From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: Tasha Suri

Tasha Suri is the award-winning author of The Books of Ambha duology (Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash) and the upcoming epic fantasy The Jasmine Throne. She is an occasional librarian and cat owner. She has won the Best Newcomer (Sydney J. Bounds) Award from the British Fantasy Society and has been nominated for the Astounding Award and Locus Award for Best First Novel. When she isn’t writing, Tasha likes to cry over TV shows, buy too many notebooks, and indulge her geeky passion for reading about South Asian history. She lives with her family in a mildly haunted house in London.

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What kinds of books did you grow up reading? What stands out in your memory as important to you, and do you feel like those books still hold up?

I read all the British children’s classics growing up: Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, the Worst Witch books, Jacqueline Wilson. But those were the books I was given by adults, and once I had free range of the local library, my tastes became a little more ballistic. In my early teens, I feel in love with the Gothic books of the Brontë sisters: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I loved L.J. Smith’s Night World series and Helen Dunmore’s literary fiction. I also read a lot of romance, because libraries are always well-stocked with slim Mills & Boon paperbacks.

In retrospect, I still love exactly the kind of books I loved then. Maybe I’m a very fixed kind of person: give me Gothic lit, or a vampire novel, a romance, or something lyrical where arms are flung down staircases (thanks, Helen Dunmore), and I’m sold. Darkness and romance and women’s interior lives have always fascinated me, and probably always will. Those books largely still stand the test of time, I think, but I am glad that my access to literature by writers from a broader range of backgrounds, with more diverse identities, has massively increased since then.

How did reading become writing for you?

I’ve always written, and I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I remember writing before I knew what full stops were, or capitalization, and feeling really betrayed when I learned about them because I had to go back into my little story notebook and add them all in. I spent my teens writing a lot of fanfiction—which was so fun and so affirming, and taught me so much. But it took me a long, long time to go from writing for pleasure to writing actively for publication.

What was your journey to “breaking in” like, and what are the things new writers should take away from your story?

On the surface my “breaking in” story looks extremely smooth: I wrote Empire of Sand, then entered a few Twitter pitching contests, where I gained some tentative interest from a few agents. That gave me the confidence to begin properly querying agents who liked or represented work similar to my own. I received an offer of representation, which I accepted—and then, within a few months, there was an auction and a deal with Orbit. It was a dream, and I was very lucky.

But it took me a long, long time to get there. At some point after graduating university, I lost my confidence in my own creativity and had to fight anxiety to write a single word. For years, I couldn’t write long pieces of work. Trying made my heart race. I didn’t trust my own writing skills, I didn’t believe in myself, and I didn’t know the first thing about getting traditionally published. I worked my way toward “breaking in” very slowly: I wrote by hand, a few words here and there around my day job. Then a few pages. Then a novel. Then another. I read a few advice blogs. I lurked on Twitter. Crept around writer’s forums for advice. Started querying. It took me more than five years to find my way there.

What should new writers take away from this? On a practical level, researching agents and taking part in pitch contests pays its dividends. But on a more squishy, emotional level, you may not feel like someone capable of finishing a book, or getting an agent, or getting published, but one laborious step at a time, along whatever path is available to you, will take you far closer to “breaking in” than you ever thought yourself capable of. At least, that’s been my experience.

Your duology, The Books of Ambha (Empire of Sand in 2018 and Realm of Ash in 2019), was very well received. What did you learn in writing and publishing that series which has helped you with The Jasmine Throne?

I learned that I could finish books to deadline: a really useful skill for a professional author, and not one I was sure I had when I started tackling Realm of Ash! Whenever I start working on a book, the idea of finishing that book is overwhelming. It doesn’t seem believable. But now I can look at The Books of Ambha, and think: I did that. I wrote an entire duology. I can absolutely do it again.

The Jasmine Throne opens with a gripping prologue, immediately plunging the reader into family tension, but also into the tension of traditions, and those who uphold them versus those who are brought down by them. Finally, there is also this strange, elegant tension between beauty and the slowly building terror of the moment. In other words, there’s actually a lot happening, and it’s all brought together really well. Craft-wise, what’s the key to pulling off a scene like this, which is so layered?

I find it difficult to talk about craft meaningfully, because I approach it in a similar way to how my grandmother used to cook. She’d add “some” onions to a masala, or a “handful” of turmeric to a dish, maybe a “dash” of ground chilies to another. No measurements, nothing concrete, just experience and muscle memory and good vibes. When I wrote The Jasmine Throne—and the prologue in particular—I knew what purpose I wanted it to serve. I knew there was particular imagery I wanted to include. That certain worldbuilding elements had to be brought in, and pieces of characterization, and action. But how much of each thing was needed to produce a good piece of writing? I honestly can’t tell you. I just knew.

You talked in a previous interview about the idea of “strong women” as characters, and that strength can be expressed in more ways than simply kicking ass and taking names. Can you talk a bit about this as it relates to The Jasmine Throne?

