Interview with Tasha Suri (EMPIRE OF SAND)
Tasha Suri was born in Harrow, North-West London. She studied English and Creative Writing at Warwick University, and now lives in London where she works as a librarian. To no one’s surprise, she owns a cat. A love of period Bollywood films, history and mythology led her to begin writing South Asian influenced fantasy.
Hi Tasha and welcome back to the Hive!
Hi, really delighted to be here!
Could you tell us something about your writing process? Do you find yourself getting lost in research? Your series was inspired by Mughal India, how difficult was it deciding where to draw the line?
I love research, but I’m a real magpie. I don’t get lost in it so much as I pick out all the glittery, gory, interesting bits that catch my eye and discard the rest. When I began writing The Books of Ambha I wasn’t sure where to even begin creating a fantasy world, so I drew a lot of inspiration from the culture, politics, of Mughal India to give my world structure. Once I started getting to know the characters and story better, I changed the real historical context to meet the needs of the plot, so I diverged from history in a big way, in the end.
Empire of Sand dealt with themes of entrapment, free will, and the persecution of a minority culture — what was it about these issues that pushed you towards exploring them? Did you struggle at any point with approaching them?
As a person of Indian origin, raised in the United Kingdom, questions of how minorities are treated or used politically have always loomed large in my life. And when you look at history, even on a surface level, you have to engage with questions of power, colonialism and imperialism. So those themes have always interested me.
Did I struggle approaching these questions? I think I’d struggle not to write about them, but figuring out how to express those themes in an interesting way, and find some kind of answer to the problems they pose… that wasn’t so straightforward. I tried to focus on the way the characters personally grappled with those questions, and what answers and choices, in the end, worked best for them.
I thought the daiva were one of the most wondrous, awe-inspiring elements in your world — where did the idea of them originate from?
A lot of people have assumed I used the djinn as inspiration, which makes a lot of sense, but honestly I drew inspiration from the devas – gods – in Hinduism, who shaped the world and also had mortal children, much like the daiva in The Books of Ambha created the world and have human descendants. And I was inspired by depictions of spirits and demons in straight up SFF. I like to say a lot my ideas are just my brain mashing together various bits of junk its collected into something new, and the daiva were definitely an example of that.
The Maha was a truly terrifying villain, who used coercion and brute force in equal measure to achieve his ends. Was he inspired by a specific historical figure?
He wasn’t inspired by one specific figure. There have been a lot of people throughout history (recent, cough, and ancient) who have used coercion, hatred, violence and social and political pressure to achieve power. It was disturbingly easy to pick up different aspects of different figures and put them together into one villain.
One of the reasons I loved Empire of Sand had to do with it being a self-contained story – despite the announcement there would be a ‘sequel’. How did the concept for Realm of Ash evolve out of Empire, and did you find it easier or harder to write a sequel?
I knew I wanted to write Arwa’s story when I sold Empire of Sand to Orbit. When my editor made an offer for the book, she asked what I’d like to write as a sequel, and what I outlined is basically what I produced: the story of an empire crumbling, a grieving and angry widow, and a scholarly prince seeking answers from the dead. I thought it would be a good balance to Mehr’s story of resistance, and standalones in the same world are also something I really enjoy as a reader.
Writing a sequel is always hard, even when it’s workably a standalone! What really makes writing a sequel harder, is that you’re no longer writing just for yourself. You hopefully have readers out there who enjoyed your first book, and you want them to enjoy your second. So you want to please them, but also write a good book for new readers, and also pick up plot threads from the first book and explain the world in a way that isn’t a pure info-dump. All of that is a lot to juggle. So writing Realm of Ash was definitely a challenge, but one that I definitely feel paid off. I’m really proud of the book now and the story it tells.
Your protagonists are both very strong individuals despite being put in situations where they have to deal with adversaries of vastly greater power, as well as potentially dangerous allies. And yet they’re very different to each other, and overcome their challenges in different ways. Who are some of your favourite Strong Women from fiction?
