Indra Das is the author of The Devourers, a dark fantasy about a race of man-eating shapeshifters who have secretly preyed upon humanity since the dawn of time. Das was at San Diego Comic Con to greet his fans, new and old.
UNBOUND WORLDS: I understand that The Devourers was published in India, initially. When did you write the book?
INDRA DAS: I wrote the first draft as my MFA thesis at the University of British Columbia in 2011. I wrote in my last semester in one go, but I had written some short stories in college and based the novel on those. I had 15 or 20,000 words already, so I rewrote those and wrote the rest of the novel. Penguin India published it last year. It’s been doing pretty solid in terms of sales, but the thing is in India there really isn’t a market for genre fiction. Even fantasy and science-fiction is very niche. There are only a few novelists who are doing that, and mostly what they are doing are mythological retellings. When it comes to fantasy novels that are set in present day or are more uncategorizable there’s not a market for it, generally. I think my book was marketed more as a straight-up fantasy, so I don’t think people in India really know what to expect when they buy the book. There hasn’t really been much of a cultural conversation about it, but the reviews were good. My agent in the United States kept submitting the manuscript, and it landed in the hands of my editor Mike Braff, who really loved it. That’s how we ended up with Del Rey.
UW: I’ve heard The Devourers pitched as a werewolf novel, but that’s not exactly correct.
ID: It is a very unusual novel. When I say that, it sends like a boast, but I don’t mean it in a positive or negative way. I wanted to write a novel that I wouldn’t see on a shelf. I love mixing up genres. Honestly, genre itself is essentially irrelevant, creatively. It’s a marketing tool, and it’s useful as that for publishers. I don’t think about genre at all when I write. I want to write a good story, and I love reading all kinds of books—all across genres genres. I love literary fiction, as well. I love language and characterization. Those are things that appear in genre and literary fiction, but books get pigeonholed in one box or another and people don’t expect all of those things from any one book, sometimes. I wanted to write a novel that would appeal to a reader like me, or readers who only read fantasy, and even a reader who has never read fantasy. It might be a gateway for them. I wanted it to appeal to all of them. When I first started writing The Devourers, it was a werewolf novel. It started with a college professor meeting a stranger who says he’s a werewolf. Later, I changed it to half-werewolf. Then I started writing it in a very ambiguous way in which you could see the werewolves as possibly being a delusional subculture. There was no evidence in the book of actual magic. There was just these stories these people were telling that you could take as an almost symbolic thing this culture was going. That would have been an interesting novel to write. I ended up putting magic in the novel because I really wanted it there. It might have disappointed readers to never see these shapeshifter: to not have that magical catharsis. I wanted to see the shapeshifters, too. As I went along with the novel and exploring why there was a werewolf in India: this Eurocentric cultural concept in India that this man is seemingly identifying with. As I began to explore how these werewolves ended up in India, they became more than werewolves. That’s how I developed this idea of these various tribes who take mythology and clothe themselves in it just like human beings used animal totems. The shapeshifters use human culture as kind of a totemic thing. They are scavenging human culture to identify themselves. There are various tribes who identify as djinn, werewolves, or rakshasas, depending on what part of the world they’re in. That explained why there was a werewolf in India, and the novel became a kind of magical immigration story almost: the European shapeshifters migrating to India and surviving there.
UW: These aren’t delusional people: They’re monsters, and they’re scary. How did you go about making characters who are unquestionably bloodthirsty and horrifying compelling enough that you’d still want to follow along with their story?
ID: That’s a good question. When I first started writing the short stories that I based the novel on, one of them was about Fenrir: the book’s main antagonist. The intention was to create an alien voice that was almost science-fictional. There are some amazing science-fiction stories that are from the point of view of another life form. James Tiptree wrote one about an alien going through a mating cycle. It ends with it eating the mate that it loves because it is compelled to because of its genetics. I wanted to write from the viewpoint of a predator: an animal but not an animal. I got into that viewpoint by not seeing him as human as all, but as a primal predator. When he starts taking on human characteristics—when he begins envying humans for their emotions, their arts, their feelings—that’s when he becomes evil. Evil is an inherent human concept. Animals aren’t evil: They’re just doing what they’re hardwired to do. They’re killing to eat or for fun, but it is in the absence of morality. They’re just killing something if they want to and no one is judging them for it in the animal kingdom. There’s just fear and power, and a form of love I suppose. Sex and violence are the commanding forces in most animal’s lives, or at least mammals. I tried to embed myself into something fascinatingly not human and then have it try to be human and fail—or succeed at being a terrible human, because we have many, many people who are like Fenric, with the exception that they don’t have the magic to kill people.
