First Draft, Ep. 106: Sabaa Tahir - Transcript
Date: September 6, 2017
The original post for this episode can be found here.
[Theme music plays]
Sarah ENNI: Welcome to First Draft with me, Sarah Enni. Today I’m talking to Sabaa Tahir, author of the New York Times Bestselling AN EMBER IN THE ASHES series. Three summers ago, Sabaa and I actually sat down to talk right before her debut YA, AN EMBER IN THE ASHES, came out. We sat, picnic style, on the grassy lawn in front of her local library. Unfortunately, the noise from gardeners across the part was so intrusive, we had to scrap the episode all together. Gone to the mists of time. So, this summer Sabaa and I were finally able to reunite, three years and a couple of books wiser.
Sabaa’s career, and the wider world, have changed so much and I was so happy to get into it with this smart, empathetic, lovely person. So, relax on a patio overlooking a pool, try not to think of the bitter feud raging between your pop dolls, and enjoy the conversation.
ENNI: So, hi Sabaa, how are you?
Sabaa TAHIR: Good, how are you Sarah?
ENNI: I’m so good. We’re poolside, we’re having coffee, I feel really excited to ask you about your gorgeous new covers, getting rereleased.
ENNI: I love having the full set of paperback books for my fantasy series that I love.
TAHIR: I think that that’s something that I also from childhood, I really loved it. I remember getting all of the Shannara books. I remember – “SHAN-ar-ah” actually is apparently how you say it – which I didn’t know.
ENNI: Oh, really?
TAHIR: I know, I didn’t know this. I heard Terry Brooks speak at an event and he said “SHAN-ar-ah” and I was like, “What? What?”
ENNI: Oh, mind blown!
TAHIR: My whole life it was “Sha-NAR-ah” and now it’s apparently “SHAN-ar-ah”. Anyway, I had all of the Shannara books in paperback. And I had all of the Pern books, the Anne McCaffrey books, in paperback. And they were all that perfect little size, you know? That you can take anywhere with you.
ENNI: I love the mass market paperback with fantasy, with the tissue-thin paper.
TAHIR: Yup. And these, I think, are gonna be bigger. They’re gonna be the size of the EMBER paperback, the original EMBER paperback. Which will be interesting, because that will be harder to find now. So, I guess if you’ve got one, hang on to it. [laughing]
ENNI: Collector’s Edish!
TAHIR: Yeah, yeah.
ENNI: So, we are gonna start where we normally start, which is where were you born and raised?
TAHIR: I was born in London, in England. But I was raised in California, the Mojave Desert.
ENNI: In the Mojave Desert?
ENNI: And can you talk about your parent’s business?
TAHIR: Yes, where do I begin? They had a lot of them. So, my parents moved out to a small town in the Mojave Desert, and they ran a motel. Over the years, they also got [into] other businesses. But that was the mainstay throughout my childhood and into my young adulthood. It was a very small motel. It had about eighteen rooms. It had a pool that was sometimes full, sometimes not. It was a really small place and we had all sorts of people passing through… crazy stories.
ENNI: As you know, I’m obsessed with writers [and] where they come from. The settings that shape young minds and imaginations. And it feels like the Mojave Desert - a motel where people are coming and going - and you may not ever know anything about their real story. It seems like it’s such an evocative…
TAHIR: It is! It was a very strange place to grow up. It felt like nothing was permanent in a way, because people were always passing through. It was a very transient population. I would become friends with the little kids who might stay for a week, or two weeks, while their parents were maybe either working – there was the Naval base – either working on the Naval base, or maybe they were just visiting family and they wanted a place to stay. Or sometimes, they were actually exploring the surrounding areas. Because Mt. Whitney is about two hours away. Death Valley is about an hour-and-a-half away. It’s the highest and lowest point on the continental United States. And the town I lived in, Ridgecrest, was right in the middle.
There were sand dunes that were really famous. People used to do dune motorcycling, or something, over there. Kennedy Meadows, which is a really famous camping and hiking spot. There was just a lot of places around my hometown where people love to go to. But, I always felt like the town itself was never the destination. [laughs]
ENNI: Like, “This isn’t where we wanna be. We’re trying to get somewhere else.”
TAHIR: “We’re trying to get somewhere else.” But sometimes we used to rent out our rooms long-term. So sometimes we had people who would stay for a month, or two months, and I would make friends. And then they would leave and I would never hear from them again. This was before, obviously, Facebook and cell phones, and all of that stuff. So, they would just be gone.
ENNI: That’s interesting to me… talking about the feeling of impermanence. It’s kind of lonely. The desert is also a lonely place. And the transient nature of the motel. When I think of that, it makes me think of childhood in this kind of lonely, always changing, environment where an imagination could save you.
TAHIR: Absolutely! It was lonely in the sense that I did always feel very isolated. But I had my family, and I was very close to them. We were sort of lonely together, if you will. But I did definitely feel that sense of loneliness. And I needed friends, and so books became my friends. Books were 1) loyal, and 2) they didn’t call me names, or say mean things to me. And they introduced me to new places and new friends and new ways of thinking.
Again, this was a very isolated town, so it was very racist, close minded, homophobic, you name it. It was those things. And I was even some of those things myself, until I started reading a lot more. And then I realized like, “No! That’s not the way you should think.” It was very eye-opening for me.
