Leah Bruce

Sixteen-year-old Maya, daughter of the kingdom’s Raja, has been burdened with a fate foretold in her horoscope, which promises a doomed marriage in her future. Since birth she has faced the terror and contempt of others, but now, due to her father's political tactics, Maya faces a dreaded wedding. She finds herself married to Amar, making her the queen of Akaran—a kingdom full of otherworldly mystery, magic and, when her curiosities consume her, danger.

Roshani Chokshi introduces a world that is culturally diverse and richly dynamic in her debut novel, The Star-Touched Queen. She expertly combines Indian folklore with the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone with stunning ease. Her vivid prose brings to life a high fantasy world that, until now, one could only dream of. We contacted Chokshi to learn more about her debut.

Was it daunting to create such a culturally diverse and complex world? How did you go about piecing it together?
Writing anything is daunting, but constructing TSTQ’s world was actually very fun! Indian mythology hints at multiple worlds, almost as if they’re stacked one atop the other. Like tiers of cake! (Mmm . . . cake.) To piece them together, I drew inspiration from some Western fairy tales about how someone would access the Otherworld (places like Tír na nÓg, Tartarus, etc.) and tried to construct magical rules that would fit with the mythology.  

How has your Filipino and Indian heritage influenced your writing?
My heritage showed me how we’re all telling the same tale. Many Filipino and Indian myths overlap, as do myths and folklore across wide cultural spectrums. My heritage changed how I wrote because I saw, for the first time, that it was natural to explore a familiar tale in a new cultural context. Essentially, I wasn’t doing anything new. It made me feel like I had permission to play around with the fairytales I liked and the heritage I knew.

I was particularly intrigued by the fear of Maya’s shadow in the book. Did that stem from a particular piece of folklore?
Yes! When I was younger I read a story about how the wife of the Sun god (Surya) abandoned him and left her shadow (Chhaya) in her place. I always loved that idea—that somehow your shadow could gain a personality, tear itself from your side and wander off. Or perhaps that trait only belongs to goddesses. Alas.

What is your favorite piece of folklore or myth that went into creating this book?
The tale of Narasimha was my favorite piece of folklore, and also one of my favorite scenes to write in the whole book. I think it’s thematically important because it shows how fate intersects with ambition.

Maya grapples with her foretold fate and destiny. Do these things play a role in your own life? How much control do we think have over our own lives, and can we learn to be the boss of our own fate?
Maya’s name means “illusion,” and I think that’s fitting. How we see things—as beastly or beautiful, painful or painless—pivots on a myriad of intangibles. I couldn’t tell you whether we ever master destiny, or whether we just choose to mold our perspective in a way that sits well with us. There’s something comfortable about the idea of destiny. I grew up with the firm reminder that I couldn’t control the actions of the world, only my reactions. Destiny didn’t factor into that. It was always just what I did with what I had and how I chose to see it. I think Maya is the same way.

Mother Dhina and others treat Maya as a scapegoat for all their misfortunes due to their blind belief in her horoscope. What is the danger of people’s inclination to believe in something unquestionably?
Oh, so many dangers. You may sacrifice love without realizing it. Or worse, go blind and never see the world for all that it wants to be.

Maya refers to marriage as a cage and the other women speak of abuses by their husbands, but it is a tradition they uphold. Particularly in regards to the treatment of women and other minority groups, what is the importance of tradition, and what is the value in breaking it? In upholding it?
Tradition links us to our heritage. I’ve always loved watching my grandparents and family members explain certain rites and ceremonies to me. There’s something very powerful in knowing that a gesture, phrase or prayer has been passed down for years. However, sometimes tradition and dreams clash. You have to make compromises in order to stay true to yourself first and an idea later. In my family, I think we still uphold many of our traditions, but we’ve refitted them to fit who we are today. Much like retelling a favorite fairy tale. We update it to reflect ourselves, not the other way around.

Speaking of, what is the importance of representing diversity in books for young adults? How did you approach this issue in writing The Star-Touched Queen
The world is diverse. Books should be, too. I wasn’t consciously thinking about diversity when I wrote TSTQ. I wanted to include the tales I knew growing up. I wanted to portray a heroine who looked like the people I love. And I wanted to show how a journey of self-affirmation and first love is a universal tale. No single culture possesses those stories.

Your writing evokes a sense of magic realism due to its poetic and dreamlike qualities. It made me wonder if any of the inspiration for Maya and her world stemmed from your own dreams. Was this a quality you were aiming for in your style and tone?
Thank you! Unfortunately, my dreams are exceedingly boring. In my last memorable one, I missed my flight and was forced to wander an airport lobby that resembled purgatory. However, I think my natural writing style strays toward the purple-ish and atmospheric, since that’s the kind of prose I enjoy reading the most.

Stories were important to us as we’re growing up, and in The Star-Touched Queen, Maya tells stories to her younger sister. How did the stories you heard as a child inspire this book?
I love this question. To me, it was really important that Maya and Gauri love stories. Stories continue to be hugely instructive and inspirational to me, not just in my writing but in my life. The stories I heard when I was younger taught me the different ways we show strength, how we celebrate our differences, how far we will go for love. The stories I heard inspired me because they gave a framework for situations I hadn’t encountered yet. To quote Neil Gaiman (who I believe is paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton): “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

What’s next for you?
I just finished my second draft of The Star-Touched Queen companion, and I’m working on a YA fantasy heist tale and a MG horror!

 

Author photo credit Aman Sharma.

In her debut novel, The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi creates a world that is culturally diverse and richly dynamic. She expertly combines Indian folklore with the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone with stunning ease. Her vivid prose brings to life a high fantasy world that, until now, one could only dream of. We contacted Chokshi to learn more about her debut.

