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Of Magic Lands and Transformations

Dec/11/2022 / by Pratika Yashaswi

Sometimes the stories behind the stories are the most awe-inspiring parts of literature — by which we mean the behind-the-scenes of writing: the hours put in, the sacrifices made, and the working and reworking of drafts to perfection.

Harvard-educated Dilani Kahawala wrote Blood Moon Prophecy while raising two children and handling a high-pressure job in tech. Born in Sri Lanka, she’s lived in New Zealand, Australia and the United States — her background is a cultural melting pot. She brings all this into her book. The plot is gripping and her protagonist, Tilly, is compelling. Her book is a fast-paced YA fantasy-adventure-mystery that’s perfect for fans of Stranger Things, the Mortal Instruments, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, and Da Vinci Code.

Via email, Kahawala shared more about her book and her super interesting life, going from being a theoretical physicist to a published author.

Theoretical physics to writing–what’s been your journey?

After finishing my undergraduate studies in Australia, I moved to the US to start a PhD in theoretical physics at Harvard. I was fascinated by how physics on the smallest scale (quantum mechanics governing subatomic particles) was directly connected to how things worked on the largest scale (galaxies and even the universe itself). After getting my PhD, I became really interested in the tech entrepreneurship ecosystem around Harvard and MIT and eventually started working as Product Manager at Etsy in Brooklyn. This is around the time I started writing. I was living in the Upper West side of Manhattan and the early chapters of Blood Moon Prophecy were inspired by my time there. Since then, I’ve always had my day job in tech and writing Blood Moon Prophecy became an amazing creative outlet, and frankly a bit of an obsession that I managed to squeeze into my late nights. 

Why YA fantasy? What draws you to the genre?

I love reading escapist stories, and I think YA fantasy offers the best kind of escapist enjoyment. I grew up reading series like His Dark Materials and of course Harry Potter, and wanted to pen a fantasy novel for a new generation. YA audiences are in that perfect sweet spot where you can truly transport a reader to a completely different magical world, and yet write a story with a complex mystery and nuanced characters. They can viscerally relate to the struggles of the characters in the book, and the hard decisions they have to make, even if they are battling magical sprites in an ocean world. 

Tell us about your novel, Blood Moon Prophecy. Who’s Tilly, what’s she like and what’s her story?

In Blood Moon Prophecy, 16 year old Tilly Nyx has to unravel a mystery thousands of years in the making to figure out the secrets of her own past. Armed with an ancient map that her mother made her swear to protect with her life, Tilly’s journey takes her from New York City to the world of Marea. It is a world of oceans and sailing ships, of feuds between ancient magical families. She joins a fleet in search of the secret her map holds, which has been guarded by her family for four thousand years. As Tilly learns how to cast sprites and make potions, she and her three friends must follow the trail of murky, disturbing clues left by her ancestors before time runs out. But the closer they get to their destination, the more Tilly discovers that nothing is what it seems…not even herself.

Tilly goes through an incredible journey of transformation in the story. She’s a little headstrong by nature, and given everything she’s been through, doesn’t trust people easily. But she learns that there are people who do care for her and family is not just people who are related to you by blood. She is by no means perfect, and like your average 16 year old, doesn’t want much advice from those in charge. But she soon realizes that she has much to learn and figures out when to trust her instincts, and when to let her friends help her, as she tries to solve a mystery that threatens to tear apart the people that she cares about and the truth that she believes. 

How have your South Asian roots and life growing up in Australia and New Zealand influenced your writing?

It means a great deal to me that I could create a story that celebrates a diverse set of characters and weaves in parts of my upbringing and culture that are core to my identity. I grew up reading fantasy novels like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, which are very classic European fantasies. I loved those stories! But when it came to writing my own, I wanted to create a story that infused a little of what it was like to grow up in a different culture. 

I was born in Sri Lanka, which is a beautiful little island in the Indian Ocean. When I lived in Sri Lanka, I went to a school that was right next to the beach and you could hear the waves crashing on the rocks, and frequently see little sail boats going out to fish. Because of that, I think the oceans have always fascinated me. In Blood Moon Prophecy, the world of Marea is an ocean-world, where people live on the high seas and travel in fleets of ships. A lot of that was inspired by the sights and sounds of my early childhood. 

After Sri Lanka, I lived in Wellington, New Zealand and in Melbourne, Australia, and in much of the book I wanted the reader to feel a little of what it was like growing up in such a melting pot of cultures. My high school friends came from all over the world and I still maintain and cherish those friendships. Our gatherings would be an Aussie style BBQ at the park with pavlova, but also with dumplings, samosas and fish rolls. You’ll see the characters in the book from a variety of different backgrounds, coming together and having similar experiences. 

We hear that food plays a major role in your novel. Could you tell us more about that?

Food plays a really important role throughout the story, in bringing friends together through good times and the bad. In bringing the food of Marea to life, I was heavily influenced by my own cultural heritage and the melting pot of culture that I grew up in. The reader will get to experience a few Sri Lankan specialties such as ‘short eats’ and crispy hoppers. There’s also Ma Gita, the ship’s head chef, clad in a glamorous saree, infusing a little bit of spice into literally everything, including crème brûlée. A few of my favorites like Laksa and burgers get featured, but you’ll also see many other cuisines pop up including a few specialties unique to Marea like Mr Igo’s Pogi, which is Tilly’s first food experience as she arrives in this new world. I have to say, writing about the food was one of my favorite parts of the whole writing experience!

You spent eight years writing “Blood Moon Prophecy” and balanced writing fiction with a full time job in tech. How’d you get it done?

I wish I had a magical answer for this, but the reality was that it was tough. It took a lot of patience to figure out my writing style, who these characters were, and how the story came together. There were many many iterations all written late late at night. In the eight years since I started writing Blood Moon Prophecy, I also had two kids, and juggling motherhood, a full time Silicon Valley job and writing was definitely a challenge. There wasn’t a lot of sleeping happening! What helped was consistency. Writing was my way to switch off after a long day and I would try to set aside an hour or two every night to focus on it, which in a surprising way, helped me find balance with the other things in my life. Ultimately, it was the story that kept me going. I fell in love with the characters and the world, and the mystery, and there was no way I could stop until it was done. 

What’s coming up for you in the future? Is there anything I’ve not asked that you’d like to mention?

We just moved back to Melbourne, Australia to be closer to our families. So for the moment, we’re trying to settle down and get into a normal routine. Then I’d love to jump back into writing. Blood Moon Prophecy is just the beginning of Tilly’s journey. There are so many twists and turns on her path toward figuring out who she is and the secrets of her family. The mystery goes deep and in unraveling it, the crew of the Kaluza will be in for quite a few hair raising adventures.