Saad Z. Hossain was a new-to-me author when I received a review copy of his brand new book, Djinn City from The Unnamed Press, but his darkly funny tone won me over quickly. He takes a fantasy element many of us are familiar with and turns it on its head, introducing new aspects of djinn and putting them in the context of modern life, giving us a fresh take on them. I definitely recommend the book. I took the opportunity to interview Saad about his work and more!
Melanie R. Meadors/The Once and Future Podcast: Can you tell us a bit about Djinn City? What are some other books you’d say readers could compare it to, when they are deciding read it?
Saad Z. Hossain: It starts off with a little orphan boy who might have some magic, but hopefully, it takes you far off the reservation, and you end up in unexpected territory.
I think there are elements of humor undercutting the whole thing that might make it similar in some ways to Terry Pratchett? Or perhaps Iain M Banks? It seems very presumptuous to invoke great authors like that. I would say that there are moments of seriousness and horror in this book, moments of violence and ill will, but these forces are not unrelenting.
MRM: Djinn City has a lot of action and adventure, but also some darkly funny moments, and I think the balance is great. Is this something you had to work on consciously, or is it just the way the story developed? Do you have any tips for authors as far as keeping their funny moments natural and in tune with the story?
SZH: I am naturally sarcastic I suppose, my first impulse is to make jokes at any inopportune moment. I should be kept away from tragic situations really. The key is to let characters have some fun, to let the reader off some of the time, because unrelenting horror or stress desensitizes people, and also makes the story dreary. If your characters are well rounded enough, they will create moments of lightness for themselves. I think this occurs better if you let the conversation off the leash sometimes, just let the characters meander with their dialogue, rather than custom fitting each exchange with information for the reader.
A thing I work consciously on, however, is to never sacrifice the plot to satisfy any particular moral crusade I have (this is a constant struggle). The plot must take supremacy in a story, and the characters should be followed through their experience without excessive hindrance. Any kind of commentary, wisdom impartation, philsophisizing, humor mongering should be done within limits, from the sidelines, without making it difficult to read.
MRM: When you were writing Djinn City, what were some things that gave you “eureka!” moments, or inspired you while the story developed?
SZH: I was developing the backstory of the djinn on the fly. I never plot or outline a story in advance. If I know what's going to happen, my motivation to write it seeps away, until every word just drags out with increasing reluctance. The initial story didn't have the bits about the ancient djinn city and Kaikobad witnessing its unraveling. My editor Chris (of Unnamed Press) asked for that, and when I wrote those parts in, it let me describe the grandeur, ambition and power of the djinn, to balance their modern day state. Afterwards, the story worked much better I thought. This is why we need editors, of course.
MRM: Most of the stories I’ve read about djinn have been either more epic fantasy in nature, or something closely drawn from 1001 Arabian Nights. Djinn City is refreshingly different, and I think shows the potential, especially to Westerners, that the folklore of different cultures can have. Did you find it easy to branch away from the common mythos, or did you question yourself or your choices?
SZH: I wanted to disregard the old tropes. Djinn have become one dimensional, particularly filtered through Aladdin type cartoons. In common Bengali folklore the djinn spend an inordinate amount of time bothering humans. I thought that by rewriting the djinn completely, they become so clearly a figment of my imagination, that purists can no longer call me out on particular issues, as these djinn are so definitively not their djinn. It is much harder to work within a framework of mythology than completely outside it. In the end, all stories have a starting point in human experience or history. I suppose it’s ultimately up to the reader how much of a deviant world they can swallow.
MRM: Who is your favorite character in the book? Because they were your favorite, did that make them easier to write, or harder?
SZH: My favorite is the villain Givaras. I only made him a villain half way through, and once he became villainous, he became much easier to write, all of his motivations made sense, even his kindly demeanor made sense, because he is not so much evil, as he is curious, which is an admirable quality in most cases, but curiosity ramped up to his insane level leads to monstrous results. I enjoy writing villains in general, I often find that really enjoyable stories have a better class of villain.
MRM: What were some of the books you loved reading growing up? What was it about them that you enjoyed or that attracted you the most?
SZH: I read a lot of fantasy when I was young. The Belgariad by David Eddings was a prime favorite. I could name you any number of minute facts from that series. For example where did Belgarath get the twig from which he grew an apple tree to impress the Mimbrate sentry? From the horse's tail. Really good fantasy is a fight between good and evil, often against overwhelming odds, and you love those characters because they are so clear-cut, and the world itself makes sense on a black and white level. As an adult, you get drawn more to ambiguity, but as a child, I remember that strict sense of good and evil, and the burning outrage I would feel at any injustice.
MRM: When did you start writing? Was being a writing a career choice for you, or was it something you needed to do?
SZH: I actually have a full time job. I work in engineering and manufacturing. Now a days I spend most of my time doing accounting. I am actually answering these questions while sitting in my office, and from time to time people are wandering by giving me strange looks. Writing is an urge that I have to satisfy at some point, as a creative outlet. Most people crave some type of creative occupation, and I fully endorse writing for everyone as a sort of therapy. The act of writing itself is addictive, because it is a skill that grows with practice, both in terms of technique, but also, I find, in terms of creativity. I don't believe in the fear that you run out of ideas, that there is some finite amount of creativity in the world, and you are in danger of using it up.
MRM: Have you read anything great this year that really resonated with you that our readers should check out?
SZH: I've been reading Chinese science fiction. The Dark Forest trilogy by Cixin Liu. (It's translated). The books are amazing. It's science fiction at its best, where the characters and plot are not lost amidst the great cosmic issues being thrown around. I just finished the last book.
About Djinn City:
Indelbed is a lonely kid living in a crumbling mansion in the super dense, super chaotic third world capital Of Bangladesh. His father, Dr. Kaikobad, is the black sheep of their clan, the once illustrious Khan Rahman family. A drunken loutish widower, he refuses to allow Indelbed go to school, and the only thing Indelbed knows about his mother is the official cause of her early demise: "Death by Indelbed."
But When Dr. Kaikobad falls into a supernatural coma, Indelbed and his older cousin, the wise-cracking slacker Rais, learn that Indelbed's dad was in fact a magician—and a trusted emissary to the djinn world. And the Djinns, as it turns out, are displeased. A "hunt" has been announced, and ten year-old Indelbed is the prey. Still reeling from the fact that genies actually exist, Indelbed finds himself on the run. Soon, the boys are at the center of a great Diinn controversy, one tied to the continuing fallout from an ancient war, with ramifications for the future of life as we know it.
Saad Z. Hossain updates the supernatural creatures Of Arabian mythology—a superior but by no means perfect species pushed to the brink by the staggering ineptitude of the human race. Djinn City is a darkly comedic fanlasy adventure, and a stirring follow-up to Hossain's 2015 novel Escape from Baghdad!, which NPR called "a hilarious and searing indictment of the project we euphemistically call 'nation-building.'"
About Saad Z. Hossain:
Saad Z Hossain is the author of two novels, Escape from Baghdad! and Djinn City. He lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis. She studied astronomy and physics at Northern Arizona University and has published some non-fiction in the field of astronomy and library sciences. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.