An interview with Sarwat Chadda

Sarwat Chadda

Sarwat Chadda, brought up a Muslim and married to a vicar’s daughter, is a distinctive new voice in teen fiction. Devil’s Kiss is his debut novel; a fast-paced, action-packed urban fantasy set in his home city of London. Sarwat kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in May 2009.

What was it that first sparked your love of the Crusades and, in particular, the history of the Knights Templar?

I’ve been interested in the whole early Crusade period, especially the third Crusade and Saladin. I think as a child there weren’t that many ethnic heroes one could identify with, certainly very few Islamic ones. The period is fascinating because of the complex relationship between religious and political factions in the Outremer. You’ve an epic cast of the likes of Saladin and Richard, huge battles and organizations like the Templars, Hospitallers and the Assassins all at the height of their powers. What’s not to like?

The appeal of the Templars is tied up with Solomon and his position in Islamic lore. He was considered a powerful sorcerer, able to command jinn and knew the language of the birds and animals. So it’s easy to imagine how all the stories about their treasures and strange practices would have come about. It all provided such rich meat for my story, I couldn’t not use them.

How exciting was the auction for The Devil’s Kiss, which Puffin won?

That was the most amazing week ever. It transformed my life. My wife and I thought, if we were really lucky, we might get the house re-carpeted out of the money for the book. There was no expectation that I might become a full time writer, not for another five years at least. It was one of those deals that you read about, but think they only happen to other people. I know my agent was surprised, obviously in a good way!

Lindsey Heaven, my editor, was one of the very early fans of Devil’s Kiss, back when I’d entered the first chapter in the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition. What’s weird is how natural it all feels now. I’ve only been a full time writer for about eight months but my previous career seems a lifetime ago.

Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (which brought the Knights Templar strongly back into public conscience) became a worldwide phenomenon. Some people believe it to be one of the best books ever written while Stephen Fry, whose opinion is highly respected, referred to it as “complete loose stool-water”. What are your opinions?

The first time I read it I couldn’t put it down. The second time I read it I really struggled. It’s a great page-turner but very similar to Angels and Demons. I did get caught up in the entire ‘could this be true?’ vibe and that’s because I love conspiracies. Once I’d put it down and thought about it all the holes appeared.

So what? No story is without huge plot holes and coincidences. Life has no structure but stories do, and Da Vinci Code has a tight one, which means making certain allowances. Dan Brown does that very well and it’s not easy. His characterization is no worse than most thriller writers, that’s not what those books are about.

I was halfway through my first draft of Devil’s Kiss when I read it and thought, “Bollocks, everyone will be writing about Templars now”. Then I hoped it would have all blown over by the time my book came out. Of course now it’s all supernatural romance, thanks to Meyers, and all the same criticism Brown faced is now directed at her. It appears you can’t be popular and a good writer.

I think what’s missed is things like the Da Vinci Code gets people talking about BOOKS. Not last night’s soap opera or who got fired on the Apprentice. How can you begrudge someone like Dan Brown, or J.K Rowling’s and all the others when they’re getting people into bookshops (or Amazon). I know I have a career because these people have made books hot in a way they’ve never been before, especially children’s books. Books are events. Okay, only for a haloed few, but still it shows that there’s life in publishing and it can define an age apparently dominated by electronic media. I’d rather people get excited about the release of a new Potter or Dan Brown book than, say, the latest iPhone.

What people read does not matter. What matters is that they read.

The first chapter of Devil’s Kiss was, for me, the most memorable in the book. Billi faces The Ordeal, a test in which she must kill a six year-old boy. How difficult was it for you, as a father yourself, to write a chapter of this nature?

Actually the writing of the scene was very straightforward, but the decision to write it much harder. I wrote three Chapter Ones, but this was the most honest one. I hate the idea that our heroes are ‘good guys’ and only harm ‘evil’ people. How do they know who’s good and who’s evil? Billi is taught to be a killer, and her challenge is to face the moral greyness of her role. For that reason her first act needed to be the most painful concept I could come up with, something that any right-minded person would think abhorrent. And what could be more awful that the prospect of killing a child? The scene sailed close to the wind because a reader could pick the book up and absolutely hate Billi. However that was a risk worth taking to keep the story honest, even if it meant losing the odd reader.

Chapter One shows you Billi’s about killing and killing is a dirty business. What I find abhorrent is the casual way death is sometimes treated in stories. The ‘kill and quip’ style of hero where they kill and death leaves no mark on their souls.

What emotions to you hope that readers of your book will experience?

I want the reader to finish the book in one sitting. The hope is I give them an intense and nail-biting ride. Despair and torment, especially towards the end, would be good.

How is work progressing on The Dark Goddess, the sequel to Devil’s Kiss?

First draft is done and with the publishers. Hope to have that back in a few weeks and get with the rewrites.

The Dark Goddess is set mainly out in Russia. Devil’s Kiss was based in London and I needed to get Billi out of her comfort zone. Plus I introduce the Polenitsy, the original amazons. Legend has it that they were a tribe of warrior women living in southern Russia back in the first millennia BC. Billi’s a Templar, and the only female in an otherwise totally male environment. I wanted to contrast all that Yang with an equally powerful Ying energy, tempting Billi away from her Templar life.

My Polenitsy are shapechangers, werewolves. There’s a very strong female vibe through werewolf tales, most notably picked up by Angela Carter. I wanted The Dark Goddess to have that dark fairy tale atmosphere.

The main antagonist in Baba Yaga, the ancient witch. She’s an avatar of the Earth Mother, and has realised the only way to save the Earth from all the damage mankind has done is to cull humanity back to more manageable numbers. Mankind is the problem and Baba Yaga has the solution.

Your biography mentions that your love of storytelling was awakened by Dungeons & Dragons. Were you, and possibly are you still, what could classed as a bit of a geek?

Totally. Not a bit, a lot of a geek. Fortunately writing is a geeky profession, so that’s okay. My shelves are still filled with countless role-playing games and I’ve spent many evenings trawling through Amazon picking up First Edition AD&D stuff that I missed the first time around.

But it started me storytelling. I couldn’t afford the published scenarios so had to make them up myself. Week in and week out, for years, I was building new adventures, new villains and new settings. The Dark Goddess is based on an epic role-playing campaign I ran back in 1994. I wanted my adventures to be based in something established, so I look for an existing legend, or character, and weave it into my role-playing game. Basically that’s how Devil’s Kiss came about. I’ve taken a biblical event, the unleashing of the Tenth Plague and the death of the first born, and moved it to modern London. It’s my style.

What does 2009 hold for Sarwat Chadda?

Lots of publicity on Devil’s Kiss, both here and in the US, where it comes out in autumn. I’m going to start the rewrites on The Dark Goddess soon and that’ll be a fair chunk of the summer booked up. Then it’s work on The Age of Kali, a brand new setting and hero, giving me a break from the Templars.

Sarwat Chadda books reviewed