Honestly, I struggle with the idea of ‘Strong Women’ sometimes, because in the past it’s so often been associated with women who kick ass and take names, even though there are so many more types of strength. But I really love the strength of Sophie in Rowenna Miller’s Torn: she’s sensible, canny and trying to find the best way to survive difficult circumstances. Also – and this is an old, classic favourite – Phedre from Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart. Her strength is purposefully a subversion of typical tropes, because she relies on her god-gifted masochism, and her skills as a courtesan and as a spy, to achieve her goals. Reading about her really shaped my sense of the really varied ways strong women can be depicted in SFF.
What are your favourite mythological creatures? What would you ride gloriously into battle upon?
I’m a little bit scared of horses and heights, so I think I’d be a fail at riding any of the really cool mythological creatures into battle like a dragon or a pegasus. But my favourite mythological creature is hands down a kraken, so I suppose I could ride into battle on a kraken, as long as it’s a battle at sea? Might be a little awkward to ride a kraken on land. I’d certainly give it a go, though.
History has always marginalised women, with so many amazing women’s stories being left untold. Whose stories would you most like to see shared?
There were some really interesting women in the Mughal era that I wish more people knew about! Nur Jahan – the empress who married the emperor as an older, widowed woman and loved to hunt and was canny as hell – is probably the most famous. But there’s also Aisan Daulat Begum, who was grizzly and murderous and kept her grandson alive in terrible circumstances; Khanzada Begum who spent her later years as a diplomat, bartering for peace and power between brothers tussling for the same throne; and Jahanara Begum, who wrote beautiful poetry and also survived and thrived in another messy conflict for power. Daughters of the Sun by Ira Mukhoty is a brilliant non-fiction book about these women. Also, I made a brief video with Orbit about my favourite Mughal women when Realm of Ash came out, which might be a nice starting point if you don’t mind listening to me ramble.
We certainly don’t mind a bit of ramble!
You’ve lucked out on cover design – your books are gorgeous! What did it feel like when you first saw your novel in a bookstore? What was your reaction?
I don’t think I can describe the thrill of seeing my book in a bookstore! Okay, I’ll try: I spent years imagining how weird and brilliant it would be to see my book on the same shelves as books I loved, and then it actually happened. That felt almost unreal, honestly. It still does. (Not that I’ve admittedly been to a bookstore in a while.) I think the first time I saw it was in the Foyles Bookshop at the Southbank Centre in London, which is a tiny bookshop, but also one of my favourites, so it was a real thrill.
If you could co-write or co-create a series, which female author would you choose to work with and why? (Heads up, Rowenna Miller is apparently keen!)
Ooh, thanks for the heads up – luckily I love Rowenna Miller’s writing, and I think we’d co-write great stories together! She does really cool things with history and women’s lives that I’d love to do, too.
Are you allowed to tell us anything about your upcoming series, starting with The Jasmine Throne? Will it be similar to your duology in tone, or going a whole new direction?
Oh trust me, you’ll have to hold me back from talking about The Jasmine Throne at this point – I’m so excited about it! The Jasmine Throne has some similarities to The Books of Ambha duology: a slow-burn romance, characters grappling with misogyny and imperialism, forbidden magic, and a nasty emperor. But it’s also much more epic in scope. I threw everything into it that I hadn’t felt brave or skilled enough to try before. There are multiple point of view characters, different magic systems, high stakes, and a much bigger story that spans three books instead of self-contained stories that start and end in one novel. I like to think it’s all the good bits of The Books of Ambha, amped up.
Finally, what’s the one thing you hope readers take away from your stories?
I mean, I have big hopes. I hope my stories make them feel something. I hope they sweep my readers off into another world. But most of all, I hope they take whatever they need from my stories: a distraction when they’re stressed, something that gives them a break, or makes them think, or makes them cry, or just gives them a little bit of entertainment.
Thank you, Tasha.
Thank you for having me!