In The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, author and illustrator Sonny Liew masterfully juxtaposes history and fiction—so much so that at first I couldn't tell the difference! This genre-bending graphic novel follows the story of fictional cartoonist Charlie, now in his 70s, and his art, beautifully rendered in contrasting styles to add to the realism, intertwined with the history of Singapore.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is engaging and educational, not only in the history of comics, but also in an unfortunately little-known (to Westerners) place and era: Singapore in the 20th century. Liew’s graphic revealed many things to me: that from 1963 to 1965, Singapore was merged with Malaya, thus creating Malaysia; that the P.A.P (People's Action Party) even existed; that Singapore has a large Chinese population; and that there were over 100 years of British rule in Singapore. Liew’s visual storytelling is incredibly enlightening while also being a pleasure to read: his comics are versatile—filled with or devoid of color depending on the story’s context and mood—and beautifully simple. It is a joy to watch Charlie’s art evolve and change as a result of the events in his life and the cultural landscape of Singapore. Liew reaches back to a time of overwhelming cultural and political change in the small island nation, and in his transcendent graphic novel, Sonny Liew has revealed the ability of comics to blur the lines between fact and fiction, and to transport readers between eras and cultures.

In The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, author and illustrator Sonny Liew masterfully juxtaposes history and fiction—so much so that at first I couldn't tell the difference! This genre-bending graphic novel follows the story of fictional cartoonist Charlie, now in his 70s, and his art, beautifully rendered in contrasting styles to add to the realism, intertwined with the history of Singapore.

Dillard Early and his misfit friends, Lydia and Travis, have mixed feelings about their upcoming senior year. Dill grapples with a past that he can’t shake while feeling nervous about what the future holds; Lydia’s excitement and future prospects often lead her to forget what she has in the moment; and Travis is content to escape into the world of his favorite book series. But when loss turns their lives upside down, they must learn to deal with endings they may not be ready for.

With his debut YA novel, The Serpent King, Nashville singer/songwriter Jeff Zentner captures coming of age in the South with understated authenticity. This novel is a personal look at what it means to grow up—and whether or not we choose to let where we come from define us. We spoke with Zentner about hometown roots, music, the importance of literature and much more.

Most of the characters in the novel have something they use as a form of escape. For Dill, it’s music and friends. Lydia has her fashion blog. Travis disappears into a book series called Bloodfall. Was escapism (particularly for teenagers) something you wanted to thematically explore in this book? Why?
Absolutely. I think escapism is very much part of growing up in a small town for anyone who has big dreams and wants to see more of the world.

You use the perspectives of Dill, Lydia and Travis to tell the story. Why did you choose to use multiple perspectives in this particular story? 
Because I wanted to write a book about each of those characters. And being an impatient person, I crammed them all into one story. But I couldn’t let go of each of their points of view. So I gave them each a point of view and got into their heads.

The book deals a lot with family ties, particularly with parents, as well as hometown roots. How important are these things in shaping who we become and who we choose not to be? 
I think place and blood have a huge influence on who we are, if only as an opposing force, like when you try to push two magnets together the wrong way. If there’s one idea I hope The Serpent King conveys, it’s that we are not predestined by virtue of geography or genes.

What was it about your experience with the Tennessee Teen Rock Camp that inspired you to write for young adults? To write The Serpent King?
Working with the amazing teens at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp showed me how young people cling to the art they love and are willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves and be vulnerable for it. The art you love as a young person is so formative. I wanted to create art for that audience. As for influencing The Serpent King specifically, I would say that volunteering at Rock Camp made me want to write about kids who are creators—musicians, specifically. 

Along with being a writer, you are also a musician. How has that background influenced your writing? Do your creative processes have any similarities? Differences?
I think being a musician taught me to trust my process and my instincts. I know how I work, I know what inspires me, I know the things I’m interested in speaking about through art—all because of music. My creative process for music differs in that I don’t think in longterm narratives. My songs aren’t character-driven. My writing, by contrast, is completely character-driven.

Dill is also a musician. Do you have anything in common with Lydia or Travis? Did you draw from your own personality in the creation of your characters?
I have a lot in common with Lydia and Travis. Lydia’s sense of humor is very much mine. I wrote Lydia as the sort of sassy, spirited daughter I’d hope to have if I ever had a daughter. I’m a huge nerd like Travis; I love the things I love to an insane degree like him. I live in my own imagination a lot, like he does.

Travis is obsessed with a series of books in the novel. Were there any books that heavily affected you as a teenager?
I was pretty into Stephen King as a teenager. I couldn’t get enough of his books. I loved It in particular. Also, Different Seasons really made an impression on me. In my later teen years I started reading Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison. If George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series had existed when I was a teen, I would have been obsessed on a level similar to Travis.

What do you think the importance of literature is to young adults?
I think literature in general teaches empathy, because it requires you to inhabit the consciousness and point of view of someone else. I think empathy is one of the most valuable qualities a person can have.

What’s next for you?
I have a new book coming out in spring 2017. It takes place in Nashville. It’s about a young man coping with grief, guilt and redemption in the wake of the deaths of his three best friends—which he might have caused. And there might even be a cameo appearance from one of the Serpent King crew.

 

Author photo credit J Hernandez.

With his debut YA novel, The Serpent King, Nashville singer/songwriter Jeff Zentner captures coming of age in the South with understated authenticity. This novel is a personal look at what it means to grow up—and whether or not we choose to let where we come from define us. We spoke with Zentner about hometown roots, music, the importance of literature and much more.

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