I’ve always been a sucker for beautiful book covers.
I remember wandering school book fairs in elementary school with armfuls of the most colorful, vibrant-looking books I could find. Even now as a middle school teacher, I display dozens of books in my classroom every year, and I fully admit that the ones getting the most love are the ones with beautiful covers.
Of course, with all that focus on the outside of the book, the stage is set for some occasional disappointment when I actually get down to the business of reading the story. But then there are also those moments when the promise of the front cover is wonderfully fulfilled as the story unfolds, and that’s the sort of thing we’ll be talking about today.
Zohra Nabi’s debut middle grade, The Kingdom Over the Sea, is just as sprawling and fantastical as it looks thanks to Tom Clohosy Cole’s beautiful cover design. I’m so glad I was able to ask her some questions about the story and her process, and I think you will be, too! Stick around to the end to learn how you can win a copy of the book for free!
Chris: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me, Zohra! Let’s start with you as a writer. Your biography says you studied law at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, so how did you find your way to the world of storytelling?
Zohra: I’ve always liked writing stories, ever since I was a teenager. I liked writing in the style of my favorite children’s fantasy books, although nothing I produced was ever publishable. Even when I was studying Law – which I did really enjoy – I was writing in stolen moments when I should have been studying. Lockdown came just as I was sitting my final exams, and when I graduated there was suddenly no legal work experience I could do, and nowhere I could travel. But I did have some money saved up from a legal essay prize I had come second in. So, I decided to put the money towards a creative writing course, and try to write a book.
Chris: What an interesting way to come into publishing! Let’s talk abut your process — I love learning how authors develop their characters. Your main character, Yara, is such a passionate and adventurous person. How did you work behind the scenes to create her for this story?
Zohra: Yara is such an interesting one! For me she’s a real mix of my two younger sisters, with her determination, and her strong moral compass. She also definitely has quite a bit of me in her as well – I loved debating and campaigning when I was Yara’s age. I wanted her to be someone who was shaped by how she grew up in the UK, who was equipped to fight injustice in a fantasy world because of what she had experienced here. I wrote her life story in first person to find her voice, and did little questionnaires to work out her favorite foods and biggest fears. But even with all that preparation it was difficult to get her on the page. I had to really work with my editors to make Yara’s personality come through in the text, and to make sure that she continued to be a believable girl from our world even after she travels into Zehaira.
Chris: There are references in the book to Yara being a champion of causes, one of them being the banning of books / closure of libraries. Was there anything in your personal experience that made you want to incorporate this into Yara’s backstory?
Zohra: When I was Yara’s age there were a lot of library closures, and people in communities all up and down the UK really turned out to protest – in some cases successfully. Libraries are such an important part of a community; the ability to access information, or even just to print out the documents you need and talk to someone who wants to help you is such a necessary thing, especially when you’ve recently moved to a new country. My dad always talked about how important his local library was to him growing up, and I loved spending time in mine as a child. I knew Yara would be the kind of person who wouldn’t stand for her local library being shut down. When she gets to Zehaira, the library there has been burnt down – the ultimate in book banning and library closures – and I wanted to be honest about the impact it has had. The sorcerers of Zehaira have preserved some of their culture and knowledge, but a lot of it, maybe most of it, has been lost. I think some people are very casual about book bannings today, saying that will just make kids read those books more – but I think if we’re not careful, we’ll lose important texts for good.
Chris: That’s a great point. Language can be like that, too, and there are some themes of language in the book — what prompted you to incorporate it into the story?
Zohra: I think because immigration and movement of people is such a key theme of the story, and language is such an important part of that. Yara’s mama is preserving their link to their culture and country when she speaks her language to Yara, and I imagine Yara was also an interpreter for her mum growing up, the way many second-generation children are today. But I think it’s also been quite lonely for Yara, not knowing anyone else who can communicate with them in the same way. Speaking to other people in her mother’s language when she gets to Zehaira is a way for her to expand her knowledge of her culture through sources other than her mum, and I think that is a source of wonder for her. I also think it’s really important that when Yara does discover the magical power of language, it’s not by using English, which is the language she would have used when she was campaigning back at home, but in the language her mother taught her – because Yara’s mother is the person who made her want to fight back against everything wrong about the world.
Chris: The streets of Zehaira are so richly described in the book, which is very atmospheric overall. Were you inspired by any real-world places?
Zohra: Thank you! I was hugely inspired by the cities of the golden age of the Islamic world – which were these places of amazing scholarship and learning and wisdom, with beautiful libraries and universities. I think I must have been influenced by all the different cities I visited before, because I tried very hard to imagine I was walking around Zehaira as I was writing, but I was careful not to create anything that was too close to reality. Part of the magic of Zehaira is that it feels familiar but also strange! There’s a book by Italo Calvino called Invisible Cities which describes different fictional cities, deconstructing and reconstructing the concept of a city itself, but centering the descriptions around an idea of Venice. I’m not trying to do anything so elaborate, but it gave me the confidence to build my own fictional city based on an idea of a city as a place of both culture and corruption.
Chris: It totally works! So, what’s next for you as an author? Can you give us any clues about new projects you’re working on?
Zohra: I’m currently working on the sequel for The Kingdom over the Sea! I’m really enjoying working on it with my editors, and puzzling out how Yara’s journey can continue. Book 2 takes us deeper into Yara’s past, examining both her family history and the history of sorcery itself. Yara makes an important discovery – but the Chief Alchemist is hot on her heels, lurking in the shadows…
Chris: Sounds amazing — thanks for the sneak peek! Okay, and now for the lighting round…
Favorite place to write?
At my desk in the attic.
Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, Judith Kerr.
Do you have any pets?
No, but I did once have a hamster called Horace
Favorite elementary school memory?
Making up imaginary worlds for pretend games with my friends.
Favorite piece of advice for other writers:
Write to entertain yourself. And drink lots of tea.
And last but not least — leave a comment below for a chance to win a free copy of Zohra’s book. We’ll be selecting one commenter at random on Monday, June 19th 2023!