Writing fantasy is hard. Keeping track of the sweeping narratives, the captivating character arcs, and the expansive world is no easy task. And when done right, has fans swooning for more. Shannon Chakraborty took all of those elements in her debut, The City of Brass, and added an impressive eye for historical detail and lore. If you survived the cliffhangers and made it to the end, her characters, her world, and her writing are likely wedged deep in your heart.
Chakraborty's newest book, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, with the rest of us. Set in the age of piracy in the Indian Ocean, Amina is content leaving the glory of her pirating days behind her now that she’s a mother. Until a woman shows up on her doorstep with a deal that’s too good to be true. Amina should say no. But what harm could one more adventure bring? Especially if it gives her daughter the life Amina knows she deserves.
We were excited to sit down and chat with Shannon about her writing journey, how she researches her novels, and what she hopes readers take away from her books.
Thank you so much for talking with us today. Let’s start with when you started writing. How did your writing journey begin?
I’ve always been that bookish, writing child, but it wasn’t really until the second book in the Daevebad trilogy, Kingdom of Copper, that I thought I could actually have a writing career. Before that, I wrote mostly on the side and it was a lot of fan fiction, short stories, things like that. I had graduated into the recession and was working in a medical office to pay my bills. But I started working on these stories set in this fantastical world inspired by these traditional ideas of the djinn and inspired by history. Those stories ended up becoming The City of Brass.
At some point, I had joined a writer’s group when I was living in Brooklyn, and they helped me shape the book. And my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time and also a big fantasy fan, read it and helped me shape it. It was something I worked on without ever letting myself hope it would be a success. My expectations throughout the entire journey of that book just stayed on the floor.
When I queried, I got the exact responses I expected: that there was no way anybody was going to publish this incredibly, long, weirdly Muslim book with names nobody could pronounce. But I did end up finding an agent who really connected with it. She was so enthusiastic about it and talked it up before we went to sell it, and since then it’s taken off in ways I couldn’t have expected.
Did you know the City of Brass would be a trilogy when you were writing it?
Weirdly enough, I did know when I was querying that this was a trilogy. I knew what happened in the first book, and what I wanted to happen in the second and third books. The third book ended up going in a very different direction than what I had anticipated, but outside of that, I had a very strong sense that there were three books with three parts to the story and how they were going to be shaped.
It can be hard to know sometimes. With this next series, I had first envisioned it as a standalone, and then I had these ideas of it being more. But I also felt like this series would have more-contained adventures in each story. There’s the same crew, and some overarching themes, but I wanted them to feel like each one was contained and you didn’t have to go in remembering all the details.
Your worlds always feel so lived in and real. How much research do you do, both for the Daevabad trilogy and for Amina?
They were very different levels of research. The City of Brass was largely working off of a lot of the stuff I had studied in college, and the kinds of things I enjoyed. It was more taking existing folklore and histories, and building off of those.
When I started working on Amina, the goal I had for myself, and I think I wrote this in the author’s note at the end, was that I wanted to make it completely historically accurate—outside of the plot. I did a ton of research. There’s been an incredible amount of new work done on the medieval Indian Ocean, but you’re still looking at 12th-century texts. It’s almost 1,000 years ago, and there is a great limit to what we know.
We do know more than I think people would expect. We have a lot of accounts of shipboard life, accounts of navigation, and even documents of items people would list in various accounts for their travels. Things like, I’m traveling from Yemen to India, here’s the list of things I need: I’ll need a tent to keep myself and my goods dry, vinegar for seasickness, instruments, things to eat. There was a pretty good wealth of information about how to recreate ship life, more than recreating the actual look of the ship, which was a bit more difficult.
There is also a lot in the existing literature about criminality. All the stuff about cons in the book, from the cups game to the sleeping drug they used, I pulled all of that from medieval sources. All of that existed. It was a lot of work, but it was a lot of enjoyment. And as I moved forward with the manuscript, I’d check in with a couple of academic friends and two specialists, one in maritime history and one in gender history. It was amazing because I felt like I learned so much. It really drove home a point about researching history, which is that we are just working from the little bits that are left to us, and it’s interpreting and letting those interpretations change when you learn something new.
