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Interview with Rebecca Zahabi (THE COLLARBOUND)

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Rebecca-Zahabi-author-photo.jpg?resize=3Rebecca Zahabi is a mixed-race writer (a third British, a third French and a third Iranian, if the mix is of interest to you). She started writing in her home village in France at age 12 – a massive epic where women were knights and men were she-witches which set out to revolutionise feminism.

Since, she learnt how to actually write, and has slightly re-jigged her expectations of what she can achieve with a keyboard and a blank page. The plan of taking over the world, however, has not changed.

After honing in her craft in a variety of genres – playwriting, short stories, an attempt at Icelandic sagas – she hopes to write novels that can make a difference. She is currently working on Tales of the Edge, an ambitious trilogy blending magic and structural violence.

Website link: https://www.rebeccazahabi.com/about 


Welcome to the Hive, Rebecca. Thank you so much for joining our Women in SFF feature! How does it feel to have The Collarbound out there in the wild?

Both exciting and nerve-wracking! I’m very pleased to have it out there, and I hope readers are enjoying it. I’m trying not to read every single review as it gets posted, and failing.

Tell us about your book by describing it in five words!

Thresholds, power, lies, secrets, belonging.

(That is such a hard question!)


Can you tell us a bit more about your characters, Tatters and Isha?

Isha has just arrived at the Nest – she’s a young mixed-heritage woman, with a strange tattoo across her face. She cannot remember who made the tattoo, or what it means, but still has to live with the consequences. Tatters is an older man, shrouded in mystery, who’s been living in hiding, tutoring young mages. He immediately connects to, or feels like he should know, Isha’s tattoo.

Their pasts are intertwined, and they start a tentative friendship, trying to find a balance between keeping secrets and building trust.

There is so much mystery circling around both characters, which aspects of their story arc did you enjoy writing the most? Did you find any parts particularly tricky?

When I started the manuscript, I knew I wanted it to work like a mystery novel: secrets were slowly revealed, and the reader could put together the puzzle, as I gave them clues across the book. Sometimes, changing POV is a way to cheat: a key clue might be in Tatters’ mind, for example, but we’re seeing his behaviour from Isha’s perspective, so it keeps us guessing. One of the most enjoyable scenes, for me, was when we see the lightborn – I’ll try not to spoil too much – and Isha and Tatters discuss her appearance. I had a good time playing around with information there, teasing the readers.

As for the tricky bits, Isha’s story especially I kept tweaking, trying to make sure it wasn’t too obvious or too obscure. It was fun to write this way, but it took me a long time to get it right – I had to go back, edit in some clues, edit out some others.

Rebecca-Zahabi-Cover.jpg?resize=197%2C30Your worldbuilding is so wonderfully unique! Can you tell us more about the non-human Kher race? What inspired their creation? 

I knew from the start I wanted a fantasy species, but it took me some time to get the khers right – they’re the ones who grew the most between the first and last draft. I started with a simple idea: what if there were creatures that aged differently from humans? Lots of animals don’t grow old by getting wrinkles and grey hair, so why should a fantasy species? I decided that although khers looked young, their horns grew into a circle, driving back into their skull and killing them slowly. So an old kher had longer, curvier horns than a younger one.

From there, I tried to make sure I picked ideas and cultural markers from all over, to avoid the khers being a pastiche of one human culture. I loved the idea that the Tuareg people had invented pasta, because dried food is easy to transport for nomadic populations. I also loved the fact that traditional Iroquois tribes relied on gender to separate powers, with only women being able to vote, but only men being elected – so I decided to explore how gender roles were divided differently for the khers.

But of course the khers we see in the city aren’t nomads anymore, so I also took that into account, thinking about what their culture would have been like before, and how it had been changed through human influence.

Your magic system revolves around various types of mind-magic, soulspintering, lightborns and characters learning and participating in mindbrawls. How did you craft these concepts and what inspired you?

As I was creating the magic system, I thought it would be interesting to have asymmetrical magic, so I went for a flesh and mind opposition. Fleshbinding cancels out mindlink, so the two cannot interact. Fleshbinding is intimate, isn’t used for fighting, but serves to share physical sensations between people who are close. Mindlink, on the contrary, can serve to broadcast thoughts, take control of people, is often used to fight duels, and it can be done unilaterally, without the other person having a say.

Once I had those two in opposition, lightborns arose naturally: how would creatures who were pure souls, pure spirits, exist in this world?

I enjoy magic where creativity is a key-component of the magic, as well as empathy. Mindlink relies on understanding others – knowing your opponent can help defeat them. And how creative the mage is influences how good they are. In a way it’s a ‘soft’ magic system, based on social skills and imagination. And then it’s used brutally by the mages. I was interested in exploring all those contradictions and implications, and it’s by pushing the ideas further, getting lost in them, that I created those concepts.

Ok here’s a fun question, if you were to participate in a mindbrawl how would you best defeat your opponent? 

Ooh, that is a fun question! I guess it would depend on my opponent. I’d try to buy them a drink first and chat with them a bit, to see if I can work out what their weaknesses might be. And then, if I didn’t have a clear hook, I’d try to guess what people might be frightened about right now – I might try to craft an attack about sitting alone in a room while a worldwide pandemic is raging outside (I know, I’m mean).

