Interview with Zen Cho
We’re excited to welcome Zen Cho to Fantasy-Faction today to talk about her debut Fantasy Novel, Sorcerer To The Crown, forthcoming sequels and her life as a writer. Once you’ve checked the interview out, be sure to follow Zen on Twitter and add her book to your to-be-read list on Goodreads
You can’t sit an interview without being asked who you are and what you do. So, who is Zen Cho and what is her book Sorcerer To The Crown all about?
I’m a lawyer and writer. I’m originally from Malaysia but I’m currently based in London. Sorcerer to the Crown is my debut novel and it’s a historical fantasy set in Regency London, about England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe. Zacharias is trying to reverse the decline in England’s magic when his plans are hijacked by ambitious runaway orphan and female magical prodigy, Prunella Gentleman.
So, we’ve read the book (of course!) and would like to applaud the wonderful way it shows people breaking through repressive social barriers (both Prunella for gender and Zacharias for race) without feeling the least bit preachy. Was this commentary on race, class and gender a goal of yours starting out or did those parts of the story just unfold as you wrote it?
I’m glad you didn’t think it was preachy! I’m really interested in issues of race, class and gender, and particularly how power is broken down along these lines in society, so they were really my “in” to the world of the book, because it’s a book about power. There was never a point, when I was planning Sorcerer to the Crown, where they weren’t a key part of the story. I knew from the beginning that it was going to be about a black man in Regency London, and that in itself was going to bring up those issues.
You yourself emigrated to England from Malaysia. Would you say that parts of your work draw upon your own experiences – either knowingly or with hindsight?
I suppose so. The short stories in my collection Spirits Abroad draw much more obviously on my personal experiences of emigration, living away from home, and so on. But while I don’t set out to do it deliberately, I find that I end up writing a lot about characters who are in a state of cultural disjunction – they live between cultures, or they’re from one culture and are encountering another – and often the story is about the process by which they figure out their place in the world. I think everyone has to work out where they belong in the world, even if they’re born and live their whole lives in one country, but it’s a process that can be more challenging if you move between cultures. The fact that it’s a big theme in my work probably arises from the fact that I’ve moved around a lot at formative times in my life.
There are SO many interesting characters in Sorcerer that are a joy to spend time with as a reader, who did you find the most fun to write?
I’m so pleased you enjoyed spending time with them, because I love them all absurdly! The character that was the most unalloyed fun to write was probably arch-witch and bossy old lady Mak Genggang, though Prunella is a close second. Mak Genggang knew what she wanted to be doing and saying the moment I brought her onto the page, and characters like that are very convenient – they pretty much write themselves!
Speaking of characters, there’s a fair few scary/hilarious aunties in your short fiction AND in your novella AND now in Sorcerer too! Have you (or someone else) set down a mission to ensure an intimidating aunty character in everything that you write? Either way: what do you find so compelling about this type of character?
Oops, I guess I’ve already sort of answered this question. The answer to the first question is: no, aunties just appear naturally, of their own accord. I find aunties can’t be led or druv, whether they are real or fictional! I suppose I grew up surrounded by strong older women and they left an impression. You don’t see a lot of the sort of aunties I grew up with in fiction, and I find it odd because they’ve had such a big role in my life. When you think about it, a woman must have raised Sauron …. I do want to branch out a little when it comes to writing older women, because it’s inherent in the idea of an “auntie” that she is nurturing, and I don’t think all older women should be boxed into this category, because not all women can or need to be nurturing. But it’s unlikely I’ll give up writing aunties!
I’m always interested to see the variations of UK and US cover art. Certainly, in the case of your book – the covers are VERY different from one another. What did you think of the two covers and what do you think each says about your work contained within?
I’ve been very lucky with my covers. I think they each reflect different aspects of the book – the UK cover obviously has that ornate Regency wallpaper aeel, and the US has the dragon! They’re both quite grand covers and I didn’t expect them to be so full-bloodedly regal. The UK cover is shinier – I mean, literally shinier, because of all the foil – but the US cover has the perfect colour scheme for weddings – all that red and gold! I’m at that age where everyone I know seems to be getting married and I’ve given away a couple of the US editions at weddings.
We know that there will be more books within this series. What can you tell us about the next one without spoiling to much? Will it stay within Regency London, or will you venture out to other human countries? Oh – and most importantly… has it got a date yet?
Book 2 is still very much a work in progress so even I don’t have a clear idea of what it’s going to be in the end! I can say that Zacharias and Prunella will appear again, along with a few other familiar faces, but Book 2 will also be focusing on a couple of new characters. It’s set in Regency Britain still, but as with the first book, the idea of Regency Britain is one that is founded upon connections with other realms …. No firm news on a date yet, I’m afraid!
Personally, I think the vast majority of fantasy and science fiction is social/political commentary of some kind. There are some people though who get most frustrated when they feel that ‘left’ or ‘right’ side politics are being explored, promoted or condemned (just check out the recent Hugo Awards shenanigans!). Do you have any thoughts on this?
No story or work of art is created in a vacuum, so I think everything that is the product of someone’s mind is shaped by political ideas and social mores. Only nature is politically neutral! But I think you’re right that SFF in particular is a genre that has always worn its politics on its sleeve, as it were, and has taken pride in being direct and unashamed about its social/political commentary.
My view is that it’s a bit weird to protest about people getting “issues” into stories when you’re talking about a genre that takes pride in tackling big ideas. Surely those ideas must include ideas about how society works, how we think it should be run and how we treat each other. I’m no fan of “message fiction” myself, but I think it only makes a story stronger to have a good think about its implications and where it sits in the world.
I’ve switched to a part-time working pattern this year, so yes, it does come up, as the whole reason I’m out of the office for two days a week is so I can use those days for writing! It can be hard to juggle because private practice isn’t a 9-5 sort of job, and I don’t in fact work three days a week really. But people at work have generally been very interested and very supportive. I was working full-time the entire time I was writing Sorcerer, so most people just seem surprised that I was able to find the time to write!
Finally, what question haven’t you been asked by an interviewer yet that you’d have hoped to have been by now?
Gosh, don’t know! Probably a food-related question. Q: What’s my favourite kind of cake? A: Red velvet with cream cheese icing, though pandan chiffon and Japanese cotton cheesecake are both close contenders.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!
I enjoyed answering them – thank you!
At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.
But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…