Gigi Pandian’s special alchemy
Gigi Pandian took one immortal alchemist, mixed her well with a gargoyle brought to life by magic, added a run-down old house and created an engaging and novel murder mystery, complete with recipes.
Tell me about yourself, because your background has certainly influenced your writing.
My childhood definitely shaped my writing. My parents are both cultural anthropologists, my mom from the United States and my dad from India. Starting at a young age, I had the opportunity to travel abroad with them on research and family trips, from countries ranging from Scotland to India. On those travels, I amused myself by reading and making up stories of my own. Mystery and adventure stories were my favourites.
I always assumed I’d become an academic, like my parents, and I even started a PhD program. But I felt like something was missing. I’d always had creative hobbies, but it had never occurred to me that I could do something creative as a career. I left my PhD program with my Master’s degree, and started going to art school instead. While working part time and going to art school part time, I also began writing a mystery novel.
All of my books involve the travels and world history I first experienced as a kid. I realised I could take the research skills I learned as an academic and apply them to fiction. Now I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds – I can explore the interesting historical research I could have done as an academic, and I can explore those ideas in exciting ways through characters such as the treasure-hunting historian of my first mystery series (the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mysteries) and the centuries-old alchemist in my new Accidental Alchemist mystery series.
Now I juggle my creative passions by working as both a graphic designer and a mystery novelist. And after a cancer diagnosis a few years ago left me with some food restrictions, cooking from scratch became a big part of my life as well. It was more fun than I ever imagined, so I threw myself into taking cooking classes and experimenting in my kitchen. I’ve been having such fun that culinary alchemy became a big part of The Accidental Alchemist.
What is the appeal for you with regards to mystery and adventure stories?
When I read fiction, I want to be transported to new and exciting places on twisty-turny adventures. But at the same time, I want smart books that teach me something about the world. Those are the books I’ve always loved, so it’s what I wanted to write.
Elizabeth Peters was my favourite author when I was young. She wrote two main adventurous mystery series, the Amelia Peabody mysteries about a female Egyptologist at the turn of the previous century, and the Vicky Bliss mysteries about an art historian who falls for an art thief. Those books were a perfect mix of fascinating true history, romantic adventures you can get swept up in, and puzzling mysteries.
Real life isn’t always an adventure and doesn’t usually have a tidy resolution. But in mystery fiction, we can experience a thrilling journey while drinking a cosy cup of tea and have satisfying closure at the end of the book.
The Accidental Alchemist is classed as a cosy crime novel. How would you describe the genre of cosy crime and why your book fits into this category?
It’s really interesting to me to see how different people characterize my novels. Cosy (or ‘cozy’ to use the American spelling I’m used to) mysteries are a category in which the readers knows they don’t need to worry about graphic violence, sex, or bad language on the page. They’re more light-hearted and humorous than gritty and dark.
My novels follow these cosy ‘rules’, but have also been described as traditional mysteries or international suspense or even cosy thrillers. I’m happy to fall into any of these categories. I love reading mysteries of all kinds, and I understand the usefulness of categories, but many of my favourite novels can’t be easily categorized.
How do you use the research techniques you developed during your postgraduate work?
My first novel, Artefact, involved the history of the British East India Company and clues hidden in historical Indian paintings. I got a research pass to the British Library in London and checked out materials – both to get ideas for the real history in the novel, and also to experience what research is like in the reading rooms at the British Library (such as not being able to take hardly anything into the room with you). The research and the setting made it into the novel.
I also like to speak with historians and librarians. One of the best lessons I learned in academia was that online sources aren’t enough. In the modern world, we’re given a false sense that everything we need to know is available online, but it’s not true. For my new book, The Accidental Alchemist, one of the central ideas in the book came from an antique alchemy book found at a used bookshop. I’ve never seen any of the information in the book online, but it gave me some wonderful ideas for the historical events that led to the present-day mystery.
When you’re using a place like the British Library there is only so much research you can do in one day. How do make the most of the limited time available?