ENNI: So, books were really your key to the rest of the world?
TAHIR: Absolutely. The town was not necessarily small, it was isolated. The closest mall was ninety miles away. My parents had businesses, and whereas I think a lot of people in the town regularly traveled on the weekend - they would drive up to whatever, the mall - my parents weren’t able to do that because they couldn’t leave their businesses. So, we really were bound to the town for a long time. We didn’t really go on vacations very often. When we did, it was gonna be to Pakistan, where my parents were born, visiting family there.
ENNI: So, you’re [in] this tiny desert town in Mojave, California and Pakistan. [chuckles]
TAHIR: Yeah, in Ridgecrest, California or Pakistan. I remember when I was seven, we went to Pakistan. And it was my first trip that I remembered [to Pakistan], and we went to England as well. And when I came back, that’s when I first started seeing the smallness of where I lived, and how uninteresting it felt. Compare that to London, right? Or Lahore. These cities that are so alive, and there are so many people, and there’s so many stories. You’re painting in color. Whereas my hometown just felt black and white. But not in the good Ansel Adams way, but in the boring way. [laughs]
ENNI: Did you feel a yearning to get out?
TAHIR: A hundred percent. I wanted to leave the town. And I didn’t want to just leave the town, I wanted to take my parents with me. I was like, “We need to get out of here. This is not where we’re meant to die.” [laughing] You know? So, I really wanted to leave. And I think it’s one of the main reasons I worked really hard… so I could go to college. My parents couldn’t send me to school, so I had to pay for it myself, so did my brothers. All three of us. I think the reason we were like, “Get good grades. Get scholarships. Get grants. Get whatever we can,” is because we did not want to stay in the town.
ENNI: The other thing that’s interesting about the town, like you were saying, it’s near the naval research lab?
TAHIR: Yeah, oh my god, so many weird things! So many weird like, “Stranger Things” type stuff going on. I remember two of my best friends and I were walking up a street one day, and there was this enormous flash of light across the entire sky. We grabbed each other and sat down on the curb freaking out. And I kept thinking that we would hear something about it. Somebody would say something, or explain it. But nobody ever did. It wasn’t lightening. It was a summer’s day and in the Mojave Desert there aren’t that many storms. And it wasn’t a small flash of light. It wasn’t like a transformer bursting or something. It was huge, across the sky.
And another time I remember a spotlight in my window, as a kid. And I lived on the second floor of a house. This was when my parents had left the motel to managers, and we were living somewhere else for a couple of years. It was late at night and my father was still working. My mom was probably downstairs. And my brother and I were asleep. He’s in his room and I’m in mine. And we see this spotlight goes over my room, and then it goes back, and then it goes away. Our backyard faced the desert. There were no streets out there. There was nothing. And it wasn’t headlights, it was a spotlight. But there was not sound.
You think helicopter, right? Like in LA for example, you see that will happen. A spotlight will go over your house, and you’ll be like, “Oh,” you know, “The cops are looking for someone.” This was not that. I remember looking outside and wondering, “Was it someone with a really, really, really high powered flashlight? Or, was it a silent helicopter? What was it?”
We would have just weird stuff [happen]. There was an area out there that had train cars, abandoned train cars. You would drive by on 395 - which was the freeway that went through the town - and there were no roads that went out to those train cars from any direction. They were just out in the middle of the desert. You can see them. They look like little tiny pills lined up. But they would change position. There was no station nearby. It was the weirdest thing. Either it was some weird holding yard, but you never saw a train out there. You never saw cars going out there. One time I remember seeing a truck turning into the desert and driving out there and it looked like it was driving into nothingness.
ENNI: Right, whoa!
TAHIR: It was a very weird place! [laughing]
ENNI: See, and to me I’m like, “How are you not writing Twin Peaks or something?
TAHIR: Right? I know! Initially I think I wanted to write about my hometown and the motel in particular. And then it ended up being one of those things where I was like, “You know, I think I need the wisdom of age to look back and write even something that’s AU Ridgecrest.” You know? [laughing] So, I ended up using the setting for EMBER with the desert. The high desert in particular with the mountains around it. The desert in Serra has a river running through it, so it’s more of a river/valley type of civilization. And we did not… we did not have a river! But the rest of it is similar. The terrain, and the feeling that it evokes.
ENNI: I was gonna say, when you read the book you get the heat, and you describe all of those feelings. I’m like, “Ooh, yeah!”
TAHIR: The heat and the loneliness and how stark it is. This idea that the desert can love you, or it can hate you. And when it loves you it’s very beautiful, and you’re looking at a sky that looks like it’s been painted and the air is cool at night, it’s very peaceful. You can hear the animals, crickets and such. And when it hates you, it’s 115 degrees and people are close-minded and calling you names. And your car… you can fry an egg on top of it. You can’t go outside it’s just miserable. It’s either one or the other, very polarized.
ENNI: Yeah, it’s so intense. So, we talked a little bit about reading and writing, and certainly how reading was playing into your young life. What about writing?
TAHIR: I used to write in the sense that when I got a little bit older - eight or nine - I used to write down stories. I used to tell my mom stories and I used to listen to her stories, that’s sort of where the storytelling began. We would go on walks, and I would tell her these ridiculous, long stories. My brother did this too. And she would just listen.
