Zen Cho Interview
By: Nicole Friets
"I'd like people to return to my books when they feel the need for something to console or hearten or strengthen or cheer them. That's how I feel about my favourite authors."
Raised in Malaysia and living in London, Zen Cho is a lawyer by day and renowned fantasy fiction author by night. Although sometimes referred to as the "poster girl for diversity," she would prefer to be known as "Zen Cho the author," transcending nationality and culture. BW talks with Zen about trials she has faced, influences on her writing, and tips for aspiring authors.
© Jim C. Hines
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
The first book I read by myself was a picture book called Santa's Busy Night, which was a funny choice for a non-Christian child living in a tropical country.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A computer and some sort of water filtration system. Let's hope the island has Wi-Fi.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Round, hungry, cheerful.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Penelope Fitzgerald for being late and brilliant, and for loving losers.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
Jemput pisang. You can't go wrong with deep-fried banana.
When did your love for writing develop?
I started writing stories when I was six years old. I learnt to read at three or four, so I guess it took a while for the creative urge to develop.
What is the hardest part in the writing process?
The hardest part is always the part where you sit down and arrange words into stories. I put it off as much as possible, but it's easier if you're able to do a bit every day.
Publishing is a doddle in comparison. I think there is a tendency among aspiring writers to over-focus on publication – I get a lot of questions from people about how they can get their stories published. It's actually really simple and there's loads of information on the Internet about it.
I wrote and trunked two novels before writing the book that got me my agent and publishing deal – but the process is straightforward. The hard part is the writing. Luckily the writing is also the most rewarding part.
Given your responsibility as a lawyer, is it hard to find time to write?
Of course! But most writers have to fit in writing around the rest of their lives, which will often include a day job even for published writers. I am protective of my time and I aim to write a bit almost every day. But I also try to avoid sacrificing social time in favour of writing. When I die I want to be able to look back on my life and see that I've written lots of stories, but I also want to be able to say that I spent as much time as I could with my loved ones.
The things I sacrifice are housework, TV and movies. I haven't gone to the cinema since February.
How have your family and colleagues responded to your second career?
They've been very supportive. It's been strange to go from having writing as a hobby that was very personal to me, to my weird hobby suddenly becoming so public. My close friends and family always knew writing was important to me, but I didn't talk about it all that much because there's no bore like the person who is always saying, "Well, in my book, this and that happens … "
But most people get excited about the idea of knowing someone who's published a book. It's nice, but being a writer and nobody knowing it was nice in its way. It was like having a lovely secret. Once you're published and people know about it, they start asking you annoying questions, like how much was your advance and when are you selling the film rights because I don't read books, I watch movies.
How has your legal training in school and now as a lawyer influenced your writing?
It's made me resilient, organised and efficient. Most creative people aren't especially organised or efficient, so I think they are huge advantages. You also need an enormous amount of resilience to survive a creative career!
Doing legal drafting also helped my writing a lot. One of my biggest problems was always just finishing stories. Practising as a lawyer means you have to get work done to client deadlines and it has to be good, but you also have to make sure you don't spend a disproportionate amount of time on it. You don't want to spend hours on a simple piece of research and overcharge the client for it – it pisses the client off and you as the lawyer have better things to do with your time. I started finishing more stories when I figured out how to translate that "it has to be good, but just as importantly, it has to be done" approach over to fiction.
The more I think of my creative writing as being a boring, ordinary, everyday practice – requiring concentration and diligence, but not much more – the easier I find it.
Given the genre you write in (fantasy), how do you convey universal messages that affect readers?
If I want to convey a message, I write an essay or blog post or series of tweets. When I write a story, that's what I want to tell – a story. There are certain tired tropes or messages I would prefer to avoid conveying unintentionally, but I don't go into a story saying, "This is going to teach readers a lesson about love or humility or economics." What makes stories universal is the specific, so I focus on that.
You mentioned before that you never intended to be the "Poster girl for diversity," is there anything you would want to be the "poster girl" for?
Nope. Oh, maybe a really good pan mee restaurant. I'd be open to endorsement deals.
How has your move from Malaysia to England influenced your writing?
I mostly write about "in-between" sorts of people, characters who straddle different worlds and cultures and ideas. I think that comes from my background, because I moved around a lot even before I came to England. And part of it just comes from being interested in what is different. If you're a science fiction and fantasy reader that's probably because you're fascinated by the strange and the novel, and I'm no exception.
Would you rather be known as a Malaysian author who writes fantasy fiction or a fantasy fiction author who is Malaysian?
I would rather be known as Zen Cho. I would like people to see my name on the spine of a book and think, "Oh my gosh, a new book by HER!" and buy it straight away and feel like their afternoon or holiday has been sorted. And I'd like people to return to my books when they feel the need for something to console or hearten or strengthen or cheer them up. That's how I feel about my favourite authors.
From your novels, are there any characters you relate to the most and why?
There are bits of me in many of my characters, but I don't really identify with any one of them because like most real humans, I'm much more complicated than a fictional character.
I would like to grow up to be Mak Genggang from Sorcerer to the Crown though.
You have mentioned that you used to enjoy reading Victorian fiction when you were younger, how has this influenced your writing today?
I think reading about alien cultures with strange technology and foreign manners as a young child is what gave me my abiding interest in science fiction and fantasy. I also enjoy playing with language, because the Malaysian English I spoke growing up and the English I read in my British and North American books were very different. Voice is my main tool for worldbuilding. I couldn't write my Sorcerer Royal novels without the Oxford English Dictionary.
That said, I suspect I was drawn to 19th century fiction not just because it was affordable (though that was a big reason), but because the cultural norms were often more similar to the norms of the society I was living in than the norms of modern Western society. In some ways a 20th century book about a kid living in America would have been just as alien to me as a 19th century novel about five sisters in rural England. It made sense to me to have grown-up kids living with their parents even after marriage – whereas some of the stuff you see in contemporary kids' or YA fiction was pretty foreign.
What is the next adventure in Zen Cho’s life?
I'm working hard on the follow-up to Sorcerer to the Crown, which is currently scheduled for publication in summer 2017. Before then, I'll be attending Fantasycon in late September and to my delight I've been nominated in two British Fantasy Awards categories for my debut novel Sorcerer to the Crown. I plan to wear a fabulous dress to the awards banquet and lose in style! BW