Sorcerer to the Crown is the first book in a historical fantasy trilogy. This novel which marks Zen Cho’s debut, while described as a cross between Georgette Heyer and Susanna Clarke is very distinctively Zen Cho. The novel might rightly be called a novel of manners, but Cho escapes being didactic and offers us a world that is engaging and brings to life the very real dilemmas that overcome those of us who must maneuver through complex situations in life.
Tor.com carries an excerpt from the novel, which you can check out by following this link. I’d like to say thank you to Zen for taking time out of her busy schedule so we can bring this conversation to you on PUSH.
(Photo by Darren Johnson / IDJ Photography)
I want to say here that I’m utterly charmed by Sorcerer to the Crown. I’m so excited by your voice and by your ability to tell a story with depth and with such a deft and light touch. It’s a rare gift and I’m glad for your voice in the world.
It’s not an easy thing to be able to balance the serious and the light in any particular work. I’ve watched you do it in The House of Aunts and here, in Sorcerer to the Crown, I see you doing it again. (You have my admiration because I don’t know many who can do this). What was the biggest challenge for you in writing Sorcerer to the Crown and how did you overcome it?
There were a lot of challenges! I was in the process of working out how to write a novel, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. That should be in the present tense, to be honest, because I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing … But with Sorcerer to the Crown, the process of writing a first draft and then a second draft and then revising that multiple times was very new. I think the hardest thing about the proess was just keeping at it — pushing past the fear to try new things with the story, until I hit on something that worked.
Of course, there are lots of improvements that could still be made to the book, I’m sure, but you do have to step away from the work and declare it finished at some point.
With the story itself, striking the balance between the serious issues I didn’t want to gloss over and the fun stuff was definitely a worry. It was very important to me to focus on characters who aren’t usually the focus in the Regency romance genre — people at the sharp end of imperialism — but that brings along baggage. It made the story more interesting — there was never going to be a version of Sorcerer that was about a rich white guy — but of course you feel a responsibility not to seem to play things down. At the same time I was determined that it should be a fun book. The books I personally love best are the ones that put you in a good mood when you’ve read them, without sacrificing substance, and that’s the kind of book I want to write. So that was an interesting tightrope to walk!
I find myself very interested in your choice of setting as well. What were the particular challenges of setting this novel in this time period and what lay behind your choice to do so?
I just like Regency England as a setting. A lot of my favourite writers have used it: Patrick O’Brian, Susanna Clarke, Naomi Novik, Georgette Heyer … I enjoy the language especially, the way sentences are constructed, and the way you can play with the social norms.
This is a fair question, but I wonder how often white Americans get asked why they set their books in Regency England!
You have to do a bit of research when you write about a historical setting which is so familiar to fiction readers — people already have a certain vision of Regency England and you need to be careful about your worldbuilding details. I read a lot of history while writing the book, but I enjoy that so I wouldn’t call it a challenge.
Actually two things annoyed/annoy me about the setting, which are less about the book and more about me. Firstly I felt compelled to read a lot of period fiction and diaries, letters, etc. of people who lived at that time, and while this is something I enjoy, it did mean a lot of my reading time was taken up by white people. I’m quite behind on contemporary SFF because I just don’t have the time to fit it in with all my writing-related reading.
The second thing is that you can write about non-white people in Regency England, and you can even write about communities of colour in Regency London and probably other places, like Bristol and Liverpool. But the particular setting and story I chose inevitably meant that most of the supporting characters were going to be white. That’s on me, but it bothers me a bit.
I know that we all come to SFF through various means and we have varying canons. Your work has been compared to authors like Georgette Heyer and Susanna Clarke. Are they part of your canon? Who are the authors/works that mark your entry into SFF?
I don’t know if I’d call either of them canonical for me, though I like Heyer’s books and love Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I came to them relatively young, but maybe not young enough for them to have entered my canon. That was pretty much closed after age 16 …
The authors that marked my entry into SFF are probably: Tolkien, Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones and Edith Nesbit for fantasy; Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin for science fiction. And the 19th century authors I grew up reading, like Austen and the Brontes. They don’t write genre, obviously, but as a kid in 20th century Malaysia, I read them as one reads genre — as windows on an alien world.
I love that you wonder as to how many white Americans get asked about their decision to set their work in Regency England as I have read my share of books written by white Americans set in Regency England and have often wondered how true those depictions were to the setting and time. (How many Dukes exist in England? At a certain point, I wondered if the UK was made up of nobles only.) So it’s interesting to me to read about the process you went through in choosing this setting as well as the dilemma you faced. I do love that you chose to write Zacharias and that you don’t flinch from presenting to us the complexity of maneuvering through a society where he is a minority.
