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Joshua Khan Talks with Roger

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joshua khanWhen I emailed Joshua Khan to set up this interview, he wrote back that he had read the Frances Hardinge Talks with Roger and that he, too, had been a Dungeons & Dragons player, so I guess it now counts as a trend. The author of several previous novels under his real name Sarwat Chadda, with Shadow Magic, “Joshua Khan” introduces a fantasy world that, like many, is divided into the forces of light and dark, but here we are asked to take the perspective of the latter. While the land of Gehenna is hardly Mordor, and its ruler, Lily, is no Sauron, the shift in expectations will give fantasy readers something new to consider.

Roger Sutton: So tell me about you and D&D.

Joshua Khan: I’ve been playing it since I was about eleven or twelve. The typical geeky mates, all gathering together from two till seven every single Sunday, but then we fell out with the Dungeon Master. We needed a replacement, so I volunteered and started writing my own scenarios. Around 2004, a friend of my sister’s, who was working with Simon & Schuster, said, “Oh, you like writing? Did you ever think about writing a book?” And I thought, “No, I just write these Dungeons & Dragons scenarios and all of that.” And she said, “Just give it a go.” So I gave it a go, figured I’d give it a couple thousand words and see how I felt. I worked during that ten-to-midnight slot after my kids had gone to bed, so actually a super-peaceful time. This was before WiFi; it was all dial-up. And I really got into it. No matter how bad the day had been, it was just bliss. I was transferring all my Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing writing skills into actually crafting a novel.

RS: Had you been a fantasy reader before you played?

JK: Yeah. When I was in my early teens I absolutely loved Michael Moorcock and the big chunky ones like Lord of the Rings. And then a bit later on I got into the Dune series.

But to be honest, in the mid-2000s, I was mostly reading action-oriented historical fiction. Bernard Cornwell writes the Sharpe novels, set in the Napoleonic era; I read loads of those. That was good training for learning how to write action. You realize that the night before the battle is all anticipation. Prior to the battle, everyone’s thinking about how it will go. But the battle itself ends up being quite confusing.

RS: Everybody’s just running around.

JK: Yeah, it’s all sound and fury. There’s smoke everywhere, there’s cannons. You’re reading, thinking, “Well, none of this makes sense, frankly.” It’s all very exciting, but who knows what’s going on? The plot itself is in abeyance. It’s at the conclusion of the battle — they’ve won or they’ve lost — that the story picks up.

RS: I always skipped the battle scenes in Lord of the Rings.

JK: Do you skip the poetry?

RS: Oh, yes.

JK: I skip the poetry. In Lord of the Rings, the battle scenes sometimes happen off-page. The famous attack of the Ents on Isengard is reported afterward: “Oh, by the way, while you were doing this…” Same with the Battle of Five Armies. Bilbo gets knocked out. He only wakes up after it’s all over. Part of me suspects Tolkien just said, “Well, what’s he going to do? He’s only going to be fighting. I’ll just knock him out and fast forward to when he wakes up.”

RS: So much nerding out this early in the morning!

JK: Roger, I told you, half an hour to talk is not nearly enough.

khan_shadow magicRS: Most people come to writing through reading, obviously. One thing I always wonder about fantasy novelists is, when you’ve read in this rich tradition, probably since childhood, how do you as a writer both join that tradition and at the same time distinguish yourself?

JK: The role-playing stuff that I wrote was my version of fanfiction, before the internet. I can only speak personally, but most of my childhood reading and entertainment was Western-based fantasy and mythology. But then in my early twenties, there was a TV adaptation of the Indian Mahabharata. That kind of blew my mind. The Mahabharata was not readily available in the bookshops unless you went specifically hunting for it, so it wasn’t something you just accidentally came across. I come from a South Asian heritage, and at a certain point I had the realization that in all my Dungeons & Dragons and role-playing games, I’d always played a white character. It’s all north European, knights and wizards and castles. So watching the Mahabharata was a real watershed moment because it got me consciously hunting out all of this other stuff. Also, I was brought up a Muslim. In historical fiction, we’re often cast as the bad guys, yeah? I remember watching the movie 300 thinking, “I’d much rather party with the Persians. They look like an insane fun time.” Part of me has always felt a little bit like, “I’m not sure I’m part of this gang, I think I’m part of the other gang.” I was watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and realizing, “Oh bloody hell, the Thuggee are really badass.”

