Intisar Khanani is one of my new absolute faves. Her YA novel Sunbolt knocked me off my feet, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Thankfully, Memories of Ash will be out soon; in the meantime, I snagged an interview to hear more about that first amazing book and Intisar’s life as a writer.
MS: It’s rare to find a really good YA fantasy novel with an interracial—or even non-white—protagonist (though it shouldn’t be). Was Hitomi’s ethnicity a calculated decision, or just how you always envisioned her?
IK: I knew I was building a culturally and ethnically diverse world with Sunbolt, and that I wanted my characters to reflect that. But Hitomi kind of came as her own package—she just walked into my story, complete with her history and background, and that was that. I was really glad to have her.
MS: There are a lot of different mythical species in this book: werewolves, elves, vampires, those-things-that-are-kind-of-a-cross-between-a-vampire-and-a-dementor, as well as humans with and without magic. Why did you include all of them in this universe?
IK: Why not? I actually wanted a fantasy world that had all the usual suspects, and then some more. If I’m trying to represent a multicultural world, well, our supernatural creatures are part of that. Although Kenta plays a smaller role in Sunbolt, casting him as a tanuki (Japanese shape-shifting raccoon-dog and all around trickster) was a first step in that direction. With each book, I’ll flesh out a few more mythical species, each in their own specific milieu, each recognizing the awesome variety and beauty of cultural heritages around the world when it comes to the supernatural. Yes, that makes for a lot of magical creatures, but it also makes for a lot more complexity, nuance, and fun.
MS: Who would you choose to play Hitomi in a movie adaptation of Sunbolt?
IK: I haven’t a clue. I know, that’s a terrible answer. But here’s an even more terrible truth: I watch no TV, and almost no movies. I average about four or five movies a year, most of them as at-home date nights with my husband. With two young children at home, my evening time is precious: I can watch a movie or write. I write. So I’m afraid I don’t have any ideas here…
MS: In Sunbolt you’ve shown us two very different places: a landlocked, mountainous region with pine trees and snow, and a hot island country. Were those places inspired by any real-world countries?
IK: Absolutely! The island sultanate where Hitomi starts her story is loosely based on historic Zanzibar. I had the opportunity to visit Stone Town about ten years ago and loved it dearly. When I wrote the first draft of Sunbolt two years later, I drew on my memories for the setting. When it was time to revise, I did a bunch more research and Pinterest image searches to develop it further. It isn’t perfect by any means, but that’s the basis.
The mountainous area is likewise based on a real region, in this case the Himalayas. I’ve gone back and forth on where in the Himalayas, and the end result is historic Kashmir, a good deal prior to the last, oh, seventy years of conflict or so. (Thank you very much, British colonialism.)
MS: What’s your favorite part of Sunbolt?
IK: I actually really love the last two chapters or so, when most of the high adventure is over and Hitomi is recovering from what she’s done (is that vague enough? I’m trying not to be spoilerific). There is a certain almost dream-like quality to her reality, and the sense of loss and vulnerability that comes through is some of the best writing I think I’ve done to date.
MS: Can you give us any hints about the sequel?
IK: Memories of Ash starts up a year after Sunbolt ends, once Hitomi has had a chance to recover and study some magic with her new mentor. Even though she’s left her old life behind, our pasts don’t tend to leave us alone. In this case, Hitomi’s past comes back with a vengeance when Stormwind is called before the High Council of Mages to answer charges of treason brought forward by none other than Hitomi’s old nemesis, Arch Mage Blackflame. With Hitomi’s fine-tuned sense of honor (and justice) she isn’t about to let her teacher be imprisoned, and thus begins her next adventure. The stakes are equally high, though different, for now Hitomi must sneak into the seat of the High Council itself to free her mentor, and being caught may mean losing her magic and her freedom.