You wrote about your complicated feelings with regards to your particular choice of setting because of your supporting white cast. Have you come to a resolution regarding those feelings? Do you intend to address this in the following books? Can you tell us without spoiling much? 😉
The feelings aren’t that complicated — I just made a decision some time ago that I should invest most of my time and energy, as a creator, in stories that are not about white people, because I’d spent so many years before that invested in stories that focused on white Westerners to the exclusion of every other type of person. In writing Sorcerer I was obviously trying to avoid producing the latter type of story, but you can’t challenge a thing without focusing on it. So my feelings are like, “This is annoying, but I had reasons for doing it, and you can’t do everything with a single trilogy.”
Is that a resolution?
I think it’s quite healthy to live in a state of slight tension with oneself.
I’m not going to address the issue in the next books really — as I said, I think it’s something that comes with the setting and the type of stories I’ve chosen to tell, which are inspired by the tropes of Regency romance. It’ll have to wait for the next series!
Maybe this comes back to that issue of striking a balance between the serious and the fun. As I said, I enjoy the tropes of Regency romance, the elopements and the inns and the banter and the parties. And maybe playing with those tropes doesn’t fit with one of my projects, which is writing stories set in worlds where whiteness is not a bigpresence, but then that’s only one of my projects. Something like Zacharias’s story, where he’s just this guy growing up alone in a white society, without a black community, is a story worth spending time and energy on.
One of the things that I wanted to ask as well, concerns your own position as being probably the first Malaysian writer to write a major fantasy trilogy. Does this carry particular stresses for you? We’ve spoken before of the burden of visibility and of representation or being seen as a representative. How do you feel about this and what do you think or feel needs to be addressed regarding this matter?
Am I the first Malaysian writer to write a major fantasy trilogy? If we say trilogy, maybe … there’s Yangsze Choo whose YA fantasy novel THE GHOST BRIDE was an Oprah Book of the Week pick. Heights I don’t dare to dream of!
I do feel a certain pressure. In an interview I did with David Barnett for the Independent, he calls me an “unwitting poster girl” for diversity in SFF and it’s probably just as true to say “unwilling”, haha. I feel a bit like that about my position in the Malaysian writing community, like — I’ve just been here toodling along doing mything, and suddenly there’s this whole other side of me that I don’t even have a full picture of, which is people’s perceptions of me.
I get it from both the Westerners and the Malaysians, of course. Western SFF asks me about Malaysian SFF, and I’m like, honestly, apart from the slush reading I did for Cyberpunk: Malaysia, I’ve been spending the past two years in Regency England, what do you want from me.
The Malaysians are very supportive but sometimes they’re very annoying as well! Like any community you have disagreements and even bickering, but I don’t necessarily feel I can engage in that. Like if I’m snotty to someone on Facebook, maybe they’ll worry that I’ll turn my US/UK publishing contacts against them. (Not that I have that power, obviously, but you know as well as I do that people often have strange ideas about publishing.) But maybe I’m just being perasan (full of myself)!
To an extent any burden I feel comes from how I choose to engage with the communities I’m a part of, as much as from how they choose to treat me. I’m lucky to be able to move between worlds in this way — it’s as rewarding as it is occasionally stressful.
Talking about the issue of diversity, when you look at genre today, what do you see as being the biggest challenges facing writers coming from the margins? And what kinds of conversations and actions need to take place in order for genre to become a more welcoming and inviting space for writers coming from traditionally marginalized spaces?
I often feel the biggest challenges are internal. That probably comes from my privileges — there are serious external challenges, like illness and poverty and the stresses that come from that, which will affect the marginalised disproportionately and are a huge obstacle to creativity. Put very simply, though, you need support and resources in order to be creative — including emotional support, and resources like time and emotional energy — and being from a marginalised group by definition means you have less access to support and resources.
That’s the first challenge, to link up writers from marginalised backgrounds with the support and resources to enable them to do the work, and then after that it’s a matter of getting the work out there and getting people to read it and appreciate it. I think US/UK genre has become more open to “diverse” writers and writing; there’s a genuine interest in reading work from countries outside the US/UK and hearing voices that have been historically shut out, but at the same time, people are quite lazy. That sounds harsh, but I include myself in it — your tastes are shaped by what you’ve read and watched before, and it takes a little effort to understand stories that use a different voice, that follow different storytelling conventions, that are trying to subvert the dominant paradigm. There’s a quite large group of people who are “yay diversity” in theory, but I think the number of people who have then said to themselves, “OK, if I’m committed to this, I need to start reading outside my comfort zone and making an effort” is maybe a little smaller.
I am not an activist and I don’t really have any bright ideas for addressing these issues that other people haven’t already come up with and are doing. I think we need numbers — we need lots of writers from the margins because then at least the burden of representation is shared! And we need a couple of bestsellers, to convince the industry of the commercial viability of our work. The best way to persuade the powers of be that we matter is to have some power ourselves!
Aside from novel writing, you’ve also authored a single-author collection and edited Cyberpunk Malaysia. But before these things even happened, you’d published The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo (still one of my most memorable reads). What was it that prompted you to publish Jade Yeo and offer it online for free? What are the advantages/disadvantages (if any) of doing this?
