In The Black Khan, Ausma Zehanat Khan’s latest fantasy novel, a resistance group struggles to overthrow a cruel patriarchy led by a tyrant. You know, escapist stuff. Khan’s work has been compared to George R.R. Martin’s, but it also explores issues of cultural divides and conflicts inspired by the contemporary and historical worlds. We talked to Khan about leaving a career in law to write, how she gets and gives help from fellow novelists, and how writing a book transforms the room she works in.
Current gig: Author of The Khorasan Archives fantasy series and the Khattak/Getty mystery series
Current computer: HP Spectre x360
Current mobile device: Samsung Galaxy S8
One word that best describes how you work: Prolifically
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I’ve been writing all my life on the side, but I ended up as a full-time writer through a non-traditional career path. First, I spent what feels like a lifetime in school pursuing graduate studies in law. I practiced immigration law and taught international human rights law. Then there was a period where I worked with an amazing Canadian publisher to establish the first magazine targeted to Muslim girls and young women — we had distribution throughout North America, and for a short time the magazine was also a bit of a global phenomenon. As editor in chief of that publication, I began to write more consistently, and got in the habit of ferreting out intriguing story ideas.
As all this was happening, my husband and I were moving around quite a bit, so instead of taking the bar exam or trying to round up a teaching position everywhere new I moved to, I took some time off to work full-time on a novel. I chose to write a crime novel first because this genre lends itself well to writing about global human rights issues—I wanted to write about what I know and what intimately concerns me to this day, and crime fiction was a perfect fit with that.
My Khorasan Archives fantasy series also encompasses human rights issues, but in a very different way. With my Khattak/Getty crime series, I’m looking outward at intersections and points of conflict between different communities. With The Bloodprint and The Black Khan, I’m looking inward at the communities I come from, and attempting to be reflective and self-critical. I ended up writing both series simultaneously because I felt like I had so much to say and that there was no better time to say it than now.
So I write full-time, but I also try to remain engaged with my field, and to do the kind of community activism that allows me to utilise the different aspects of my background.
Take us through a recent workday.
I wake up early and spend roughly an hour and a half managing my household. On a day that’s going well, I might squeeze in a half hour for exercise. Then I spend two hours responding to email and updating my social media or taking care of any administrative issues—you’d be surprised at how quickly these issues pile up. From 10 AM on, I spend the next six hours writing. Before I write anything new, I review and edit the previous day’s writing. Then I break down the scene I’ll be writing next, so I know what action and background it needs to convey. Often, when I’m not making the progress I want, I’ll take a break to listen to some music or read some poetry, in hopes that that will unlock something.
I take a break for dinner, family time and housework, then later in the evening I read, watch some television, take a walk, and handle anything else that can’t wait. On deadline, I’ll put in several more hours of writing or editing.
When I’m not on deadline, I spend a fair bit of time on publicity requests. This can include writing talks, doing radio interviews, participating in book clubs or Reddit AMAs, going to conferences, writing short pieces for publication, or chatting with my readers on Facebook or Twitter. Unless I have to physically travel somewhere for a talk, I’ll be doing one or more of these things on the same day that I have to make daily word count. It’s a constant juggling act. The most important thing is to try to keep my mind fresh enough to write and write well. I am a chai addict so that helps.
Besides your phone, what apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
I am not much of a gadget person, but I love my very out-of-date iPod Nano and I am overly fond of pretty journals. My favourite actual writing tool is a Foray blue ink pen, 0.5 mm. I wish they sold them in twelve-packs. I’m sad to say that I’m also extremely reliant upon my Citizen calculator to tally up daily word count, so I can see the never-ending amount of work that’s left. Slack is a really useful app for larger conversations with writers’ groups, and I have been bewitched by Twitter, where I’ve met so many amazing writers and built a real community. Writing is a lonely profession, so Twitter helps alleviate that. I learn a lot not only from other writers, but also from historians, archivists, human rights activists, journalists and so on. There is always so much to read, which is why I find Twitter irresistible.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I have three sets of crammed-to-the-brim bookshelves that comfort me when I need breaks from writing. I look at other books and my mind relaxes. It also helps that my desk faces a pair of windows with a partial view of the Rocky Mountains, so there’s a lot of light in my home office, and I get to see people walking their adorable dogs.
What else? I have an oversized AOC monitor so my eyes don’t have to strain too much. And I use both an agenda and a desk pad calendar to keep track of my deadlines and events.
What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?
There is no greater gift to a writer than the online thesaurus. I use it fifty times a day to try out new words or just to spark ideas.
Is there anything unusual about your writing or editing process?
