First Draft, Ep. 106: Renée Ahdieh - Transcript
Date: May 9, 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 Renée Ahdieh, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of THE WRATH AND THE DAWN Series, whose new series is kicking off with the release of FLAME IN THE MIST on May 16th. Renée’s books check the boxes of a lot of my favorite things: Historical fantasy stories rich in setting and atmosphere; Capable and passionate female characters; and Palace intrigue and swoony romance. I’m so excited for FLAME IN THE MIST, and was thrilled that Renée could make time to chat with me while she was in Los Angeles for the YALLWEST Festival. And, special bonus, Renée was bunking with her friend and critique partner, and First Draft alumnus Sarah Nicole Lemon (author of DONE DIRT CHEAP), who was kind enough to sit in while we chatted, and through in some questions of her own.
This was such a delightful, far-reaching conversation, my favorite kind. Where you get to so much good stuff, but somehow leave feeling like you’ve only scratched the surface. So, find the nearest plush, jewel-toned couch, imagine you can hear the Pacific Ocean oh-so-faintly in the distance, and enjoy the conversation.
[theme music fades]
ENNI: Okay, so, hi! How are you?
Renée AHDIEH: I’m doing really well, thank you. How are you doing?
ENNI: I’m doing well. We were just talking about recovering from YALLWEST. We’re in Santa Monica for the festival, and it was a really long day yesterday for everyone.
AHDIEH: But a lot of fun.
ENNI: For these interviews, I like to go way, way, way, back and start with: where were you born and raised?
AHDIEH: I was born in North Carolina, and when I was two weeks old my family moved to Seoul, South Korea, and I was there for a couple of years.
ENNI: Was it two weeks old?
AHDIEH: Two weeks old, yeah. It was all planned in advance. Both of my parents are musicians. My mother is a composer, and my father is a cellist. And they’re both professors, too, of those respective specializations. And so, they already had jobs lines up in Korea. But they really wanted me to be born in the U.S. for U.S. citizenship, which made it a little bit easier. So, I was born here, and when I was two weeks old, we moved to South Korea.
ENNI: I’m sorry, I know you just said this, but you were born in which city?
AHDIEH: Charlotte, North Carolina. Which is where I live right now.
ENNI: So, that’s always been the U.S. connection home-base?
AHDIEH: Exactly. My dad’s family is all there, and my mom’s family is all in Seoul.
ENNI: I would love to hear about growing up in a house full of music.
AHDIEH: You know what? I totally took it for granted. I didn’t see a rock concert until I was maybe fourteen, or fifteen years old… anything outside of classical music. For me, it was all classical music, because my father was a cellist with the symphony. Large parts of my childhood growing up would be spent going to dress rehearsals, of various big pieces of music. Or, if there was a musical in town, or an opera playing, I got to basically run around backstage with my brother and sister, who are younger than I am. Two and four years, respectively. So, that was the world in which I grew up.
My parents forced all of us, of course, to play music. I really miss it. I don’t have the same connection to classical music that I had growing up. I have a lot of passion for it, and I played violin for thirteen years. It was fun, it was really fun. It was a good part of my childhood. I didn’t like it when I was a kid, because I wanted to be listening to, I don’t know, Alanis Morrisette, and Backstreet Boys, and stuff like that.
ENNI: It’s kind of interesting that you grew up with opera, and especially with a composer, thinking about that as almost the first introduction to another way to tell stories.
AHDIEH: Absolutely, yeah.
ENNI: I also want to hear about reading, and how reading and writing was a factor in your young life, but I’d love to hear about whether music plays a role consciously, or maybe unconsciously, in how you think about story.
AHDIEH: It absolutely does. Music is a huge part of the way that I tell stories. It almost grounds me, certain songs. And, I always listen to things on very low volume. And I love the noise cancelling headphones. It’s like, I don’t know, I would probably work well if I could be a mermaid and write underwater. It would be great. I do love music very much, and I love all kinds of music. In college, I sang in a jazz ensemble. What I listen to a lot when I’m writing, I love post-rock - Explosions in The Sky – it’s almost symphonic in its bent too, which is wonderful. And for THE WRATH AND THE DAWN and THE ROSE AND THE DAGGER, which is the first series I wrote, I wrote large swaths of that to Rimsky-Korsokov’s Sheherazade’s op. 35. Which, again, it’s great. And I’m a big fan of Russian composers. Very tragic.
It’s wonderfully melodramatic. Which, if you’ve read anything that I write, you’ll get [laughing]. So, the things I like to listen to are very big mirrors. But I also love rap, and I will often write really action packed scenes to rap. And it’s always rap that I feel has beautiful writing too. I love Nas, I think Nas is one of the greatest poets of the last twenty years in the U.S.
ENNI: I’d love to hear about reading and writing with your family, growing up. Were you learning to speak Korean?
