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He is just 24 years old but TARAN MATHARU's debut, THE NOVICE, is already making waves. We spoke to Taran about his novel which sees a young blacksmith, Fletcher, taken to the Vocans Academy to train as a warrior along with his newly-summoned demon.
Once at the academy, Fletcher finds himself training alongside other humans, elves and dwarves, for the country is at war with the orcs and needs every pair of hands it can muster against the invading forces.
We asked author Taran Matharu to tell us more about The Novice, which is the first book in the Summoner trilogy!
Q: How does it feel to have your first novel published when you're just 24 years old?
A: It's amazing being able to write for a living, something I love doing. I have always been a reader, always had my head stuck inside a book, and I've always wanted to write. When I was nine I wrote my first book, it was called Wizards and Swords and it was 70 pages long. It was full of warriors and wizards, evil witches and lots of strange creatures. It was a real fantasy world so I guess I've always been interested in fantasy.
I started writing The Novice during National Novel Writing Month and I knew I wanted to finish the book. I started writing it when I was 22, finished writing it when I was 23, and it was published when I turned 24.
Q: Given that you knew you wanted to be a writer, why did you do a business degree at university?
A: I did a business degree rather than studying English because my family is very business-minded. My dad and his family are in the hotel business and their view was that being a writer might never happen for me. Plus I never enjoyed studying English at school very much.
I have found that the business studies course has actually been very useful in helping me understand how to approach agents, market myself and develop an online presence - it all helped me get the book published in the end.
As part of my degree I worked at Penguin Random House as an intern for a couple of months, which is where I heard of Wattpad. That is a great place to get a book 'out there' and seen. At the time, I would have paid people to read my work - I couldn't find any friends and family to read it because they weren't keen on fantasy!
Q: What have been the biggest influences on your writing?
A: I grew up reading authors like Brian Jacques, Darren Shan, JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Wilbur Smith and Bernard Cornwell, but I also loved mythology and history, and the travelling I did with my family introduced me to lots of different landscapes which have influenced the settings in The Novice.
When I started writing The Novice I knew I wanted a kind of training school and although Harry Potter had popularised that idea, you can already see it in lots of earlier fantasy like Ursula le Guin's Earthsea quartet, Midnight for Charlie Bone and even The Worst Witch. I thought of my novel as more of a training ground for warriors which makes it stand out a bit from that fantasy trope, so there isn't one book that influenced me on the magical side.
The idea of creatures battling on your behalf came from mythology and legendary creatures like the Minotaur and Salamandars, but it also came from other media, especially gaming.
Q: Do you think gamers who perhaps don't read much would enjoy The Novice then?
A: I used to be a big gamer and Skyrim was a big influence on the magical system in The Novice, in the sense of having to start with nothing and building yourself up to become more powerful. My character Fletcher begins with very little but builds up his skills and I hope that that idea might attract young people who haven't really explored reading. There are certainly more people playing video games than are avid fantasy readers and that could be because as soon as they pick up a fantasy book, it becomes quite a high level fantasy and that could be a hard jump for people to make. I've avoided making The Novice such a complex world.
Q: You've said you also enjoy history. How has what you've learned influenced the setting for The Novice?
A: I loved history when I was at school and historical fiction was one of the first genres I really enjoyed reading. Fantasies often draw on the Medieval world for their settings but while I loved finding out about Medieval times, the battles and heritage and succession, that wasn't my favourite age.
There is a medieval culture in The Novice but it's more like the eighteenth century in terms of being an age of empire and piracy with sabres and guns. I also wanted to include the idea of East and West clashing, so I wanted a time when the Muslim empire is growing and you have slavery and racism.
Q: You discuss discrimination in the book, is that something you have felt strongly about in your own life?
A: The discrimination in the book is based on my own experiences which began when I was very young, about four years old, at my first school. There were a lot of very unpleasant boys and people would call me names and tell me to 'go back to my own country' because I was darker than them. One particular boy, whose father was involved with the BNP, got a 'gang' together and the teachers wouldn't do anything to help me. That escalated until one day he trapped my hand in a door and damaged it quite badly. My mum didn't know how to deal with it because they are very multicultural in Brazil while this school was almost entirely white. Eventually the boy was 'asked to leave' but he wasn't punished for what he did.
Q: How did you deal with those kinds of experiences, and what can readers learn from The Novice about confronting discrimination?