ENNI: Not you guys retelling stories from your life, but…
TAHIR: No, made up stories. Fantasy stories. I remember telling her one about [something] I had read it in school. I would retell her what I had read in school, usually. So, I would read something in school and then I would come home and retell her the tale. And she would always be really interested in what it was. And I just sort of got used to that. And also [of] having stories in my head, having conversations in my head. Long conversations with whoever, friends that I wished they had gone that way. Or, people who I wished were my friends. Or, people I wished I had the guts to stand up to. From a really young age. But, I didn’t really start “write” writing until I was a little bit older, like seven, eight, or nine. And I really started enjoying it.
ENNI: That’s pretty young.
TAHIR: It is pretty young. By the time I was twelve or thirteen, I was working on stories… fantasy. You know? One ridiculous book that I was writing that was giant.
ENNI: What was it about?
TAHIR: It was a fantasy. It was a fantasy, and it was really silly. I don’t remember what it was about. I think I still have it somewhere. Bad handwriting. And really weirdly drawn pictures, and a really badly drawn map.
ENNI: [laughing] I love that! How seriously were you taking it?
TAHIR: Oh, not seriously. I wasn’t thinking like [raises her voice to a high octave], “I’m gonna be a writer one day.” I was like [voice determined but flat of emotion], “Mom and dad say I’m gonna be a doctor one day. So that’s what I’m gonna be doing.”
TAHIR: My parents were pretty strict and I had to do well in school. My dad was like, “You’re gonna be a doctor. And that’s what you’re gonna do.” And then I worked at a hospital as an outsource, career type of thing in high school. And I was like, “I don’t think this is for me.” Then I tried a different type, I worked at a chiropractor’s office thinking like, “Okay, well maybe if there’s not a hospital involved, it’ll be fine.” And I was like, “Nope. Still not for me.”
I had been working at the student newspaper, and I only worked there because my brother worked there. He was years ahead of me and he was like, “You should join it.” And my favorite teacher was the advisor for it. So, I worked there and I got into journalism and really like it. So, then I was like, “I guess I’ll do that.”
ENNI: Stick with that. What did you like about it?
TAHIR: It involved writing, but it seemed stable. I felt like I can become a journalist and get a paycheck. Not necessarily a great one, but it is an actual job. I didn’t realize at the time, that there are many, many, many jobs you can do with writing. But, at the time, I didn’t know what I could do if I just wanted to be a writer. And I didn’t even really think of that as a job that I could pursue. It was like, “Well, that’s something I can do on the side.” I had friends who were Lit Writing majors in college.
ENNI: Oh, really? Lit Writing as its own…?
TAHIR: Literature and Writing, yeah. It was sort of funny, and I remember thinking – I felt sort of bad – I was like, “Well, they’re probably gonna be writers.” Not realizing that actually, the best thing you can do if you want to be a writer, is not major in English or Writing. Maybe English, it was classics and that kind of stuff, I think that that’s helpful. But I do think that if you major in something else you expand your horizons.
ENNI: You can always write. You can’t always take an anthropology class, or fill your head with other really cool bits of information. Or, find other passions or other things that will inspire you. You can’t write about writing. [laughing]
TAHIR: Exactly, and there are so many examples of people who write about writing, and I always find those stories really boring. Stories about the tortured screenwriter who can’t write about screenwriting and then is suffering in whatever town he’s in. I just find them so boring!
ENNI: Isn’t the point of being a writer that we inhabit totally other experiences?
TAHIR: Right, and that goes to this idea of inhabiting other worlds, and making yourself think in a way different to what you are. Obviously, of course, doing it in a respectful way. Because that is an issue that even as a kid, I remember reading portrayals of Pakistani people, or South Asian people, and we were either running motels in those books, or we were terrorists, you know? There was no nuance to it, and there was no depth, and that sucked as a kid to see that. It sucked even more because my parents were running a motel. We were the stereotype. It sucked. It was like, “Aaargh!”
ENNI: Yeah, you’re like, “Dang it!” Did you recognize that? Or, was that later that you realized you hadn’t seen yourself?
TAHIR: It was later, it was later. I remember the first book in which I did see myself, which was called SEVEN DAUGHTERS AND SEVEN SONS by Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy. It’s not a particularly amazing book, but it meant the world to me because the girl in it was a “Middle-Eastern” girl who was brave and strong, and wanted to save her family. And to me, that was the coolest thing. All of the portrayals I had seen of Middle-Eastern women was either repressed, or were objects of curiosity, or exotified. There was nothing ever that felt right, that felt like who I was. I’m not actually Middle-Eastern, I’m South Asian, but she was a Muslim girl and I thought that that was really cool.
ENNI: And when did you find that book?
TAHIR: It was fourth grade. And I checked it out so many times [that] eventually I asked the librarian if I could buy it. She was really cute, she was like [voice drops low and quiet], “You could lose it! And then you could pay me for it.” But I felt bad doing that. Out in places like Ridgecrest, we didn’t have a lot of bookstores. We had a used bookstore. It seemed like every new bookstore - independent bookstore - we had would shut down because there wasn’t enough business for it. There are places that are much more remote where Amazon’s like a godsend!
ENNI: Yeah, it’s huge! Okay, the journalistic writing, I didn’t want to skip over that too much. Because I find it really interesting – of course as you know, I was also a journalist – and I was drawn to that kind of writing. I think it’s interesting how you are someone who is always drawn into fantasy worlds, and very non-reality. And journalism is so meticulous about reality. What do you think was at play there?
