Writer on the Verge: Saladin Ahmed
One of the pleasures of a literary convention is a chance to discover new talent. At last autumn’s World Fantasy Convention, I had the good luck to be seated next to Saladin Ahmed (web LJ FB) at a writerly dinner. We struck up a conversation and, as writers always do, belly ached about our respective projects. It so happened that we shared a common interest in the exploration of the medieval Muslim world within the fantasy genre. Saladin had already published several stories in a Muslim(-ish) society.
After the Con, I hunted a few of them down and was hooked by Saladin’s fresh prose style, his vivid worlds, and his neatly designed plots. You can and should read his short stories online. Later on, Saladin showed me a few chapters of his novel in progress which I devoured instantly. If you’re too suspicious to take my word, and too lazy to check out his stories (yeah, I know, man, I’m fighting off a burrito coma too), then consider the fact that his story, “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” a story of magic and surgery gone wrong is on the final ballot for the 2009 Nebula Awards. I’m very happy that I’ve managed to cajole wheedle trick convince Saladin to take the time for an interview.
Saladin, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to chat. Not only do you have a writing career to get off the ground, a day job as a teacher to fulfill, but you also are an expecting father. How are you holding it all together?
Thanks for having me! How am I holding it all together? With duct tape and desperation, man. And, more than anything, with the support of my amazing wife Hayley. She rules.
Okay, let’s get a little more info on your current project. I know that novels in progress can evolve in unexpected ways, but could you give us a feel for the story, characters, and world?
Sure. I’m working on a series of novels set in the Crescent Moon Kingdoms, an Islamically-inspired fantasy world of my own creation. Two of my published short stories — “Where Virtue Lives” and “Judgment of Swords and Souls” — are based in this world, with the former being a direct prequel to the first novel. That first novel centers on Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” who is feeling more than ready to retire. Basically, Adoulla is a fat old man who’s grown weary of chasing down monsters and saving lives. He wants nothing more than to finally marry his old flame and spend his days sitting around his favorite teahouse, eating pastry, passing gas, and bullshitting with his friends. But a grisly series of mysterious murders make it clear that Adoulla’s beloved city still desperately needs his monster-hunting magics. To make things worse, the city is on the brink of a power struggle between the Khalif and a mysterious Robin Hood/V for Vendetta-type figure known as the Falcon Prince. As Adoulla and his uptight assistant, the holy warrior Raseed, investigate, they learn that the murders and the political upheaval are connected. Adoulla recruits the help of old companions and new, and discovers a sorcerous plot that threatens to turn his city and his life into a flaming, bloody ruin. And Adoulla and his friends are the only ones who can stop this from happening.
Let’s talk a little about Muslim-inspired fantasy. When did the inspiration to write it first come to you?
That’s tough. Fantasy lit has always been a part of my life – my Dad started me out on the Rankin-Bass cartoons of The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn when I was very young, bought me the old TSR Endless Quest books, indulged my Marvel comics obsession, etc. I’ll always be thankful for this, since this was the era when many parents were decrying these sorts of things as Satanic. At the same time, I spent a lot of time with my great-grandmother, an amazing person who defied her own era’s Islamic AND Western notions of what a woman should be – she was a detective in New York in 1960! But she was also a very pious woman, who often stressed my religious and cultural heritage to me, from the Qu’ran to the Arabian Nights. So I guess these different influences sort of collided and merged. I’ve been a D&D geek almost my whole life, and I can remember – long before game companies began making Arabian Nights-flavored material – creating middle eastern-tinged characters for AD&D back then. I had a particular penchant for rolling up quasi-Islamic paladins, and one of my novel’s protagonists is a holy warrior based in part on those early characters.
Whoa, hold the phone! Female Islamic private eye in 1960s NYC! That’s amazing. What can you tell us about the jobs she took? The problems she faced? And when you write up her biography, can I get a point off the back end of the movie deal?
Ha! Well, she wasn’t quite a Continental Op type – she worked for a department store. But someone did try to stab her once, and she told me it was only her leather trenchcoat that saved her! As I said, she was an amazing woman – she knew Malcolm X and helped found a social services-oriented community center in Detroit. And, yes, I actually do intend to write a book about her and the rest of my family someday – though I think that one’s a ways down the road.
Do you think there are unique aspects of Islamic inspired fantasy that are inherently advantageous? Any inherent difficulties?
Well, I certainly think that Islamic cultures – that plural is important! – have produced some of the world’s great fantasy ‘building blocks.’ Ghouls and djinn, magical lamps and carpets, archetypes like the venturesome sailor, the clever street thief, the wicked vizier – this is all choice material for writing a fantasy novel. And it’s material that has been left largely untapped by modern fantasy writers, so it’s relatively new to most readers. But that’s a two-edged sword, of course. Setting my novel in a pseudo-Middle East instead of a pseudo-Europe makes it hard to hit the ground running the way I might if I was working with knights and dragons and other more familiar elements. I have to introduce readers more thoroughly to the world – sometimes explaining something from scratch, sometimes working against stereotypes that I need the reader to unlearn. So doing that while making sure readers are still having fun is a significant challenge.