A: I think to get through something like that, you have to find your own friends. In the novel, Fletcher stands up for himself against the village bullies and he doesn't let the vitriol get to him. That was my experience at a later stage thanks to my friends; even if you're being racially abused, if you have a group of friends who love you for who you are, not because of what you look like or your background, then you'll find people are there for you. So I'd say find people who care for you - and there will always be those people.
I managed to deal with the issues I faced because of my friends but I faced a lot of bullying throughout my school career. At my next school, there was one child who would hide things in my bag so that I would get into trouble for stealing and it got to the point that, when something had gone missing, the first person's bag they would search was mine. When he moved on to hate mail, I could show that it wasn't me doing the stealing but even when the boy confessed that it was him, he was just asked to shake my hand; he was given no other punishment.
Authority figures may not come to people's defense and I show that in the story where the teacher Rook actively encourages people to be discriminatory. Even in my third school, which was very multicultural with Russian dignitaries alongside children from a London council estate, the teachers would say things like, 'I don't know what happens in your country but in ours....' You expect teachers to be morally right but that doesn't always happen.
I think there will always be racial tension especially among people who are not used to mixing with other cultures and I think we need to be open to cultural differences. In The Novice you see one of the characters, Atlas, with Othello who is a dwarf. Atlas asks Othello lots of blunt questions about his heritage and Othello is very open about answering him. I wanted to show that it's okay to ask people to discuss their background and culture; most will be happy to explain it.
Q: There are a lot of mythological creatures in The Novice. Are they all drawn from existing mythology or are you creating your own system in The Novice?
A: I learned Latin at school and looking at Latin myths, the stories of Hercules etc, was my introduction to myths and I was hooked.
After that I spent lots of hours in the library and online researching creatures like hydras and dragons creatures that people know about, but also less well known ones like the Hippogriff, a cross between a bird and a dog, and the Wendigo, a cannibalistic, slimy-clawed creature with antlers, from other mythologies.
Some of the creatures in the book are sourced from existing mythology, like the Griffin which JK Rowling made her own, but there are also the demons which I've drawn on but changed; my Vulped, which is dog-like and has three tails, is drawn from the Kitsune, the nine-tailed fox in Japanese mythology, while the Canid, a large, dog-like creature, is one of my own designs.
Q: If you could have your own demon, what would it be?
A: Ignatius is my favourite demon in The Novice but if I were to have a demon, I'd prefer a Griffin to a Salamander. It would make a great pet, you could fly around with it and it's very powerful.
Q: Are the settings in The Novice based on particular places?
A: I used to travel a lot with my parents and I think that helped me build all the different locations in the book. My dad is a second generation Indian and he grew up in Kenya so we've been to India and we've traveled a lot in Brazil because my mother is Brazilian.
My favourite holiday was when we spent three weeks in the Amazon. I lived in a hut with my sister and brother and we went hunting for food and caught piranha by the river; our guide had had a finger eaten by one so you need to be careful. We ate what we caught, even some worm things, but I have to say the piranha tasted terrible. The whole experience was very exciting and when I was writing The Novice, I put the orcs into a jungle environment. I also used settings from memories of our safari in Africa and I drew on lots of plant life from when I was backpacking in Australia.
I do plan to do lots more travelling. I'm going to New York soon to meet my publisher and I'd like to go to Japan, South Korea and China, and possibly Peru. I know I can write and travel, I just need a travel buddy to do it with.
Q: What do you have planned next for Summoner?
A: Summoner is going to be a trilogy and I'm in the process of writing the sequel to The Novice. The first book ends on a cliffhanger and in the second, you will see Fletcher going to trial and then he finds himself in the jungle battling orcs. Then another threat arrives in the form of an enemy and Fletcher is sent on a mission to try to save the empire from this new threat.
Q: When do you do your writing?
A: I'm a night owl when it comes to writing, which is frustrating for a lot of people when they want me to go out in the evening. I start writing at 4pm and mull over what I'm going to write and tie up my admin and emails and then I write in the evenings. I can carry on writing until until 3am if I'm on a roll but I usually stop at midnight.
I am self-educated with writing, I've never done a course or anything, but I would love to cement some of my ideas around writing and a course would be fun and interesting. My beta readers so far have been on Wattpad, so writing has been very solitary for me.
Q: What would be your favourite way to spend a day?
A: I love fishing so my favourite day would be to go trout fishing with my dad. I love being in the country although I like to have access to the internet, and we sometimes stay in a cottage with a friend of my dad. So my day would be spent there, with fishing followed by a roast dinner cooked for us!