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Interview: Sarwat Chadda, Author of "Dark Goddess"

Devil's Kiss
Billi SanGreal is the first girl in the Knights Templar, and the most kick ass weapon-wielding heroine around. But then, she didn’t have much choice. Her father, the Templar Master, forced her to take this path. But Billi hates the Order, and she hates him too. Tempted by a chance to live a different kind of life and reject everything her father wants her to be, she learns to her horror that she may unwittingly have brought down the Tenth Plague upon humanity – the death of all first born. Faced with choosing her destiny, she must make sacrifices greater than she could have imagined.

And the sequel, coming January 25th, 2011...

Dark Goddess

Billi's back, and it seems like the Unholy just can't take a hint.

They call themselves the Polenitsy - Man Killers. The ancient warrior women of Eastern Europe, supposedly wiped out centuries ago. But now they're out of hiding and on the hunt for a Spring Child -- an Oracle powerful enough to blow the volcano at Yellowstone -- precipitating a Fimbulwinter that will wipe out humankind for good.

The Templars follow the stolen Spring Child to Russia, and the only people there who can help are the Bogatyrs, a group of knights who may have gone to the dark side. To reclaim the Spring Child and save the world, Billi needs to earn the trust of Ivan Romanov, an arrogant young Bogatyr who's suspicious of people in general, and of Billi in particular.  
Sarwat Chadda, immersed in research

Billi's adventures are an awesome mixture of bloody thriller and intense paranormal. Author Sarwat Chadda was kind enough to take some time to chat with yaHighway before starting his book tour promoting Dark Goddess.

1. A male author writing a female main character – a teenage female main character – it’s not something we see fairly often. Are there any particular methods you used to get inside Billi’s head, particularly for the more angsty “guy trouble” scenes? Or are you just naturally in touch with your feminine side?

So in touch it’s scary. The decision to write a female lead was really based on having two daughters. But the concerns of a fifteen-year old girl are pretty similar to that of a fifteen year old boy. I remember that age as being a critical one, the threshold of adulthood. What do you want to be? There are pressures from family, from schools, from your peer group.

Billi’s dilemma is that she’s a naturally gifted warrior who hates war. She’s lost her mother to it, seen her father grow distant and unloving. Is this what she wants for herself? Even though that’s where her talents lie? I wanted to explore that, since I remember similar decisions having to be made.

That said, the romance scenes did take some getting into. I think we boys are just naturally grateful for any romantic involvement, so we set our ambitions rather low. I think girls have higher expectations with what they want from a boyfriend. The hardest scene to write was that café scene in Devil’s Kiss. By the time I’d got to Dark Goddess and the moment Ivan and Billi were alone in the forest, I knew what I wanted. Something lingering.

2. I love how you’ve created a supernatural world around something that is very much a part of our real history – the Knights Templar. Was this an obsession growing up – little Sarwat swinging a sword and screaming “Deus Vult!”? What was the research process like for you when learning about the knights, the Bogatrys, the Polenitsy, and one of my all-time favorite folk tale characters, Baba Yaga? (The image of her in Dark Goddess is, by the way, utterly terrifying.)

I’ve been madly interested in history and mythology form the moment I could pick up a book. In fact one of my earliest memories was trying to copy a picture from Jason and the Argonauts. I loved the Greek legends, then went onto the Norse myths, and from them into Russia. What’s weird is the stuff you remember. I might glimpse some random fact about Russia and it just settles into my memory. I might spend months trying to remember how to design pumps (part of my earlier life as an engineer) but the moment the text book closes it’s gone.

I read about Baba Yaga in a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. The memory of this old witch, a prehistoric goddess, just sank deep into my subconscious. Then fifteen years later when we were discussing Billi’s next adventure, she rose back out of my memories. The tales of Baba Yaga are incredibly ancient, there’s something primeval about her. I think she’s there in the darkest depths of all our memories, a Jungian archetype.

Once I knew Baba Yaga was my main protagonist I knew she needed followers. Devil’s Kiss has a lot of Yang, male energy. Billi’s surrounded by men, there are no other female characters. I wanted Dark Goddess to be my Ying book. So I needed a group of female warriors every bit as dedicated as the Templars. Then I remembered some vague fact about Russian archeologists having uncovered graves of warrior women. It turned out the original legend of the Amazons comes from southern Russia, back in the ninth century BC. Now that was an unbelievable coincidence. Strange how that titbit had just rested quietly in my memory since I don’t know when.

