A brief review and interview with debut author, Sarwat Chadda.
(All images in this post, courtesy of Sarwat Chadda.)
(All images in this post, courtesy of Sarwat Chadda.)
Due for release in May 2009 is Sarwat Chadda’s debut novel for teens, Devil’s Kiss. The story is described as a dark, supernatural thriller in which 15 year old Billi Sangreal is thrust into the modern-day Knights Templar by her father, the Grandmaster. Billi is the first girl to be a Templar knight – and she’s not that keen on the idea. After all, her life is nothing but a rigourous round of weapons training, occult law and demon killing. When temptation is placed in her path, Billi is offered a choice – leave the Templar life and the isolation it brings or have a real life. But temptation, as it always does, brings consequences – in this case the tenth plague – the death of all first borns. And so Billi must choose her destiny.
I “met” Sarwat Chadda online via the SCBWI-BI writers’ list and subsequently through Facebook and the blogosphere. He was kind enough to send me a proof copy of Devil’s Kiss and I thought I’d share a little about it with you and also an interview with Sarwat.
A BRIEF REVIEW
Devil’s Kiss has a killer opening, which grabs your attention and keeps you reading right to the end. It is a gripping tale, albeit dark in places and it has a tough and feisty protagonist in Billi Sangreal. The story is loaded with action – making it likely to appeal to teens of both sexes – while unexpected twists and turns help the story to move at a terrific pace. Although the story is set in modern-day London, Sarwat has nevertheless created a dark and lonely world for his young protagonist and the reader feels her frustration and isolation keenly. Scenes are vividly painted and the writing stays tight throughout. There is also plenty to provoke thought and debate, bringing together as Sarwat does, the three Judeo-Christian religions as a combined force against evil, while also challenging some traditionally held views. The story leaves one feeling haunted and wondering what Billi will have to face next. Good thing then that the sequel, The Dark Goddess, is due for release in 2010.
Every blurb and interview I’ve read observes that you are a Muslim married to a vicar’s daughter. This has clearly influenced the role religion plays in the story. What was your specific intent in creating such a strong underlying religious theme?
You know what they say - write what you know and what interests you. Religion and the East-West cultural issues are what interest me. Given the current media interest in Islam and the perceived ‘cultural differences’ I felt it important to raise my background and make it clear it’s not that big a deal.
My background keeps coming up given the domination of white-middle class writers in the industry. Perhaps my ‘outsider’ view adds a new perspective.
You’ve been asked this before, but I’ll ask again. Billi SanGreal is a girl – why did you choose to create a female protagonist? Several questions come to mind in considering this: one, you may have given yourself a larger readership with a male protagonist and two, surely it would have been easier for you to write a male protagonist?
I have daughters, hence a girl hero.
Plus there’s nothing new I could add to by creating another male protagonist. There’s a lack of true reflection on the nature of what they do since it’s ‘expected’ of boys to be warriors, at least in literature. By having a female warrior it gave me the opportunity to question this, since Billi doesn’t have the same expectations of ‘what she should be’.
The contrast between Billi and her father, Arthur, was all the stronger by her being a daughter following in her father’s footsteps.
Having two daughters and a female agent and female editors helped me keep the focus on Billi as a ‘real’ girl.
The relationship between Billi and her father is pivotal to the story – you have some of the typical teenage vs parent tension, but also considerably more. What made you focus so strongly on this relationship – and in the way you have?
The usual cliché is about how the son trains to become like his father, so I thought having a daughter would present a new twist. We are in the 21st Century after all. Also there's a natural rivalry between generations, and the father's pride and melancholy at seeing your child grow and surpass you. Lots of children's fiction removes the parents (usually by death) and that would have been a boring solution to thrusting Billi into the action. I wanted her to have a dad that went against a parent's natural instinct to protect their child from harm. Instead Arthur pushes her into danger, and we hate him, not realising the choices and the sacrifices he's made that have forced him to this decision.
But from my own perspective, both as a child looking up to one's parents and as a father with daughters, there's a transition that occurs in your early teens. When you're young you think your parents are the answer to everything. It's as your own character and individuality begins to really assert itself with the natural urge to rebel do you see your parents as fallible humans. That's why writing about a character at that threshold age is so great. There's the tug between childish awe and adult criticism, all driven by the desire to separate and mature.
Your villain in Devil’s Kiss is an Archangel who brings the tenth plague, the death of all first borns, upon the world. Making a typically accepted "good" angel into the "bad guy” is a dramatic deviation from the standard view, particularly given the menacing, ruthless and selfish nature of the character. Can you explain this? And how do you anticipate the response from religious groups to what you've done?
The Archangel thinks he’s the good guy. It’s the dangers of self-righteousness that I’m raising through him. It’s clear to us (as readers) he’s motivated by pure selfishness and also that’s he’s fallen off the straight and narrow. He’s biblical attributes are primarily of war, and no-one can remain unblemished by war.
The key issue here is who decides what is just and good? The tenth plague involved killing all firstborn Egyptians. Where they all responsible for the enslavement of the Israelites? Did they deserve their fate? Or were they ‘collateral damage’ just so the pharaoh would get the message?
And shouldn’t we be wary of our heroes? History is written by the winners, and so we view characters like Alexander, Richard the Lionheart and Henry V through the distorted lenses of victory. I think my background has made me question the simplistic attitude towards ‘heroism’ as defined by war. All of the above were great slaughterers of men and empires are built from blood and bones.
I love the Iliad. It’s the standard for epic tales. But read it and dwell on the suffering and misery the heroes bring. Achilles, the hero, is a psychopath. He only seeks self-gratification and is all towering ego, willing to let his fellows be destroyed because of his sheer vanity. Hector on the other hand is loyal, devoted and dedicated to his people. He is a warrior because he has to be, and suffers very human self-doubts and fears because of it. Hector portrays ‘heroic’ qualities, Achilles does not.