RS: We were having a discussion on the Horn Book podcast a couple weeks ago about race and reviewing, which is a huge topic in the States.

JK: I know, I’ve been following We Need Diverse Books very closely.

RS: I was in the midst of reading Shadow Magic when we did the podcast. I was probably around page 75, and I thought, “I don’t know what color these people are. Did I just miss it?”

JK: K’leef is certainly Arabic, and dark-skinned at that. I always saw Thorn as Anglo-Saxon (the Robin Hood thing) and Lily’s your archetypal goth, dark-haired and pale-skinned. But she is also my version of Malala Yousafzai. Prior to writing the Shadow Magic books, I wrote Devil’s Kiss and the Ash Mistry books [as Sarwat Chadda], in which my heroines are very kickass sword-wielding types. Here I wanted to do a heroine who was more political. Looking at Malala and also looking at Elizabeth the First, thinking, “These are women who have incredible power and can shape the future. They don’t have to pick up a gun, they’ve never carried a sword, and it all boils down to education.” So Lily’s quest is to become a magician — in her world, power comes through magic. In our world, power comes through education. I thought this was a fascinating parallel. If I’d said, “I’m going to write a book about a Muslim girl who just wants to learn how to read and write,” it automatically gets cast as an issues book, something that I’m really wary of. I don’t want this to be “about the Muslim experience.” It’s about a human experience, yeah?

RS: If you had a white main character, people would think, oh, she could be any girl. But if you write a South Asian character or a Muslim character, it’s: “Isn’t this interesting about the South Asian or the Muslim people?”

JK: Exactly. That’s the great thing about fantasy, isn’t it? You can tell whatever story you want, but the agenda’s made a little bit more discreet. It’s a rip-roaring adventure about a girl who lives in this fantastic castle, but really it boils down to a girl wanting to have her own say in the world, and that’s through magic or through education. This is me putting on my poncy writer’s hat here: I can read The Iliad, I can read somebody’s thoughts from three thousand years ago, and there’s something intrinsically magical about that. Words do change the world. In Shadow Magic they do so quite literally.

RS: How do you see your book fitting into the fantasy tradition? What distinguishes Shadow Magic?

JK: It’s looking at the story from the view of the “bad guys.” That’s how I wanted to structure it, to capture my background. No authors can separate their upbringing, their influences, from what they write. In the last few years with Islamophobia, etc., the feeling that Muslim people are “the Other”… I thought Shadow Magic would be a nice way of writing about the Other from their day-to-day point of view. The Lumineans, the lords of light, I quite pointedly named after angels. All of Lily’s family — Lily’s father, Iblis, is Arabic for “the devil.” So that’s kind of on the nose, but I like it.

RS: Well, they’re not the Other anymore when the story is from their point of view, right?

JK: Exactly. That was the point. That’s why I wanted to write it that way. You’ve got all the paladins, all the knights in shining armor — they’re not the good guys in this story. The good guys are the people who’ve had their country invaded. They’re being told, “This is how your world is now going to go. You’re going to knock down these walls; you’re going to put in windows. We’re going to illuminate your world. We think it’s dark and ignorant.” Those are the sorts of things that have always been bubbling away. But by writing fantasy you can disguise the references better.

I want to show a powerful girl in another light. I’m a big fan of history. The Mughal Empire is dotted by these powerful females operating from the harem, and then you’ve got the Rani of Jhansi, the Indian heroine who was more the sort of warrior archetype. And Elizabeth the First. We’ve named an age after her. She never had to pick up a sword. She never had to wear armor. She was never even destined to be queen. It was her brother first, and then it was her sister, which was something that directly fed into how she’s not prepared for her role, because it was never meant to be hers. Girls in those days were still just seen as pawns in the marriage game. All she knows is she wants to do right by her people.