TAHIR: I don’t know. I think that maybe it was that I was drawn to [it] - a kid being drawn to fantasy -because my real-life kind of sucked. And then as an adult being drawn to fantasy because I read about things that sucked [laughs], so it was like, “This is my escape.” Because I had essentially been, at that point, reading, writing or editing journalism from the age of fourteen. When I was in high school I worked on the newspaper, then I worked on the literary magazine. It was just a big part of who I was. And all through college that’s what I did. I was a copy editor and an editor; that was my whole thing.
Editing felt like a comfortable space for me. It felt fun and I really enjoy it. That’s why I went into journalism. But then this dichotomy that you’re explaining, fantasy… I don’t necessarily know that they’re related. Maybe the common root is the love of language, the love of words. It just happens to be that fantasy are the types of stories that I like. But the love of words is still…
I love literature as well. I don’t talk about [it] as much, what I read, but one of my favorite books is THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS by Arundhati Roy. I read that as a teenager. It was the first time I thought, “Oh. Maybe I can be a writer one day.” It was a stray thought, because here was this Indian woman who had written this amazing book that had exploded, and was really huge, and people cared about it. That opened the door for a lot of other South Asian authors, I think. Who then also ended up being very inspiring for me.
ENNI: So, with the journalism stuff, you were mostly editing as opposed to reporting?
TAHIR: Yeah, I was not a reporter. I was never a reporter. I was not a writer or an investigative reporter, or anything like that. I was an editor. I would do copy editing which is where you’re basically writing headlines, you’re writing captions, you’re writing subheads, and you’re also doing the last polish on a story. You’re finding not just grammatical issues, which is a lot of copy editing, but really making sure that the story flows, that it’s right. [That] the order is correct, that there’s no questions you’re missing. That it makes sense. And then a little bit of assignment editing which is where you take stories in their first version, and you try to edit them. That was rare, but I did that too.
ENNI: Any time you’re working with words, you’re helping yourself as a writer. But thinking about reading stories and being like, “Does this add up?” Like a final polish to be like, “This has to be with all of the words in the right order.”
TAHIR: Absolutely. I actually always tell young writers one of the best things that they can do for their own writing is to read a good newspaper every day. Even if you read one or two stories from the Washington Post, or the New York Times, or The Wall Street Journal, or The Atlantic – which isn’t a newspaper. But, if you do this every day for a year, you will see the improvement in your writing.
ENNI: Oh, my god, the clarity. To me, I went from being an English major to the Journalism program. And the first thing I turned in, it was the guy taking his red pencil, of course, to my printed-out version of it and circling everything that was three syllables or more. It was like, “Do you really need that one?” And it was like, “No! You need to choose the simplest word. You just want to be understood. This isn’t about you being like how smart you think you are. It’s about making sure the reader understands what you’re saying.” That was a huge lesson. And the greatest journalism is some of the best writing out there.
TAHIR: It is, absolutely. You can have beautiful, beautiful journalistic pieces that are not that difficult to understand. In fact, that’s the beauty of them. You’re taking a very complex topic like – I’m trying to think of what I read when I was working at the Post – the Blackwater scandal in Iraq, or the Walter Reed Hospital scandal. You’re taking something that is very complex, very hard for a layman to understand, and you’re sorting through all of the reporting on it and you’re putting it into twenty-six inches, or thirty inches over the period of a couple of weeks – a few stories – and making it so that all of these people, anybody, can pick this up and can understand what has happened.
You see it now with the current political climate. You have these very complex bits of legislation and rules about the Supreme Court, and what they pick and why they pick it. What justices can do and what the executive can do and what the judicial branch can do, and how all of this stuff affects us. I really do think that people knock the media all of the time. But if we didn’t have good journalists to really help us understand all of this stuff, and break it down, we would be screwed.
ENNI: We would be screwed. We would have no context for the experience of our lives and what’s impacting us every day. And the next time you want to knock the media, think about how lucky you are to be able to knock the media.
TAHIR: Well, how lucky you are to be able to knock the media, and how lucky we are to have a non-state sponsored media.
ENNI: A free press.
TAHIR: A free press. It is a gift. You can be as pissed off as [much as] you want about the left or the right. You can say that “X” media network is biased, or “Y” is biased. I’m not saying that’s illegitimate, that’s probably true. But at least journalists can walk up and down the street without worrying about getting shot. You think about how many journalists have been killed in the past ten years. It’s insane! It’s crazy.
ENNI: It’s horrifying and it’s…ugh…anyway. Okay, that’s a whole other project.
TAHIR: We’re such nerds! We’re doing our little journalism [thing]. We’re bonding over our journalism obsession.
ENNI: [sounds like she’s shaking a fist in the air] “The righteousness of the free press!” But, the other thing, and the other reason I wanted to be sure we didn’t skip that part, is because I know that what you were reading for the Washington Post after college, played a role in inspiring EMBER and the EMBER series.
TAHIR: That’s right. I was working on the international desk. And I was reading stories about, at that time the Iraq war was in full swing, the Afghan war was in full swing, and George Bush was President. There was a lot of polarization in the country. It was a really dark time. Now is dark too, but this was the beginnings of what we see now in terms of the refugee crisis. But at that time, it was the seeds of it right? These two huge wars, and the Sudanese genocide.
