Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Chelsea Abdullah?
I’m an American-Kuwaiti SFF author, reader, video gamer, sometimes-artist… and an all-around creative person who wishes they had more time on their hands to juggle everything! As a writer, I love exploring found family dynamics and experimenting with storytelling structures.
Your debut novel, The Stardust Thief, will be published by Orbit in May. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
The Stardust Thief is an epic fantasy that follows a smuggler, a prince, a jinn, and a thief on their quest through the desert to find a mythical magic lamp. On the way they’ll have to face a myriad of obstacles, including a cunning jinn queen, a mysterious hunter, and an unfortunate number of dead things…
What inspired you to write the novel and series?
The central driving force behind this story is nostalgia. I grew up in Kuwait with stories from the 1001 Nights and with oral tales from around the region. When I left the country to go to university in the states and started missing home, those stories were the first thing I latched onto as a writer.
I mused on the idea of writing an Arab-inspired fantasy for years until one day, the opening scene of the novel spontaneously came to me. In my head I saw a merchant in star-dusted robes sitting on a ship, a coin dancing across her knuckles. Behind her stood her bodyguard, whom I knew was a jinn. The minute those two characters popped into my head, I knew I had to write this story to figure out their history.
This novel (and the series) is a love letter to my Arab heritage and to the stories I grew up with. It’s been a joy to breathe life into it!
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I was very lucky to grow up with a mother who was a librarian. When I wasn’t in classes, I practically lived in the school library, curled up in an armchair with a good book or doing reading quizzes. My mom was always in the know about what books were popular and new, and made it a point to introduce me to various genres.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
It’s both a privilege and an undertaking! Before my debut, I wrote creative fiction for myself and at my own leisure and pace. I’m still very much in the process of learning how to reconfigure my creative process so that it isn’t quashed by publishing deadlines.
It’s been magical to see my story go from manuscript to book and to be a part of a team effort to bring it into the world, but also incredibly nerve-wracking to have such a personal project be perceived on such a large scale!
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Not so much a practice as a process, but I really love just sitting on my ideas for years. I’m a pantser, or what other people call a discovery writer, so I feel my way through the plot in my early drafts. But before I can do that, I need a firm starting point to serve as an anchor into the world, so I’ll often think on concepts and characters for a long time — usually until I stumble on an opening scene.
Was there a particular moment, or book that made you want to become an author? What was your first foray into writing, and do you still look back on it fondly?
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint a specific book that made me want to be a writer. I do remember reading series like Percy Jackson and the Olympians and A Series of Unfortunate Events and feeling motivated to write, but I think what really inspired my love for the fantasy genre was video games.
I played a lot of RPG video games growing up (I still do!), and I distinctly remember being awed by the scope of the worlds and the depth of the characters. Most of my early elementary school writings are short story collections inspired by the epic worlds in those games. Were those stories good? Absolutely not. But they’re charming in their own way, and I love looking back at them!
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I’ve been really happy to see the Adult SFF sphere become more inclusive and diverse in recent years. While I still think we have a ways to go, it’s heartening to see writers from different backgrounds bring their expertise and experience to the shelves. I hope more of these authors make it into the SFF “canon” — that tier of books readers (especially non-SFF readers) refer to when they think of the groundbreaking epics that shape this genre.
As for my own work, I like to think everything I write explores some facet of storytelling. Stories as history, as memory, as propaganda, as truth — I love to write characters that investigate and struggle through those blurred lines. Usually, that theme is a central part of their narrative arcs.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently working on the sequel to The Stardust Thief, with a third book to follow. Further down the pipeline, I’d love to tackle a fantasy standalone that explores themes of memory loss, diaspora, and fabricated history. I’ve been rolling that particular concept around in my head for awhile and am hopeful it will eventually find its way to shelves in some form or another!
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
Currently, I’m reading The Undertaking of Hart and Mercy by Megan Bannon, a delightful fantasy rom-com with lovable characters, clever banter, and such fun worldbuilding!
What’s a recent book you’ve read that you would recommend to someone looking for a recommendation? (Doesn’t have to be a new title.)
I recently read and loved Squire, a graphic novel set in an alternate Middle East, by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas. The way this story examines and critiques the impacts and effects of imperialism is nothing short of spectacular. It’s also got an incredibly wonderful cast, gorgeous art, and a rich setting.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
Hmm… anyone who’s followed my journey for a while might know this about me, but most of my first drafts are behemoths. The longest first draft I’ve ever written was 770,000 words (it was, in essence, 4 books packed into one manuscript).
The first draft of The Stardust Thief was 297,000 words (in comparison to the 144k range the completed novel sits at), and the sequel’s first draft is even longer. I’m a chronic overwriter who chops my work down a lot when I edit.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Seeing my book out in the world! Just knowing that people will be able to pick it up off a shelf and put it on their bookcase is surreal. Writing and editing this story has been an adventure, but I’m excited to see it grow roots beyond me.