Welcome back to Kicking Back with Kick-butt!
We’re chatting with Karuna Riazi, the author of
The game begins again in this gripping follow-up to The Gauntlet that’s a futuristic middle eastern Zathura meets Ready Player One!
Four years after the events of The Gauntlet, the evil game Architect is back with a new partner-in-crime—The MasterMind—and the pair aim to get revenge on the Mirza clan. Together, they’ve rebuilt Paheli into a slick, mind-bending world with floating skyscrapers, flying rickshaws run by robots, and a digital funicular rail that doesn’t always take you exactly where you want to go.
Twelve-year-old Ahmad Mirza struggles to make friends at his new middle school, but when he’s paired with his classmate Winnie for a project, he is determined to impress her and make his very first friend. At home while they’re hard at work, a gift from big sister Farah—who is away at her first year in college—arrives. It’s a high-tech game called The Battle of Blood and Iron, a cross between a video game and board game, complete with virtual reality goggles. He thinks his sister has solved his friend problem—all kids love games. He convinces Winnie to play, but as soon as they unbox the game, time freezes all over New York City.
With time standing still and people frozen, all of humankind is at stake as Ahmad and Winnie face off with the MasterMind and the Architect, hoping to beat them at their own game before the evil plotters expand Paheli and take over the entire world.
Let’s talk to this amazing author about her fantastic book!
This is Karuna. Everyone say, “Hi, Karuna!”
Welcome to Kick-Butt Kidlit, Karuna! Tell us about yourself!
Happy to be here! I’m Karuna Riazi, and I like to describe myself as a girl who drinks a lot of tea, reads a lot of books and wears a lot of hats! Those hats currently include grad student, middle school educator and author of middle grade and young adult speculative fiction – most notably, The Gauntlet (S&S/Salaam Reads, 2017) and The Battle (S&S/Salaam Reads, releasing this coming August 27)!
THE BATTLE is the sequel to your awesome middle grade debut, THE GAUNTLET.
For our aspiring authors at home, can you tell us a bit about what goes into writing a sequel? Did you always know there was going to be a book two? Did you plan ahead when you were writing book one?
The Battle honestly took a lot to build, particularly since my contract was originally for one book! My editor decided another one would be great thanks to the overwhelming and humbling outpouring of love for The Gauntlet from readers – thank you, guys! This was fabulous and a happy surprise for me, but also different from other authors who already have a two-book deal and are aware of what particular loopholes they need to leave in their first book.
I had room to work with based off the sprawling world that is Paheli and some mysteries that we agreed would be better to leave unsolved – just in case. Having a tenacious villain with a grudge also helped, too. I would say for any aspiring authors at home that my general perspective is to remember the words “just in case” and “standalone with series potential.” Don’t overthink it or plan too early but do set up the field if you want to return to that world!
If you were sucked into a game, who would you hope to have with you on your team and why?
If I were sucked into a game, I’d want to have my close friends and critique partners with me – in particular, if I could choose, Axie Oh (author of Rebel Seoul), Kat Cho (author of Wicked Fox) and Nafiza Azad (author of The Candle and the Flame). We put our heads together a lot to support each other and hash out problems, so I know that we work well together and that we’re all fierce, tough ladies who won’t go down without a fight!
That is a wicked good team! You would totally crush it!
What were three interesting things you discovered while working on THE BATTLE?
Hmm, three interesting things. I learned that it actually takes a lot to translate the mechanics of a video game into words. You have to think of yourself in a game, rather than outside and manipulating the game – there goes all those, “He clicked,” or “She moved the joycon.”
I also learned that, when you’re writing a video game into a book, it’s just like research: you need to learn when to stop going further down the rabbit hole. The thing about video games, in comparison to books, is that you have limits on which pathways you can go down and how many side quests can be tossed in!
And, probably most interesting to me, I learned that I can absolutely write a sequel even if I feel like it’s killing me halfway through.
If you could transport your characters across book dimensions, which book would you most like them to end up in and why?
This is a good question, and I’m not entirely sure. Focusing on my protagonists…I think Farah would love to be somewhere else where she could be headlong in an adventure (and preferably by herself so she wouldn’t have to worry about Ahmad), so perhaps the world of The Westing Game, which is one of my forever favorites! I feel like Ahmad would rather stay home and relax after the adventure he’s had in The Battle, and hang out with his friend Winnie!
Why were you drawn to writing middle grade?
I love middle grade, since I was a middle schooler myself! There are a lot of things to love about the young adult category, but when I need comfort or reassurance in the worst way, it’s my middle grade favorites I head back to.
It’s often surprising to people that, after I tell them all this, I admit that the first words out of my mouth when Sona and Dhonielle (my bosses and the CEOs of diverse book packager Cake Literary) told me they thought The Gauntlet should be a middle grade title was “I can’t write middle grade.” I loved the category so, so much that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to do justice to it in the way that my middle grade heroes (Kate DiCamillo, for instance, or Anne Ursu) could do it so well. But they urged me to reconsider as they thought I would have a great middle grade voice and, apparently, I do! I’m still not sure of it myself but kids do like The Gauntlet, which I find reassuring, and I’m continuing to work hard on writing middle grades that do my love of them justice.
Any hints about your next book project?
As soon as I find out, you’ll be the first to know! I’m currently in between contracts (and seeking representation) and trying to use this liberating, and frightening, blank space to write stories I can have fun with and be proud of. Stay tuned!
Can’t wait to hear more when you can share!
What has been the most surprising part of your publishing journey?
I think being published with Salaam Reads, as one of the lead titles, has been one of the most surprising and wonderful aspects of this entire journey. Even in my wildest dreams as a teenager longing to be an author, I never would have imagined becoming one under the very first Muslim-focused imprint. To be part of something so historical and empowering for a marginalized community has been incredible and such an honor.
What are you reading right now?
I am currently reading a lot of picture books. It’s wonderful. I’m in heaven! (My recommendations if you want some happiness in your life: Bilal Cooks Daal by Aisha Saeed and Mommy’s Khimar by Jamillah Thompkins-Bigelow – both Salaam Reads titles!)
What’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?
Do what is right for you, and put yourself first as a reader! Feel like writing longhand? Go for it! Want to write a thrilling supernatural novel full of vampires and werewolves? Knock yourself out! I’ve been reminding myself a lot, and been reminded by some fabulous authors and mentors, that writing should be fun and fulfilling and not torturous or you sloughing through a book because it’s what you think readers will want. Readers have fun when you, as a writer, have fun with your process and your story.
Yes, yes, yes! So true. Thank you so much for joining us, Karuna!
Kick-butt Kidlit friends, make sure you check out THE BATTLE!
It hits shelves on August 27th!
Add THE BATTLE on Goodreads!
Click here to win a copy of THE BATTLE!
Contest closes Sunday, August 18th at 11:59 pm EST.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more fun interviews!