Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Building a Kingdom: An interview with S.A. Chakraborty

Nominated for a Hugo Award for best new writer for her Daevabad Trilogy, S. A. Chakraborty continues the sweeping adventure begun in The City of Brass, with her latest book The Kingdom of Copper. With djinn who summon flames at the snap of a finger and three young heroes who have a role to play out, as well as a life to live, her books are captivating readers of all ages. Ahead of her appearance at our festival on May 4th to talk about Imagined Worlds with Kate Heartfield , Manahil Bandukwala interview S.A. Chakraborty to get a view into the writing process, inspiration and future of the Daevabad Trilogy.


MB: Hi Shannon! Congratulations on the success of The Kingdom of Copper. Could you talk about your experience writing the book? What was it like writing into the world and politics of Daevabad that you establish in The City of Brass?

SAC: It was both a lot of fun and very difficult. I had a hard time switching from having all the time in the world to write a book I never thought anyone else would read, to working on a strict deadline for a book I knew some very opinionated fans would definitely read! In regards to the actual story, however, I really enjoyed letting it expand and breathe. There is often a lot of worldbuilding to set down in the first book of fantasy series and it was nice to have already established that and to set the characters on new adventures.


MB: The djinn world is so vivid in your writing, which I find interesting because while it’s an integral part of Islamic mythology, it’s also often very mysterious. What was your research and writing process like when creating the six djinn tribes?

SAC: Ironically enough, my research predates the book as I’ve long been interested in the medieval Islamicate world and had planned to pursue further studies in graduate school. When that didn’t work out (thank you, Great Recession!), I didn’t want to leave everything behind and so I started creating this magical version of the history that I loved, trying to fill in the blanks when it comes to djinn.

Djinn show up in both religious texts and folktales quite often, but they’re often the mysterious, unnamed interloper or villain. We speak of how they have their own world and customs, that the Prophet Suleiman punished them, but I wanted to go beyond that and center their world, making humans the weird outsiders. So, I took Suleiman’s punishment as a jumping off point and then reimagined how they would have rebuilt their world, quietly imitating the humans around them.


MB: Writers often talk about characters taking on a life of their own, and as a writer you don’t have control over what they do. Do you find this is the case when writing characters like Nahri, Ali, and Dara?

SAC: Absolutely. I’m typically a rather meticulous planner—I’ve got multiple to-do lists and schedule events months out—but when it comes to writing, I am the absolute opposite. I tend to draft with a very loose framework in my mind and really let my characters respond to the story as seems fitting at the moment. I find my best scenes tend to come about organically—though this can be frustrating when I attempt to outline!


MB: In The Kingdom of Copper, Nahri is working as a doctor. You mention that you worked in healthcare and this informed why you chose this profession for Nahri. Could you talk more about that?

SAC: Certainly! There were a lot of fantasy tropes I wanted to dive into and reinterpret in these books—the orphan with a secret, noble background, the jaded con artist, the brooding handsome warrior with a tragic past who must be the hero, right?—but one I really wanted to play with was the idea of magical healer. Listen, healthcare is a rough field. You’re seeing people at their worst and most vulnerable and people—both doctors and patients—are messy, complicated creatures who react to this in different ways. I wanted to show Nahri truly growing into this role, including all the struggles and setbacks that would include. And I wanted to show that this would take practice—years of it—rather than some innate talent on her part.


MB: In an interview on Pen America, you talk about building characters who need to confront their roles as oppressors. Why is this necessary?

SAC: Because a truly just world requires accountability. The problems and inequalities that plague society aren’t the sole responsibility of a handful of tyrants and monsters—they persist because it’s often easier for a large part of population to avert their eyes and just try to get by—or quite frankly, for them to not see anything wrong until it’s pointed out by the people being hurt the most—a burden they shouldn’t have to shoulder. And this is normal! I wanted to write characters who don’t start out knowing everything and show that it’s not only okay to be humbled and confront the worst parts of your past—it’s how you grow and effect true change.


MB: I love that you have a section on your website dedicated to sharing fan art from the Daevabad trilogy! How do you feel seeing fans of your work visualizing your world?

SAC: It’s one of the best parts! There are honestly not enough words to describe what a surreal and spectacular experience it is to see other people add their artistic talents to these characters who’ve lived in my head for so long. I love it.


MB: On that note, what is interacting with your fandom like for you? How does having a fandom make you feel?

SAC: It feels amazing! I mean, there’s definitely pressure because I’m a people pleaser and I’m trying to stick to what feels right for the story. But I’m a huge nerd and have been a sci-fi/fantasy fan for so long that to see people raving about my book and dissecting out different theories like I do for other properties is just so cool.


MB: Without giving away too many spoilers, what can you tell us about what’s coming next for Nahri, Ali, and Dara?

SAC: It’s very difficult not to spoil things! But I’ll say Dara is learning the victory he’s always dreamed of comes at a brutal, bloody price—and one he might never shake. Nahri and Ali of course find themselves in a very different place, with options I don’t think they ever dreamed of having. We’ll also be seeing another part of the djinn world!


Want to know more about djinn, Nahri, Ali and Dara? Come out and hear S.A. Chakraborty on Saturday May 4th.