RS: When you say “girls in those days,” is your book set in the past?

JK: Yes and no. All good stories will have a modern relevance. If I talk about The Iliad, which is one of my favorite books of all time, that still has a modern relevance. Every time there’s some war being fought somewhere in the world, The Iliad comes up in my mind. There’s this whole thing between Achilles and Hector — who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy? My sympathy’s terribly toward Hector. Every time I read The Iliad I have the fantasy that this time I’m going to read the version where Hector wins.

RS: I noticed that sometimes the conversation in your book is very slangy in a modern way and other times it’s more formal.

JK: I was trying to easily distinguish between Lily and Thorn, so if you randomly opened up the book you could immediately identify the focus of that particular chapter. I didn’t indicate, “This is a Thorn chapter. This is a Lily chapter.” It should come out in the mode of speech. One thing my editor and I worked hard on, especially with regard to Thorn, is how slangy we could go — “ain’t,” “gonna,” abbreviations and things — without sounding too forced. The early drafts were much more slangy. It needed to be toned down. And Lily has grown up in a very formal, very ancient society, while Thorn’s history goes back only as far as his grandpa, but that’s as far back as he can possibly go because his society didn’t have written language. She can go back thousands of years. Part of her education, part of her passion, is her sense of belonging to the Shadow family, her pride in her heritage.

RS: And her zombies. Publishing legend Jean Feiwel said years ago, during the vampire craze, that zombies were going to be the next big thing. And I thought, “No, that’s not going to work. There’s nothing romantic about zombies.” But sure enough, zombies took over the world. Why do you think that is? What’s the appeal?

JK: Modern life has this constant drudgery coming at you, like those sales emails, and you just delete, delete, delete, delete. It never ends.

RS: Zombies are the spam of literature!

JK: Right. They’re easily spotted, and they’re relatively easily dealt with. It’s like, I don’t even remember buying that pair of boots from wherever, but somehow they’ve got my email address, and now every week they’re flogging me something. So that’s the zombie invasion of our lives. They’re the bots on Twitter. They’re mindless, but they’re there, and they’re constantly coming at you. This is something I continue to explore in Book Two.

RS: So there is a Book Two? I couldn’t tell.

JK: It’s set three months afterwards. The first chapter is Lily. She’s interviewing a peasant woman whose father has come back from the dead, and he wants his old room back. For Lily, all this undead stuff is day-to-day. She’s not scared about it.

RS: You know, it was nice that I couldn’t tell if there was a sequel coming, because it felt like at the end of this book we had an arc. We had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and there was obviously the possibility of a sequel, but the story in and of itself was satisfying.

JK: That’s what’s so great about the series I tend to read. Each book is self-contained. I’ve gone through the Sharpe novels, and there are more than twenty of those, but you can read them in any order. I am guilty, in one of my earlier books, of ending on a cliffhanger. But you’re going to end up pissing off the readers. They’ve got a year to wait before anything gets resolved. I find it irritating as a reader, so I don’t put it in as a writer unless there’s a gigantic reason for it.

RS: Particularly with a new series, if you’re left on the edge of a cliff, and you still haven’t made up your mind how invested you are in the series, that’s not going to help.

JK: No, exactly. Shadow Magic is ultimately a murder mystery. Somebody’s killed Lily’s puppy, then the whole thing spirals out of control when you realize there’s much more than just the puppy involved. You know how in Agatha Christie where there’s the murder at the estate and all the characters are basically trapped there, and it’s down to our hero to solve the crime? That’s the thing I wanted to do, which is the opposite of most fantasies — this isn’t a quest. This isn’t about them traveling the far ends of the fantasy world and visiting the dwarves and visiting the elves and going to this and that kingdom. Basically it all takes place in one building, so it was a case of going away from fantasy conventions. This is something my agent said — we don’t want another bloody quest book. Also, when you think about the early Harry Potters, what is Hogwarts but the country estate that everyone is stuck in? You know that a crime has been committed, and one of the culprits is living there with you.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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