Zen Cho, welcome to Smash Dragons!
Thanks for having me!
First up, tell me a little bit about yourself and your upcoming book entitled Sorcerer to the Crown.
I'm a fantasy author from Malaysia living in London. I've published a short story collection with Malaysian press Buku Fixi, Spirits Abroad, and I also edited an anthology for them called Cyberpunk: Malaysia which came out in June.
Sorcerer to the Crown is my first novel and it's coming out in September. It's about Zacharias Wythe, England's first African Sorcerer Royal, who's trying to reverse the decline in England's magic, when his plans are hijacked by ambitious runaway orphan and female magical prodigy, Prunella Gentleman.
What motivated you to write Sorcerer to the Crown? Where did you draw your inspiration from?
It was a mix of things. Classic popular British authors like Georgette Heyer and P. G. Wodehouse were a huge part of my childhood reading, and I still love their books, so I sort of smushed them together. I added magic because I love fantasy. And I am really interested in the histories you don't hear as much about – the history of non-white people in the UK, for example – so some of that went in as well (I wrote about this for the US cover reveal on the B&N SFF Blog: Giving Power to the Powerless in Sorcerer to the Crown). Sneaking things I'm interested in into the sort of entertaining fiction I like best is an ongoing project of mine.
Tell me about Zacharias Wythe and Prunella Gentleman. What was it about those two characters that you really want to explore in this new series?
Zacharias is this really conscientious, sweet guy who has grown up in difficult circumstances, but has also been really lucky as a black man in Regency London who is not, you know, a slave or a servant or homeless. He's burdened by the restrictions of his time and his own overpowering sense of duty. Prunella is also disprivileged in many ways – she's mixed race, she has no family or money – but what she does have is a huge potential source of power and a ton of effrontery. I was interested in how different people react to the restrictions society places on them. And I also like writing about odd couples, which Zacharias and Prunella definitely are.
The world in Sorcerer to the Crown sounds absolutely mesmerizing. Can you tell me some more about it? How has magic changed England and English society?
19th century England plus magic is quite an established subgenre, and one of the pleasures I take in the genre as a reader is actually how little does change! There's magic in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and dragons in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, but a lot of the joy for me is how prosaic those things can be – it's making the strange familiar, and the familiar strange. So Clarke's magicians cast spells with homely tools like spoons and bodkins, and Novik's dragons are agitating for their rights.
Magic in Sorcerer to the Crown is a limited resource, and like any other resource, it generates strife. One of Zacharias's great headaches is the constant politics in which the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is mired. He's like the head of a large, quarrelsome political party, most of which hates him. The Society is increasingly trying to reserve magic for the elite of society – posh white men, basically – and the book is about what happens when Zacharias and Prunella try to thwart its intentions.
In Sorcerer to the Crown is the magic based upon a set of rules or is it a more mysterious and mystical force?
Magic's basically a natural force or element, like aether – you know how the Greeks thought the universe was full of this invisible stuff the gods breathed. (I suppose if you write about aether you're writing fantasy or steampunk, and if you write about dark matter that's science fiction …) It comes from Fairyland and seeps into the mortal realm through the various portals between the two worlds. Humans can manipulate it, but there are many different ways to do so. English thaumaturges discover rules of magic and invent spells, the way scientists in our world formulate laws of physics and invent technology.
What challenges did you face whilst writing Sorcerer to the Crown?
There was a fair amount of historical research involved, and what I found was that researching Regency England was extremely easy – the library and the Internet are overflowing with resources – and the history of black people in the UK is pretty well-covered. But I have supporting characters from countries outside the UK, and finding out even basic things about them – how they'd dress, what they'd do for a living – was much more of a challenge. There aren't many books on Qing dynasty manners in your average UK public library.
Did you always envisage yourself becoming a writer when you were younger?
Yes. I wrote my first story when I was six years old.
What is it about speculative fiction that you find so alluring?
I read a lot of period fiction from Britain and North America when I was growing up in Malaysia – Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery and so on – and one of the things I liked about these books was how they contained a completely different world. Diana Wynne Jones makes this point about Kipling's Kim in an essay called Inventing the Middle Ages – her young son gets obsessed with the book, and she says:
I was under the impression that, to him, this book was a historical novel recreating an empire and an India which had disappeared long before he was born. Not a bit of it. When he was 15, he confessed that he had thought Kim was a fantasy set in an alternative world and that Kipling had made all the India stuff up. … It’s possible that many children regard historical novels as this kind of fantasy. In which they are not exactly wrong.
