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Interview With an Author: P. Djeli Clark

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author P. Djeli Clark and his novel, A Master of Djinn
Author P. Djeli Clark and his novel, A Master of Djinn. Photo credit: Le Image Photography

Born in New York and raised mostly in Houston, P. Djeli Clark spent the formative years of his life in the homeland of his parents, Trinidad and Tobago. A Hugo and Sturgeon Award finalist, he is the author of The Black God’s Drums, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and Ring Shout. When not writing speculative fiction, P. Djèlí Clark works as an academic historian whose research spans comparative slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic World. He melds this interest in history and the social world with speculative fiction and has written articles on issues ranging from racism and H.P. Lovecraft to critiques of George Schuyler’s Black Empire, and has been a panelist and lecturer at conventions, workshops, and other genre events. At the current time, he resides in a small Edwardian castle in New England with his wife, infant daughters, and pet dragon (who suspiciously resembles a Boston Terrier). When so inclined he rambles on issues of speculative fiction, politics, and diversity at his aptly-named blog The Disgruntled Haradrim. His first novel is A Master of Djinn and he recently talked about itwith Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for A Master of Djinn?

After the novelette A Dead Djinn in Cairo and novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015, the next logical step seemed to be a novel. I wanted to write a larger story that allowed me the space to really delve into this world I’d created—and up the stakes considerably.

Are Agent Fatma, Siti, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Well, Fatma is named after a famous Egyptian feminist. But other than that symbolic nod, not really. They really are their own individual characters who react to situations based on their unique personalities and experiences. As the popular adage goes, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I had a full outline going into writing the novel, and I used that as a road map. Even so, there were numerous changes along the way: things that needed fleshing out; overly long chapters that became two chapters; minor characters created on the spot to fit the situation, etc. Then there’s the ending, which was wholly revised after my first reader (my agent) basically said “meh—I need more.” So I made that ending very much more, which was a major change, for the better. After that, there was copyediting, sensitivity reader suggestions, newly researched material, etc. that was continually reshaping the narrative. Changes were made even after the ARC went out, so that the final book has these slight differences. Still, I don’t really feel that anything was left on the cutting room floor that I was disappointed didn’t appear. I packed lots in there as it is.

Agent Fatma is quite the snappy dresser! Is her wardrobe inspired by your own? Do you have a piece of wardrobe that inspired one of her suits? Or have you been inspired to create a real suit for yourself based on something you wrote for her?

Fatma dresses with the brave fashion sense I wish I had. Her suits come out of a mix of styles that fit that time period, along with color schemes I put together for a particular moment. I guess you could call me Fatma’s wardrobe consultant. But yeah, I actually have thought of rocking one of her suits one day—though not sure if I could pull off a bowler.

Your version of Cairo in 1912 sounds amazing! Have you ever visited Egypt? Cairo? Do you have a favorite place in the city?

Yes, I have. Not long enough to really know the city, but enough for it to leave its impression. There are a few places in the book I mention that come from those memories. It’s hard to name a favorite place because those are (naturally) all the more tourist places. But Khan el-Khalili certainly stayed with me, and it’s no wonder it keeps popping up.

You begin the novel with the traditional myth of a Djinn granting someone three wishes (and promptly show how and why you do not want to demand that a Djinn grant those wishes). IF a Djinn offered to grant three wishes, would you risk making them? For what would you wish?

Yeah, I started with that trope because it’s so well known, how can you not? But I also wanted to play with it in a way that showed its inherent dangers—and that djinn are more than beings out of those popular stories, especially here in the west. So if a djinn offered to grant me three wishes I’d probably say no thanks, because all such things come with a price.

This is our 3rd visit to your alternate Cairo; following A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Do you plan to revisit Agent Fatma and the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities in the future?

That remains to be seen. When I wrote that first story, I had no plans to write more in this world. Now there’s an entire novel. So the future is unknown, but open.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Morowa Yejidé’s Creatures of Passage, Caldwell Turnbull’s No Gods, No Monsters, Cassandra Khaw’s The All-Consuming World, Nawal el Saadawi's, God Dies By the Nile.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I don’t know what the “last piece of art” has been, but in writing a current story, the album RTJ4 has set the mood.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

After this pandemic year? My wife, daughters, and I somewhere quiet, with sand and clear blue waters back in Carriacou. That’d be about perfect.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Is Ghostface Killah or Raekown the better emcee out of Wu-Tang? The answer is, there is no answer. Sure, Ghost has had the better track record on sheer albums created. But isn’t Rae’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx one of the top Wu albums of all time? Besides, you put those two together on a track, and it's sublime: like a mix of Scorcese, Coltrane and Dostoyevsky.

What are you working on now?

A novella about an undead assassin put on an impossible mission. Hilarity and hijinks ensue.

Book cover for A Master of Djinn
A Master of Djinn
Clark, P. Djèli

In 2016, P. Djeli Clark introduced readers to his alternate Egypt and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities on in his short story “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”. In 2019, he returned to Egypt and the Ministry to investigate The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Now Clark has given readers his first novel length adventure of mystery, magic, romance, and danger in A Master of Djinn. And it was well worth the wait!

A Master of Djinn is everything readers have come to hope for and expect from Clark: fascinating characters, snappy dialogue, and thrilling adventures all set in a gorgeously reimagined, magically infused Cairo of a century ago.

At the center of the story are his most engaging creations: Agent Fatma and Siti. Like a 21st century Hepburn and Tracy, Fatma and Siti banter, jockey for control, and, ultimately, succumb to the passion that both attracts them to each other and propels them through the mystery that they are facing, realizing, ultimately, that they are stronger together (and given who each young woman is, that is really saying something!).

While the novel is set over a century ago, Clark is able to make thoughtful and pointed observations about race, class, gender, orientation, and imperialism that are every bit as relevant and timely as they would have been in 1912.

A Master of Djinn is Clark’s first novel and is my favorite book of the year. Clark is a writer to watch and will soon be, I’m certain, a well-known name in fantasy households soon. Read him now, so you can say you were reading him before everyone else discovered how wonderful his work is!