The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is an awkward length — it’s a non-speculative short novella, around 23,000 words — and there just weren’t that many markets to submit it to. I submitted to one digital press and got rejected, so I thought, why not self-publish as an ebook? Romance is way ahead of any other genre when it comes to self-publishing — the readers are there. And I thought it would be good training to learn how to format the file for self-publication and work out where to sell the ebook and so on.
At the same time that I self-published the story as an ebook, I posted it online for free on my blog because at the time I’d just launched my website, zencho.org, and there wasn’t a huge amount on it that was new. I felt I should offer people something so they’d come and have a look at the site.
I wasn’t looking to earn a lot of money. I expect there are other approaches that would have been better for maximising profit. There’s also not a lot of prestige to self-publishing unless you sell bucketloads, though it isn’t as stigmatised as it was before e-publishing became a thing. The main thing I wanted to do was get more readers and I think it probably worked for that. People do still buy the ebook and come up to me at cons and say how much they enjoyed it, which is really beyond my expectations.
Your single author collection Spirits Abroad won the Crawford Award. It sounds like a fabulous award, btw. What was it like for you? How did you feel when you were told that you’d won it?
Happy, of course! It’s funny in a way because these awards always feel like a bit of an anticlimax at the time I’m told about them. I immediately start thinking about how little I’ve done to deserve an award, it has been months since I’ve written a story I can be proud of, I am a big fraud and will never do anything good again, etc. etc. (I mean, not that I’ve won a lot of awards, but I had a similar reaction when I was told I’d been nominated for the Campbell.) Of course this is way more about me and my neuroses than about the awards.
I do start enjoying the award later, once I’ve got over the reaction. And actually winning the Crawford Award was nice from the get-go, despite all the stupid voices. I just suddenly felt like I must be a real writer if they were willing to give me the Crawford.
I haven’t yet read Cyberpunk Malaysia, but I’ve heard lots of good things about it. I remember how enthusiastic about this when we were at Worldcon, but we didn’t really get to talk about it after that. I’m really curious as to what goes into putting such an anthology together. Would you talk about the process of putting this anthology together. How do you make decisions on stories to publish? I’m thinking there must also be some difficulty if you have to turn down writers you know, how did you deal with this?
I don’t think I quite knew what I wanted the anthology to look like when I started reading the submissions for Cyberpunk: Malaysia, but I did know what I liked, so I picked stories that I liked. It’s been impossible for me to read reviews of the anthology, actually, because I feel so tender of the stories that I get really defensive — almost worse than I am about reviews of my own fiction!
I ended up with more stories that I liked than I could use in the anthology, so that’s the stage at which I started thinking about what I wanted the focus and the flow of the anthology to be. Though I tried to avoid too much repetition, I deliberately picked stories that echoed and built on each other thematically. This is also the stage at which I started looking at the identity of the authors and the protagonists, to try to ensure a balanced Table of Contents.
I did worry about the fact that the Malaysian Anglophone writing scene is so small that it was inevitable that I’d be passing on stories by writers I know and want to support. But I didn’t find that it was a problem once I started reading the submissions. Who the writers were didn’t get in the way, because I really did just focus in on my experience of the story. I read at least half of the submissions twice, though, because I wanted to be sure that I was giving every story a fighting chance on its own merits.
Hopefully the writers whose stories weren’t included in the anthology get that it is what it is, and it doesn’t mean I dislike their work. But honestly, at the end of the day, my job was not to protect their feelings. My job was to put together an anthology that was as good as I could make it.
What are the top three things you would say to writers who are just starting out?
- Find your joy and write the things you like. Don’t worry about the market or anything like that. There’s always space for a good story.
- Keep going. Be prepared for long periods when all you hear is “no” and it feels like nobody cares about your work. Everyone goes through this, including the most successful writers you’ve heard of.
- Publication is nice, but ultimately it does not matter. When rejections get you down, remember that nothing can take writing away from you.
Aside from the trilogy you’re working on right now, what other projects do you have in the works or what projects do you want to work on next?
I have a fairly demanding day job and I’m still doing some promo for Sorcerer to the Crown, so it’s enough of a challenge reserving sufficient energy for writing the trilogy! All my writing energy is going into book 2 at the moment. I’d like to write a novella at some point — I’ve got a couple of ideas that might do — but when I’ll get the time for that, I don’t know.
Finally, where can we find you on the internets. 🙂
My website is http://zencho.org — it has information about my books and where you can get them. I’m zenaldehyde on Twitter and Instagram, and zenchobooks on Facebook — my Facebook account is public, but if you’d like to be added, do drop me a message letting me know who you are.
I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Zen Cho. Click on book covers to follow links to the books. We’re sharing both the UK and the US covers here as I think they’re both so pretty. Thank you for reading and thanks again to Zen for taking the time out for this conversation.