AHDIEH: Yes. Actually, Korean is my first language. It was the reason my father also had to learn how to speak Korean. And my father is fluent in Korean as well. My dad has a really great gift for language, because he also picked up German, because he lived in Germany for a while.
ENNI: Some people’s minds work that way.
AHDIEH: I agree. I do not have that talent, but I agree.
ENNI: I would love to learn more about whether that’s connected to the musical side.
AHDIEH: I bet it is. Somebody that can listen to the music of everything around you. Because I do think languages have such a wonderful music to them. My husband is Persian, and I can always tell – even though I don’t speak Farsi at all. I can order food, and curse people out in Farsi - “Thank you very much Victor!” But, I can’t really do anything outside of that. But I can pick up on whether somebody is speaking Farsi, Dari, or even Arabic, because I can see the music of the language. Because I’ve been around his family so much.
ENNI: So, I’m sorry, that was by way of asking about reading, and what kind of stories were in your house when you were younger?
AHDIEH: Oh, my gosh. So, I attribute my love for books mostly to my dad. Of course, my mom too. My mom pushed us to read. We weren’t allowed to watch TV during the week. My dad would always read to us every night. And he would often do the voices. I have these almost murky flashbacks to your childhood, and it can happen at the weirdest moment in time. You can touch something, or smell something, and it will bring back a flash. It’s never a full memory, it’s just like a window, or something like that. And my father would read Dr. Doolittle to us, and do all of the voices.
ENNI: Amazing. And also, I think, ties in to THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, pretty explicitly. Having those really profound memories of telling the stories too. Not even just reading, but the engagement.
AHDIEH: Yes, yes, the power of story.
ENNI: Were you writing? How did you come to that when you were younger?
AHDIEH: I [pauses and chuckles] I always wrote really bad poetry when I was growing up… very emo. It was very appropriate, it was good. And, I think my first attempt to write an actual piece of prose, fiction prose, was Nancy Drew fanfiction. So, when we would come back here from Korea, my grandmother who lives in North Carolina, she gave me a bunch of Nancy Drew books. She loved these Nancy Drew books. And I read them cover-to-cover, and dog-eared all of them. I’m sure… I don’t even know what happened to them… but they’re probably collector editions because she’d given them to me. And I loved Nancy Drew so much. At the time it didn’t exist, but I wrote Nancy Drew fanfiction. So that was my first fiction.
ENNI: I love that. So, you’re going back-and-forth between Korea and the U.S., and you are mixed race – you said your dad was white. And, Nancy Drew is so American, how do you feel you were getting stories from Korea too? How is all of this cultural blending happening?
AHDIEH: I feel this is the case, a lot, with other mixed kids that I meet. It’s a lot of straddling two worlds poorly. Because the thing is, you exist in one sphere. So, we went to Catholic mass with my mom at a Korean Catholic church, even when we were back in the U.S. And I was never Korean enough. And then in school with my American friends, when I was back in the U.S., I was never American enough. And I wanted, so badly, to be either/or depending on the situation.
And I think that that’s the case a lot. You never are totally a part of one thing. And it’s something I think a lot of kids who are from mixed race feel very keenly when they’re growing up. And despise as a result of it. Because even when you’re younger, you so desperately want to fit in. And when you don’t have that lunch with turkey and cheese on white bread, and your mom has packed for you what amounts to a Korean doshirak. It’s like in Japan they have bento boxes? I think a lot of people in the West are familiar with that. It’s like where you have rice and little meat pickles, and seaweed off to the side. And my mother would pack these things for me, and now I think about it, and I think how cool that my mother did that, but when I was a kid, I was like, “Arrgh” [makes a frustrated sound]. I was like, “Just give me the turkey sandwich!”
But I’m very grateful now. And that’s what I always tell kids of mixed race when I’m meeting them. I can sort of sense a similar… [pauses] Like they exist almost always in a liminal space. When I sense that around them, I’m like, “Look. This is tough when you’re growing up.” Because you don’t know—what are you? What should I be identifying with? And labels are so important. They’re important when you’re older too, unfortunately. But I feel like, especially very concrete labels, are so important to kids. I look at these kids, and I say: “You will be very grateful for this. Maybe not now, maybe not five years from now, but when you are much older.” Because now, I can’t imagine having been brought up any other way. I do feel very keenly the identity of both.
ENNI: I think about this a lot with teens. Some of the more powerful, or more successful stories that are told to teens is like, “Choose your Hogwarts house.” Or, the Divergent factions. When teens get to a place where they feel that they can choose which box belongs to them. But then I think, there’s something cultural where you don’t get to choose. The choice is kind of taken out of it, and you are grappling with that. That’s the sense I get from some of my friends, that they didn’t feel in control of their own identity in this other way.