In many important ways, Kipling's India probably was an invention. But all worlds depicted in fiction are a fantasy. Speculative fiction is just more upfront about it! I think that's the reason for my abiding interest in it.
You are both a lawyer and a writer. How do you manage find a good balance between the two?
I'm still working at finding a balance! For a long while I was writing to nobody's deadlines but my own, so it was relatively easy to balance that with my job, so long as my job kept to reasonable working hours. But it didn't always do that, and then my writing career started expanding, so it got pretty hectic. You have to be organised and driven – and you have to learn to say no to things, which is something I'm still struggling to do. Recently I switched to a part-time working pattern at the day job, which has helped a lot.
Favourite book? Why?
This is a totally unfair question to ask any reader! I genuinely do not have a single favourite book, because that's just impossible, but L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables is probably up there. I read it when I was young, so it's engraved onto my psyche. It's funny and kind and heartwarming, without glossing over how shit people can be, and it's about all sorts of things that interest me: a girl's coming of age, family, community. It's a story firmly rooted in its own culture.
Sprits Abroad, your collection of short stories, is a wonderful homage to your Malaysian heritage. I’m curious, did your experience as someone who was born and raised in another country help shape your depiction of Zacharias coming to England?
I didn't consciously draw on my experiences of immigration and diaspora when writing Zacharias, but they probably did shape him. I don't do it on purpose, but I seem preoccupied with characters who are detached from their own heritage in some way and are trying to reconcile different cultures in themselves and find their place in the world.
Both the US and UK covers for Sorcerer to the Crown are gorgeous. Did you have much say in their conception?
More for the US than the UK cover – my editor ran the concept past me in advance, and my agent and I suggested some changes to the proposed design. But I'm not a terribly visual person so am quite happy for other people to deal with that side of things!
If you could sit and pick the brain of one other writer for a day who would it be and why?
I think I'd like to meet Kao Kalia Yang, who wrote a memoir called The Latehomecomer. It's a wonderful, deeply impressive, compassionate book and she seems like an amazing person you could learn a lot from.
If you could pick one magical power to have what would it be and why?
I'd like a Time-Turner, like the one Hermione has in Harry Potter, that gives her more time. I'd use it for naps.
Complete the following statements:
My favourite fantasy character is…
Eowyn (subject to the disclaimer that obviously I don't just have one).
If I could time travel I would visit…
The Golden Age of Melaka. Glamour, derring-do, authentic Peranakan food!
If I were the Empress of Earth I would…
Introduce free universal healthcare and a universal basic income in all countries; remove national borders; institute measures to try to address climate change; support small businesses; improve schools and require everyone to learn two languages other than their mother tongue …. Actually I'd probably just arrange for a democratic government to be put in place and abdicate. I don't think being Empress of the Earth would leave me much time for writing.
What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
There is one thing a friend said to me years ago that helped me enormously. It was very powerful and it has stayed with me, because it was what I needed to hear at the time. I'm not sure it's advice, but I'll paste it here in case it helps other people too.
Racism is real and cultural imperialism is alive and well and code-switching is part of any colonized person's repertoire …. The things you're fighting with are not phantoms.
But as you go along I think you will find, if you have not already found, that your liminal position as an insider-outsider is actually an extremely powerful one for a writer. It is the ideal position. If you can lay claim to all the different parts of your heritage -- and you have an uncontested claim on Wodehouse as well as Malaysian culture -- then you can synthesize something the world has not seen before. …
It all belongs to you, darling. It's all yours.
And finally, can we expect to see you at any events or conventions in the near future?
I'll be in San Diego for Comic-Con from Thursday 9th to Saturday 11th July. I'm actually hoping to spend most of my time looking at sea lions, but I should also be at the con itself signing galleys of Sorcerer to the Crown. And I'll be at Nine Worlds in London again this year, from Friday 7th to Sunday 9th August. It'll be my third Nine Worlds and I'm looking forward to it – it's my favourite convention.
Zen Cho, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons!
No, thank you!
Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown is now available for pre-order from all good book outlets. Early indications are that it will be an amazing read! You can also find Cho's other work via outlets such as Amazon. I highly recommend it to you all, an amazing writer, and an incredibly nice person!
Also, credit to Darren Johnson and IDJ Photography for their great portrait of Zen shown at the start of this interview.
Thanks again everyone, remember to be nice to each other, and keep on reading!