UW: You grew up in more than one culture. Were there any cultural elements that influenced your take on this creature? You mention the Eastern European werewolf, the loup garou, and others. Were there any creatures from Indian myth?
ID: Toward the end of the novel there’s a large section that concentrates on an Indian tribe of shapeshifters called rakshasas. Those are directly taken from Hindu mythology. The rakshasas are monsters or demons. The unusual thing about Hindu mythology is that the creatures in it can be hard to pin down. They have various different definitions, and they can sometimes be good or bad: I love that about them. There’s not a set definition of their powers like werewolves. They’re man-eating, shapeshifting monsters. Sometimes they’re identified with tigers or other animals. That’s where I got that from. Then there’s the djinn or genie of Middle Eastern mythology or folklore. Again, they’re hard to pin down. Essentially, they’re considered beings of smokeless fire that live parallel to human beings. They have a shadowed existence and are very fluid and appropriate for shapeshifting. All of the creatures in my novel aren’t the traditional forms of these mythic beings. They’re not meant to be represent accurate depictions of them. They’re the versions of these mythological beings that these immortal shapeshifters are presenting themselves as.
UW: You described this as almost being a “fantasy immigration novel”. There are some examinations here of important cultural issues. As a writer who takes an interest in bigger issues, does speculative fiction offer you any opportunities that literary fiction doesn’t?
ID: Absolutely. The reason I love writing speculative fiction is that there’s so much freedom. You can write about anytime you can imagine. I want to take advantage of that because it’s such a tremendous advantage human beings have: the ability to think of things that don’t exist. You can use these things to talk about any social or philosophical issue, or just general entertainment, or anything you really want to do. You can talk about immigration, the effects of physical violence or misogyny: You can attach these to any kind of metaphors. You have to do it carefully because these are issues that affect real people who you might inadvertently hurt. You can talk about these things without appropriating things that we don’t directly have a say in.
UW: This is a deep novel in that sense, but this is an entertaining, scary book too. On that note, what are some of your favorite scary movies or books? What scares you?
ID: The very first adult book that I ever read was Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King. It had these gorgeous illustrations. I loved that book as a kid and it blew my mind. I was nine or 10 at the time. That’s when I started reading King. It was when I graduated to novels for adults. Later I read my first fantasy novel: The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. That was a scary book too, with the changeling and what-not. Anyway, I was obsessed with Stephen King as a kid and his books are what I grew up reading, along with Michael Crichton: I was obsessed with Jurassic Park, as well. I read half of King’s books, and I loved Carrie, The Shining, The Cycle of the Werewolf, and The Shining. I grew up watching a ton of horror movies, as well. My brother and I would huddle around the television at night after my parents had gone to bed to watch them, because they were 18 and above and we weren’t quite old enough. We loved all kinds of genre movies: Robocop, Predator, Alien, and Aliens. We would watch these only at night. We loved them all, and were deeply disturbed by man, obviously. Especially Robocop. I remember the scene where Murphy gets shot up. I think that literally scarred me for life, but I loved it because these movies were essentially comic books come to life. Recently, there have been some great horror movies coming out, like The Witch, which is essentially The Exorcist set in Puritan times.
UW: Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?
ID: I would like to! One of the things that I loved about the movie is that it gives an impression of a puritanical evil being brought into the wilderness by the humans. It takes what is scary in the woods and puts the locus on the humans. They’re the ones who brought this puritanical evil into this untouched wilderness. Their folklore and superstitions came to the woods and brought it alive. They’re so full of fear at themselves: at their own daughter, at women, at sexuality. I love how it turns into this thing where what frightens you is what frees you. They sort themselves and end up almost everyone in the family but the daughter, who is freed and joins the devil and all of the witches.
SUV: What does “What frightens you is what frees you” mean to you?
ID: In a larger context it can be applied to many things, like writing for example. I’m always afraid of a writing career because it can be difficult to make a living, but I’ve always been worried about that. Writers are always confronting that fear by writing. It literally free you. Just starting to write is something that can scare people. When I’m staring at a blank page I don’t feel traditional fear, but I do worry about how I’m going to get what I have in my head on the page. It’s never going to be as good, you know? You have to get over the fear that’s holding you back and write it anyway: Just do the best that you can.