Interview with ZEN CHO

ChoZ-AuthorPicLet’s start with an introduction: Who is Zen Cho?

I’m a lawyer and writer from Malaysia, living in the UK. My short story collection Spirits Abroad was published by Malaysian press Buku Fixi in 2014 and was a joint winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award. I’ve edited an anthology called Cyberpunk: Malaysia, also published by Fixi, which came out this year.

Your debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, will be published in September by Tor Books. How would you introduce the novel to a new reader, and is it part of a planned series?

Sorcerer to the Crown is a historical fantasy set in Regency London, about England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe. Zacharias is trying to reverse the decline in England’s magic when his plans are hijacked by ambitious runaway orphan and female magical prodigy, Prunella Gentleman.

The book is the first in a trilogy, but while the books will be linked, the plan is for each book to focus on different characters. The hope is that people will be able to read them as standalones.

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What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?

I’ve always loved the Regency romance genre and I thought it’d be fun to do a fantastical twist on it. Sorcerer to the Crown has multiple different sources, but the seed of the book came from all the 19th and early 20th century British books I read when I was growing up in Malaysia, which would refer to characters as being “dark”. In my world when people were called “dark” that meant they were dark-skinned, but I knew everyone important in these books was white, and of course the books just meant they were “dark-haired”. I thought it’d be interesting to write about somebody who lived in the world of these books who was “dark” – dark-skinned.

I draw a lot of inspiration from the books I read, especially my childhood reading.

How were you introduced to genre fiction?

Children’s books don’t seem to distinguish between fantasy and mimetic fiction in the same way that adult books do. When I was a kid I read The Chronicles of Narnia, Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones – all these great British fantastists. And I guess I just kept reading fantasy when I got older!

How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?

I like writing and being published has been a lifelong dream, so it’s nice to have achieved that. I don’t necessarily feel that I work within the publishing industry. In an odd way writers are on the fringes of the traditional publishing industry: we make the product and then it goes through this arcane process where it’s bundled up and marketed and distributed with relatively little input from the writer.

Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?

It changes depending on the project I’m working on, what stage I’m at with the project, and what else is going on in my life. But I try to keep up a consistent practice, so I aim to write at least a little every day. Since I’m working on historical fiction at the moment I’m reading a lot of historical nonfiction. I find it helps with maintaining the right voice to read books from the era, whether it’s novels or diaries and letters. Gutenberg and the OED are invaluable resources.

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When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?

I don’t actually remember my first foray into writing because I was quite young, but my mom talks about it. I wrote a short story when I was six which was basically a take-off of 101 Dalmatians, except instead of dogs it was rabbits that were being kidnapped for their fur. They’re rescued by a plucky little girl protagonist!

I don’t know that there was any one moment when I realised I wanted to be an author. I started reading when I was three or four years old. I’ve been making up stories for so long that, as I said, I don’t really remember when I started, and I always wanted to have a book that could stand on the shelf along with all the books I loved.

What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?

I think it’s an interesting time for genre. Genre readers are genuinely interested in reading something new and reading more work from outside the US and UK. I see my work as fitting into several bits of the field: it’s part of an established subgenre of historical fantasy inspired by Regency England; it’s like other fantasy that is in conversation with non-fantastical works, like the novels of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyers; it belongs with responses by Commonwealth authors to the British canon; and also, of course, it’s part of a growing body of work by genre authors from former colonies and developing nations.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?

All my writing energy is going into the next book in the Sorcerer Royal trilogy. I’ve got other projects I’d like to work on in time, but they will have to wait!

What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?

I’m reading a collection of The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, an Anglo-Jewish woman who lived in New York in the mid-1700s. They’re a fascinating glimpse of history I know very little about. With fiction I’ve just started Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, which is about a young woman who overhauls the society of a small Victorian town.

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What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?

I don’t actually enjoy the act of writing 70% of the time! But the 30% when it is going well makes up for everything.

What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?

Finishing my second novel and starting the third! I’m one of those really boring people who think about their job all the time.

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Sorcerer to the Crown is out now, published in the UK by Tor Books, and in the US by Ace Books. For more on Zen Cho’s books and writing, be sure to check out the author’s website, and follow her on Twitter and Goodreads.

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