So, there were three main stories that had a big impact on me. The first one was one I read in July of 2007, that was the first one. That was the story about these women in Kashmir whose fathers and sons and brothers and husbands are picked up off the streets, taken by the local military, and disappeared. They are thrown into prison, and usually there’s charges but no one knows what they are. Sometimes it’s a terrorism charge, or an anti-government thing. But it was never clear what it was. So, these women were living this weird… they call it a “half-life.” The story was by a woman named Emily Wax and she referred to it as a half-life. And they were just waiting to hear from these people who were such a huge part of their lives and they were just taken.
I have two older brothers, and they’re my best friends, and this idea that that could happen to me? If it were different circumstances, that I could have been living in that place, that could have been them? It was terrifying. That is what really started the story and sparked the idea.
There were two other stories. One was about the Sudanese genocide and the unchecked, blatant violence. The hate and the bloodshed. The horror of that for these people. And this idea that you have this place, Sudan, and it’s in our world, and it’s now. And there’s a genocide! And nobody seems to care. We sit here talking about all of these things in the past that have happened, right? You know, “Never again.” And yet, it’s happening again. And nobody is doing anything.
So, the last story that had a big impact on me was a story about Liberian child soldiers. The Liberian civil war was going on at the time, and it was this very, very disturbing image – in particular – that got me. It was a kid, holding an AK [rifle], and he had a teddy bear backpack on. He’s like, twelve or thirteen? And he had killed people. He had been forced to kill people. He’d been forced to watch people killed. He’d been forced to watch his family suffer. And to think that you’re putting that on a child. Like, “What will this child grow up to be? How will he navigate the world?”
ENNI: How do you recover?
TAHIR: How do you recover, and how do you even know there’s something to recover from? If that’s your normal. That also had a big impact on me. That’s where the child soldier stuff came from. And I was always interested in ancient Sparta and ancient Rome, so I started combining ideas. And that’s where the school, Blackcliff Academy came from, is ancient Sparta. They used to take boys when they were six or seven from their mothers, and throw them into the agoge and be like, “Suffer for twenty years!” [laughing]
ENNI: Yeah, “Congratulations! You’re chosen.”
TAHIR: Yeah, exactly. And now you’re going to be a warrior of Sparta. And it was considered really horrible if the mother didn’t want to give up the child, or if the child was a weakling. A lot of the stuff from EMBER, in terms of the training, I did research on Sparta. So, in ancient Sparta they did send boys out to steal from the countryside, and survive in the countryside.
TAHIR: Yes, they did. It was this idea that if you got caught stealing food – you had to steal your food to survive – but if you got caught, you were gonna get whipped. Because in war when you might be stealing from your enemies - if you’re going through enemy territory - you can’t get caught! You’re screwed! So, it was really fascinating to read about that too. That was also another inspiration for the book.
ENNI: You mentioned earlier that continuing to read fantasy became an escape, and I’m assuming you mean from all of this intense stuff you had to read as your job?
ENNI: So, then how much of jumping into writing was enhancing that escape?
TAHIR: It was a hundred percent an escape. It was like, “I’m not gonna be a reporter. I’m editing. These stories are depressing.” It was like therapy. I read these stories about people who can’t do anything. They’re stuck in these terrible circumstances and they Can’t. Do. Anything. It’s almost like I wanted to write a version of the story in which, if it were me, I could do something. And that was a big part of EMBER as well.
ENNI: Yeah, taking control to whatever degree you could.
ENNI: Having to live with that stuff in your head. Which is interesting to hear you talk about this. A lot of writers I’ve been talking to lately, myself included, have been having a difficult time balancing news and writing right now.
TAHIR: Yeah, too close to home.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s kind of where you started. Having to try and find an escape from this. And were you also working at night?
TAHIR: I was.
ENNI: What hours are we talking about?
TAHIR: Usually, six to one thirty was my most common shift, and then I also did sometimes work four to eleven thirty. It was a seven-and-a-half to eight-hour shift that I could start at four, five or six. But six was three times a week. I remember very clearly.
ENNI: To me, it seems like you are being forced to read all of this stuff. It’s very depressing and intense.
TAHIR: It’s in the dark!
ENNI: You’re not really in the world if you’re having to live in those hours.
TAHIR: No, because you get home and you don’t go to sleep. You’re awake and you’re thinking about what you’ve read. I used to come home and think about it. I was thinking about the kids in particular. This was well before I had children. I used to think about these kids and just think, “How are they okay?” And then realize the answer to that question is, “They’re not okay.” And then have to think about, “I live in a world where somewhere there is this child who is suffering.”
And I’m drinking my Coke, or my tea, but there is a child and he or she is suffering. And I hated it. I still hate it. I absolutely hate it. And so often when I read a story about something terrible happening to a kid, I put their name in my books and I give them a happy ending.
TAHIR: Because I can’t wrap my head around it. There was recently a young woman who was killed in Sterling, Virginia. She was a young Muslim girl, and it was a very brutal killing. And I think that I’m gonna give her a really happy ending in my story. Because she should have had one.
ENNI: Yeah, that’s what you can do.
TAHIR: And it’s nothing. It’s not anything. It’s truly for my own head. That’s it. That’s the only good it does in the world.