The Templar fascination comes from my love of the Crusades period. The Templars were major players, they had dealings with all sides, even the Islamic sect known as the Assassins. They were just too cool, I had to use them.

3. Okay, I have to bring it up – way back when I first heard the premise of Devil’s Kiss, I wondered if you were a fan of Dan Brown. Then I saw on your website that you started the story in 2004. On March 2005 you state: “I discover The Da Vinci Code. Despair follows...” 
This amuses me.

After admittedly laughing my ass off at that comment, I realized so many writers (myself included) go through this – we think we have a 100% unique concept, and then That Damn Book comes along. (Particularly upsetting when said book sells over 80 million copies.) What was your method of dealing with that and continuing on with your own story? (And having read both, I can safely say they are not really alike at all.)

Buffy and Dan Brown were my two moments of chucking it all in and starting again. I think I’d done about two drafts of Devil’s Kiss when I read Dan Brown. But then I thought, ‘hey, maybe Templars will be hot now’. Yes, they were, for about six months. I despaired each time another Templar conspiracy book came out, I think it was sheer pigheadedness that kept me going.

That said, I really enjoyed Da Vinci Code the first time I read it. I think he’s great at writing pacey, exciting stories and what Brown does is take what’s out there, cover it with enough history and research to make it feel credible. That’s what appeals to me, given my stories that basis in the real world, on real events and places. It makes the research a fun part of the writing, looking for those links and coincidences that can be used in making the book appear more real.

4. Rumor has it you went through quite the rewrite ordeal before Devil’s Kiss was in the hands of editors. What’s your process for major rewrites? Did you have to do an overhaul on Dark Goddess as well?

Oh Lord, did I do a lot of rewrites. Devil’s Kiss I barely remember, but I do remember Dark Goddess. There were three stages. The first was my first draft was different (quite radically) from the synopsis I’d originally given. Very different. Both editors thought it was too much of a change from the first idea, which was by far the more powerful.

The first draft almost ignores the consequences of what happened in Devil’s Kiss. That was a big mistake and I think part of it was my fear I couldn’t handle the dark space Billi inhabited emotionally. After all she’d killed someone incredibly important to her. I couldn’t ignore that and it affected Billi’s entire outlook.

Then, I went to Russia and came back with so much material I buried the next draft in an overwhelming amount of detail and characters and events and history. The book turned into something monstrously huge. The problem for me is I get so carried away in the research I feel I need to use it all.

5. There’s more in store for Billi SanGreal – are there any tidbits you can give us on what to expect from book three?

We’ll have to see how Dark Goddess does in the US. I really hope it does well since I want to take Billi to Jerusalem, the original headquarters of the Templar. There are hints and clues about the Holy City in both Devil’s Kiss and Dark Goddess and sooner or later Billi was going to end up there. Billi’s mother was a Muslim and I want to explore that side of her heritage and delve in Middle-Eastern mythology and history for her next adventure.

Then I have a new series which I will be announcing in a few weeks. It inhabits the same world as Billi SanGreal, but I introduce a brand new hero, and heroine. I love the idea of heroes overlapping and again, there are very subtle clues about this setting in Devil’s Kiss.

Five Real Fast (answer with the first thing that comes to your head!)

1. If you could have one book turned to a movie (other than your own) it would be: The Mortal Engines series by Philip Reeve.
Spike vs. Sarwat

2. Who would star as the main character? My daughter. 

3. Favorite childhood author? RE Howard (the guy who wrote the Conan books). 

4. Here’s a plane ticket to anywhere – you can fill in the blank. What’s the destination? Somewhere with warm, clear blue seas. 

5. Angel, Riley or Spike? (That’s right, I know about your Buffy obsession!) Spike. Without a doubt. The others don’t even register.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. GREAT interview! love ass-kicking girls.

    and as I just finished the entire Buffy series for the first time, last line of the interview = classic.

  2. Great insights into writing characters--whether they are the same gender as you or not, it's all about the character development.

  3. Amazing interview! And the books sound like ones I would really enjoy. I will have to add them to my list asap.

  4. Everyone has to read this book because I NEED a 3rd one! I want to visit Jerusalem with Billi :) But I'm willing to wait patiently for you to announce your new series. Ok well maybe not patiently...

    And I recently started watching Buffy, it's so awesome. Can't believe I'm so late on watching.


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Item Reviewed: Interview: Sarwat Chadda, Author of "Dark Goddess" Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman