S.A. Chakraborty Tells Us the Best Writing Advice She Ever Got in Reddit AMA

S.A. Chakraborty is the Locus Award, World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, Crawford Award, and Astounding Award-nominated author of The Daevabad Trilogy, which she describes as “an epic fantasy inspired by the folklore and history of the medieval Islamic world that I dreamed up while working in a medical office and finished ten years later during a pandemic.” Beginning with The City of Brass and followed by The Kingdom of Copper, the trilogy is now complete with The Empire of Gold, released in June.

For her next project, the writer is taking on a historical fantasy trilogy about an adventure heist that’s “a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean meets Ocean’s 11, set in the 13th century Indian Ocean,” featuring “ex-Crusaders and pirate mothers.” (More details here.) A week after her AMA with r/Books (which we highly recommend for those interested in craft), Chakraborty dropped by r/Fantasy for another AMA, where she talked about post-trilogy-completing feelings, writing advice, historical medical procedures, a mythological tree that bears human fruit (!), a very cocky medieval guide to con artistry, parents (ranked), love, stealing a horse on the high seas, and much, much more. Here are the (spoiler-free) highlights!

[Editor’s note: Questions and responses may have been edited for length and clarity.]

How does it feel to wrap up The Daevabad Trilogy?

I am very, very tired. Haha, no honestly, my emotions have been all over the place. I’ve been working on the Daevabad Trilogy for over a decade, nearly my entire adult life, and these fictional characters have been living in my brain through job changes and relocations, marriage and parenthood. It’s hard to let them go! But for however sad and wistful I’ve been, I mostly feel very, very satisfied. Writing these books put me through the wringer, but I’m incredibly proud of the conclusion—and more than that, I feel honored to see their reception among readers. People send me fan art! There’s fanfiction! Do you know how freaking cool that is a creator to see?? It’s just been an awesome experience.

Can you rank the parents of The Daevabad Trilogy for us?

I feel like there’s a spoiler version of this question but I’ll resist!

From best to worst:

The Sens

MYSTERY

Hatset

Seif

MYSTERY

Dara’s parents

Kaveh

Manizheh and Ghassan, Ghassan and Manizheh….you know what, I’m very barely putting Manizheh before Ghassan. He’s still the worst.

I think Nahri would make a good mom. I’m sure she’d be super anxious about it, but she’s been through enough horrible things and fought for her own ambitions that I can see her being very understanding, supportive, and fiercely protective.

Let’s talk about love! What made you decide to take Nahri’s romantic arc where you did? (Editor’s note: This answer is spoiler-free, but you can find the full, spoiler-filled version here.)

Ah, but the romance. With the Daevabad Trilogy, I really wanted to center the romance from Nahri’s point of view and explore the different ways love, attraction, and passion might weave in and out of her life throughout a period of years. And I wanted it to feel as real, nuanced and messy as love often does in real life. What is it like to have her first crush? To learn how to trust? To be betrayed? To have to navigate a political marriage? How would all this work in terms of her own agency and desire rather than prioritizing the feelings of male characters? And I wanted the story to reflect how Nahri herself felt about love: that it could be a sentiment not to be trusted, a distraction. That in the end, there were other things she desired just as much, if not more.

Non-spoiler thoughts on romance since I have a spot to put them: I am not unaware this topic has roused some passionate debate among readers! Frankly, I’m content to have written the canon and let readers find joy in shipping whoever they want. It’s an adult book and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, steal your happiness where you can find it. But I hope people can do so without tearing into each other. Fictional men (heck, many real ones) aren’t worth that much negative energy.

How did you approach writing the trilogy’s complex medical characters and scenes? 

I knew I wanted to make my main character a healer, but I also wanted to get it right (I was working in an ob/gyn clinic at the time and watching my own spouse go through medical school and a grueling residency). I wanted to play with some historical techniques and procedures such as the theory of humors, cupping, and trepanation. But more than that, I wanted it all to feel real. I wanted Nahri’s training to be as grueling and time-consuming as a modern medical student. I wanted some of her patients to be incredibly difficult and I wanted her to make mistakes that would get people killed. It was important to show the arc that gives her the confidence to do surgery in the third book–because you need a certain level of insane confidence to cut into someone’s head! But this also comes with responsibility. For all the politics and war and magical shenanigans (and romance, yes) her overriding ambition is to survive and take care of her patients.

The scenes! I really like the history of medicine so first came the research (and some memorable trips to medical history museums in both the US and the UK). But for the final pass, I always made sure to run everything by the aforementioned spouse. There’s always plenty to nitpick and criticize when you read any book, but let me tell you…I know I got the brain surgery correct!

And what about developing and realizing the arcs of characters caught between conflicting loyalties?

I really just wanted to make these characters as messy and real and “human” as possible and with every revision, I tried to bring this more to the surface. No matter the magical world, they’re dealing with things that rip apart both the larger world and people’s heart everywhere: struggles with faith, duties to community, family drama. I spent a lot of time both sitting with each new dilemma/scene and trying out various paths (so much rewriting and words that will never see the light of day). There is no rule, no craft secret I’ve stumbled upon (I had essentially no creative writing background or experience before these books which I can admit now in public since they’ve been nominated for awards enough ;) It’s just practice. Critique and revise as many times as you can.

What’s your favorite, most outlandish myth from the medieval Islamic world that you wish you’d included in the trilogy but didn’t?

Oh man, this is legitimately difficult as there are so many to choose…but the waqwaq tree. Which varies among tellings but is essentially a tree that bears human fruit. Yes. Sometimes children. Sometimes women. Sometimes just heads that wail and scream omens. There’s a bit of a mystery because sometimes it’s also referred to as the island of Waqwaq, which may or may not contain heads. But you can find elements of the story dating back to earlier Persian tales and the Alexander romances.

What book about that particular period of history would you recommend?

There are a lot but I really enjoy The Book of the Wonders of India. It’s set up as a collection of sailors yarns by a tenth century Captain Buzurg ibn Shahriyar (who may or may not have existed) and it just captures such a wide-eyed and woundrous (and wild and often extremely racist!) look at traveling the seas in the early medieval era. From monsters and mermaids to deathly gales and dodgy pirates…it’s one of those books that reminds you how very human the past was.

Any favorite books you came across while doing research?

There’s a great translation coming out from the Library of Arabic Literature of al-Jawbari’s Book of Charlatans which is essentially a medieval guide to being a con artist, written by someone who was SUPREMELY full of himself. It’s magnificently bizarre and contains an anecdote about a scheme using a trained monkey said to be a bewitched Indian prince to guilt people out of money of the mosque (where said monkey makes his ablutions and performs prayer!)

Let’s talk writing advice. How did you get yourself to write when you first started out and not fall into the whole “am I good enough to be a writer” trap?

I have what is probably both a depressing and inspiring answer to this: I truly, deeply did not ever imagine my dream of seeing these books published would come true. I wanted them to! Desperately! But I had no creative writing background and was not raised with the idea that the arts could be a career (not that my parents discouraged me–but I was a first generation college student from a working class family: financial stability was the dream). And I didn’t want to let myself dream too much because I didn’t want to me crushed if it all came crashing down. So I wrote the books because I wanted to. I did the work of getting them critiqued and looking for an agent because I had people in my corner who loved them and pushed me, but I didn’t let myself get hopeful. I mean…I still haven’t and the trilogy has been optioned by Netflix so you think Impostor Syndrome would start to fade but apparently not.

Which is a long rambling way of saying there is no “good enough to be a writer.” Write if you want to write, if you have ideas and stories burning in your brain. Write them because you deserve to have a creative outlet in your life regardless if it goes anywhere that pays the bills. And if it does one day? Fantastic! if it doesn’t? Every sentence you craft is practice that makes you better. Trust me: I know this is hard to internalize. I agonized over whether or not writing was selfish when my daughter was a baby. But you get to have this.

Coming from a historical background, how did you transition from something grounded in data and archives to building a fantasy world?

I think by both constantly trying to internalize that they’re different things and by reading other works of historical fiction to remind yourself that most aren’t getting down every tiny detail. You’re trying to sketch out an atmosphere, a scene, a taste…not argue a thesis.

Do you have any advice on adapting existing folktales and mythology without insulting their religions and cultures of origin?

This is a question that needs a far longer answer than I can provide here, but I try to flip the question and not ask “what I can do without insulting such traditions,” but “what I can do to honor and respect them.” People (often in the majority demographic) get horribly offended when they think they’re being told not to write something when really the attitude of questioning your intentions, trying to internalize and sit with critique, and considering existing power structures, your place in them, and the particular work under consideration will take you pretty far! And probably make you a better, more empathetic author!

In general, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable doing a deep or edgy reinterpretation of a living religion that isn’t mine. Not because of fears of getting called out, but because it doesn’t really sit right with me and isn’t my lane in a way I think every writer needs to decide for themselves (and I think we should normalize both these discussions and the idea that people can learn). For example, I think the Mahabharat contains some of the greatest storytelling in history, and in particular I find Karna fascinating (the hidden family trauma! the loyalty to the one man who treated him right!) But I wouldn’t try to retell his story. I’m neither South Asian nor Hindu and it doesn’t feel right. I might be inspired by elements of his character or arc, but I wouldn’t try to make him as Karna mine. I couldn’t do justice to him. (though relatedly, there is a fantastic YA space opera by a South Asian author that takes both Karna and the Mahabharat as its framing and it’s really, really good: A SPARK OF WHITE FIRE https://www.skyhorsepublishing.com/sky-pony-press/9781510733817/a-spark-of-white-fire/

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

Best advice: FINISH THE BOOK. Don’t get worn down into despair over a single scene or spend three months on the first ten pages. Writing is a very personal process but I do believe it is generally easier to see a story’s larger arc or where the pieces need to go once you have a draft, even if that draft is half outline.

So tell us, how does one steal a horse on the high seas?

So I wrote the “stealing a horse on the high sea” as a nod to an anecdote from Ibn al-Mujawir’s 13th century travelogue about the constant thieving between the so-called “pirate amirs” of Kish and the free agent pirate contractors horse merchants would hire to steal their horses back from the amirs…than realized I might want to use it in the next book so I might make you hunt the details yourself for now!

Head on over to r/Fantasy for the full AMA. For more, check out the AMA she did with r/Books last week.

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