“A Love Story Written on Water” is the first in a series of stories we’ll be running in Lightspeed. Can you tell me a little about how you wound up doing these?
Legends of the Burnt Empire, of which “A Love Story Written on Water” is the first, were a part of the novel Upon a Burning Throne, releasing April 2019. Originally, I intended them to be like the short passages quoted from ancient texts that appear at the beginning of chapters in epic fantasy novels, but they grew in the telling until they became monsters in their own right! I kept them in the book, interspersed with the main narrative, serving the function of “flashbacks.” During the editing process, John and I discussed these stories and whether or not they ought to be in the book. There was also the question of length: My word count limit was 250,000 words and the final submission draft came in at just over 280,000. Finally, we agreed that while they added depth and resonance to the main narrative, they were best left out. John was the one who suggested that he publish them as individual stories in a series of Legends of the Burnt Empire. So they get to see the light of day! At some point, if the Burnt Empire series does well—which will depend a great deal on how Upon a Burning Throne does—it’s possible that John may publish them as a collection of their own. For what it’s worth, I have several more such Legends in the series, apart from the five that John bought for Lightspeed.
Having said that, though, I do think (and John agrees) that they do stand on their own as individual stories as well. They’re not in the same style as Upon a Burning Throne, because they’re meant to be legends of the same world, and my attempt when writing them was to convey a sense of timelessness and stand apart from the style of the main narrative. As for Upon a Burning Throne, the published version is now a slim and sprightly 236,000 words!
There are so many wonderful settings in this story—the forests of Mount Coldheart, the banks of the river Jeel, the fabulous palace. Are any of these places inspired by real places that you’ve been?
I wish! I think the reason we read and write epic fantasy is so we can visit places as we desire them to be, not as they really are. In reality, I’ve been as far as the foothills of the Himalayas, barely 17,000 feet high, and it was magnificent but not something I’d want to do often. The world of Arthaloka, where this story and the entire Burnt Empire series is set, is a single massive continent five times the size of all the land masses on our Earth put together, a kind of Pangea super-continent. (It doesn’t stay that way over the course of the series, but that’s another story for a much later discussion.) Everything on Arthaloka is gargantuan. Mount Coldheart is several times the height of our Mount Everest; nobody in that world knows or cares precisely how high. Because Arthaloka is a single super-continent, parts of it have entirely different climates and ecologies. The only thing that unites them all is the living river, Jeel, which feeds the entire world. Jeel is inspired by the Ganges, or Ganga as we call her in India, but she is much, much bigger. And because Upon a Burning Throne and this short story are set in a much earlier age, the land and water are pristine, as perfect as can be. She’s also a living goddess and can take living forms, as this story shows us.
At its heart, this is a love story. Some writers really struggle to write about love and romance. Was this piece hard for you to write?
I love writing romance. I’ve published a few in my career, but have always longed to write more. I especially love the intersection of love stories and fantasy. There’s something so immersive about that space. Whether it’s urban fantasy, YA, contemporary fantasy or epic fantasy, I always enjoy novels that don’t shy away from depicting a full-blown romance or love story, even if it ends tragically. In fact, I’d say the attraction of writing romance within a fantasy story is that you aren’t expected to have things end happily ever after.
I think this story does a great job capturing the strangeness inherent in the relationship between Jeel and Sha’ant. When he sees her outside of her human form, her power and weirdness—weird in the magical, uncanny sense—is really made clear to us. It reminded me of work by writers like Terri Windling and Charles de Lint, who write about human relationships with mythical beings, but from a Western tradition. I’d love to hear a little about what it’s like, digging into mythology and then spinning your own tale from it. How do you make it uniquely yours?
That’s high praise! Those are both great writers in that tradition. But I was inspired by sources much closer to home. Indian mythology is suffused with strange, inexplicable people and events that are never explained. There’s no pressure to clarify or rationalize things. Sometimes, I feel, SF, fantasy, and especially YA fantasy, shows too much, letting everything hang out, make sense, and at the end, ties it all up in a neat bow. This makes for a dependable commercial read, but it’s also too machine-manufactured. All too many characters in American fantasy are recognizably American, even the ones that are supposed to be from other worlds and cultures. There’s a sameness in the writing, the editing, and even the plot and character choices, that are predictable. It’s like every author and editor has a guidebook that tells them exactly what they can and cannot do, and there can be no exceptions. That can be stifling for a writer, and tiresome for a reader: Every author’s work reads the same!
Indian mythological characters are not just un-American in thought, word and action, they’re un-Indian. These are not people that represent South Asians of today, definitely not South Asians of the diaspora, and they’re as alien from present day Americans as can be. When writing such mythological characters, I start by accepting the story and characters as they are depicted. I don’t argue with the myth or its morality or its representation, because it’s not meant to be representative, or moral, or modern. These are artifacts from the past; I curate them and present them in a re-imagined, reinvented form that stands on its own but still carries the scent and texture of that ancient era. At least, that’s the attempt!
What’s next for you, Ashok? Any fun projects we ought to know about?
Right now, Upon a Burning Throne is looming like a gargantuan. I can’t describe how excited I am to finally have a major epic fantasy novel published, in hardcover as a lead title (pinch me). April 2019 can’t come soon enough for me. I have other books, and other writing projects, all going full steam ahead, but for now, I want to savor the anticipation of Upon a Burning Throne and the start of the Burnt Empire series.
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