Aquafortis here. On my recent travels, the Mr. and I visited the Church of Vera Cruz in Segovia, Spain (a city an hour away from Madrid which I HIGHLY recommend). This church reminded me of Sarwat Chadda, and his novel, The Devil's Kiss--because, according to legend, the church was founded by the very same Knights Templar that Chadda's main character, Billi, is so conflicted about being a part of.
As it turns out, the legend that the Templars founded the church is just that--a legend. In reality, the Church of Vera Cruz was evidently founded by the Knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre and/or the Order of Malta--and the Knights of Malta are the Hospitallers mentioned in The Devil's Kiss. How cool is that? (And, honestly? It sounds just as fascinating as the Knights Templar!)
The church is named vera cruz because the Knights allegedly kept vigil over a sliver of the true cross. This slightly blurred (oops) photo shows the interior of the church, and the banners of the various Orders, just as they appeared in medieval days (only with brighter colors). And that's your bonus don't-you-wish-you'd-been-in-Spain-with-me travelogue! And now, on with the show!
Finding Wonderland: Hey, Sarwat! Welcome to Finding Wonderland!
According to your website, you studied Engineering at your university (yay for another YA author who is also an engineer! Varian Johnson finally has company!). Where do you get your love for history and research? Did you study deeply into Templar and Muslim mythologies and traditions, or did you mostly loose your imagination when writing The Devil's Kiss?
Sarwat Chadda: Oh, the engineering was the classic day job while the history, mythology and religion was what I really loved, but couldn't find a way to earn a living out of it until recently.
So while I did spend a long, long time doing research, it was all stuff I would have read anyway, whether or not I was a writer.
The basis of DK came from a visit to a pediatric intensive care unit and it was that event that led me to write about the Tenth Plague. If there is a God, why does he let innocent children die? I'm not convinced by the 'moving in mysterious ways' get out clause.
FW: Yeah, that's a tough one for a lot of people, and it's interesting to see that you came to this book with such serious thoughts in mind.
So, what was your family's response to The Devil's Kiss? What did the Vicar have to say? Knowing that your parents are Muslim and that you're familiar with the religion, what was it like to write about Muslim religion and mythology from an outsider perspective? Did you feel any pressure to present a particular picture of Islam, or did you simply write what you know?
SC: My parents love that I'm a writer. I think deep down they knew I never really enjoyed the engineering. In fact, they took a large box of my books over to Pakistan last month to hand out to all the relatives and it appears to have gone down well. As to my father-in-law, the vicar, I've not really spoken to him about the book. I don't think he's read it!
I would consider myself a British-born Muslim and I find Islamic history fascinating, be it the Crusades, the Ottomans or the Islamic rule of Spain. That said the Napoleonic wars where a major influence on my writing, so it's difficult to draw the line over what influences me most. I think the best way to avoid getting stale is to spread your interests as wide as possible. I just love history, be it Greek, Roman, Mongol, whatever.
Actually, it never occurred to me I was presenting a picture of Islam, or any religion in particular. I've travelled a lot and live in a very ethnically diverse are of London (though you could argue it's all ethnically diverse) and the more you travel, the greater are the similarities. What's also so interesting is the common themes in what appear to be hugely different cultures. Ancestral memories or universal Jungian archetypes, it shows how the same stories and themes pop up over and over again, everywhere.
What's interesting is the feedback I've had from some schools regarding the religious and ethnic mix of the characters. Again it was just how I see the world, so that's what I wrote.
FW:This book has a lot of action -- and a lot of bloodshed and loss. What reaction did you have from editors and publicists in regard to the violence? What was the original first line that you wrote for this story? How much did it change in the published version?
SC: The violence is there for a reason. I'm hoping it affects you because it is brutal and leads to loss. I hate the 'kill and quip' style of comedy violence where brutal things happen and the hero walks away with a smart one-liner. Death has consequences. I needed to establish that on the first page, on the first line. The original line was an different scene altogether, it was a big werewolf fight rather than a spooky encounter in an derelict playground. The boy on the swing scene fitted the mood of the tale perfectly. Some people really hated it but I think that's because I don't present Billi as a sympathetic character. Hey, her first thought is about killing a little kid, so I can see how it might be awkward to put her in a 'good gal' box. But as long as you understand why she is who she is, empathize rather than sympathize, that's great.
