An image with a headshot of author Nazneen Ahmed Pathak. She is on top of a pink and yellow collage style background with bold typography that says '21 Questions'. There is an image of her book City of Stolen Magic, two snooker balls and a cue, and a yellow mug.
21 Questions

‘Children’s literature can tell the most profound stories’: 21 Questions with Nazneen Ahmed Pathak

The author of City of Stolen Magic on Jane Austen, listening to audiobooks in the bath, and being a guinea pig for trainee psychologists at Oxford.

Whilst on maternity leave back in 2013, historian Nazneen Ahmed Pathak realised that there were no children’s stories about her baby son’s heritage. The idea for City of Stolen Magic was born. But it wasn’t until Nazneen was accepted onto Penguin Random House’s WriteNow mentoring scheme in 2016 that she devoted time to bringing her magical idea to life.

It’s 1855 in India, and the magic that could once be found all across the country is being stamped out. The British rule and those born with magic are rumoured to be snatched from their families and taken to England by the sinister Company. Young Chompa is blessed with finger-magic but has been warned by her mother to not use it for it leaves a trace. Chompa disobeys Ammi and casts a spell, and not long after that Ammi is snatched by the pale men. Chompa now has to journey to the bustling streets of East London to find her mother.

To celebrate the release of her debut children’s book, we caught up with Nazneen to ask her our 21 questions about life and literature. Below she shares her unexpected love for snooker, why she would serve lamb koftas to Salman Rushie, and what her ideal superpower would be.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

I think it would have to be Toni Morrison. She wrote such beautiful, powerful stories which in themselves were also activism – but she also changed US publishing as an editor, and literature as a whole as a writer, academic and thinker. I still remember the first time I read Beloved aged 17 – it changed my life, and my idea of what stories we can tell, and the ways we might tell them.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Roald Dahl’s Matilda. I loved the fact that reading gave Matilda the power to escape her difficult home environment and stand up to bullies despite being tiny.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I read it when I was 15 in Dhaka when I was stuck indoors on a summer ‘holiday’ in a monsoon. It was weirdly familiar – arranged marriages; big, chaotic families and the challenges of following your own path as a young woman in a society with particular expectations of you. And so funny!!! I read it eight times on that holiday alone, and I’ve always thought of Austen as a South Asian writer ever since. 

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. When I read that, I realised children’s literature can tell the most profound stories and can be masterpieces of craft. Then I realised I wanted to be a children’s writer, too.

'I’ve always thought of Jane Austen as a South Asian writer ever since reading Pride and Prejudice'

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside of being an author?

When I was a student at Oxford, I used to be a guinea pig for trainee psychologists learning to use the Myers-Briggs psychometric questionnaires which are personality tests that put you into different categories (I am an INTJ, which basically means I am a quiet introvert who is creative and thinks a lot, which is pretty accurate actually!)

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Show up at your desk regularly – don’t wait for inspiration to come. And that the first draft is just a placeholder for the words that will be there in the end.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Jane Eyre. It is a masterpiece that’s really underrated when it’s considered just a romance. It is wonderful as a romance story, of course, and Jane and Rochester’s chemistry is electric. But there is so much more in it and so much depth as a piece of literature, including themes around faith, gender, freedom and oppression. I read it every autumn, and find something new in it every single time.

What’s the one popular children’s book you’ve never got round to reading?

Until this year, I had never read Pippi Longstocking, even though I taught it in my children’s writing module at Exeter. And I was so surprised at how fresh, quirky and funny it is. Pippi reminds me so much of my super-strong and independent two-year-old daughter!

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

Very, very miserable. It’s been my dream since I was four and I’ve never had another!

What makes you happiest?

Spending time with my family, or reading with tea and biscuits – or ideally, both!

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

People are always surprised by this – but I love watching the Snooker World Championship! I watch it every May bank holiday. Snooker is soothing, gripping and fascinating, all at once. I’d love to go and see a final live at The Crucible one day.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

A long, scenic train journey, a carriage to myself, broken Wi-Fi, with an ever-filling flask of Yorkshire tea and biscuits.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author experience?

I think it must be meeting Monica Ali when she came to speak at Oxford when I was studying there. I asked her a question and introduced myself as “Nazneen Ahmed” which is also the full name of her main character in Brick Lane – and she looked so bewildered! Unsurprisingly it’s not every day you meet a reader with the same exact name as your protagonist!

'A long, scenic train journey, a carriage to myself, and broken Wi-Fi is my ideal writing scenario.'

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I think it would have to be Salman Rushdie. I would want to hug him – gently – for all he’s been through, and then shake him by the hand for all the wondrous, ambitious South Asian stories he’s given us. I’d serve him my mum’s lamb koftas and chicken biryani (but she’d have to make it as mine never tastes as good) and we could discuss writing food and the melting pot of cultural influences that is South Asian cuisine.

What’s your biggest fear?

That this whole becoming-an-author thing was just a dream! And something bad happening to one of my loved ones, of course.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

Typing with my feet! I have a velcro-toddler and that would help me get more writing done. Or some kind of telekinesis where I could just look at the computer and it would just type what I’m thinking, hands-free.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

I think J. T. Williams’ Lizzie and Belle Mysteries: Drama and Danger is definitely one of them! It’s such a page-turning adventure and is woven throughout with fascinating real history and Shakespearean quotes. It’s just my cup of tea!

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes – but not paper books (too messy) and not my Kindle (too risky!) I love listening to audiobooks in the bath! Especially a good mystery!

Which do you prefer: chocolate or crisps?

Can I cheat and say chocolate AND crisps? I am all about salty-sweet flavours! (Yes, it might be cliched now, but I really do love salted caramel too, the saltier the better though!)

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

That is such a difficult question for a bookworm to answer! I think it does have to be His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. It has everything – adventure, a journey to end all journeys, a plucky heroine, armoured bears, and witches. It’s my desert island book.

What inspired you to write your new book?

I remember the moment very vividly. It was when my son was born in 2013. I was reading a children’s book and he was lying on my lap, and I looked down at him and realised there were no stories out there about his heritage as a British-Indian-Bangladeshi child. So really, it was my son, Roshan, who inspired the story. And here we are, 10 years later, talking about City of Stolen Magic! It wouldn’t exist without him.

City of Stolen Magic by Nazneen Ahmed Pathak is out on 29 June 2023.

Image at top: Flynn Shore for Penguin

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