Readers know Roshani Chokshi for her Indian-influenced YA and middle grade fantasies, including The Star-Touched Queen and Aru Shah and the End of Time. But her forthcoming YA novel, The Gilded Wolves, is a magical heist story set in 1889 Paris, featuring a diverse cast of talented teenage outcasts. PW spoke with Chokshi about the book’s inspirations, the importance of representation in children’s literature, and what family road trips taught her about writing fiction.
You were in law school when you sold your first novel. Did you find it difficult to write fantasy when your everyday life was grounded in fact, or was it a welcome escape?
It’s the funniest thing—I was never top of my class at anything until law school. I’m not kidding. I was shocked. I’m like, “I’m good at this?” I didn’t do great on the LSAT or anything, but law school is the study of storytelling. I mean, to do well on a law school exam, [you] essentially write as fast as you can and don’t answer the question. So, in a way, yes, I was surrounded by facts and case law, but it was also beautiful writing. It was stuff that was moving with an economy of words, and it actually taught me a lot about how to write fantasy and how to develop characters, because the best lawyers are always able to switch perspective and argue from both sides, so it was extraordinarily helpful.
You ultimately quit law school in order to write fiction fulltime. Were your friends and family supportive of that decision?
You know, when your parents immigrate, the last thing they want to hear is, “Cool, I’m gonna drop out of law school and write about queens and fairies, etc.” I saw this hilarious expression with my extended family. They were like, “Oh. Okay. That is really American.” But my parents were actually so supportive. When I moved back home, they were just like, “You’ve got one year to do this.” And that was the deal. Give me a year to figure it out, and to go to conferences, and to try to get the lay of the land, and write my next book, and if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll go back to law school. But when I would go to Indian parties, they were always kind of looking like at [me] like a kid with leprosy or something. “She dropped out of law school!” It was terrible.
“Hopefully, it’s not contagious.”
That was literally it! They were like, “Don’t let her talk to your children! She’s going to tell them to major in 14th-century British literature!” It was awful. In fact, the only thing they would ask my advice on was, “How did you land your boyfriend?” Because he’s going to be a doctor.
The Gilded Wolves features a number of characters who feel like outcasts because they are of mixed race. What inspired that choice? Was it a theme from inception, or did it emerge as the story took shape?
When I set out to write The Gilded Wolves, I just wanted a fun story. I wanted National Treasure with hotter people, in a more glamorous era. But the more research that I did into it, the more I realized that I had so much in common with the people who were severely overlooked in that time period. I mean, this is the height of imperialism, it’s the height of colonialism. My father is from India, which was controlled by the British for centuries. My mother is from the Philippines, which was controlled by Spain for 400 years. These are long-lasting scars, and what I really wanted to explore with those characters was, what does it mean to belong to both sides? If you’re white-passing, but you are from a marginalized background, or you’re otherized in some different manner and you can’t quite find your footing—[that] was something that has resonated with me since childhood.
I am ethnically ambiguous-looking to some people, and once upon a time, when I wanted to go into broadcast journalism, I was told that that was my only selling point—that I don’t look noticeably like anything. I didn’t speak either of my parents’ native languages, and I felt that if I was more one thing than the other, I was betraying some part of my past or erasing some part of my heritage. And then when you’re young and you’re told that you’re attractive only because you don’t look Indian or Filipino, it makes you kind of hate yourself, or hate what brought you to be who you are. This was me saying, “Fuck that noise.” This is not the world I want to live in. I want kids to be able to celebrate these things, and to not feel like they have to make a choice, but that they can embrace all of who they are.
Why do you think inclusivity and representation are important in young adult fiction?
When you’re young, every emotion that you feel is the first time you’re feeling it. You fall in love for the first time, and it feels like you’re dying. And you don’t have any context for it. You want to look to characters in books and people in movies to guide you, because everybody else can say, “Oh, I look like that superhero or that heroine, and I relate to them, and I see that they can get through this—that means I can get through it, too.” Every kid deserves to have that experience. That’s why it’s so magical to be able to write children’s literature and to be part of this movement of showing kids themselves. Not just making all diverse stories be books about issues or grappling or self-hatred of where you come from, but having it be everyday life and to still see it celebrated.
What appeals to you about writing fantasy for young adults?