FW: Oh, I don't know! I think Billi was really a sympathetic character there -- she obviously didn't want to do what she had to do. That conflict continues -- and grows.
As Billi gripes to herself about her father's world and rules, readers might be tempted to tell her, "Well, just leave, then!" but the Knights Templar in this novel are a group bound by devotion to duty -- though not necessarily devotion to God. If you could distill the Knight Templar's underlying reason to be into a single sentence, what would it be? To what in the modern world can your readers compare this concept of duty? Do you think young adults today have a concept of duty like Billi's -- unattached to politics or religion or emotion?
SC: The Templars have no single underlying reason. They are ultimately the great contradict of all warriors, peace through violence. It is way too easy to say it's the struggle between good and evil because working out who is good and who is evil is a tricky business at the best of times. This is something I develop more in Dark Goddess, where it's clear the Templars are wrong, but Billi must see things through nevertheless.
Billi questions her beliefs, which I think is no bad thing, and is very wary of any dogma, hence her desire to quit. But then what? She knows no other life. Whatever she feels, she's a Templar, through and through. What she isn't is a mindless soldier. She questions the morality of her actions and has not become blinded to believing her cause is the 'right one'.
Of course she could quit, but then who would be left? Arthur is too blinkered by his own damaged past to see clearly that he's leading the Templars to destruction, and Gwaine is too backward looking to see the Order must evolve to survive. Billi, despite her personal desires, realizes she greater role within the community. Simply put she is realizing what it is to be an adult. That is not to live in the land of do as you please.
As to concept of duty, that's a hard one. I don't think most adults have any concept of duty. Given the mess we're making of things I'd hesitate to advise anyone what theirs should be!
FW: Billi - a lone girl among men - obviously struggles. What would Billi have been like as a boy? How difficult was it to get into the head of a teen girl? What role or character would you like to challenge yourself with next?
SC: If Billi had been a boy I think he would have been a lot less questioning of Arthur. He would have relished the Templar life because he would have felt he'd belonged from day one. But that would have made him a follower, not a leader. Billi's destiny is to make her own path, not follow in the footsteps of anyone, even her father. Being the only girl is merely an external symbol of her individuality as a Templar.
I have daughters, my first reader is my wife, I have two female editors and my agent is also a woman. They made sure I stuck within the head of a 15 year old girl. But some issues are sexless. The key one is deciding your future. At 15 you're on the verge of adulthood. You have to decide what sort of adult you're going to be. Not easy.
Bonus Question:We know that the next book in your series you're almost finished with (!!) - The Dark Goddess - and we're excited! According to your website, you were a newbie to the YA genre when you started writing The Devil's Kiss. Now that you're in the know on the YA scene, who are you reading? Any multicultural authors or new voices we should know about?
SC: Can I admit I don't read much YA fiction? Obviously I've read Phillip Pullman (it was the Dark Materials that got me thinking about becoming a writer) and with regard to genre, I was a huge Anne Rice fan back in the day. I read a lot of historical fiction but recently I've been reading some Lehane, crime fiction set in Boston. I'm trying to be more varied in my reading habits to keep a bit fresh. If any of you are planning to become writers, don't spend all your time just reading your chosen genre, there's a risk of becoming myopic. That goes double for anyone writing a vampire story.
Right now I'm reading a lot of South Asian mythology. I've old copies of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both by Rajagopalachari, and one by Narayan. They're not multicultural as such since they're writing about their own culture but they're great books and I thoroughly recommend them.
FW:Thank you so much for dropping by - we can't wait for the next book in Billi's world, and we wish you the best in your writing!
Behind every great author is a lot of heart. If you haven't checked out Sarwat's blog, and his website (and yes, he said we could call him by his first name, so we're totally name-dropping here) -- you simply must. It's funny and thorough and gives a little glimpse into his personality. (And his prowess with Photoshop.)
For another great interview, check out Sarwat at The Enchanted Inkpot.
And, don't forget to check out the rest of today's awesome WBBT author/illustrator interviews:
Sy Montgomery Pt 1 @ Chasing Ray,
Jacqui Robbins @ Bildungsroman,
Cynthia Leitich Smith @ Hip Writer Mama:
Beth Kephart @ Shelf Elf, and the bonus interview,
Annie Barrows @ Great Kid Books
Cover images courtesy of the author.