Are there any Muslim-inspired fantasies that you think do it right? Any that go wrong?
I’m a little wary of labeling things right and wrong, since it implies that I’m in a position to pass moral judgment. Certainly my choices might differ from another Muslim or Arab fantasy reader’s choices. What do I personally like or dislike? Dune (which I’d call ‘science fantasy’) still holds up for me, even with its noble savage stereotypes of the Fremen. And, even though he indulged in similar stereotypes, I’ll always have a soft spot for Robert Jordan’s desert tribesmen, the Aiel. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lions of Al-Rassan, though I’ve heard good things about it from people I trust. Getting more into the SF side of things, I absolutely LOVE George Alec Effinger’s Middle East cyberpunk novel When Gravity Fails. I’ll pass on getting into specific writers who I think handle Islam or pseudo-Islam problematically. But I will say that painting an entire culture as dominated by one set of traits – fanaticism, honor, etc. – is almost always bad writing. Every culture has its mixes – rogues and zealots, pranksters and idiots, saints and addicts and lunatics. If your fictional culture has only one or two ‘types’ in it, this is a problem, especially if the invented world’s ‘mainstream’ culture has a range of ‘types’ in it. But this is a problem throughout fantasy lit. Dwarves are all dour. Easterlings all love Sauron. More and more fantasy writers are complicating this sort of characterization, and I think that’s a good thing.
When I first started to do background research for my current project, I typed in the words “Muslim Fantasy” in to Google; some of the hits I got back were invectives against Islam and Islamic peoples, some nauseatingly hateful. I’ll admit my first reaction was something like: Fuck, if I follow through on this am I going to have to deal with the crazies? Does such prejudice affect how you think about your work?
Ugh. I’ve done that same Google search and yeah, it’s pretty damn depressing. Ever since the Chuck Norris Delta Force days of my youth, I’ve experienced American culture as being pretty hostile to Islam – or rather, to a stereotype of Islam. But since 9/11 I’ve felt even more like it’s culturally open season on Muslims. So of course, as I write, I’m conscious of the cultural baggage readers may be bringing – sometimes without knowing it – to my stories. But really, this just sort of ups the ante on a writer’s normal challenges: Creating a world readers want to spend time in. Writing characters they’ll care about and want to ‘hang out’ with. Doing so with an Islamically-inspired fantasy is in many ways just a tougher version of these universal tasks.
Forgive the save-the-worlder med student mentality, but do you think writing a popular Muslim-inspired fantasy could effect positive social change?
Politically, I’m a pretty pessimistic person. The world’s in a hell of a mess, and it’s gonna take a lot more than one Arab nerd’s novelistic musings to fix it. Writers are an arrogant lot, and we spend a lot of time patting ourselves on the back regarding the greater societal impact of our work. That’s a trap I don’t want to fall into. Really, my job as I see it is to do the same thing for my readers that, say, the Dragonlance books did for me as a teenager – provide a fulfilling place, peopled with interesting characters, to escape to for a few hours here and there. If, in the course of that, I get a few readers to rethink their assumptions, that’s all the better, but it’s not job numero uno.
Let’s change gears a little and talk about your unusual and impressive background in poetry. You published many poems in some impressive markets. What inspired you to begin writing fantasy after so many years writing poems?
Well, my poems were already filled with djinn and werewolves and plate mail and ghouls. This imagery was often an odd fit with contemporary American poetry, which tends to be more…navel-gazing. I never stopped reading fantasy novels, even when I was writing and publishing stuff in more ‘literary’ markets. So I was publishing in one sphere but reading mostly in a different sphere. If I wasn’t dumb as a bag of hammers, the question “Why don’t you write what you like to read?” might have occurred to me earlier, but suffice it to say that it did finally occur to me. Haven’t really looked back since.
How does your poetic background influence your present work?
It’s had both positive and negative influences. I think I can write a damn lovely sentence, sound-wise. I think my descriptive powers are pretty sharp. These are skills that were honed writing poetry for over ten years. But a poem ain’t a novel! At the end of the day, fantasy readers want pulse-pounding plots. Poetry does a crappy job of preparing one to write suspense and action. And sustaining plot and subplot throughout a novel is something I’m still learning to do. But every writer has their weak and strong points, right? All we can do is try harder and get better.
Fantastic. Finally, your writing career has managed to come charging right out of the gates. Can you offer any advice to other writers looking to make a similar move?
I’ve been lucky enough to sell a few stories and get some attention for them, but I am very much a newbie at this, so I’m not sure I have any sage advice to give. I guess just all of the obvious things: read other writers, write habitually, submit choosily but relentlessly. Workshops are helpful for improving craft, professionalizing, and meeting great people. I attended the excellent Taos Toolbox workshop, masterminded by Walter Jon Williams. Connie Willis gave the class four perfect words of career advice: “Don’t be a shit.” I think it’s a good work slogan, whatever your field.
Saladin, it’s been both informative and pleasure to chat. The very best of luck to you in all your endeavors, and a preemptive congratulations on fatherhood!
Thank you and thank you!