Shannon Chakraborty: Navigating the Creative Voyage
Author photo: Melissa C. Beckman
Shannon Chakraborty swept readers away with her debut novel, The City of Brass, book one in The Daevabad Trilogy. The immersive details, steeped in historical fact and lore were breathtaking. Over the course of three books and a short story collection, fans fell deeply in love with her world, her characters, and her writing. Now, she’s stepped into the world of pirates on the Indian Ocean, bringing her talent at merging fact with fiction into a new world with new characters seeking new adventures. We were thrilled to sit down and chat with Shannon about her writing journey, how she finds her confidence, and the advice she’d give to other writers.
When did you start writing? What was your writing journey like?
I’ve always been that bookish child. I wrote fanfiction as a teenager and have always been a reader. As a kid, I made up my own books. But I didn’t really think I could have a writing career. I’m the first person in my whole extended family to go to college. I was raised blue collar and never considered a career in the arts. It’s not that my parents stifled me, it’s more that I had my eye on financial security and keeping a roof over my head. But on the side, I was always writing fan fiction, short stories, things like that.
After I graduated college, and I was working in a medical office through the recession, I started working on these fantastical stories inspired by traditional ideas of the djinn and history. Over the course of around ten years, those stories ended up becoming the book that would be The City of Brass. At some point, I joined a writing group, so it was something I worked towards without letting myself hope that it would happen. And then at the point where it did happen, I was okay accepting that this is my career now.
What does your typical writing day look like?
My writing life looked very different before my daughter was old enough to go to public school. I was that quintessential person who woke up four in the morning just to get some words in. The biggest thing for me when I was struggling to balance early parenthood and writing was finding a way to make writing part of my life in a way that wasn’t going to crush me, because it is so hard. For me, I am very much an early morning writer, so that was my time.
Now that she’s in school, that is not how it works anymore. I still like to do my writing in the morning after she goes to school. I’m not a night owl and I feel like my creativity is best before the day is subsumed with emails and household chores. I have my tea. I always joke that coffee is for waking up and tea is for creating. I have plenty of coffee in the morning, but I like to settle into a cup of tea when I write. I’ll probably always be a morning writer because I’m a melted puddle on the floor by the time I put my daughter to bed.
What is your writing process like and has that evolved over time?
I’m not much of an outliner. As my writing process has progressed, I’ve become more comfortable with my identity as a pantster. I often have certain ideas that I want to hit, things like a loose character arc that is going to focus on certain things. I have an idea of where I want the book to end and what action points I want in specific places. But then I don’t stick to that as much as I probably should. I’m very much a believer in writing and rewriting as much as is necessary and letting both the story and characters grow where it feels natural. I think you get a much more organic story that way.
Weirdly, that is not how I approach anything else in my life. I am extremely over-organized in real life. I have three different to-do lists for the week, the day, the month. It took me a very long time to make peace with my style as a writer and that this was my creative process. Now, one of my favorite, and slightly scary, processes is going in and not knowing how it’s going to end, or how I’m going to fix the plot. A lot of times those things come to me in the very stereotypical fashion of being in the shower and suddenly I have ideas and answers. I’ve learned to be more confident that those things will come, and I don’t have to freak out or not progress forward in the story.
Your books have been such a wild success. How have you adjusted to that?
At the time, even though I had no confidence, I also didn’t know anything about publishing. You can’t be afraid of what you don’t know. When City of Brass came out, I was very new to the writing world and had just started digging my toes into book Twitter. I was a reader, but not really in social media, so I had no idea what to expect. It took me a solid two-to-three years to come to terms with the fact that people were going to read the things that were in my head and I put on paper. I was nervous, but I also didn’t know to be nervous.
Kingdom of Copper was a mental trip because then I knew that people would read this and have opinions about it. I was fortunate that my book community and writing community was offline. I think that’s a little old-fashioned now and can be hard to find. But I lived in New York City, so I think if there was ever a place where I could find an offline writing and book group, it was there. But it would still get in my head. Social media is incredibly hard in a lot of different ways and to apply that to the very fragile feeling of creating can be difficult.
Now, if I’m feeling stuck or uncertain, I have a lot of merchandise from different bookish companies. And a lot of them did different candles that smell amazing. I like lighting them, partly because they smell amazing and it’s peaceful, but it’s a nice reminder that I did this. I did well with these other books. People make merchandise about them. It’s a very fragrant shot of confidence.
What advice would you give to new writers?
Try and finish. I know that’s so much harder to say than do, but I think so many people get stuck on those first scenes or those first chapters. Everybody’s process is very different. For me, I have to see the whole picture, even if that picture is the most bedraggled manuscript you’ve ever seen, and it’s half-outlined, half arguments with myself about why something isn’t working.
I think the most important thing is to just get through your draft. Even if all you’re doing is writing notes like, here is what I want to happen in this scene, here are the emotional beats I wanted. Make a note of why the scene isn’t working and what you want to happen. And move on to the next scene. I think as you do that, and then as you reread your notes and rework the scenes, you really get to know where the meat of the story is. Where the character is, who the character is, and what feels natural for them. Everything is so much clearer at the end. That’s when you can look the whole thing over and figure out how to make those pieces work.
I’m also a big believer in writing scenes you know won’t ever be published. Sometimes you have to see how this person would talk or react to a situation and writing it out can help other elements come together more naturally.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned in writing?
I think my biggest lesson was following the characters and the story where they were going and not where I wanted them to go. That was a big lesson for me, and I felt like once I did that, I felt a lot more creative and lot freer in accepting that this is my process and was how I told stories.
What can your fans expect in your new book, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi?
History is my passion, and my true passion is the medieval Islamic Indian Ocean. There are pirates, but it’s a very different kind of piracy. I wanted to explore the idea of how travelling across water shaped history and community while working in tropes readers expect. It has a different perspective of history, more from the working-class rather than well-to-do scholars and merchants. There are themes of motherhood and parenthood, with an older female character struggling with giving up certain aspects of her life when she became a mother and wanting to go back. I wanted to show readers and parents a sort of fictional mirror of this common experience, and say it's okay to want more, it's okay to put things on hold sometimes, and then it's okay to go back.
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