Because I’m writing fiction as opposed to a dissertation, I don’t feel the weight of needing to look at every original source available. I conduct enough research to make sure I’m getting the history right, but from there I have freedom to explore anything that looks interesting when I come across it. I begin my research online, then read a few books before, and only then do I venture out of the house to the library and to the locations where my novels take place. Those excursions raise new questions and ideas, so I’ll then return to reading and talking with experts. It’s a lot of work to make sure I get the history right, but I feel passionately about the books I want to write, so it’s also a lot of fun.
Walk me through how you take facts you’ve researched and turn them into fiction.
That’s a tough question – I’m trying to think about how to answer it in an interesting way that doesn’t reveal too much of my plot solutions. That’s because the best things about research findings are that they often give the twist of my novels.
Here’s one thing that happened while I was writing The Accidental Alchemist and the second book in the series. The series involves a gargoyle from Notre Dame in Paris, so in addition to reading online materials, I delved into books on the history of the cathedral. The more I read, the more interested I became in the architect Viollet-le-Duc, who did the restoration of Notre Dame and added the gallery of gargoyles, which didn’t exist until the 1800s. It turned out that he was a contemporary of another historical figure who already factored into the plot – Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern stage magic – and based on the details of their lives I was able to make a fun connection in the historical part of the mystery.
It’s true that I could make up 100% of the things in my books, but I feel that books steeped in true history are so much richer; they’re definitely what I love to read most. I also think of myself as a mystery writer rather than a fantasy writer, even though I have paranormal elements in my new book. Therefore, rather than building new worlds in my mind, I set up the real world and then give it a twist to make a fun adventure happen within that real world context. I write an Author’s Note in the back of each of my novels that explains where I diverged from true history into fiction
Writing about what you know is advice that’s often given. You said a little earlier about your illness having left you with food restrictions. Explain how you’ve incorporated this into the text?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer right after my 36th birthday. Based on my particular cancer markers, there were foods I could no longer safely eat, so I threw myself into learning how to cook. I took classes and experimented a lot, and I learned that simple techniques and tricks can turn basic foods into amazing meals — better than anything I used to eat at restaurants. That transformation of simple ingredients into something greater than the sum of their parts is what inspired the ‘culinary alchemy’ in the book.
Tell me how you developed your main characters, particularly Zoe and Dorian.
The character Dorian is a chef, and he’s challenged to learn to cook differently because alchemist Zoe Faust is a vegan. Because I now spend so much time cooking, and make most of my meals from scratch, as I wrote this book that theme of culinary transformation made its way into the novel.
I wanted to write about an alchemist because while I was going through chemotherapy, the idea of the Elixir of Life was compelling. I even wrote a first draft of the novel while undergoing cancer treatments. Since I was using paranormal elements for the first time in my fiction, I loved the idea of a gargoyle brought to life. I’ve been fascinated by gargoyles since I was a kid, because they represent all things mysterious. There are different theories about why they were created as they were, and they each have so much personality. That’s how I began writing about Zoe and Dorian.
Zoe Fast is a centuries-old female alchemist who accidentally discovered the Elixir of Life. Dorian Robert-Houdin is a gargoyle who was once made of stone but was accidentally brought to life by a French stage magician who didn’t realize the book he was reading from contained real alchemical magic. The two of them are a pair of misfits in the modern world, and they immediately become friends when Dorian seeks out Zoe to help her decipher a strange alchemy book.
Dorian is a stone gargoyle. How is it possible to make something like this into a character that readers will find engaging?
I’d never written a fantasy character before, so I let Dorian come to life as I wrote. I hadn’t intended him to take over the story, but his character grew into something I didn’t expect. Perhaps because I had no preconceived notions about what he should be, he ended up having one of the strongest personalities in the book.
He’s the comic relief foil to Zoe.
Where do you see this series going and what other fantasy/adventures stories do you have planned for the future?
I used to insist that I was an outliner – that I couldn’t write a book unless I had a detailed outline. But the more I write, the more I’ve realized that characters take on lives of their own, and I need to be true to the characters. That’s what makes a compelling story. So while I have ideas about where I think the story will lead, I can’t be sure. I need to see where Dorian, Zoe, and the others lead me.
I have an idea for a paranormal mystery young adult novel set in California gold country (where the Gold Rush took place), so if I can find the time, I’d love to write it.