I love contemporary, I love mystery, I think all of those books have their place in readers’ hearts, but for me, writing fantasy was always what I was drawn to. Growing up, we would go on road trips and we would play games of “what if?” What if this door handle in this antique store that we stopped at—what if it belonged to an entrance to a portal and you’ve got to put it back? What if this statue was once a real person? For me, it just became an exercise in imagination. And fantasy, especially, lets us tackle really big questions in abstraction. It’s like telling a truth by telling a lie. Sometimes we need to see that escapist version of our own problems to show us what it is that we’re struggling with in the first place. We don’t know what’s making us upset until we see it translated in this completely different medium or world.
Your previous books borrow elements from Greek and Hindu myth. Did any ancient religious texts, legends, or lore influence The Gilded Wolves?
When I started writing The Gilded Wolves, I needed a fun story because I had gotten really sad news about a loved one. You know when you deal with grief for someone that you love, and you just look at the universe and you feel so betrayed? Like, “How could you do this to me? Why is this happening to me? Why do I feel so powerless?” I went back to reading the old religious texts, like the Bhagavad Gita, which is inside the epic poem “The Mahabharata,” and I went back to reading Old Testament stuff. My mother is Catholic, we grew up going to both temple and church, and though I’m more of a practicing Hindu, I find a lot of spiritual relief in church, as well. One of the stories that ended up being the most comforting was the story of Job. Where he’s like, “How could you do all of these terrible things to me? You took away my wife, you took away my kids.” And the answer that he’s given is, “Were you there when I created the universe?” That’s it! It’s a non-answer. I mean, it’s such a universal question: “What do you do when things feel futile? How do you make your life meaningful?” And that is ultimately the journey that these characters are going to go on. That’s what I wanted to play with.
Who or what fostered your fascination with other cultures and their stories?
My family. We didn’t grow up speaking my parents’ native languages. At the time, my family thought that me and my siblings would get confused, so we only spoke English at home. The way that we connected to our heritage was by reading the fairy tales—abridged, translated fairytales—and books on mythology. I read the original Grimm fairytales way, way too young. I made my first-grade classroom cry because I was like, “Did you know the Little Mermaid is wrong, and she dies at the end?” Sometimes I wonder if I write children’s literature so I can share my own trauma.
Why did you choose to set The Gilded Wolves in pre-World War I Paris?
I think it was the name of the era that first interested me. It was called La Belle Époque—the beautiful years—and I love that. In my own fantastical imaginings of that time period, it was just cabaret and velvet and pyramids and champagne and courtesans swinging pearls around their necks. But that is just the surface; it’s very much a gilded beauty. And what I love about setting the story in 1889 is that was the year of the Exposition Universelle, or the world’s fair.
And it was at that world’s fair that the European powers were trying to show off how good they were by bringing civilization to “savage” countries. They had an exhibit visited by 28 million people that was literally called “A Negro Village,” and it was a human zoo. It’s disturbing, right? They’re putting people on display, treating them like animals, and then saying, “Ah, but [we], the colonial powers, have brought them religion and medicine and stories!” And just completely dismissing all that had been there before. It was something that really resonated with me, because it’s a very common theme. It happened in the United States in St. Louis for the 1904 world’s fair. They also had a human zoo, but this time it wasn’t Africans, it was Filipinos who were native Igorot. It was all these things that came together, and seeing so much of my own history buried in the sidelines, that made me that much more interested in bringing it to life.
Can fans expect more books set in this world?
Yes! It’s a trilogy. I think there’s so much to talk about, and I’ve learned so much. One of my cousins works in the art history world and we have the most interesting conversations when it comes to pieces that end up in museums. For example, half the stuff in the British Museum is from places that they’ve conquered, and it raises the question of who owns the past. In a time when there’s so much divisiveness, I think stories that celebrate empathy, our shared human connections, and our shared human stories should find their way into readers’ hearts.
What message do you hope readers take away from The Gilded Wolves?
It’s twofold. The heart of the story isn’t necessarily all the themes that I’ve talked about—it is [the characters’] found family. Find your people, and they will guide you through everything that happens. On an emotional level, that’s what I hope readers take away. But on a thematic level, I hope that they take a look at the title, and that when they see something beautiful or shiny, whether it be [an object] in a museum or [information] in an article, they peel back the gilt. I hope that they question things. Because the truth isn’t ever a black-and-white thing—it’s a multifaceted jewel, and we owe it to the people who came before us to honor what brought us here.
The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi. Wednesday, $18.99 Jan. 15 ISBN 978-1-250-14454-6