I’ve been writing two books a year, so my process is very intense. I have to write a lot every day, and my focus needs to be absolute. Sometimes, when things are going well, I’ll forget to get up, walk around, take breaks, eat, but I honestly prefer not to work like that. One day, they’re just going to find a shadow of me in my chair.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
I have a two-desk situation going on when I’m working on a book. The primary desk is the desk that has my laptop, monitor, desk pad, agenda, notebook and pictures of my family. The secondary desk is a glass map desk, and it is actually more critical to my writing routine. I look at the map on the desk constantly to keep track of locations in my books. But it’s also the desk where I stack the books I’ve read as research, my handy reference manuals that I can’t do without, my folders of original research, plus any drawings or maps. Another stack of papers or files on the map desk consists of my novel outline, character sketches, plot overview and running scene outline, to which I make continuous changes.
There is a lot of traffic back and forth between my two desks, but I make no attempt to clean up either desk or put things away until the first draft is finished. Then I start shelving and organising my research and putting it away. But I don’t clear my desk until my editor and I have finalised a draft. When the map desk is completely clear, that means the novel is done.
Photo: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Khan’s map desk when she’s writing...
Photo: Ausma Zehanat Khan
...and when she’s finished.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
My agent, Danielle Burby, solves a lot of problems for me, and goes far above and beyond at every stage of putting a book together. The editors I work with do so much to improve my books—I’ve never had a suggestion from any of my editors that doesn’t make my books better. And I could not handle all my publicity commitments without the help of the amazing marketing teams I work with at Harper Voyager, Minotaur Books and No Exit Press.
I also have a little writing circle. We jokingly call ourselves the Sisterhood of the Pen. (We’ve also tried out the name #blahblahplot). Uzma Jalaluddin and S. K. Ali share useful career advice, Uzma reads my work as I go along and helps me figure out what’s working and what isn’t, and we just generally enjoy each other’s company and love chatting about writing. They really help me remember that I’m not alone, and their advice on writing and on life is so helpful. I also love when that process is reversed and I’m able to help with their work.
And of course, my family and friends cheer me up when I’m in crisis mode. They support me so strongly by attending all my events and helping spread the word about my books.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I sketch out my whole year in advance, so I know which weeks I’ll be writing, which weeks are free for promotion, which are free for family commitments, travel and so on. Sometimes I’m unlucky and all these things overlap, but I keep a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly planner. Before I accept any new commitments, I look at my overall schedule and determine whether I’m capable of doing a good job with anything new I take on. I write in my agenda every day, and compulsively cross off completed tasks. This may sound like a well-organised and chaos-free life, but truthfully, new things come up all the time that don’t fit into my planner, and I still have to make them work. For the last three years, I’ve basically been managing on a wing and a prayer. If I don’t commit myself absolutely, it will all fall apart.
How do you recharge or take a break?
I go home to Toronto, eat my mother’s cooking and bask in my mother’s love. With more free time, I take a long trip with my husband. With less free time, I collapse on the couch and watch The Office to get my mind off the serious subject matter of my books. And whenever weather permits, I take a nice long walk outdoors. I also like to look at pictures and videos of other people’s pets because it’s very soothing.
What’s your favourite side project?
I am plotting out a long-running series set along the Silk Road, so reading up on the history of the Silk Road is something I love to do. I make notes and lists of names, and I collect photographs and maps. This is deeply enjoyable because I am a complete history nerd.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I’m reading a fascinating biography called Muhammad by the scholar Juan Cole.
And I recently finished The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang, which was so earth-shattering that I can’t stop thinking about it. In crime fiction, Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar was such an exciting debut. Also in crime fiction, I will recommend any book by Deborah Crombie, Louise Penny or Peter May.
Other books I’ve recently read and loved include Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, Mirage by Somaiya Daud, and Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri. Possibly my favourite writer of all time is Amin Maalouf — every single one of his books is enthralling, but if I had to choose, Samarkand is my favourite.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
My list is very long and yet not long enough! In alphabetical order: Saladin Ahmed, Stephanie Barron, Chris Bohjalian, S. A. Chakraborty, Deanna Raybourn, Danny Gardner, Kellye Garrett, Uzma Jalaluddin, Amin Maalouf, Anthony Marra, Sujata Massey, Kate Morton, Sahar Mustafah, Gigi Pandian, Anthony Ruiz-Camacho, Nalini Singh and G. Willow Wilson.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?
Humorously: how to clone myself so I have more time and energy to work on the many books in my head.
Seriously: how to make more of an impact as a writer. Specifically, how to get my mystery series on the radar as part of anti-racism curricula at universities.