Monday, May 04, 2009

Interview with YA Novelist - Sarwat Chadda

It is with great fanfare and a lot of hooting and smug looks that Mark and I get to present an interview with Puffin UK debut novelist, Sarwat Chadda who, it turns out is quite a handful when it comes to putting pen to paper! We have also been given the opportunity to give some copies of Sarwat's book, The Devil's Kiss away in a competition further down.
Hope you enjoy!

Tell us a bit about yourself and maybe add a random fact which few people may know about you.

I’ve been writing seriously since 2004, but before that my training in storytelling has been because of roleplaying games. I’ve been writing my own adventures for Dungeons and Dragons and the like since about 1981.

I think the roleplaying background has been an incredible help in my writing career.

I was one of the winners of the Society of Children Book Writers and Illustrators Undiscovered Voice competition back in 2007. That got me an agent and she got me a publishing deal. Quite a few actually. First there was the US deal with Hyperion and the UK Puffin deal. Then I think Devil’s Kiss is to be translated into French, German, Dutch, Japanese, Indonesian, Italian and Portuguese. The Dutch version’s due out June.

All pretty amazing but I’ve an amazing agent, Sarah Davies. She was one of the judges in the writing competition and that’s how she found me.

Tell us a bit more about your debut novel, The Devil’s Kiss.

It’s a gothic thriller set in modern London. Billi SanGreal is a fifteen-year old girl, and a member of the Knights Templar. They’re a secret society of demon hunters, protecting humanity from what they call the Unholy.

They discover the Angel of Death is planning to unleash the Biblical Tenth Plague, the death of all the firstborn, and it comes down to Billi to try and stop him.

Like all great villains the Angel is convinced he’s the good guy, doing God’s work and punishing humanity for its’ wayward ways. The death of millions is his sacrifice to the Almighty.

Billi’s got typical teenage identity issues, what sort of adult does she want to become? She’s at that threshold, not a child and not quite an adult, but has this terrible burden of knowledge. She knows what’s in the shadows, she knows that the nightmares do carry you away. The question is does she have the ruthlessness to succeed in her task, and sacrifice anyone and anything for the Templars?

Where does Billi come from? Was she your first character you created and were you ever worried about the comparisons with Buffy?

I’d finished a couple of drafts before my sister lent me a Buffy boxed set (series four, I think). By then Billi was so established as a character I couldn’t change her. I totally love Buffy but her mythology is a million miles away from mine. I wanted to retain the gothic, doomed and tragic nature of Poe and Stoker, where the darkness is all around and each victory comes at a terrible price.

I had to have a female warrior because I have daughters, and because I wanted to emphasise the reluctant hero. Billi stands apart because she doesn’t want to be a Templar. Rather than have a normal kid brought into a secret world I wanted a character already deeply submerged in this special existence, and investigate the dynamics of that. How does she ‘pretend’ to be normal when she does what she does? What defines a person, how do their actions influence their nature?

There is a lot of history to the Templars – were you ever concerned that some of those in the know would not approve of you adding a young female teen to their already elaborate legend?
Well if they accept the Templars spend their nights fighting ghosts, werewolves and demons I can’t see why they’d object to one of them being a girl. It is the 21st Century after all.

I’m not into conspiracies particularly, except as a means of creating stories. I think the true story behind the order is terribly mundane and all the occult Holy Grail stuff is fiction. But so what? The truth and what people believe does not need to correspond. How dull it would all be if it did. Myths make us who we are more than history.

All your characters in The Devil’s Kiss have “old” names – from Arthurian legend and medieval times – where do they fit in? i.e. were they (the names) given to the Templars as replacement names to their own once they joined the Templars?

I picked Arthurian names because it was cool and I’m crap at making up names. It is a fantasy story but in a ‘real’ setting, so I wanted something slightly magical in the background, but no one ever refers to it. It’s part of my construct of this alternative London. It does offer a subtle hint to the nature of the Templars, since you have an inkling of their relationship with the legendary Round Table. The use of exotic names for the Templars helped separate them from the other characters in the book. The only knight who’s not an ‘Arthurian’ character is Billi, and that demonstrates how apart from the others she is. .

Did you have to do a lot of research on the Templars’ background as well as the occult / religious elements in the novel?

Loads and loads. I spent a good six to ten months reading and cross-referencing the history of the Templars and the Crusades generally. The earlier drafts had lots of flashbacks to the Crusades and it was hard taking them out, but necessary. What I avoided was the occult stuff, since I had a clear idea of the mythology that I wanted to use.

Taking the above into consideration, I truly enjoyed the fact that you have roped in various religions to be part of The Devil’s Kiss – this creates conflict within the Templars who do not approve of mixing the religions, as such. Was this a deliberate move on your part – a comment on how much we can learn from the various world religions out there?