ENNI: That’s how all writers start. No one’s going door-to-door saying, “We need fiction writers!” [both laughing] We’re kind of doing it on our own anyways, so [it’s] a coping strategy. Actually, when we talked two years ago, the book wasn’t even out yet.
TAHIR: No, it wasn’t.
ENNI: This is crazy! Because two years feels like not a long time.
TAHIR: But forever too.
ENNI: But your life is really different now.
TAHIR: Totally different.
ENNI: How did – and answer this to whatever degree you’re comfortable – but the book was a really big success. You sold in a lot of countries, and the movie rights. There was a lot of exciting stuff going on with the book. But it strikes me that you’ve been writing it for six years. And then you have this phenomenon of it coming out and being successful, and people thinking that you’re an overnight success. I would love to hear you talk about just how your life has changed, and also how you felt about the perception of that success.
TAHIR: That perception doesn’t bother me as much because I think that it is a perception, probably most often, shared by people who have not really written a ton. I think most writers who I’ve run into can look at that and be like, “Oh… that took a while.” It’s sort of like the idea of Twitter as an overnight success. Twitter was actually around for six years, or eight years, before it suddenly became successful. So, there’s this joke in Silicon Valley like, “Yeah, ten-year overnight success.” And this was that. This was [a] six year - or eight year actually by the time it came out - an eight year “overnight” success. [laughs]
My life changed in that now I’m able to write full-time, which is a gift that I am thankful for every single day. I have readers, which is strange and wonderful. I have fan art. It’s occasional and always like a flower exploding when I get to see it, it’s really beautiful and wonderful. I posted one the other day. My whole day was happy because I saw this gorgeous fan art. The biggest thing that has changed is that there are readers I can talk to, and other writers who I have befriended. Of all the things that have come from this, that is the greatest gift… is to no longer feel lonely within writing.
Look at what we are doing right now. We’re on a retreat with me, and you, and there’s six other wonderful people here, and they all get it. We’re friends. We like each other. We can share our experiences together. We can whine together. We can help each other. And that is a gift because writing is so very isolating. I was very lonely for six years.
Of course, I had a family. Of course, I had friends. But not people who understood that. I didn’t really know that there was a YA writing community. I didn’t know any of that. It’s really changed a lot in the last few years too. I think that community has sprung up more recently. At that time, it was not as active.
ENNI: When did you dip a toe into that world?
TAHIR: After my publishing deal [when] I first met the other debuts in my group. And then I found my people, and then the book came out and I started meeting other writers at events. In particular, [I] remember Holly Goldberg Sloan was one of the very first friends. She’s actually a friend of my brother’s, and I didn’t know it until after my book had gotten a publishing deal. He was really funny, he was like, “Oh, I have a friend who’s in this world. Maybe you should talk to her.” And then he tells me who it is, and I’m like, “What?!” She was wonderful. And Margie Stohl [listen to her First Draft interviews here and here] who welcomed me with such open arms, and is just the best, [and] Melissa de la Cruz. These were all people who made me feel welcome early on, and have made so many of us feel welcome. Regardless of what you write, how you write it, where you’re published, how you’re published… they’re just very welcoming. Finding that community, that’s when it happened.
ENNI: That is a lot in two years, dude!
TAHIR: It is. I had moved in 2012, and then I sold the book at the end of 2013, and then it came out in 2015. Then I had to write the second one, and now I’m working on the third. I don’t think the past few years could have gone any faster. [chuckles] They just flew past! And it’s crazy to me to think that EMBER came out more than two years ago. It seems like such a short period of time, like you said, and yet it seems like forever.
ENNI: It’s always been.
TAHIR: It’s always been. It’s weird, it’s a very weird feeling.
ENNI: The other thing, there’s already pressure on the next books when it’s part of a series, and then there is a degree of pressure that comes when the first book is a hit out of the gate. So…
TAHIR: Right. It’s like, “Are you a one-hit wonder? Can you do this again?”
ENNI: Can you sustain it? You had many years to work on the first book, and you definitely have a shorter deadline for the second one. How did you go about preparing for the next books? How did you think about that?
TAHIR: I would love to say that I had some really genius way of thinking about it, but I basically careened into it and flailed for months and months and then, somehow, the book got written. With much angst. And I’m doing that again. I wish I learned whatever magic lesson people learn that allows them to calmly and maturely write a book in a normal amount of time, but…
ENNI: I don’t know anyone who does that.
TAHIR: Does that exist? Does that exist? I don’t know, because it was like, I’ve got a deadline in a couple of months and I am like [lowers her voice and says seriously], “Maybe I should move to another country? Maybe I should pretend I’ve been kidnapped!” [laughing] Trying to figure a way out of the deadline, you know? It’s just ridiculous.
ENNI: You had another interview where you talked about having tried to plan the second book a lot more, and the free-writing… talk to me about that.
TAHIR: So, I’ve tried to plan the second book. With my first book, I “gardened” - that’s the George R. R. Martin term for it - I was not an architect, I was a gardener. So, I played around in the dirt and figured out what the story was. My second book I was like, “I’m gonna be an architect. I’m gonna plan this whole thing out, and it’s gonna be great.” I planned the whole thing out and I started writing it, and it went terribly. With my third book I was like, “I’m gonna do a bit of both.” And that’s worked better but here I am, two months out, book’s not close to done. So, I don’t know. Did it really work Sarah?
