“Son of Water and Fire” is related to your forthcoming novel Upon a Burning Throne, in which Vrath is a major character. Was he born originally from the short story or from the novel? Is writing him different between these two mediums?
Vrath is inspired by a famous character from the Indian epic Mahabharata, which was the starting point and inspiration for a part of Upon a Burning Throne. I was going to write him pretty much as he appears in the novel, which is as a strong supporting character. But I wanted to know more about him than I found in the Mahabharata or any other source. For instance, once the original character is taken away by his mother Jeel, we are told nothing about what happens to him until the time he is returned to his father at the age of fifteen. I wanted to know that story. Since it didn’t exist, I wrote it. I invented a childhood for Vrath which is internally consistent with everything I knew about him. That’s the story we see in “Son of Water and Fire,” whereas in Upon a Burning Throne, we see him only as an older man.
Vrath and his origins feel very mythic, almost like Hercules or Beowulf in nature. Was mythbuilding part of your process for this story? If so, what aspects of mythbuilding did you find important to this piece, and for stories in general?
The Mahabharata is one of the two seminal epics of South Asia. (The Ramayana is the other one.) Although Mahabharata is considered “itihasa” (a kind of oral history passed down by rote from generation to generation for millennia), it’s passed into the realm of myth. Any legend or even history that ancient is inevitably mythologized and it’s no longer possible to tell where the real historical record ends and the mythic or fantastical parts begin.
I already had that rich mythic, itihasic, historical record to draw on. But I wanted to do much more. I wanted to make it my own world, my own characters, tell my own story. So I did what those oral re-tellers had already been doing for millennia, but on a laptop. (Repeating millions of verses by rote has somewhat gone out of fashion in recent centuries, not sure why!) In the process, I created my own universe, planetary system, planet, continent, races, peoples, civilisations, cultures. Sure, it’s all inspired by some real source—mainly South Asian mythology and Moghul history—but the Burnt Empire, stonefire, the Stone Gods, and the world of Arthaloka are products of my imagination. The high language of the world, Ashcrit, is derived from Sanskrit (like almost every modern language of the world) and some words are exactly the same (ditto), but it’s my own invention. I think once you get the geography right (hence the obsession with maps in epic fantasy), the language right, and the cultures right, you’re free to tell the biggest, boldest, most dramatic epic fantasy saga you could possibly want.
Instead of asking what inspired this piece, can I ask what inspired you to tell Vrath’s story? He’s a major character in Upon a Burning Throne, but how did you decide on telling his story from him as a child and young man?
Characters are fascinating because they’re inscrutable in that classic mythic way. They’re Godlike in that aspect: Much of the fascination that Gods hold is their inscrutability. If they told us everything—if Gods went to therapy for instance, or hung around in Starbucks telling their BFFs everything that went down in their lives—we might find their lives are just like ours, except on a much more epic scale. The fascination to know more about them has to be tempered with the author’s need to retain that mystique. The trick is how much to tell and how much to hold back. What you don’t say is more important than what you do say.
I wanted the reader to understand Vrath better with this glimpse into his childhood and youth, but still retain that godlike aura. That’s partly why I agreed with my editor that dropping this section from the novel and publishing it as a standalone story was a better idea than including it in the main book. In Upon a Burning Throne, you’ll see a great deal of Vrath, but you will never get quite this close into his head and heart. I felt that was important.
What can we expect to see from you in the future?
Masala pancakes with spicy chai syrup! Seriously, though, I’m just finishing up the final submission draft of the sequel to Upon a Burning Throne, titled A Dark Queen Rises. I’m not writing many new short stories apart from the Legends of the Burnt Empire, but there are always more novels. Will announce them closer to publication. Meanwhile, Upon a Burning Throne hits bookstands across the world on April 16, 2019. I hope this short story and the other Legends of the Burnt Empire appearing in Lightspeed Magazine make you want to pick up a copy! (PS: And if the stories don’t work for you, I should add that the novel is much, much better!)
Thanks for reading!
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