Did you come across any unexpected revelations in your research?
History is just such a different world. I think we have so many misconceptions of the past, particularly the medieval past. It was really interesting to read about the role of magic and faith and things I wouldn’t have expected to find. I was sort of continuously humbled and constantly learning. As someone who loves history, I walked away with a different level of respect for the past.
It has to be tricky to tackle a book that you want to be historically accurate while wrangling an entertaining plot. Why was accuracy so important?
A lot of our preconceived notions of the medieval world have been shaped by popular literature, and I think that authors who are writing these kinds of books, where we’re shaping the perceptions of these worlds, do need to be somewhat aware of that. That said, I think if you’re a diaspora writer writing something that is loosely inspired by events, I’m very much for that. I think you should be able to take from that and explore it however you want. After all, Western European writers have been doing that forever. But I also think, and I hope that writers who are saying directly, "This is historically inspired," are actually doing the research.
It's important to really think about the things you’re putting into the world. I don’t want to lay everything on the author’s head. It’s not always the responsibility of the author to get every detail right. But I do think there is a certain level of awareness that needs to go into why you’re writing a book that is directly inspired by history. And if you do, that you’re not misrepresenting that history and you’re thinking about the power dynamics that go into that history.
Storytelling is probably the world’s oldest profession. It’s what humans have been doing since before we were even modern humans, telling stories, often fantastical ones, to explain the mysteries in the world, inspire hope, and get you through those dark nights. But even in those early renditions of folklore, a lot of those stories would start with a preamble telling you what good lessons and morals you’d learn. Stories have always been ways to teach and inform.
You build such gigantic worlds with vivid detail. How do you keep track of all the details that help it stay consistent over the course of a series?
I have a series of incredibly messy notebooks. I wish I could offer better advice for keeping world-building organized or doing historical research. Everyone has their own process, and my process is very much informed by the fact that my love of history came first. So, a lot of information I had already been invested in, or loved, or I knew where to go to look for what I needed. But still, it’s a terrible system.
I’m a little bit old school. I don’t draft on paper, but I like to take notes and keep notes—both on the story and my research—on paper. It can be a little unorganized, but I have notes separating different subject, like this is maritime history, this is criminal history. And I keep track of my sources. That’s one thing I learned while working on The City of Brass. I write down every book I used for history and sources, and what I got from it so that I could always go back if I needed to. It was well documented, if not well organized.
What was the most surprising part of writing your books?
Outside of learning I was an organic plotter, the most surprising part of writing was chasing down the heart of each story and how that changed a little bit each time. With The City of Brass, especially how it ended, I ended up really wanting to write a story about fighting for a more hopeful future. Where, when the chips were down, you still fought for a hopeful future you couldn’t see. As I was working on the books, I felt like that was the story I wanted to tell. It was about new beginnings and coming to terms with the trauma of the past, and not following the notions of what I thought epic fantasy had to be. That I would have to end with a rightful king, and all of that. I wanted to let some hope shine through.
With Amina, again, I thought I was going to write a swashbuckling adventure and instead, I was writing about this journey into parenthood and coming to terms with the past. It took me by surprise. So far, it feels like all of my books start out grim, and then get more hopeful and have more heart, and I’m okay with that.
What do you hope readers will take away from your books?
I wanted people who read the Daevabad trilogy to remember, especially because it ended during the pandemic, that we are in very difficult times right now. It seems like the world is burning. But the world has always been burning. Sometimes, you need a fictional mirror to realize that there is power in moving forward, and I wanted to show that in Ali and Nahri. They’re fighting for a future they don’t even necessarily know is going to happen. I think there’s a lot of power in that.
In Islam, a lot of times we say, "Even if you know the signs of Judgment Day are there and you have a seedling in your hand, plant it." That was something that stuck with me. I hope that message was there and that readers take it with them.
Featured photo: Shannon Chakraborty / Instagram