Monday, March 19, 2012

Interview - Saladin Ahmed

Johne, here. Every so often, a debut novel will make such a splash that the buzz grows from a whisper to a roar apparently over night. That happened last summer for me with the release of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. It happened again this February with Throne of the Crescent Moon, an exotic, original novel which takes place in a Fantasy world with an Arabian flair and an unconventional cast. It burst on the scene and suddenly, everybody was raving about it. (And by 'everybody,' I include Patrick Rothfuss, who has a larger-than-life persona.) The author carved out some time in his crazy post-release schedule to spend some time with us. Please welcome poet and Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed.

Authorculture: Welcome to the Authorculture blog! Geeky fanboy question — how cool was it to see your name on the cover of a physical novel with cover art by the great Jason Chan?

Honestly, I didn't know Jason's work until DAW hired him for my cover. But once I saw his approach, I was pretty excited. He's like a 21st c. Larry Elmore or Keith Parkinson!

AC: It's funny what sticks with you. When I was growing up, my parents had this series of classic stories, including one of my favorites, The Lance of Kanana, a story about a shrewd young Arabian hero noted for his nobility, cunning, and self-sacrifice. I never forgot it. Your main character strays a bit from that template. He's an aging magician with an attitude and a belly, on the brink of retirement and relational commitment. Where did Doctor Adoulla Makhslood come from? He doesn't strike me as remotely angsty or sparkly.

Hah! Indeeed, gas-passing Adoulla's pretty much the opposite of sparkly. He's a kind of Van Helsing + Falstaff + Sallah from Indiana Jones + Bruce Willis' character in Pulp Fiction + Dashiell Hammett's The Continetal Op + smartass old Arab guys I grew up with.

AC: As a reader, one of my great blind discoveries occurred in 1987 when I ran across George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails, the tale of future detective Marid Audran chasing a personality-shifting killer roaming the culturally rich but practically lethal Arab ghetto called the Budayeen. Reading that prompted fond memories of other great, exotic cities: Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, P.C Hodgell's Tai Tastigon, and (more recently) Scott Lynch’s Camarr. What was it like world-building your own great city, Dhamsawaat?

A lot of work! I grew up in a working-class Arab neighbourhood outside Detroit, so Effinger's cityscape rang pretty true to me when I read it. And Lankhmar (and its wonderful D&D ripoff Waterdeep) has been a massive influence on me. So I relied on my spec fic influences, my own memories, and travel experience to 'build' Dhamsawaat. But I also did a ton of reading/research. Old monographs on the topography of medieval Baghdad, the wonderful book Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic world, etc., etc.

AC: You seem to relish challenging the assumptions readers bring to adventure fantasy. It strikes me there’s a fine line between wild creativity / trope-smashing and craven mainstream success. As an author, how much liberty do you allow yourself to have? Do you find yourself tempering yourself to create something more marketable, or do you write the best-crafted story you can and let the market find you? How much do you worry about marketability / salability when crafting your stories?

The writerly answer here is supposed to be 'I don't think about that, it's all about the story.' But that's BS. I know a lot of pro novelists, and 90% of them think about marketing/accessibility quite a lot. I personally like thinking about what readers want. It makes the whole enterprise less isolating. But of course, if one isn't careful, that can slide into pure pandering. What can we as writers do except to aim not to cross that line?

AC: The face of publishing has changed so quickly, so much. Promotion seems so different today than it was even five years ago. What’s the single most important thing a writer needs to do to promote his book?

1)   Write a good book.
2)   In Connie Willis' immortal words: “Don't be a shit.”

AC: Historically, Science Fiction and secular humanism largely go hand-in-hand, but Fantasy seems to afford an author more liberty when it comes to writing about a variety of religious faiths in various cultures. Your characters display a neat matter-of-fact spirituality without being preachy about it. How have your readers accepted that facet of life? What have you learned about writing a culture and individual characters with strong religious elements?

Thanks for noticing! I actually think most fantasy is also full of more-or-less secular humanist characters. And this often feels deeply anachronistic to me since most fantasy takes place in a preindustrial, polytheistic world.

This is probably the element of THRONE that has elicited the widest range of reactions. Some have found the characters' religiosity to be off-putting while others have felt that religion was underexplored in the book. YMMV, as the kids say...

AC: Like many veterans of NaNoWriMo, I possess a raw 50k+ word swashbuckling adventure first draft. You own and operate a respected novel critique service on the side. As a professional novel editor, what are the most common errors that come across your desk from NaNoWriMo writers?

Writers are such a diverse lot that I don't actually think there's such a thing as 'common beginner mistakes.' I treat each manuscript I edit as its own beast. And it helps that those who hire me have already learned one of the almost-universal truths of writing a professional-quality manuscript: Other, well-read people should critique your manuscript - and you should revise it in response to those critiques - before you even think about querying agents or publishers.
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