In the earlier drafts the religious tension was much higher, but it was distracting from the main plot. In a way the overlap between Christianity and Islam was the main reason I wrote the book, and why Billi is the person she is. Historically there’s been huge cooperation between these two religions and a lot of learning from one another. Even during the Crusades it wasn’t the clear ‘East v West’ battle everyone believes it to be. Billi is at ease with her Muslim and Christian heritage, it’s other people who take issue.

The trouble is this is a huge subject and I don’t want to get on my soap-box over it, but what I point out the most religious character in the book is the bad guy.

The remaining Templars as a group is a greatly conflicted warrior band with a lot of tension and undercurrents. How did you manage to stay clear from too much internal politics to keep the story moving rapidly forward?

Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story. If you keep that in mind you avoid writing characters that have ‘sidekick’ or ‘mentor’ or ‘comic relief’ labels. Gwaine’s a perfect example. He taught Arthur and was a father to him after Arthur’s psychotic breakdown. But he’s also jealous that this younger man has exceeded him and is now his boss. These are natural traits within any organization, but would be even more so given the deadly nature of the Templars. Everyone has their own view and agenda, and I wanted to drop these in just as a way of making the second string characters much more rounded. It took a lot of reworking though. The internal politics is my slow burn story arch. There’s a bit more in the next book and a definite feeling things will come to a head. It’s something I picked up out of the Iliad. Every hero has his moment of glory, balanced against who’s the main hero of the tale (Achilles). So we have Diomedes, Odysseus and Ajax having glorious battles and showing the stuff they’re made of. Diomedes actually injured Ares, the god of war, in one of his assaults. But as the tale progresses the path is cleared for Achilles, so we’re left in no doubt to who’s the best of the best. That’s what I wanted from the other Templars. Each one of them is a potent figure in his own right, and doesn’t think he’s second rank to anyone. But the reader is made well aware of the standard that the knights are measured by, and that’s Arthur. Which is why the fight between Arthur and Billi is so crucial. There’s both the natural rivalry of parent and child, of generations, and professional pride. Who is the better warrior? Billi’s been trained by the best and doesn’t have the same blind spots of her dad. What she lacks is experience.

You clearly have an affinity for London – did you pound the sidewalks to get to know it as well as you make it appear? Will there ever be a The Devil’s Kiss Tour like they’ve done for The Da Vinci Code, do you think?

I was born and brought up in London and as my background was in construction I have worked in a lot of places in the city. I love London and it was a given that Devil’s Kiss would be set here. What’s been great is how well the real location has lent itself to my fantasy story. I’m glad that’s come across in the telling.

The big advantage is that you’ve got thousands of years of history and legends to draw upon without needing to make anything up yourself. Just avoid making it sound like you’re cribbing off a guide book. The setting is a crucial character and needs to be as strong as any of the other lead players. The story wouldn’t have been half as powerful if it hadn’t been London.

Are you allowed to tell us about your second novel, The Dark Goddess? (note illustraton of The Dark Goddess is draft only)

I take Billi way out of her comfort zone and drop her in Russia. I love Russian fairy tales and the works of Angela Carter (especially Company of Wolves) so wanted the next story to reflect these two inspirations.

Billi faces Baba Yaga, the immortal Russian witch, the dark goddess. Baba Yaga represents nature, and has decided that she’s going to do something drastic about climate change and all the damage humanity has done to the environment.

It’s terribly simple, and perfectly logical. Humankind is an infestation on Earth, so she’ll cull it back to more manageable numbers.

Baba Yaga is served and worshipped by the Polenitsy, a cult of warrior women said to have lived around the Black Sea back in the first millennia BC. The best of them can shape-change into wolves, and that’s what Billi and the Templars face.

Werewolf mythology is very feminine with it’s’ relationship with the moon and natural cycles, and because DEVIL’S KISS had a very strong male energy I wanted to mirror that in THE DARK GODDESS with an equally powerful female one.

What is your writerly day like?

It’s really very boring. I drop the kids at school. I write. I pick them up. I set myself monthly goals on number of words, so my month has structure more than my days. What’s weird is I read less. I used to read loads commuting back and forth to work, and I feel strangely self-indulgent just lying around reading at home, even though now it’s ‘work’. But I’ll get over it.

How do you wind down and relax?

Go to the cinema. I’m hoping this is all tax-deductable now. Read Clive Cussler and Bernard Cornwell. All that action adventure stuff, especially historical fiction. Cussler is great at the ‘fate of the world’ stuff while Cornwell writes heroes brilliantly. Sharpe has been a heavy influence on Billi. I have a microscopic homage to Sharpe in DEVIL’S KISS with the idea Billi’s ancestor fought at Waterloo (though for the French).

What are your favourite movies / TV shows? Any favourite authors you take time out to read?

