Interview with Sarwat Chadda

Last week, I had the pleasure of reviewing DARK GODDESS by Sarwat Chadda.  Today I'm excited to introduce you to the author himself, who was gracious enough to be interviewed about his inspiration, writing process and even how personal sacrifice has played a role in is own life.  Readers of his books will not be surprised to find that Sarwat is both thoughtful and thought-provoking, or that he possesses a wicked sense of humor.  But you don't have to take my word for it.  You can read the interview or, better yet, pick up one of his novels.

Who or what was your muse or inspiration for Billi's story?  I've read that you based her on Conan the Barbarian, but what else inspired you?
I knew that Conan the Barbarian reference was going to come back and bite me on the butt one day!  Billi’s based mostly on my two daughters.  Attitude, she’s most like the eldest, appearance-wise, she resembles the youngest (who has eyes of the blackest black!). The seed of Billi was probably planted when I read ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Smith that deals with fairy tales from a feminist slant. Then there are the warrior queens like Boudicca, the Rani of Jhansi, both real characters who faced insurmountable odds but fought on when everyone else had surrendered. Writing about a female warrior adds special restrictions and allows greater emotional challenges. You can’t get by on just having bigger muscles. Billi’s conflicted by her skill in violence and her doubts over the legitimacy of her cause. She’s not blinded by machismo or testosterone. Her Conan attributes are her melancholy nature and her drive. Billi will never, ever give up. Ever.

On the Muses blog we like to share our writing process.  Tell us a little about your process.  Do you outline and plot before your write?  What kind of revisions do you do? 

I usually have the opening and the ending in mind, but rarely the middle. Or muddle, as it’s better known. I go through four or five rewrites to get that bit sorted. I think my greatest problem is I have all these cool scenes in mind, but lack the skeleton of a plot to hang them on. So in early drafts the scenes seem disjointed. But my biggest problem is the tendency to overplot. I want to put in EVERYTHING. Most of my revisions are to cut back on the action. Too much action and it’s like a Michael Bay movie, loads of spectacle but no story. You stop relating to the characters because there is no downtime to reflect and get to know them.

The opening and ending though are hugely important. You need to hook the reader and give them enough information that they see your world quickly and understand the theme of the story and the ending, you must resolve the loose ends and give them an ending that justifies all the time the reader has invested in your book. Save the best ‘till last.

Was it intimidating to write from a female POV? How did you go about it?

My wife is my first reader, my agent is female as are both my editors. They make sure I keep a realistic female POV. Mind you, a lot of the issues Billi deals with apply equally to males. Billi’s fifteen and that’s the threshold of adult-hood and the question we all face around that time is ‘what sort of adult will you be?’ Parents, teachers as well as your peer group will pressurize you one way or the other. Each think they are doing it in you best interests but they only really see certain sides of you.

My parents wanted me to study science, to become an engineer. That makes a lot of sense, it’s a reliable, well-paid profession. Being a writer is bloody insecure, especially if you’re trying to support a family. But engineering doesn’t come close to making me happy the way writing does.

Billi’s dilemma is more extreme. She’s a Templar and that means sacrifice. She must give up her own life for the greater good. Few people have that sort of courage. It’s made all the harder because she’s naturally good at violence. She’s adept at war. But does that mean she should pick that sort of life?

There are elements of mythology, the paranormal and the Knights Templar in your books.  What kind of research did you do before tackling Billii's story?

I’ve always being interested in history and mythology but nevertheless I spent six months reading all the books I could find on the Templars until I was saturated. I could recall most of the key events, characters and dates without references. I then rearranged all the pieces to create the setting that suited me. There are challenges in using real places, real history and real religion, but the rewards are so much greater when all the pieces do fit.

For example, in Dark Goddess my big villain is the Russian witch, Baba Yaga. She’s mentioned in ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ as an old goddess. I love the writings of Angela Carter and especially her ‘Company of Wolves’, so there’s a lot of female/wolf/moon symbology in the book already. But Baba Yaga was missing followers. The goddess needed worshippers. I had this image of a group of warrior women, living in Russia, all serving Baba Yaga from the earliest times. Then I discovered the Polenitsy. A group of warrior women based in southern Russia during the ninth century BC. It was a real OMG moment. They really did exist. All of a sudden the book took a quantum leap forward. I didn’t have to make my Amazons up and give them a fake history. I love grounding my fantasy into the real world.

Since Devil’s Kiss was set in London, my home town, I needed to make sure Dark Goddess, set in Russia, had the same depth. So I took a trip out to Moscow, to walk the streets, visit the sights and meet the people. All this made the book so much more authentic and you see things, like the car races on Sparrow Hills and fire dancing, that aren’t mentioned in the guide books. Nothing beats treading the road of your characters.

Billi gives up a lot for the greater good.  Has sacrifice been a theme in your own life?  How so?

I worked as an engineer for the first twenty years after university. I’m not sure it was a sacrifice as such but it was definitely following a path not for me. 

I think the Billi/Arthur dynamic meant the most to me, both as the parent trying to guide their child but also from the child’s POV, resenting the lack of control they have over their own lives. Do you choose what you’re good at, or what you want? It’s not so easy if you’re talented in an area that doesn’t appeal to you. It seems selfish and self-destruction to turn your back on it. 

For me, the hardest decision I took was when I lived in Hong Kong in the 1990’s. I loved it there. You got paid well, the weather was great and it was a real party town. If you were in your twenties (boy, does that seem a long time ago!) there was no better place to be. But my girlfriend was determined to go back to the UK. Back there, jobs were hard to come by, pay was crap and you all know about the weather. But I loved her so chose to return. It was hard. I couldn’t afford to go out. I couldn’t afford to live in a nice apartment and basically spent ten years working my way up from nothing. But that girlfriend is now my wife and we have two incredible daughters and she supported me into making it as a writer. The sacrifice was well worth it.

What are some books you're looking forward to in 2011?

In no particular order and just off the top of my head as there are many, many more: Fury of the Phoenix, Dead Tossed Waves, The Royal Treatment, Witchfinder: Gallows at Twilight, Firebrand, Linger, Forever, and anything by John Connolly.

What are you working on next?

Three projects right now.  Bille #3, something set in India and something based on Celtic mythology that doesn't include faeries.  I'm hoping to be able to make announcements on one or two of them shortly.  Either that or go back to Engineering.

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