ENNI: I don’t know. I mean, it’s always the best laid plans, because every book is really different.
TAHIR: I really think I need the pressure of a deadline. It forces me to work. I am one of those people who needs to be forced to work. I’m the guy who they’re gonna be like, “She’s not done with her book. Stick her in a hotel room. Don’t let her out until she finishes writing it.” [laughing]
ENNI: It’s true! In just a robe for months and figuring it out. I like hearing that because I think people believe that there’s one way. Or, if only I could plot, then it would fall all into place. And then you start writing the book and you’re like, “My whole plot’s wrong, everything isn’t right.”
TAHIR: My mom used to say that so much of writing is dreaming. But I also think so much of writing is figuring out. It’s like you write and you’re like, “That was stupid!” Just today… my goal today was five-thousand words. I wrote about thirty-five hundred words. I cut a thousand of those words, so really, I wrote twenty-five hundred words. But guess what? I still have twenty-five hundred words to write. The day is not over, and I’ve got to write. That is writing.
Writing is pain, man! It sucks. But we love it! We do it because… Shannon Hale said something really interesting at a retreat I was at recently. She said, “I don’t write because I want to, I write because I have to.” And that’s how I feel too. I write because I have to. If I don’t, I become a worse person. Grumpy!
ENNI: Yeah! I feel anxious.
TAHIR: Anxious, yeah, tense.
ENNI: Filled with nervous energy. I feel weird.
TAHIR: Yep, it’s like I have to do it.
ENNI: You have a four-book series, which is slightly less common than three, or a duology. And there were a couple of different interviews where you said things like, one where you said you were sick of stories where the heroine starts out already to go kick butt, and you wanted to see a heroine get there. And when you started writing EMBER, that it was originally where TORCH [A TORCH AGAINST THE NIGHT] began. So how did you figure out the timing?
TAHIR: It’s not that I’m sick of those stories, I actually love a lot of those stories, I think they’re wonderful. It’s that I couldn’t relate. That’s not me. I could never grow that quickly. I found it hard to write a character who I couldn’t relate to, and then have them grow. I wanted the characters to grow. And this idea of a seventeen-year-old me – if my house was raided and my grandparents were killed in front of me, and I had already survived the violence of my parent’s deaths, and my sister’s death, and then this happened – I don’t think I would be brave. I think I would be like, “How the hell do I get out of this?” Like, “Oh? I can run? See ya!” I think I would probably run.
And I think it started there. But initially yes, Torch was the first book. It’s funny - my very, very early drafts of the book started off with Laia escaping this city after something terrible had happened, and Elias escaping school after something terrible had happened, and then they cross paths. She’s trying to save her brother who’s been taken to this prison. And he crosses paths with her and something happens that makes it so they have to travel together for a time. And they make this deal where she’ll do “X” if he does “Y”. I don’t even remember what it was anymore. I literally can’t remember, it was so long ago.
But I’m writing this story, and it’s not quite right. And then finally I was like, “I think I need to rewind. I think this story starts a month-and-a-half earlier.” And I think that all of this stuff happened and it was really Elias’s story that made me go backwards. Because he had this really heavy backstory where he was on the run, there are these trials that went really badly, they didn’t work out for him. He’s leaving one of his best friends behind, and all of this stuff. And me realizing, “That’s actually a story.”
ENNI: You’re like, “Can I put in a hundred pages of flashbacks?” No wait, it’s a whole book.
TAHIR: Yeah, no way. So, it’s a whole other book. So, then I did rewind. And I found that Laia, it worked for her too, because I thought, “What would make her ready for this journey?” I don’t think she would be ready if she had seen what happened happen. I think she would be terrified, and she wouldn’t know how to track her brother, she wouldn’t know how to find him. Most importantly, her internal landscape would not be prepared to allow her to undertake that journey. And I wanted that to fit and to be right. Thus, I gave her the mission that she has.
ENNI: And I think that’s a really great way of framing it. And the reason I ask is because I know it’s very difficult for people writing series – or any book, really – to know when it starts. And I think what you’re saying is it is character driven. It really isn’t just plot.
TAHIR: I don’t think it’s plot at all. I think you can always massage a plot. But the characters have to be true. You have to create a character, sure, but then you have to allow them to bloom and to be who they are. And you can’t control that. That’s just letting your characters talk to you and then you basically are writing down what they say.
ENNI: It struck me that you’ve sort of done a hack to keep it interesting for yourself in some ways. Because TORCH AGAINST THE NIGHT expands, literally, the world that the characters inhabit, and it brings in a new point of view. So, do you feel that those things kept you from feeling series fatigue, like some people experience?
TAHIR: Actually, no. I have always really loved these characters. Think about it, you work on something for six years, that’s a long time. But I’m never tired of them. They annoy me sometimes, I’m like, “Oh, my god guys. Can you please just cooperate?” But I don’t get sick of them, and I don’t get sick of the world, because what you see on the page is the tip of the iceberg, right? I have this whole world in my head and there’s so many stories in it. I mean, there’s just so many. So, I don’t get fatigued.
