Interview with Swati Teerdhala

By now, you must have heard of Swati Teerdhala’s book, The Tiger at Midnight, which has been getting rave reviews since its debut on April 23 this year. For those of you who are still catching up to this lush and action-packed story, here’s the publisher’s synopsis which will make you want to rush out to buy the book and take a sick day off to read it:

Esha is a legend, but no one knows. It’s only in the shadows that she moonlights as the Viper, the rebels’ highly skilled assassin. She’s devoted her life to avenging what she lost in the royal coup, and now she’s been tasked with her most important mission to date: taking down the ruthless General Hotha.

Kunal has been a soldier since childhood, training morning and night to uphold the power of King Vardaan. His uncle, the general, has ensured that Kunal never strays from the path—even as a part of Kunal longs to join the outside world, which has been growing only more volatile.

Then Esha’s and Kunal’s paths cross—and an unimaginable chain of events unfolds. Both the Viper and the soldier think they’re calling the shots, but they’re not the only players moving the pieces. As the bonds that hold their land in order break down and the sins of the past meet the promise of a new future, both rebel and soldier must make unforgivable choices.

Drawing inspiration from ancient Indian history and Hindu mythology, the first book in Swati Teerdhala’s debut fantasy trilogy captivates with electric romance, stunning action, and the fierce bonds that hold people together—and that drive them apart. 

We managed to get hold of Swati to ask her about the process of writing The Tiger at Midnight, and you’ll want to read her thoughtful responses (especially if you’ve already read the book and are dying to know more about Esha and Kunal!). And if you’re in NYC, you can also meet her at Bookcon on June 2nd and try to squeeze more details about the sequel.

 

Can you tell us about your journey towards publication? How did you get started as a writer and how did you pursue it?

I’ve been a writer since I was young, penning comedic plays and short stories in middle school and fanfiction in the beginning of high school. But my writing took a backseat as I got toward college, especially because I didn’t really know that writing could be a career. And it certainly wasn’t a career my parents had told me about! It wasn’t until I graduated and started working that I realized I was missing something. I’d spent most of my childhood and education singing, dancing, or doing something creative alongside my studies. It was also around this time that I fell back into reading, hard, and discovered YA, which inspired me to give writing another shot. I gave myself the goal of writing a full book and just kind of dove into the community and learning about publishing. I haven’t stopped writing since then!

What was the genesis of the idea for THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT? Did any specific aspects of Hindu mythology and Indian history influence the book?

My inspiration for The Tiger at Midnight first came to me when I visited an old Fort while traveling. It was the first time I heard the voice of Kunal, one of the two main characters. I looked out from one of the old window openings and wondered what would be the most odd or startling thing a soldier of old might have seen. A girl. And that’s the opening page of THE TIGER AT MIDNIGHT.

A lot of the world building was pulled from my own direct experience as an Indian-American and knowledge of Indian history. However, there was a lot of research required as well. While I grew up steeped in Indian culture and Hindu mythology, there was a lot I didn’t know or knew only one side of. I researched everything from the ecological topography of India to historically accurate clothing (the world is set in a fantastical ancient India). It felt pretty natural to ground the world in those stories of my childhood, but it was a delicate balance adding my own twist on things and creating a world that combined those stories with the fantasy tales I grew up reading.

 

In envisioning the world of your book, which elements did you especially want readers to take note of or come away with?

I wanted to write a story that celebrated my Indian heritage and tackled the issue of finding your own path, even when there’s familial or community pressure, something that I think is really common for first-generation immigrant kids in America. That’s a huge part of what both Kunal and Esha deal with during this book—their duty to themselves vs. others. Esha and Kunal both struggle with this idea in very different ways. I hope that readers are able to read this book and understand that better.

 

The concept of women, especially young ones like Esha, having abilities and lives that are hidden from the world at large resonates really powerfully with us. Can you tell us more about how you created this character and if anything in particular inspired you?

Esha was one of those characters who came to me piece by piece. I discovered her more than created her, mainly because she has so many secrets and layers. Her motivations and desires are relatively clear but also complex. And it was important to me to create a young woman who was more than one thing and unabashedly all of those things. She is a product of her environment and to do her job, to be the legendary Viper, she leans into the world’s expectations of her as a woman, often using them to trick and decieve people. Esha uses her womanhood to help disguise her secret life as the Viper and while it’s an effective tool, the burden of living those two lives does weigh on her. In books 2 and 3, that struggle is something that’s explored more.

 

The character of Kunal also has fascinating implications: a man raised in violence who begins to question his role. It strikes us that this has connections with how men struggle to leave toxic masculinity behind. Could you comment on this?

Kunal’s voice was the first one I heard when I got the idea for this book. This young man who was trapped in circumstances, partially because of himself, partially because of the world around him and its expectations of him. Kunal is torn by his duty to his uncle and what he sees as his duty to the world around him, which he’s just beginning to discover. And as he journeys away from the Fort and the ghost of his uncle, he begins to see how he’s unquestioningly accepted so much of what he was told. Though I don’t want to give away any spoilers, breaking away from that legacy of violence and accepting his own emotions is a large part of him finally becoming who he is and owning his potential. While I didn’t write it as a direct allegory to toxic masculinity, I did want Kunal’s journey to remark on how damaging it can be to young men as they’re figuring out who they are.

 

About Swati:

Swati Teerdhala is a storyteller and writer. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a B.S. in Finance and History, she tumbled into the marketing side of the technology industry. She’s passionate about many things, including how to make a proper cup of chai, the right ratio of curd-to-crust in a lemon tart, and diverse representation in the stories we tell. She currently lives in New York City.

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