Nearly seven years after the publication of her debut novel, Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson returns with a spellbinding follow-up. The Bird King is a sweeping historical fantasy set against the backdrop of the last remnants of Muslim Spain during the Inquisition, and follows two dear friends as they set out on a dangerous adventure guided only by a mysterious talent, a jinn and their own faith. Wilson, who is also the author of the Hugo Award-winning comic book series Ms Marvel for Marvel comics, chatted with BookPage about her new novel, how working in superhero comics has affected her novels and about her own faith in stories.
What kick-started this novel in your imagination? Did the fantasy come first, or the history, or the characters?
I think what came first was the desire to write a platonic love story, and what came second was a fascination with 15th-century Spain, since the cultural and political upheaval in that time and place parallel our own in so many ways. There was also my ongoing obsession with maps and the way our particular points of view influence the way we describe our physical geography. When you’re writing, you can never be quite sure what follows what—so often, ideas are intimately connected in ways you don’t anticipate.
When and how did you realize the story of the Bird King, which Fatima and Hassan take as a kind of personal fable for themselves, would become so central to this book?
The story-within-a-story of the Bird King is drawn from an epic poem called The Conference of the Birds by the medieval Sufi philosopher Farid ud-Din Attar. On some level, it’s a teaching story—a way of describing very complex ideas about the nature of God and the role of the believer through allegory. Yet on its face, it’s also a story about longing for something lost, which made it a very poignant touchstone for Fatima and Hassan, since in the book, the only world they have ever known is coming to a rapid end.
In researching and writing about Muslim Spain, what did you learn about the people of Granada (or the people of Christian Spain) that surprised you the most?
I think what was most surprising to me was how contemporary all their concerns and preoccupations felt. Spanish Jews and Muslims faced a choice: whether to stay in Spain and convert to Catholicism or leave for North Africa or Italy and abandon their homeland. That brings up questions of identity and belonging that I think many of us today would recognize. How long do you have to live in a place before you are “from” there? Some Muslim families in Spain had been there for five or six hundred years, yet they were essentially being told they were foreigners and undesirables. And the questions they were asking Islamic scholars in Morocco—is it OK to pretend to be Catholic in order to stay in Spain?—suggest that a lot of them really, really didn’t want to leave the only home they had ever known, even if it meant living under hostile rulers.
The jinn is a well-known creature in Islamic mythology, and yours is a particularly memorable one. How much did you draw from traditional accounts for the character, and how much did you simply invent?
Stories about jinn are so varied and colorful that it is almost impossible to make stuff up. Nearly anything you come up with will have been described in some jinn story, somewhere, at some time in the past. Jinn who transform into beasts and birds, jinn who steal corpses and walk around in them, jinn who are tricksters, jinn who are very pious and good. It’s all there in the folklore—and in some cases, in the Quran itself. So I feel hesitant to take credit for anything.
Hassan’s talent for mapmaking is so fascinating, and yet the way it truly works is so instinctual that it seems obscured even from him. How much did you personally have to know about how his gifts worked while writing the book? Do you understand it any better than he does?
Like Hassan does in the story, I had pretty intense synesthesia as a child, though I didn’t have a word for it or realize it was something unusual. Coming from a comic book-writing background, I did try to have a few concrete “rules” to govern Hassan’s gift, the way you would come up with rules for the powers of a superhero—if you don’t have some kind of reasoning or boundaries, the temptation is to make the character more and more powerful, and as a result, less and less interesting. So I like to think I know more or less how Hassan’s gift functions, but don’t ask me to describe it . . .
In telling the story of the Bird King to each other, your characters discuss how a story’s ownership changes after the original author sends it out into the world. You’ve had a lot of experience with fandom and even writing characters you don’t technically own. How have your views on the ownership of stories evolved over time?
I’m not possessive of the things I write. After I write them, they belong to the reader. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, the large entertainment corporation I have written them for. So I can’t get too attached. Or maybe that’s not quite right—I don’t get attached to the story, but I do get attached to the readers. They inevitably see things in the story that were completely invisible to me as I was writing it. And I find that perspective incredibly valuable. I care less about ownership than I do about that conversation.
Your story is rich in historical details and realism, but it’s also a story in which mythological creatures and magical abilities are simply taken as a given. What do you feel was the most important thing to remember when it came to achieving verisimilitude with this particular novel?
You know, it was really challenging to write a story set during a time period in which most people believed in the literal truth of the unseen—God, angels, demons, jinn, sorcery, etc. Even for me as a fairly religious person, it was hard to make that level of credulity feel realistic. When you write fantasy or magical realism set in the present, there’s a level of sustained shock—the modern person, who fancies herself very rational, continuously reacts against the presence of the unexplained. The medieval person, after an initial shock, would just accept it as part of the natural continuity between the seen and unseen. That’s a pretty big experience gap.
You’ve had a lot of experience writing in the realm of superhero comics since your last novel was published. What did superhero comics teach you about your own writing that you were able to apply to The Bird King?
Superhero comics taught me that writing is a communal exercise, even when you do your bit in isolation. I may write a script in complete silence at my desk, but when I’m done, it goes through the interpretive lens of the artist and the colorist and the letterer, and with every new iteration, the story changes. It teaches you that no matter how good you get, you will never be able to beam your thoughts straight into the mind of the reader. There will always be that interpretive distance. It’s very humbling—it means that you are not running this process; this process is running you.
The novel deals frequently with themes of faith—faith in God (or lack thereof), faith in friendship, faith in love and even faith in stories. What did writing The Bird King teach you, or help you realize, about your own experience with faith in your life?
I think that when we’re comfortable, we don’t really know for sure what we believe. We might think we know, but we don’t really find out until we’re tested. It’s easy to believe that the world is an inherently good place when things are going well, but what about when things have gone horribly wrong? What about in times of upheaval and chaos, when good people seem to suffer and evil to flourish? It was cathartic to write about a time of intense spiritual and moral crisis while we’re going through our own time of intense spiritual and moral crisis—it allowed me to extrapolate a hopeful ending.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Bird King.