And then with Helene - adding Helene’s story in TORCH - Helene wanted to speak in EMBER but Laia and Elias were like, “Nope. Our story.” I needed to tell it from their point of view. And Helene, I think, was always waiting in the wings… waiting to speak. There’s one other character, actually, who is waiting in the wings and waiting to speak. And I have not yet revealed who that is. But I’ve written those chapters and they’re probably my favorite.
I’ve had those for a long time, and it’s just a matter of waiting until it’s right for them to speak. But you need to inhabit new points of view. I don’t so much love that, as I love juxtaposing. I believe that you can see Elias in a new way when you see him through the eyes of Helene. And I believe that you can see Laia in a new way when you see her through the eyes of Helene.
It’s just like when you go back to journalism. There’s never one source, at least not in good journalism, there’s always more than one source. Anyone who’s seen All the President’s Men knows [laughs] you need many sources, they won’t print your story otherwise. So, that idea of a narrative told from many points of view, I think it makes it interesting for the reader. But in this particular case, it just had to be that way.
ENNI: What I’m getting from you is such a dedication to the characters.
TAHIR: I don’t know if you call it dedication or obsession, it’s sort of pathetic. I really do live and breathe and sleep this world. It’s sometimes hard to disengage and hard to go back to reality. I’m a parent. I am a daughter. I am a spouse. I have a partner. It can be hard to step back and go back into the [real] world, when you’ve been in your world… this world you’ve created for a long time.
ENNI: And the world where you have control.
TAHIR: Where you have control. Yep, that’s right.
ENNI: Ooh, interesting! [draws a big breath] We wrap up with advice. I would love to hear whatever you might have for either new writers, or for people who are making a living now [writing].
TAHIR: My advice has pretty much been the same for the past few years. And it’s three pieces. One is never give up. I always remind people that it took me six years to write EMBER, like we talked about, a “Six-Year Overnight Success.” There is no such thing as an overnight success, it just doesn’t exist. At least, I don’t think it exists in publishing. At some point, somebody had to sit down and write the damn book.
ENNI: [laughing] And that literally doesn’t happen overnight!
TAHIR: It does not happen overnight. It can’t. So, don’t give up. You will get there. And the second thing is to read… a lot. I’m surprised at how many people who are writers don’t read, or that they don’t read widely. If you’re writing YA, don’t just read YA. Read non-fiction, read literature, read adult literature, read thrillers, read mysteries. Read whatever you can get your hands on. Read the cereal box [chucks] you know? Just read.
And the last thing is always my most common piece of advice and that is, don’t make excuses for yourself. Writer’s write. They find a way. People write from prison, they write when they’re poor, they write when they’re drug addled, they write when they’re sick. Paul Kalanithi wrote WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR and he had stage four lung cancer. I mean, good god.
ENNI: Isn’t that what MY LEFT FOOT is about?
TAHIR: Yeah. There’s so, so many books that come from places of pain, that come from places of suffering. And those are the excuses we use the most. If you have kids, I don’t think it’s an excuse. I had kids. I get why people have a hard time writing, but you find a way. Now I’m not saying finding a way is easy, sometimes people don’t know what to do. I always talk to people about – and this is my new piece of advice – which is this idea of “elbows of time.” When my boys were little, really little, I would write in elbows of time. I would be nursing and feeding them, and I would be speaking into my phone story ideas.
Or, I would be taking them for a walk and, you know, a baby is a baby, they’re just sort of chillin’ and looking around. They would hear my voice, but I would be telling story ideas. Or, writing in a notebook. Or having your computer with you all of the time, if you are lucky enough and have a laptop, and writing down whatever you can when you can. Just using ten minutes, fifteen minutes, five minutes to move forward. You can do a lot in that time. You can do a lot in fifteen minutes. It’s shocking how much you can do in fifteen minutes.
ENNI: I used to get on the metro in DC, and go from Yellow Line to the Red Line. I would sit down, and for four stops sit there in my seat and write. And the pack it up, get my bag, go to the Red Line, sit down for another ten minutes, and that was all I had going back and forth every day.
TAHIR: Yep. An acquaintance of mine named Sarah Henning, who has a book coming out this year, she was saying that she wrote most of her book while working out at the gym, on her phone. She just typed it on her phone.
ENNI: Funny… wow!
TAHIR: If you need to write, you’re gonna find a way to write. So, find a way to write!
ENNI: Dude! Thank you so much! I’m so happy we could make it happen.
TAHIR: You’re welcome! I’m so glad we finally did it. Yay, high-five!
ENNI: We did it!
[sound of hands slapping together]
ENNI: [whispering] Okay, now let’s go and write!
TAHIR: [whispering] okay.
[both giggle and background music begins to play]
ENNI: Thank you so much to Sabaa. Follow her on Twitter @sabaatahir and follow me @sarahenni and the show @firstdraftpod. You can follow the show on Instagram and Facebook too, but for links to everything Sabaa and I talked about in this episode as well as a searchable archive of previous interviews and to sign up for the First Draft newsletter, be sure to check out FirstDraftPod.com. Please do check out the show notes for this episode, or the First Draft Twitter feed or Facebook for a link to the First Draft listener survey. It is just ten short questions but it’s gonna go a long way to helping me make the show better.
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Thanks to Hashbrown for the theme song, and to Collin Keith and Maureen Goo for the logos. Thanks to super intern Carter Elwood, and transcriptionist-at-large Julie Anderson. And, as ever, thanks to you fledgling commandants for listening.