I got to interview Zen Cho as part of our Writers of Fantasy series! Author of the award winning Sorcerer to the Crown. She is the author of Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad and editor of anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia. She was nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and honour-listed for the Carl Brandon Society Awards for her short fiction.
Her debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown (Ace/Macmillan), about magic, intrigue and politics in Regency London, won a British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and was a Locus Awards finalist for Best First Novel.
We talk about writing, characters, diversity, and the state of the publishing industry! Listen to it here, or read the key quotes below!
Editing Cyberpunk Malaysia
“When I was editing Cyberpunk Malaysia, that was about the time that I was going through the copy-edits for Sorcerer to the Crown. What I found was that being in copy-editing mode was affecting the way I approached Cyberpunk Malaysia. I was in that really picky mode, which I am sure was very enjoyable for all the authors whose stories were included.
“I don’t think that it affected the way I approach writing. You’re in a different position towards your own work than you are with regards to other people’s work. I think the experience of revising Sorcerer to the Crown was hopefully quite helpful when it came to editing Cyberpunk Malaysia. I had that experience of knowing how my editor had approached my work, questions you would ask and how you would try to draw out the author’s vision for their story.
“It’s quite hard to take that logical, objective editorial mindset and apply it to your own writing. Not least because when you’re first coming up with a story it’s just a completely different mindset.”
Writing Short stories Vs. Novels
“I imagine when an idea comes to them you kind of know whether it’s going to be a short story or a novel. In the nature of the idea. I think a short story lends itself much more to an epiphany, or exploring an idea within fairly defined parameters. With a novel it’s just more expansive; you have much more space to delve into world-building and character building.
“What happens is; you get an idea for a story, and sometimes a character comes along with a story. Sometimes just the shape of the story starts to create the kind of character you need to act it out. Conversely, sometimes you just get a really clear character and they drive the story and make it as they go along.
“With Sorcerer, I was lucky enough that the two main characters were pretty clear to me. I had a good sense of them from the very beginning, which is not always the case. But I knew what sort of space they occupied in the world, and what sort of arcs I wanted them to have. It took a long time to work out what was the best way to tell that story and what should happen in those arcs.
“Side characters need a different approach. Their growth isn’t as key to the story, so I think for the main characters they and the story become intertwined. Otherwise you don’t have any story. With the side characters I just had a bit of fun with them. In several cases I was drawing on other character types that I had seen in other books and wanted to play with myself.
“For example, Zacharias’ friends Damerell and Rollo are essentially drawn from the types you get in PG Wodehouse books. They’re these sort of brainless aristocrats and the very smooth character who goes around making jokes. I just wanted to have fun with them in a fantasy setting and they grew from that.
“Somebody like Mak Genggang, who is a Malayan witch who appears in the book, is a very standard character that I write quite frequently [laughs]. The kind of magical aunt characters who is very overbearing and larger than life. That’s drawn partly from life, from all the very overbearing aunts that I know.”
“I read a lot of nonfiction, a lot of historical nonfiction. What I found was it’s difficult because there’s other cultures featured in the book, although not as prominently. The Regency London setting was quite easy to research, there’s lots of writing on it. There’s a lot of fiction about it, too, if you want to get that feel.
“In terms of trying to find out what it was like in early 1800s China, for example, that was a bit more challenging. Trying to get sources in English, that was a bit harder. So it was a combination of reading writing from the period, writing that draws from the period (although wasn’t written at that time). I read Patrick O’Brian, and Susanna Clarke and so on. And then nonfiction as well.”
Race and Gender
“More of the research that I did was learning the historical black and asian presence in the UK. There’s a really magisterial work in those areas, Staying Power by Peter Fryer. At the time, David Olusoga’s Black and British hadn’t been published – that would have been very useful.
“There’s actually quite a lot of writing on particularly the historical black presence in the UK, and I read a lot of that. When you read that stuff you get a sense of the attitudes. But I would say that in terms of the attitudes that Prunella and Zacharias face, I didn’t really research those, I just sort of drew on my own personal experience with racism.
“I don’t think the dynamics change that much. If you understand how that kind of thinking operates and how people treat each other, when they have those kinds of prejudices, you start to see the same dynamics repeat themselves.”
How the characters deal with prejudice
“Zacharias deals with it by being kind of better and better, he has to be irreproachable. That’s because of the way he was brought up by two white parents who are very anxious for him and are grooming him for success. They know he has to operate in this society that’s already looking down on him.
“Prunella has no parents, she grows up in this odd position in this school where she’s half a servant, half not. She’s much more ‘I’m going to go get it!’ and she doesn’t have that burden of expectation, she just deals with it. ‘People are going to look down on me, or be prejudice against me, so I just don’t care about them. I’ll get what I want!’
Diversity within the industry
“I think we’re in a bit of an era, at the moment. Querrey weather it will keep going. I hope it does. It’s a cultural moment, it’s not just publishing, you see it across the board where, in the world we are now it’s kind of impossible to pretend that you’re just on your own. That you’re separate from other cultures.
“It doesn’t stop people from trying to do that, but it’s easier with the internet and so on, and perhaps with equalising people from different sized economies. We are an interconnected world and people want to reach out to each other, people want to understand each other more. Hopefully publishing is slowly changing to reflect that. I think it is quite slow, I think it is somewhat behind the times. But I do see a change.”
“I wasn’t expressly thinking of Susanna Clarke’s novel when I was writing [Sorcerer to the Crown]. I love Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, but it wasn’t kind of top of mind, I was more just drawing on the Georgian period and that sort of thing. When you look at the magic system it is fairly heavily inspired by the tropes of when people write about English magic. Like Neil Gaiman, Hope Mirrlees, and it’s kind of drawing on that tradition. Harry Potter as well, actually.
“I was trying to drive for something a bit scientific as well. So, thaumaturges – the English magicians in the book – are uncovering different ways to use magic. It’s almost like natural philosophies, so their society is The Society of Unnatural Philosophers.
“One thing I tried to show was that that’s not the only way to view magic. I just think it would be natural for different people and different cultures… If magic is a fact, a physical force – everyone is aware that it exists, but the way that they study it, they might come to different conclusions about it. They might have different ways of working with it.
“I can’t say too much about it. But the idea is that it is set in the same universe, it will have a couple of new characters or different characters as the main focus, but Zacharias and Prunella do appear. I’m hoping to explore more, you know, other parts of the world and different views of magic.
Listen to the FULL interview!
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