Khan Wong is the author of the poetry chapbooks Wounded Apollo (Hozomeen Press, 1991), the dream of america (strangefever, 2001), The Imperfection of Holy Days (Web del Sol, 2002) and ecology (Noemi Press, 2003). His debut novel, The Circus Infinite, was published by Angry Robot Books in 2022. He has worked in the non-profit arts, played cello in an earnest folk-rock duo, been an internationally known hula hoop teacher and performer, and was active in the flow arts and the Bay Area’s underground circus scene as a fire dancer and show producer for many years.
Your novel The Circus Infinite is a rollicking, heartfelt space fantasy. Tell us a bit about the book: the world where it takes place, and the characters who live in it.
The galactic society in which the story is set is called the 9-Star Congress of Conscious Worlds, a “federation” of nine stars – including a sentient dark matter star, and a binary system – and the societies that orbit them. Six different species, including humans, make up this culture. There are members of each species who, with training, are able to manifest different types of psionic abilities, but these are planet-bound, so they can’t use the abilities when away from their world of origin. The novel takes place on the terrestrial moon of a gas giant, a place called Persephone-9, which is known as the pleasure moon. It’s a decadent party place, and contains seedy aspects as well as beautiful aspects.
The protagonist, Jes, a mixed-species individual, has manifested an unusual ability (gravity manipulation) that he can access away from his planet of origin – factors that make him highly unique and desirable as a subject of study. He escapes the clutches of the scientist studying him, and finds refuge on the pleasure moon and gets a job with the resident circus at a resort-casino. He catches the attention of the local crime-boss, and drama ensues. Along the way Jes makes friends with members of the circus, in particular getting into a relationship with one of the acrobats, and becoming bffs with an aspiring singer. There are folks from all the different species of the 9 Stars in the cast and crew of the circus. It’s a colorful, bohemian milieu, as one would expect of an alien circus! And it’s all very queer.You’ve got a background in circus arts yourself! Tell us about those experiences and how they filtered into the novel.
My entry into the world of circus arts was through fire spinning. This might be a bit of a cliché story at this point, but when I attended my first Burning Man festival, I knew I wanted to go again and participate more meaningfully. I’d been seeing fire performers throughout the week, and on the culminating night when the Man is burned, I saw the circle of hundreds of fire dancers and vowed that by the next year, I would be one of them. Pursuing that goal led me to the world of flow arts, which is an umbrella term that encompasses many different types of object manipulation – including poi and staff spinning, hoops, contact juggling, and other props. That, in turn, connected me with the broader underground circus scene that was thriving in the Bay Area at the time (early aughts). As part of this community, I was in many shows as a performer, produced shows myself, and toured Thailand as part of a social circus project.
The elements that show up in The Circus Infinite are that sense of camaraderie of a group of people creatively collaborating while making a show together, plus the feeling of being around virtuosic people who can do amazing things with their bodies. And a general bohemian vibe. I wanted to capture the focus required to make an act, and the awe and inspiration that comes from being around colleagues that are at the top of their game, as well as the controlled chaos feeling of being backstage.
Do you plan to write more books set in the same universe?
I do hope to write a series of interlinked standalones set in this universe, with each main character being a side character we meet in The Circus Infinite. I’ve actually written one featuring the BFF character from Circus, the aspiring singer Esmée, and what happens after her music career takes off and her xenophobic people have issues with that. That one’s on sub at the moment, actually. So much of this is reliant on sales of Circus, and other people saying “yes.” Left to my own devices, I’d write all of these novels until the set was done. I think of them as a set, rather than a series, because of the standalone nature of the stories – it’s not all one epic saga. But collectively, a big picture emerges. That’s the plan, anyway!
The Circus Infinite is your debut novel, and you’ve had a long and varied career in other fields. Can you describe your journey from aspiring writer to published author?
I signed with my first agent back in the late ’90s. The project was a post climate catastrophe corporate dystopia. That book failed to sell, and then the agent didn’t understand my next book and dropped me – by fax! I don’t know why, but that detail continues to amuse me. Anyway, it became clear that agent wasn’t as well-versed in SFF as I needed, and it just didn’t work out. I was so disheartened by the whole experience, I wondered what I was even doing this for, so I stepped away from writing fiction. If I was plugged into a community of others in the querying trenches, I might not have done that. But I wasn’t. I did have an in-person community of writers, but they all wrote short stories and nobody else in that group was querying novels. Around the same time, I was offered a salaried position at the arts nonprofit that I worked at, and I accepted that job. That set the course of my day-job career. I eventually became an arts funder, and was a program officer at a municipal arts funding agency for a long time.
In my writing life, I returned to poetry, which was my focus in college, and I published a few pieces in some journals, and a couple of chapbooks. Then I got involved with flow arts and circus and all that stuff, and that took over my life for over a decade. All my creative energy went into that realm and I stopped writing altogether. Back in 2017, I was in one of those deep, late-night, heart-to-heart kinds of conversations with a couple of dear friends, and the topic of writing projects came up. I realized the whole writing SFF novels thing was feeling like a bit of unfinished business, and that I had given up too soon. So I decided to make another run at it. I rewrote that book from the ’90s, decided it was terrible, stuck it in the proverbial drawer, and moved on. I wrote another book, set that one aside, and then I wrote Circus. I submitted it to Angry Robot Books’ open submission period, and it was selected, and now here we are.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know? Upcoming work or other projects of note?
I’m currently deep in revisions on a project completely separate and distinct from the universe of The Circus Infinite. It’s a science fantasy about a society that’s evolved inside a time anomaly and our motley group of characters figure out they’ve been lied to about the nature of their existence. I think of it as “Final Fantasy meets Logan’s Run.” It’s a “standalone with series potential” situation. I also have in mind a duology that centers around multiple generations of a Chinese American family in San Francisco. I kind of want to go “literary crossover” with that project, but we’ll see. If things go the way I hope with the projects currently in play, it might be a while before I get to writing that. Other than that, I’m still active in the flow arts world serving on the board of directors of a nonprofit, but I’m not actively practicing, performing or teaching anymore. I’m kind of being an elder statesman in that world now.
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