Really loved BEING HUMAN on BBC 3. Can’t wait for series 2. It’s a soap opera set in Bristol about a ghost, vampire and werewolf living together. The key to its success is that the three protagonists are brilliantly written and you really care about them. Their personal back-stories are fluidly written into each episode and there’s enough ‘homage’ done to the mythology while not allowing yourself to be handicapped by it. Still not sure about vampires going out in daylight though.

Beyond that I have a tendency to buy the dvd box sets usually well after the series has ended. That’s what happened with Buffy and Firefly. Oh, the last thing I watched religiously was the Rome miniseries. One day all tv will be like this. With vampires.

Movies-wise I love Batman, so Batman Begins and the Dark Knight are way at the top of my list. There’s a French movie called Brotherhood of the Wolf that has a beautiful macabre tone that’s something I’m aiming for in my writing, especially in The Dark Goddess. Dog Soldiers, Company of Wolves, I’m in a werewolf state of mind right now.

Will you be touring to promote The Devil’s Kiss?

Puffin have organised a week of school visits at the beginning of May. After that I intend to do a few things myself, and am open to invitations! It’s all pretty up in the air right now.

When Puffin contacted you, confirming that they were keen to publish The Devil’s Kiss and the reality of it sank in, what is the first thing you did?

I can quit the day job. It was a truly awesome moment. My wife and I had our fingers crossed that maybe we’d be able to buy new carpets with the advance and had a vague idea that I’d write and slowly, over five to ten years, would work my way into being able to quit the day job and become a full time writer. But to be able to do it so quickly was amazing. I still can’t quite believe in, even now. One thing’s for certain, there are absolutely no regrets and having all this time to write is bloody fantastic.

Whilst reading The Devil’s Kiss I appreciated the dark glamour you gave London and the extent of Billi’s conflicting emotions about who she is, her relationship with her father and .. no spoilers, sorry.... This made me think that music may have played a role in you writing The Devil’s Kiss. Was this an incorrect impression on my part? Do you have a playlist for Billi and the guys?

I’m very sad and I’ve even done a Devil’s Kiss soundtrack, based on the mood I felt permeated through the story. We’ve got The Black Angels, The Sisters of Mercy (I’m an old goth at heart), The Cult, a bit of Mozart and Ezzay, by Natasha Atlas.

The Dark Goddess has a lot of werewolves, so I’ve started assembling the music for that. The Prodigy’s ‘Run with the wolves’ is obviously the opening track.

Do you have any advice to any young budding authors out there?

I recently went to a talk given by agents, so I’ll pass on their advice, which is more practical that mine (which was all about loving what you’re writing, don’t give up, etc). Avoid putting the word ‘Shadow’ in your title, especially if it’s a fantasy. Don’t assume you’re writing a series. Book 1 must stand alone. Never EVER have the opening scene with the character waking up in their dishevelled bedroom, wondering why their lives are such a mess. Avoid vampires like the plague. Don’t follow the market (see previous comment about vampires) since your book, if it’s chosen, won’t come out for at least another year. Synopses are a complete nightmare to write, so put in loads of effort to get them to work. Most agents don’t get past the first paragraph, and having been a reader for a short while I can really see their point. CHECK THEIR SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. There is no excuse to get that wrong. No vampires. Seriously. If you have vampires, slap your face and take them all out. Oh, I suspect zombies will be big next year so probably don’t have zombies either. Don’t do werewolves either because I’m writing them.

Really really work on chapter 1. It’s the most important chapter in the book because it’s the only one agents or editors will read before deciding whether or not to bother with the rest. It’s got so much work to do: establish the setting and genre. The protagonist, his or her needs, desires and the theme of the book. What’s their internal conflict?

Writing is not the same as storytelling. I’ve read a few friends who write beautifully, far far better than me. They establish wonderful settings but after finishing the chapter you realise nothing has happened and the entire thing should be cut. Yes, John, I mean you.

Read widely. Not just in your genre (which you should know inside out) but well outside of it. Neil Gaiman (I think) used to be a book reviewer early on and had to read whatever he was sent. It meant that when he started writing he had a huge backlog of resource material, and part of his genius is how he’s integrated so many mythologies and settings into his work. That’s why it’s so difficult to pin him down in one genre or another.

And enter writing competitions. It worked for me.

Of course if your idea is big enough and bold enough, none of the above will apply.

**Competition News**
We are very fortunate to have FIVE copies of Sarwat's debut novel The Devil's Kiss to give away. Drop us an email at: myfavouritebooksatblogspot (@) googlemail (dot) com and five entrants will randomly be selected. We'll let the competition run from today -Monday, 4th May till Friday, 15th May. UK entrants only I'm afraid.


Phantom of Pulp said...

Great interview.

I like this guy's atttitude.

Solid advice, too.

Daya said...

Argh Liz! I only saw UK entrants at the very end :-)
Your review really got me interested in this and the interview even more so..added to my ever growing TBR pile!

Jon M said...

Well, scrap my "Shadow the Vampire" series I guess. Sigh and it had so much atmospheric description in it too! :-)