There are women in The Jasmine Throne who kick ass and take names, but strength is also about making difficult choices that you aren’t always rewarded for. Sometimes strength is about surviving, or finding ways to leverage a bad situation in your favour, or using the tools available to you. Sometimes those tools aren’t weapons—sometimes they’re words, or debts called in, or bonds of friendship. I wanted to explore all those forms of strength in The Jasmine Throne, and treat them with the weight they deserve—because they often haven’t been recognized or lauded, in fiction or in history.

Things which stand out to me immediately, within the first few chapters, are the nuanced relationships between people, the various structures and types of power, and this complex interweaving of power and relationship dynamics. Power and relationships were elements you explored in The Books of Ambha. Are there important similarities and differences between that series and the way you approach exploring these concepts in The Jasmine Throne?

Empire of Sand and Realm of Ash are both about fundamentally good people trying to do the right thing in lives and worlds that make them complicit or beholden to cruel, unjust power hierarchies. I sometimes joke that they’re about “the power of love,” but honestly it’s not really a joke. If The Books of Ambha have a moral, or a lesson, it’s that choosing love, kindness and goodness to one another is a radical choice we can make to better the world in small and large ways. And goodness is not an easy choice: it’s hard, difficult, and often painful. But it’s worthwhile.

In The Jasmine Throne I wanted to explore shades of grey: ostensibly good people doing unjust things for their ideals; people choosing to become villains with their eyes open; the way power can unmake you and monster you. It’s also about unjust systems and cruel power hierarchies and—yes—love. But its characters don’t always choose the right path, and love doesn’t always have the power to save them.

There’s a lot of beautiful world-building in this book, from big ideas to subtle little things. What are some of your favorite world-building concepts at play, and were there any favorite ideas or things that you ultimately had to leave out for one reason or another?

In the world of The Jasmine Throne there is a nation that gives its royal children names that are prophecies. The names of those children can only be uttered when it is time for the prophecy to be revealed. I loved this concept because it let me work with a time-honoured fantasy trope—prophecy—and play with it in a slightly different way. I don’t think I left anything out that I wanted to include! I decided the book was big enough to carry all the cool things I wanted to write about inside of it.

You also mentioned in a prior interview that you love research. How did you research for this book?

I’m usually a very methodical researcher, but I took a more chaotic approach to researching The Jasmine Throne. I knew before I began properly drafting it that it wouldn’t be based on a specific historical period or mythological source, which gave me the freedom to approach research more freely, and to incorporate random bits of history and myth that I loved but hadn’t previously been able to use: Mughal beautification practices, historical execution practices, mythic murder gambits, regionally specific weaponry and martial styles. I walked aimlessly around museum collections, and read books, and generally had a great time.

One thing I researched a lot before getting into the book was information on carving gods from bronze, and the point at which they transform from lumps of metal to full-blown deities. I didn’t end up using this, though, which is a shame. Maybe in a future book I’ll find a use for it!

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book, and how did you deal with the challenge?

It is the biggest book I’ve ever written: in wordcount, in points of view, in the breadth of plot, in the numbers of cultures, and in the range of magic systems. I wanted The Jasmine Throne to be an epic epic fantasy, and I wasn’t sure if I had the skill to accomplish that. I’m naturally inclined to focus on close relationships between a small range of characters in my own writing, so I knew I was stretching myself.

The only way I could overcome that challenge was by giving myself permission to write without worrying if the words and the structure were objectively ‘good’. I allowed myself to just write, to try things out, to experiment with points of view and ideas. Sometimes things worked, and sometimes they didn’t, but you can only hone a book into something good if you’ve written a draft to improve upon.

What is really important or special to you about The Jasmine Throne, what do you want readers to know about it, beyond the blurbs?

It’s an angry, sapphic, romantic, vicious and deeply creepy, floral explosion of a book. I’m very proud of it and hope readers will enjoy it too!

Last year Macmillan Children’s imprint Feiwel and Friends announced your Wuthering Heights revamp. In the announcement, you said, “I want to write a reclamation that says: everyone comes from somewhere, and colonialism may try to make us its monsters, but we don’t have to let it.” How is the project going, and what sorts of surprises or revelations have you had in the course of taking it on?

I think the project is going well! I’m certainly enjoying it a lot. It’s a real change of direction for me, as a young adult historical, but I love Wuthering Heights, so it’s a complete labour of love.

This isn’t so much a revelation as a truth that strikes me every time I do any kind of historical research for a novel: the injustices we face today are so often direct descendants of the injustices people faced hundreds of years ago. Attitudes to the poor and to social responsibility; racism; privilege and wealth; who has power and who doesn’t. In some ways, none of it changes. The past may be another country, but the borders between then and now are really pretty damn porous.

What else are you working on, or what do you have coming up that readers and fans should look out for?

The Jasmine Throne is the first book in The Burning Kingdoms trilogy, and I’m currently working on the second book, which will be out next year!

Thank you for your time!

Thank you for having me!

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, where he’s been on staff since 2014. He joined the Lightspeed family in 2014 to work on the Queers Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, starting as a slush reader. He eventually worked his way up to associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He also reviews books for LocusLightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.