If I’m fighting another writer, then that’s even easier: I’d take all my own insecurities, swap out the main character of those disaster-scenarios with them, and let the magic take its course!

We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?

When I was asked for a few ideas for book covers, I mentioned I often preferred covers with paintings/drawings rather than photographs. I knew the first book would need Tatters on the cover, and the second would need to portray Isha, but I didn’t have a strong opinion otherwise.

When I saw JungShan’s work, I especially loved the cloak, the way it dissolves into tatters – it’s very telling about the character! Originally it was all black-and-white, with just a touch of gold, which I found a bit too sober, maybe a bit dry. When I mentioned it, JungShan added the blue streaks, which work nicely with the final cover.

Let’s talk about the writing process; do you have a process? Tell us a little something about how your story comes together.

I don’t really have a writing process. The best way to describe my writing routine is opportunistic: I write when I can, in between shifts, on a long train ride, when inspiration strikes.

I do a bit of a mix of planning and letting the story follow its own course. Often, I have a vague plan, and I write all the scenes I find most interesting, in any order. So I’ll have parts of the climax, the epilogue, the opening scene, and some bizarre dialogue in the middle which might or might not fit in the final version. Once I’ve written enough, it becomes a question of filling in the holes: how do I go from this scene to that one? And little by little, by completing the scenes I’ve left out at first, and sewing the ones I was the most enthusiastic about together, I get a full novel.


We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?

I know this isn’t the case with most writers, but I enjoy editing – I love reworking characters I know well in a world I’m familiar with. It feels easier to make things better, as opposed to creating them from scratch. Fine-tuning is motivating, it makes me feel my writing can get better.

It has to be said, before it got into Gollancz’s hands, the book had already gone through a lot of versions. I have a group of writer friends, and we critique each other’s work every week. They saw every version of this story, from baby manuscript to nearly publishable chapters. So by the time my editors had it, there wasn’t that much structural work to do on the book. The ‘professional’ editing process was comparatively quick and easy.

What (or who) are your most significant female fantasy/sci-fi influences? Are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?

I am completely and utterly in love with Octavia Butler’s work, and I feel that a lot of what she worries about in her writing – power, mixed identities, resilience when there’s no good side to fall back onto – is similar to what I’m trying to achieve. I’ve also been influenced by Ursula Le Guin, especially in terms of crafting cultures which are different from our own and striving to understand them. And last but not least, Tamora Pierce, for the strong, plucky female characters who overcome the prejudice which surrounds them.

In terms of people I’d love to work with, my dream panel is “Three Rebeccas Talk SFF” with Rebecca Kuang and Becky Chambers – just a dream, for now!

One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?

Ooh, that is such a good question! So, it would definitely need to be able to fly. That’s half the fun of riding a magical beast. And I’m good with horses, so maybe a Pegasus? I’ve also got some budgies, so maybe a budgie-Pegasus?

If a horse with green and yellow fur, a mane dappled with black and white spots, with the high-pitched shriek of a budgie at full volume, doesn’t strike terror in the heart of my opponents, I don’t know what will!


Tell us about a book you love. Any hidden gems?

That’s a tough one, I love too many books to stop at one. A few years ago I would’ve recommended Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis, although now she’s not that hidden anymore, even though she’s still a gem. After spending an embarrassingly long time trying to decide, I think it’s too hard to pick a novel, so I’ll give you three short stories:

The Fairy Egg by Raquel S. Benedict – I haven’t had a story which has made me feel this spooked in a long time. It’s faintly magical, slow burn and sinister.

Liking What You See by Ted Chiang – on what it would mean if we couldn’t perceive beauty, and judged people accordingly. It’s thoughtful, it’s sometimes sweet, it broadened my horizons.

Sea Oak by George Saunders – a poor family is struggling enough before Aunt Bernie returns from the dead as a zombie, and it only gets worse from there. Funny and biting (it bites very hard).

Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any teasers for the sequel which you can share?

I’m still working on the trilogy, writing and editing the rest of Tatters’ and Isha’s story. Volume 2, The Eyas, is written and is with my editor! I’m not sure what I’m allowed to share… Let’s just say we get to learn quite a lot more about Tatters, and a key part of his past is revealed; we get to meet a sinister mage you might dislike even more than Sir Daegan; and Isha forms an unlikely friendship which brings her much closer to the khers. And that’s all I’ll say for now!

Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?

The other day, I was thinking about how much I love both Octavia Butler and Terry Pratchett, although they’re very different. And I realised I loved them both because they’re both readable, they tell a good story, and at the same time there’s a lot happening beneath the story: high-concept, mind-blowing ideas in Octavia Butler; a trust in humanity, empathy and compassion in Terry Pratchett.

So if I could write a story which does that – which is a fun read, and which has something to chew on, to make people think, once they’ve finished – then I’ll have succeeded as a writer. I’d like to be able to make readers both feel, and think.

Thank you so much for joining us today!

The Collarbound is available now from Gollancz. You can order your copy HERE



The post Interview with Rebecca Zahabi (THE COLLARBOUND) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive.

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