I bring this up more in The Dark Goddess. Billi does some awful things and has to reconcile them within herself.
There are a lot of stories out there with angels, devils, demons and the like, religious groups haven’t particularly targeted them. The criticism of Harry Potter and Pullman (for example) has more to do with the level of their success being newsworthy, than necessarily their content. Usually the criticism comes from those who haven’t read their books. I suspect I’ll remain happily below their radar!
On the flip side, Satan turns out to be quite a likable, helpful, even sexy guy – albeit he is the Devil. Again, could you explain your treatment of him?
The Devil is a tempter, so he has to have appealing attributes. But it’s all a con. Look at what he asks the characters to do in exchange for his aid. He is not deluding himself about what he does, and his honesty is striking when compared the Archangel, who is deluded.
It’s all about the road to damnation being paved with good intentions. He doesn’t lie, he doesn’t need to. Humans choose between good and evil, the Devil doesn’t make them.
But no-one comes out well from dealing with the Devil.
The story is strongly action oriented – did you set out to write an action thriller? How did the story evolve for you?
I love reading action stories. Clive Cussler and Bernard Cornwell are probably the two guys I read most. The Sharpe novels have been a major influence on Billi. That and the Conan novels. I loved those back when I was a boy!
I’ve read the original opening of The Devil’s Kiss on your website, plus a later revision and then, of course, the final version. You’ve clearly done a huge amount work bringing the book to its current level. Can you tell us a little about your process of rewrites and the journey to publication? And in what way has your agent, Sarah Davis of Greenhouse Literary, assisted you and helped shape the final product.
The three stages of Chapter One are a useful compare and contrast. The first version was passive, Telling not Showing. All the usual beginner’s errors. The second version, still with the werewolf, was better, active and won me an agent through the Undiscovered Voices competition. BUT it was out of context and didn’t reflect the theme of the book. It worked, but only in isolation.
Hence the final chapter 1. What Sarah pointed out was now Chapter 1 was fixed, the rest of the book needed fixing along the same lines. Major rewrite!
It’s been much publicised that you’re a debut author who landed a “major six figure deal” – has life changed so far and how does it feel to be on the way to “making it” as a successful author?
Making it will only be decided five, ten years from now, if I’m still writing. So all the usual anxieties are still in place. I’ve been given a fantastic start and being able to give up the day job has been a god-send. Life has changed amazingly. I get to work from home, see my kids more and get paid to make things up! It really doesn’t suck.
This may sound bizarre but the money aspect is kind of secondary. Thinking on it only distracts from the job in hand, which is writing something people will get sucked into and love. The only way a stranger will love your work is if you love it too. That’s why cynical ‘writing by numbers’ will never work. There are writers who are safe within their comfort zones and churn the same book out year after year. You love them because they’re familiar, but the passion has gone. I’m still at the stage where it’s exciting, it’s an adventure and I still feel I’m doing it by the seat of my pants. That semi-panic keeps the edge to the story. It’s frightening but exhilarating.
The Knights Templar are proving to be a popular theme at the moment; Tormud, The Templar’s Apprentice, the first book in a series by Kat Black, was published in February. Have you had a chance to read it and (odious as comparisons are) how did you feel it compares to what you have done?
I was half-way through an early draft of DK when I came across the Da Vinci Code. I thought that the Templar thing would have come and gone before I hit the shelves. But it kept on going. I was worried about the glut of Templar books, to be honest.
I’ve tried hard to avoid reading other Templar books there’s just too many of them to keep track of what’s out there! So alas, haven’t read Tormud.
Now of course any supernatural tale is being compared with Stephenie Meyer, just proving there’s nothing new under the sun.
The sequel to The Devil’s Kiss, The Dark Goddess is due for publication next year. Can you tell us a little about it?
I’ve wanted to write a dark fairy tale story for years. I love Russian myths, especially Baba Yaga, the ancient witch, who is an especially powerful female myth figure. ‘Women who run with wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes and the works of Angela Carter have both heavily influenced the theme and tone of Book 2. So we move Billi out of London and drop her in wintery Russia.
The emphasis is to balance out the ‘male’ influence in Book 1 -- Billi’s companions are exclusively male -- and put her into a powerful female environment. In addition I wanted a protagonist who is very right in her ambitions, and the internal conflict Billi has is the realization she’s on the wrong side, but cannot change that. There’s a theme here that while I write about monsters in the shapes of werewolves, vampires or whatever, Billi discovers her own capacity for monstrosity, she is forced to look at her own ‘humanity’ and doesn’t like what she sees.
Baba Yaga represents the inhuman, not saying she’s evil, but her agenda does not support the idea that the Earth and its resources are there solely for humanity’s benefit. She stands for those who have not prospered with humanity’s domination over nature, i.e everyone and everything else!
Do you anticipate that there will be more adventures for Billi after the Dark Goddess?
That would be great, since I’m very attached to Billi’s world, but I’ve a number of non-Billi stories I’d like a go at first.
You’ve started work on a new series – are you ready to talk a little about what you’re doing?
Oh, nope. There’s not enough in it yet worth talking about! Plus I might still change my mind.
Devil’s Kiss is available for pre-order on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. It will be in stores in the UK on 7th May 2009 and will be released in US stores in September 2009.
Now here’s hoping, that like the cunning devil, we’ve given you enough to tempt you into rushing off to order your copy of Devil’s Kiss right now! Well, what are you waiting for?! You’ll enjoy it, I did!