The City of Brass – An Interview With S. A. Chakraborty

With this impressive year of fantasy coming to a close, I find myself reflecting on all the great books I read this year and reaching out to authors to talk with them more about their impressive creations. One such author in particular is the lovely Shannon Chakraborty, author of The City of Brass, which I reviewed here. A wonderful book about Arabic lore, family, and a magical city in the desert – I got to ask Shannon a number of questions about her debut book, and a few about her upcoming sequel The Kingdom of Copper. The questions are posted below, enjoy:

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I got to hear you and others speak at a New York Comic Con panel about female authors, writing historical fantasy, and writing from diverse backgrounds. It was one of the best panels I have attended at a comic con, so thank you. On it you talked briefly about borrowing from history/the real world and inventing things on your own when you write. How do you balance the two?

You’re welcome, and I’m happy you enjoyed the panel. For me, it’s not really a balancing act; it’s more building from a scaffolding that already exists. I set my books in the “real” world: there might be magic, but there’s also the historical fact of Napoleon’s occupation and the idea that a dish conceived in ancient Persia wouldn’t have New World vegetables in it. But I don’t really mind this or find it limiting; it’s fun to peel back the facts and imagine the emotions and people behind them.

The City of Brass starts in our world in the city of Cairo, but quickly departs it for fantastical lands. Will we make our way back to our world in the future or will be primarily exploring more cities from your imagination?

Both! The books are very much meant to take place in our world—it’s just that djinn exist largely unseen beside humans. We’ll definitely see more of the magical world, but we’ll also see some of our djinn characters visiting that of the humans…perhaps even a city we’ve already seen!

I assume you have to do a lot of research to write historical fantasy. What is the weirdest historical fact or quirk you have come across while researching for you book?

There are a lot but a particular favorite at the moment is medieval treasure-hunting guilds in Egypt. It’s something I need to dig into a bit more for the (hopefully!) next book series, but I’ve always loved learning about how people in the past interacted with their past. I came across a mention of these guilds after an excerpt from a contemporary scholar basically railing against ancient magic and hustlers and was just thoroughly amused by the entire depiction.

Your portrayal of Ali and his family is one of the most organic relationships I have read. Where did you get this inspiration for their dynamic? Did you draw it from your own life? Do you have siblings and which one of them are you?

Thank you! I come from a pretty big family and always enjoy seeing well-done portrayals of complicated, messy, exasperating and yet also still loving relatives; I think it’s a thing many of us can relate to. And I’ve always had a particular fascination with rival princes. They’re fairly common in history, and yet I can’t imagine the emotions that go behind making a decision to war against your own brother.

There was certainly some inspiration from my own family. My twin brother and I are very close, and I was very protective of him, especially when we were younger, even when we were fighting. This was definitely an emotion and dynamic that I was trying to capture with Muntadhir and Ali. Though my brother isn’t a wealthy, libertine playboy destined to rule a shaky kingdom so the similarities end there!

As someone who also has been accused of having a stick up his ass, I particularly identified with Ali. Will Ali learn to relax a little in the future, and can you pass on the secret to taking life a little less seriously to me?

So this is where I confess that I probably have more in common with Ali than I like to contemplate! Not sure I can offer advice, but maybe like Ali, we need to broaden our experiences a bit and learn to let loose on occasion.

One of my favorite things in The City of the Brass is that the most powerful Djinn/Daevas are the healers. I constantly feel that healing magic is undervalued in fantasy, and often relegated to only kind motherly figures. Seeing those powers in the hands of tyrants and others was very refreshing. What inspired you to take this path with your story?

Ha, the fact that I’ve worked in healthcare! I wrote a lot of this while managing a large obstetrics & gynecology practice (while my husband went to medical school), and I really wanted to capture the messy reality of medicine. It’s not always glamourous and noble; it can be exhausting, the work is bloody and tiresome and challenging, and sometimes your patients are terrible. It requires a confidence bordering on arrogance to cut into a person for their own good, and I wanted to show how a character might grow into that.

What is up next for Nahri and Ali? Can you give us any hints of what book two will be about at a higher level?

We’ll be seeing a lot more of the city itself. Nahri and Ali were left in difficult straights at the end of the first book and they’ll need to improve their game—both political and magical—if they want to protect what they love.

What did you learn or improve on over the experience of writing The City of Brass? Have you any lessons you experienced first hand that you would impart to others?

Follow where the narrative is going, not the plot points you wrote down two years ago. I dreamed and played in this world for so long, it was hard to give up on some aspects that I loved. I tried to keep in mind that I was telling a story not writing a history essay.

What do you like to read? What are you reading right now? Was there any book that inspired The City of Brass or inspired you as a writer in general? What are your favorite books?

I like to read pretty widely though in the past year, I’ve been trying to catch up on my SFF. I read a lot of history for research and for enjoyment, and right now I’m split between a history of medicine in the Indo-Islamic tradition and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. My favorite books are Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz and The Moor’s Accountant by Laila Lalami, though the latter broke my heart!

If you haven’t gotten a chance to check out The City of Brass, I highly recommend it and thank you to Shannon Chakraborty again for taking the time to talk with me.

-Andrew

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