APEX MAGAZINE: Hi Zen, thanks for agreeing to the interview. First off, for readers unfamiliar with your work, what would be the elevator pitch for your novel?
ZEN CHO: Thanks, Charles! Sorcerer to the Crown is a historical fantasy novel set in Regency London. England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe, is trying to reverse the decline in England’s magic, when his plans are hijacked by ambitious runaway orphan and female magical prodigy, Prunella Gentleman.
AM: I’ve known you for your short stories. Was the novel always the plan, something that evolved after publishing several short stories, or something else?
ZC: I always wanted to write novels. What I’m really interested in when it comes to writing is character, and that’s something that’s best explored within the larger scope of a novel. I love short stories as well, of course, but I confess I partly wrote mine because I hadn’t yet worked out how to construct or execute a story on a larger scale.
AM: What made you decide to set your novel in England?
ZC: I wanted to do a pastiche of a Regency romance, a genre I love, but crossed over with fantasy—Georgette Heyer with sorcerers and dragons. All Regency romances are set in England; it’s inherent to the category. But I was also really interested in slightly complicating the image of England presented by Regency romances. This will sound embarrassingly pompous, but I wanted to talk about the centrality of the colonial territories to the Britain of that time. With magical hijinks and banter!
AM: How did you settle on Zacharias Wythe and Prunella Gentleman as the protagonists for your novel?
ZC: Since the book is inspired by the romance genre, it was always going to be about a man and a woman. Most Heyers feature a man in a position of power and a woman who eventually benefits from that power. So Zacharias is the most powerful magician in Britain, but he’s also subject to many restrictions your classic romance hero is not—he’s hobbled by how people perceive him as a black man and by his own sense of duty. And Prunella is a young woman who has no family or money or societal clout, but she does have a potentially gamechanging source of power. Their personalities were very clear to me from the outset.
AM: What were the challenges in writing and publishing Sorcerer to the Crown?
ZC: I’d written two “drawer novels” before embarking on Sorcerer, but I was—and am—still really just learning how to write a novel, so that was tough. I’d been used to being able to finish and shop around short stories in a relatively short time before, and having to focus all my writing time and energy on a novel which might never sell was emotionally a little difficult. I also spent a long time revising the book—after I signed with my agent we spent about a year working on it—and that was sometimes challenging, especially as my day job can get very busy. I (hope I) learnt a lot from it, though!
AM: Did you plan on writing a trilogy (or a series) of books? How far along are the other books?
ZC: Not really. When I wrote Sorcerer I was still figuring out how to think in terms of the length of a novel, so it didn’t occur to me to think in series length! But my agent suggested selling it as the first of a trilogy, and when I thought about it, it was obvious there was a lot left to explore in the world. I’ve finished a messy first draft of the second book, but it needs a lot of work before anyone else is going to be allowed to look at it.
AM: How did Pan Macmillan and Ace Books end up publishing your book?
ZC: My agent submitted it to them and Ace won the auction. Ace then sold the UK and Commonwealth rights to Pan Macmillan.
AM: How different or similar was the experience of being published by a major US/UK publisher as opposed to self-publishing? How about the similarities or differences compared to being published by a Malaysian publisher?
ZC: One of the most important differences is how much good editing you get. When I self-published my novella I didn’t pay for any external editing, and with my Malaysian publisher the editing I received was relatively light-touch. With Sorcerer I did a fair amount of work revising the manuscript with my agent and editor. It was really instructive, and I hope it improved the book. Of course, if you’re lucky, you also get a lot more attention and marketing support with a major US/UK publisher.
AM: What are your future plans? Anything you want to promote?
ZC: My plan is to make the next two books in the Sorcerer Royal trilogy as good as they can possibly be. Everything else is optional. Promotion-wise, I recently edited an English-language anthology of Malaysian cyberpunk fiction called Cyberpunk: Malaysia, which is available in print on Amazon.com and in ebook on Smashwords and Google Play. I hope everyone with an interest in world SF will read it!
Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, and the co-editor of Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 9. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi). He has contributed nonfiction to websites such as The Shirley Jackson Awards, Fantasy Magazine, The World SF Blog, and SF Signal. In 2009, he won the Last Drink Bird Head Award for International Activism. He is also a 2011, 2012, and 2013 World Fantasy nominee for the Special Award, Non-Professional category. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker.