Something different today as I talk about someone else's writing for a change and interview author Janine Ashbless. Janine wrote me the short story, The Scent of Tears, written — under another name — for this site, a strong story whose elements (with Janine' s approval) are actually feeding into the main series plot as we speak.
Janine already has a body of work out there, of a somewhat different sort, but shortly she will be bringing out her first Arabian Nights fantasy, Heart of Flame, which was published as an ebook by Samhain on 20th December 2011, and will be out in paperback later this year.
JA: Hi Adrian. Thanks for having me here on your blog!
AT: So, honing my interviewing skills: What's the lowdown on Heart of Flame?
JA: Well, it’s a fantasy-romance – you can probably tell that from the cover style, heh. My heroine, Taqla, is a sorceress in 9th century Damascus. When the Amir’s beautiful daughter is kidnapped by a djinni, she agrees to help merchant-traveller Rafiq ( a Sinbad type) rescue the girl, because she’s fallen in love with him. But she can’t tell him that. She can’t even let on that she’s female – she’s in magical disguise. They set off on this quest which ends up becoming more complex and dangerous and crazy as they go on, dragging them into wilder and weirder places – swamps, ancient temples, desert ruins, cities halfway across the world — and getting them into seriously deep trouble with undead emperors and pagan gods and hungry ghouls. This is all before they even tackle the djinni…
AT: This is a departure from your previous writing?
JA: Yes; there’s a lot more plot … and a whole lot less sex. My normal genre is erotica. Heart of Flame is a romance, and it’s not even a straight romance because there’s so much of the magic/monsters/adventure element. So, cross-genre. But the romance is still pretty steamy. If you read the uncensored One Thousand and One Nights, there is an unabashed sexual element there.
AT: The mythic Middle-east is an area I've not seen a good take on in a while, in fantasy fiction. Where are you drawing your setting from?
JA: It’s a fantasy version of the real 9th Century Middle East – and let’s be honest, it’s very much the Thief-of-Baghdad, Golden-Voyage-of-Sinbad Arabian Nights. I’m not an Arabic historian. My starting point was a translation of the traditional 1001 Nights, strongly larded with the Ray Harryhausen-era Hollywood movies I grew up with.
I also used a lot of 19th Century Orientalist art, by people like Jean-Léon Gérôme, as inspiration. These are wonderful, photo-realistic-looking paintings of a Middle East that was only just opening up to the Victorian West. But again, even those depict an exoticised, prurient, filtered version of reality, intended as entertainment as much as education.
I did my historical research too, I hasten to add! Philip Hitti’s History of the Arabs was my bible. It’s just full of the most wonderful incident and detail. I love it. And I’ve been lucky enough to visit Syria and Jordan and Egypt. I did call on those experiences.
AT: How does your setting contrast to its historical counterpart?
JA: I’ve been historically accurate where I can – I use some historic personages like Caliph Al-Ma’mun, and the scholar Ibn Ishaq of the House of Wisdom, who sets my heroes off to find the answer to a riddle — though I did mess with the dates very slightly. The main thing I bore in mind was that I was writing in a mythological setting, so facts were subservient to the Arabian Nights ‘look’ of the thing. Rafiq fights with a scimitar (which were really a later introduction: Arabic swords at the time were straight). He drinks cardamom-flavoured coffee with fellow merchants (coffee probably hadn’t reached Baghdad from Yemen at the time). He plays backgammon and smokes a hubble-bubble pipe (tobacco an obvious anachronism, and the water-pipe was a C16th Indian invention). But honestly, that sort of thing is as integral to the Arabian Nights as genies and magic rings – I couldn’t do without them!
AT: What sort of fantastical elements can we expect — a lot of fantasy at the moment is relatively low-magic and gritty — where does Heart of Flame fall on that scale?
JA: Hah! Old-fashioned high-magic fantasy, I’m afraid. My heroes travel on a magical silver horse, otherwise they’d never reach the places they have to go to. Taqla uses her sorcery to get them out of all sorts of trouble. They meet various monsters, including one holy one, that come out of Arabic and Persian legend. They parlay with an animated statue and a dead man made of flies. And then there are several djinn … and that scary scary angel …
AT: What would you give as your sources of inspiration?
JA: My inspiration as a writer has always been Angela Carter. Lyrical but totally unsentimental, she lulls you with her fairy-tale prose and then sticks you with something really cruel. In Heart of Flame you’ll also find some sneaky nods to my other favourite writer, H P Lovecraft: there’s a copy of The Necronomicon in the House of Wisdom (under its Arabic name, of course) and the ghouls are Lovecraftian as well as Arabic. This may be the first time anyone has ever snuck the Cthulhu Mythos into a romance novel. I would like to think so!
AT: How about film and TV depictions of similar settings. For me, I'd put forward the Hallmark Arabian Nights TV Movie as a surprisingly good shot at the genre.
JA: Yes, I enjoyed that: lush, clever and romantic. The tattooed genie from their Aladdin stayed with me as the mental image of my djinni antagonist. I’ve also watched Pasolini’s artsy 1974 version (lots of boobs), but didn’t much like Prince of Persia despite the pretty CGI scenery. The fact that their entire cast was white struck me as … inexcusably cowardly.
My favourite version is still The Thief of Baghdad: given that it was made in 1940, its cheesiness is completely excusable. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have a movie version of Heart of Flame with Ray Harryhausen animated monsters!
AT: A great deal of fantasy settings that include a middle-eastern-ish culture tend towards the "religious fanatic adversary" type, and obvious, in the West, that entire part of the world is a sensitive cultural and political issue. Has that influenced the book, and how did you approach that?
JA: It’s impossible not be aware of current events and political attitudes, even when writing a historical fantasy. I did try to be careful. Well, you know me: I’m not naturally the soul of tact and sensitivity…
I mention mosques but don’t set any scenes in them. I mention the Qu’ran once, but I don’t mention the Prophet. I use the word “God.” My heroes aren’t pious but they are respectful Muslims. The thing to remember is that the Islam of the 9th Century Abbasid Empire, the “Golden Age of Islam,” was not the same as modern fundamentalism. It was urbane, scholarly and tolerant. Jews and Christians of various sects were part of society. People drank wine. And Caliph Al Ma’mun imposed a rationalist, non-literalist theology, heavily influenced by Greek science and philosophy.
So yeah, it’s possible that I might offend someone. But you can’t stop people taking offence if they want to. My intentions are certainly positive, for what it’s worth. Rafiq and Taqla are my heroes, after all.
Okay, I’ve probably burbled on enough. Thanks, Adrian!