Zen Cho was born and raised in Malaysia. She is the author of Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad, and editor of anthologyCyberpunk: Malaysia, both published by Buku Fixi. She has also been nominated for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the Pushcart Prize, and honour-listed for the Carl Brandon Society Awards, for her short fiction. Her debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown, is the first in a historical fantasy trilogy published by Ace/Roc Books (US) and Pan Macmillan (UK). She lives in London with her partner and practises law in her copious free time.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Zen. What made a Malaysian living in London become a fantasy writer?
Zen Cho: I enjoy reading fantasy, so I thought I’d write some. When it comes to stories, I’m interested in things that aren’t real but feel true.
Vinita Kinra: What inspired your debut novel, Sorcerer to the Crown?
Zen Cho: As with any novel, it was a number of different things. I read a lot of British fiction growing up—like every other Anglophone kid in the former British colonies, I read Enid Blyton, for example—and it always puzzled me when those books referred to characters being “dark”. What she meant was dark-haired, of course, but where I grew up “dark” would always have meant dark-skinned. So I thought I’d write a Regency romance about someone who was actually dark, by my understanding of the term. I added magic because I enjoy it.
Vinita Kinra: How did science fiction and fantasy come together in your short story collection, Spirits Abroad?
Zen Cho: They didn’t, really! Most of the stories are fantasy. I think there’s only one science fiction story, The Four Generations of Chang E, and that’s more of a fable. I’d like to write more science fiction, but I’m a bit scared of it. Plus, what I’m really interested in is what people believe about the unknown, and fantasy seems to be the marketing category where that fits.
Vinita Kinra: Tell us more about your historical romance novella, The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo.
Zen Cho: It’s about a Malayan Chinese writer living in 1920s London, who draws the attention of one of London’s leading literary luminaries when she writes a scathing review of his book. I wrote the novella after reading a book about the romances of the Bloomsbury Group and thinking, there’s a ton of material here! The plot is based on the romance between Rebecca West and H. G. Wells.
Vinita Kinra: You have explored many genres in your writing. Do you have a favourite?
Zen Cho: I’m fond of genre crossovers. Historical fantasy is a subgenre I love, which is why my first novel is a historical fantasy. I’d like to keep doing more of it.
Vinita Kinra: Why did you decide to write a trilogy for your novel, Sorcerer to the Crown?
Zen Cho: It’s the way the fantasy market works at the moment. I honestly hadn’t thought about sequels at the time I was writing it—I just wanted to finish a novel that didn’t suck, as I’d written two novels before Sorcerer to the Crown that did suck and I was sick of doing that. When I signed with my agent, she said she’d like to pitch it as a three-book deal, so I came up with ideas for sequels.
Vinita Kinra: Your blog goes in deep details about your publishing journey. Could you sum it up for our readers?
Zen Cho: I wrote some short fiction and published it in science fiction and fantasy zines and anthologies. I was nominated for the 2013 Campbell Award for Best New Writer for my short fiction, and this year my short story collection, Spirits Abroad, was a joint winner of the Crawford Fantasy Award. I then started trying to write novels. I had to write and throw away two before I wrote the third, which eventually became Sorcerer to the Crown. I signed with a literary agent, revised the novel with her for a year, and then she sold it to Ace, which is an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Vinita Kinra: Do you think writing is a viable career option in a landscape of self-publishing avalanche?
Zen Cho: It depends on the writer, and it depends on the career. Like most creative careers it’s not very secure and the money isn’t great, but if you’re reasonably good, work hard, persevere and have a bit of luck, you might succeed in making a living. Self-publishing just offers another potential avenue for writers but it’s not a cure-all—loads of people self-publish without making any money or reaching any readers.
Vinita Kinra: If you were marooned on an island with just one book, which would it be and why?
Zen Cho: It would be a book about how to get off the island—I couldn’t stand just having one book to read for the rest of my life. As a serious answer, I’d go for a long book—maybe an omnibus of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, or a really good translation of Journey to the West.
Vinita Kinra: What is the one thing you detest most about writing, apart from the writer’s block?
Zen Cho: I have RSI in my right hand because I spend so much time typing. It’s a real pain.
Vinita Kinra: Our readers would like to sample an excerpt from your latest book, Sorcerer to the Crown.
Zacharias entered the Great Hall under the penetrating gaze of what seemed to be a thousand gentlemen, most of them old, and none friendly. Sir Stephen was the only person he knew, for one could not count Sir Stephen’s familiar Leofric, who slept curled in reptilian coils at the back of the room, smoke rising from his snout.
The thickest-skinned child might have been cowed by such an assembly, and Zacharias was sensitive. But Sir Stephen put a reassuring hand on his back, and Zacharias remembered the morning, so long ago now—home, safety, warmth, and Lady Wythe’s face bending over him:
“Never be afraid, Zacharias, but do your best. That will be quite enough, for you have been taught by the finest sorcerer in the realm. If the attention of so many gentlemen should make you nervous, simply pretend to yourself that they are so many heads of cabbages. That always assists me on such occasions.”
Zacharias was pretending as hard as he could as he was propelled to the front of the room, but the cabbages did not seem to help. To be sure, Lady Wythe had never been called upon to prove the magical capacities of her race before the finest thaumaturgical minds in England. It was a grave responsibility, and one anyone would find daunting, thought Zacharias, even if he were a great boy of six.
“What do you wish to bring alive, Zacharias?” said Sir Stephen. He gestured at a small wooden box on a table. “In the course of his travels Mr. Midsomer acquired this box, carved with birds and fruit and outlandish animals. You may have your pick.”
Zacharias had rehearsed the enchantment he was to perform many times under Sir Stephen’s patient tutelage. The night before, he had fallen asleep reciting the formula to himself. Yet now, as he was surrounded by a crowd of strange faces, oppressed by the consciousness of being the focus of their attention, memory deserted him.
His terrified gaze swung from Sir Stephen’s kind face, skipped over the audience, and roamed over the Great Hall, as if he might find the words of the spell waiting for him in some dusty corner. It was the oldest room in the Society, and boasted several interesting features, chief of which were the ancient carved bosses on the ceiling. These represented lambs, lions and unicorns; faces of long-dead sorcerers; and Green Men with sour expressions and vines sprouting from their nostrils. At any other time they would have captivated Zacharias, but right now they could give him no pleasure.
“I have forgotten the spell,” he whispered.
“What is that?” said Sir Stephen. He had been speaking in clear ringing tones before, addressing his audience, but now he lowered his voice and leaned closer.
“No helping the boy, if you please,” cried a voice. “That will prove nothing of what you promised.”
The audience had been growing restless with Zacharias’s stupefaction. Other voices followed the first, hectoring, displeased:
“Is the child an idiot?”
“A poll parrot would offer better amusement.”
“Can you conceive anything more absurd?” said a thaumaturge to a friend, in a carrying whisper. “He might as well seek to persuade us that a pig can fly—or a woman do magic!”
The friend observed that so could pigs fly, if one could be troubled to make them.
“Oh certainly!” replied the first. “And one could teach a woman to do magic, I suppose, but what earthly good would a flying pig or a magical female be to anyone?”
Vinita Kinra is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.