Shannon “S.A.” Chakraborty has one of those success stories that makes other writers jealous, and rightfully so. The author of the Daevabad series settles in with a cup of chai—“the way all interviews should happen,” she notes—dressed in a blazer and corduroy pants with her shoulder-length brown hair slightly windswept. (The in-person interview took place pre-pandemic.) “Yes, the first book in the series is the first book I ever wrote, which is really unusual,” she says. “I worked really hard. And I got really lucky.”
Book three in the series, Empire of Gold (Harper-Voyager), releases on June 30. The series launched with 2017’s The City of Brass, which PW called a “promising debut”; it also garnered a number of other accolades—including nominations for a Locus Award, a Crawford Award, and a World Fantasy Award. In 2019, Chakraborty published the sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, which became a finalist for the Joseph W. Campbell Award. A pretty stellar track record for a rookie writer. But what looked like overnight success was more than a decade in the making.
Chakraborty’s writing career began with what she likes to call historical fan fiction—a carefully researched blend of mythology and history (unlike the Harry Potter fan fiction she wrote as teen) with a good dash of fantasy worldbuilding. Growing up white and Catholic in Matawan, N.J., she developed a strong interest in Islamic culture and converted as a teenager after learning about the religion through friends and classmates. “I had felt spiritually disconnected from Catholicism and was drawn to Islam because of its focus on a direct, personal connection to God,” she says. “When I read some of those verses for the first time, I experienced such intense solace and comfort that I wept.”
At American University in Washington, D.C., Chakraborty studied international relations with a focus on Middle Eastern regions and culture, before graduating into the 2008 recession. She moved to New York City, took a job as an assistant at a doctor’s office, got married, and had a child. “It kind of felt like the world was falling apart behind us,” she says. “I come from a working-class background, and I felt like I squandered my college education. I was extremely lost. I wanted to go to grad school, but being a professor seemed like a lofty goal.”
Chakraborty is an avid reader, and she continued to explore Islamic mythology—especially lore about djinn (sentient spirit creatures). “As someone who always loved history, I found the idea of djinn fascinating,” she says. “They have these long-lived lives, they’re invisible, like these silent observers of human history. But they’re always the secondary characters. So I just started playing around, and tried to build this djinn world based on 3,000 years of this human existence. What kind of society would they have built, like magpies and collectors?”
Chakraborty kept her writing a secret for years. “Most of it stayed in first drafts, if you could even call them first drafts, since it was really just meant for me,” she explains. “A mental fantasy world to let me escape work and life.”
It wasn’t until her doctor husband asked her what she was always up to on the computer that Chakraborty admitted she was writing a novel. “He is a huge sci-fi fantasy buff, he’s my beta, and he edits all my medical scenes,” she says.
Chakraborty’s husband pushed her to find a writers group, and then an agent. “I felt like I couldn’t let myself want it,” she recalls. “Things like that didn’t happen to people like me.”
Ever the researcher, she dug in, made spreadsheets; then she found an agent in Jen Azantian, who had just started her own firm. “She took a chance on me,” Chakraborty says. It paid off. City of Brass sold quickly, at auction, to Priyanka Krishnan at HarperVoyager.
“I’ve never expected to be here, so I’m just enjoying it,” Chakraborty says of her career. “I feel honored and humbled, especially when I see the reaction from Muslim readers. That’s really who I wrote these books for.”
The first scene in City of Brass—in which the Egyptian orphan healer Nahri cons a pair of wealthy Turks—remained pretty much the same throughout Chakraborty’s 10-year writing process. “I was playing with the fantasy tropes I was seeing—namely the resourceful orphan, and what she would need to do to survive in a world where so much was dependent on family and kinship,” she says. “I wanted to play with the core of being a fixer. The medical stuff definitely came from my work.” She was also interested in the roles women play in history. “We don’t give enough credit to women for their ability to make a good life out of what’s handed to them—for surviving.”
Chakraborty says Ali, the wayward Muslim prince, was her version of #OwnVoices. “We deserve to have the swashbuckling hero, who goes and saves the day but then performs his noon prayer. I wanted a Muslim character who was a hero but was also nuanced, made mistakes. There’s a lot of hunger for characters who have mixed, conflicted relationships with religion.”
As for Dara, the djinn, “I wanted to be as morally gray as possible with him,” Chakraborty says with relish. “But at the same time, I wanted to explore the idea that one person’s monster is another’s hero.”
Fans of City of Brass delighted in finding Dara’s perspective come to life in The Kingdom of Copper. “I was so adamant that I was never going to write Dara’s point of view, his whole thing was that everybody else was telling his story,” Chakraborty explains. “He’s so powerful, but he doesn’t have a voice.” But Krishnan (who has since left HarperVoyager for Orbit Books) wouldn’t let her off the hook. “Once I started writing him, it made everything work on a much deeper level. It changed the ending of book two slightly, but it changed book three completely.”
For Chakraborty, Empire of Gold is intended to bring readers a sense of closure. “I think the way the trilogy ends now is more hopeful and more realistic and just feels far truer than any other way it could have worked,” she says. “We’re living in very grim times, and with the third book, I wanted to write something about continuing to fight when you really don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. There’s value in standing up for what is right, even if it’s a future that you don’t think you’ll get to see.”
That, perhaps, makes the series, which was already timely in the way it touched on empire and occupation, feel all the more current. “When you read stories, you’re looking for mirrors and parallels and paths, even in the most fantastical,” Chakraborty says. “Especially in book two, as I was writing about people in the majority confronting their own biases and how supremacy is baked into their societies, I was hoping, ‘Maybe some white people will read this and get it on that level.’ Sometimes it’s easier to hear a critique of your society when it’s fiction. It’s a way to start conversations.”
Does Chakraborty get pushback as a white woman writing about Muslim culture—even as a Muslim herself? Surprisingly, not much, she says. “I’m a white convert to Islam, and the microaggressions I get are nothing compared to those that black and brown writers face.” In fact, she thinks anyone writing outside of their own cultural experience should tread carefully. “Is it your place? Sometimes the answer is no. We have to learn to be okay with that. If you love the history and culture enough to write about it, you have to respect the people enough to hear what they’re saying. What are you doing to lift their voices?”
For her part, Chakraborty is doing her best to put her own identity as a Muslim woman on the page. Next up, a historical fantasy series set to launch in 2022, which editor David Pomerico at HarperVoyager nabbed in a major deal.
“It’s basically Pirates of the Caribbean meets Ocean’s Eleven but set in the Indian Ocean world of the 12th century,” Chakraborty says, delivering the elevator pitch. She’s now diving headfirst into the research via scholarly articles and records—a makeshift PhD, just like she planned. “It’s actually what I wanted to study in grad school—this part of history that’s been slightly lost. So I’ve been reading the travelogues of con artists and pirates, but [featuring] older women with bad knees and mom guilt.”
Sona Charaipotra is a journalist and the cofounder of book packager Cake Literary, the coauthor of the Tiny Pretty Things series, and author of Symptoms of a Heartbreak.