In P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn, the world was forever changed in 1872 when a man named Al-Jahiz opened a portal to another world and let all manner of magic into our own. Decades later, someone claiming to be Al-Jahiz returns from the dead goes on a murderous rampage through Cairo, threatening both the delicate balance between the world powers and the uneasy accord between humans and the supernatural. We talked to Clark about the inspirations behind his alternate history.
I love the world you've created! How do you start world building at the very beginning of a project? Was there any specific moment or image that kickstarted your vision of an alternate Cairo?
Thank you! I think for this world—what I think is now called the Dead Djinn universe—the idea began with an image in my head of the main character, Fatma, in the suit and a dead djinn hovering over her. Who knows what made me dream that up? But once it was there, I needed to figure it out. Who was this person? Was this a detective story? Maybe she’s a detective. No, maybe she’s an agent. OK, what’s with the dead djinn? What’s even the larger mystery here? And it went on and on like that, until I had a story.
Egyptian mythology (among other African and Middle Eastern cultures) has a strong influence in this book. Was there any specific work that inspired you? What draws you to the stories of that corner of the world?
My earliest years growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Afro-Caribbean folklore, Hindu cosmology and Muslim festivals (like Hosay)—part of my environment. So the non-“Occidental” has always been part of my lived experience. And I think I’ve always found myself searching for it, no matter where I’ve ended up.
"I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo.' It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more."
Fatma, Siti and Hadia are such fun characters to see interact. How do you approach writing dynamic conversations?
With all characters, I try to imagine how they would approach a situation or react to others. I think of them the way I would real people, with certain personality traits, habits, quirks, etc. So when Siti says something, I ask myself how Fatma would respond, or Hadia. And I just try to stay true to who they are.
Dr. Hoda is my favorite side character so far, so I have to ask—will she get her assistant?
LOL. Great question. I like side characters like Dr. Hoda precisely because they leave the door open to revisit them later. In the meantime, if I can get readers to identify with them (despite their limited presence) and see them as characters with depth, I’m happy.
Is there anything from your personal life you drew on to write this book? Or do you prefer not to think consciously about what parts of your life go into your work?
There are parts that are based heavily on my memories of visiting Cairo. And certainly, I pulled from themes and issues in my head at the time I was writing. The Dead Djinn world as a nod to anti-colonialism reflects much of my own personal bias. But overall, the characters and whatnot have their own experiences and lives that are quite separate from my own. Also, I haven’t yet actually seen a djinn.
Do you want to continue writing stories in this world? If so, do you have a plan for how many more books you would like to write, or will you just see where the story takes you?
Plan? No plans here. I didn’t have a plan for writing anything else here after my short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” It was the reception by readers that inspired me to do more. Fortunately, because I enjoy world building, I always leave myself different doors and paths to explore. So, I don’t have anything yet in mind. But who knows?
What have you read and loved recently?
I am reading Creatures of Passage by Morowa Yejidé. The prose and imagination are magnificent!
What else are you working on?
A project I’m not yet supposed to talk about. But let’s just say, I may be writing for a decidedly younger audience. Though the rest of you are welcome to come along, too.
What do you want the reader to walk away with after reading A Master of Djinn?
A satisfied smile. And a hunger for Egyptian street food.