fantasy genre, I discovered this "vision" I have of my career will definitely involve going outside my comfort zone.

How did you get from Alice in Wonderland to Off with Their Heads?

I've been enamored with Alice in Wonderland for a while now, and have a soft spot for its horror retellings especially. The story is so versatile for that genre, just from its sheer strangeness and how sanity isn't necessarily a given.

To start, I had a copy of Alice in Wonderland that I annotated with my Off with Their Heads darlings in mind. This was pretty much the only part of the drafting that was in any way organizational. I'm really not someone who writes from a synopsis. I don't know the ending until I get there! I had some structuring scenes in mind--the entering of Wonderland, the mad tea party, the trial--and the relationships between the characters, and then I had to see what I'd end up writing in between. Bless my editor.

Your Red Queen Hattie November Kkul walks the line between artistry and madness.

The line between artistry and madness gets blurred with the onset of obsession. Those elements come together under the umbrella of the "obsessed artist" character trope. I loved playing with this trope. There's such a satisfying contrast between its connotations of creation and deterioration. Over the course of Off with Their Heads, Hattie certainly begins to lose herself in her art of stitching together monsters, even with her initial motivation being to use the medium for self-reflection and self-discovery. I'm hoping her character arc will unsettle readers and strike a chord with the artistic ones, especially as Hattie doesn't mind that she's losing herself if it's all for the glory of her art.

What drew you to write an inside-out love story with a lovers-to-enemies twist?

I haven't seen a ton of sapphic lovers-to-enemies character arcs, and I feel like most of what's on the market for sapphic romance right now is generally on the softer side, my debut included. I asked myself, cackling and having a grand time writing Caro and Icca's disaster of a relationship, "Where's the representation for the sapphics that might be absolutely horrible people?" I wanted to write two girls who were off their respective rockers but also quite enamored with the horrible world around them. Carousel is definitely the bubblier of the two, while Icca is the classic, bleak, "chip on her shoulder" character, but I wanted to make them complement each other through their shared obsession with strangeness. I wanted to make them so weird that the reader couldn't help but dote on them a little. 

How do you feed your creativity?

I read a lot, and I have a lot of tea, and pretend they're magic potions that will solve all my plot holes. I have to accept that my creativity comes in waves. The best thing I can do to feed it is be patient. It is definitely blocked when I try to force it. "Write without fear; edit without mercy," is the eternal, internal chant to keep from scaring the creativity off.

In a world where writers are often advised to write to the reader's expectations or genre standards, how do you find the self-assurance to take big swings?

My editor, Rebecca [Kuss], and literary agent, Laura [Rennert], are constantly encouraging me to write as weird as I want and to take risks. Having that creative freedom has been everything. As for self-assurance, the thought that I'm writing something strange and entertaining pushes me forward. I think for a while, when people heard "YA" they thought of a certain specific writing style, cleaner-cut and easily digestible. I see so many writers now who stand out because of their unique voices, even if their work might not have been "sellable" 10 years ago. It absolutely lights me up when I see YA prose that goes off the beaten path. Some authors that come to mind are Andrew Joseph White and Joan He.

What strange beauty should we expect from you next?

My next book is another YA fantasy horror, and it's going to be bleaker than Off with Their Heads. A quick teaser: in a world where witchcraft has the nasty side effect of psychological erosion, a coven comes together to find a cure for magic. They're certain it's waiting for them just on the other side. Or maybe they're just addicted to the cozy slew of death and resurrections. Or maybe to each other. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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