AHDIEH: Absolutely, absolutely. Or, even how it manifests in different people who are raised in very similar settings. I look at my brother and my sister. My sister is two years younger than I am, and my brother is four years younger than I am. And my sister spent so much time trying to keep up with reading, and writing, and Korean. I would consider myself functionally literate in Korean. I can carry on any sort of conversation with people, and I understand what’s going on. A lot of the times at home when I’m talking to my mom, it’s mostly in Korean. But, because I didn’t attend school for when you’re older and you’re learning how to read, and write, and be very professional, it’s more like functional illiteracy.
My brother never speaks Korean. He understands everything that’s said to him, but if you speak to him in Korean, he answers you in English. So, it’s these weird layers of distance that we’ve all put. I’m not exactly sure, but again, I think it’s largely personality based too.
ENNI: That’s so interesting, and siblings are endlessly fascinating. So, what kind of school were you going to?
AHDIEH: When I moved here, I was in a Catholic school, actually, in North Carolina. And my mother was Catholic. But I feel like, again, my parents with religion was interesting, because my father is an atheist. And he’s one of those very proud atheists who gives off the air of implying that he raised kids to know better. And my mother’s attachment to her faith is so deeply rooted in music. Because she was raised Buddhist, and then she studied at a conservatory in Paris and she fell in love with Gregorian chant. And they wouldn’t let her come in to listen to it unless she was Catholic.
AHDIEH: So, she converted, and it was for music that she converted to the Catholic faith. And then it became a part of her cultural identity, because she started to make friends with other Korean Catholics. And when she moved here, that was how she maintained connections to her roots, was with her faith. I wouldn’t even say that my mom was someone who was very religious, her religion is music.
ENNI: That is so amazing, and so interesting, but also… a Catholic private school is a very specific experience too.
AHDIEH: It is, it is a very specific experience.
ENNI: And, within America. All of these things are whole worlds unto themselves.
AHDIEH: Again, going back to that idea of scents. Whenever I walk into a high school, I don’t know what it is - what the hell they do - but that smell of Lysol and desperation transcends time!
ENNI: [laughing] You’re right back!
AHDIEH: Yeah, and then you feel your shoulders starting to hunch, and you’re looking around. And you’re like: “No! Stand tall. Stand tall. This was decades in your past. It’s fine. Just leave it behind!”
ENNI: [Laughing] So, you were doing poetry. Were you doing other kinds of writing?
AHDIEH: I still liked to write a lot, [but] it was more short stories. I wanted to be a lawyer when I was in school. Again, this is ascribing to so many stereotypes people have about being raised Asian, whether you’re East Asian [or] South Asian. My mother very much pushed all of us to be in careers she thought would be financially beneficial to us. And, of course again, that idea of, “How do you see yourselves in relation to your kids?” And if you raise them to be very successful, then you were a success. I think that’s very tied to culture. My mother wanted us to be doctors, lawyers…
ENNI: That’s so interesting, but also very interesting because your mom, the professional artist, was saying this.
AHDIEH: Well, I think she was speaking from her own experience too. You know, we’re in a field of art. This is a very difficult field to be in, especially if you want some sort of job security. There’s no ceiling. And people look at people like J.K. Rowling, and they’re like, “Oh, she’s so incredible!” I mean, she’s an outlier. But, there’s no ceiling to how much we can make, and there’s also no floor.
ENNI: There’s no consistency.
AHDIEH: There’s no consistency, what-so-ever. And I think my mom was trying to spare us that. Because both my mother and my father pursued their passions. And even though I think it was fulfilling for them to do that, I think they realized… I mean, unfortunately - especially with musicians with classical music - it’s always something that hurts me a little bit, because I don’t think it’s something that easily captivates the minds of youth. And it makes me sad.
ENNI: If you’re not raised around it, it’s one of those [things] that’s hard to access.
AHDIEH: Absolutely. And I think, especially classical music, is so tied to class. I find it really interesting, too, when I meet other kids who are big fans of classical music. And how much it’s tied to their families. The way that they raise them from a class perspective. I almost want classical music to push past that, because I feel like [pauses], I have a whole lot of opinions on these things [laughs].
ENNI: But I know exactly what you’re saying. I was really close with someone who was a passionate golfer, and they were like, “This really stinks that I feel like when I go golf, I’m only gonna see a certain kind of person.”
AHDIEH: Yeah, because it’s so tied to class.
Enni: Mm-hmm. So, it’s interesting when you get in there, and you’re like, “How are we gonna open this up?” Especially classical music, which is so powerful and moving, and inherently has no…
AHDIEH: It’s timeless. And people don’t realize that it’s shaped so many [things]. Even if you’re somebody who has zero understanding of music, if you’re a big film buff - if you’re anything like that - those scores… I mean, I always laugh when people talk about Star Wars. I’m gonna get super nerdy on you. Because the score for that is really inspired by Gustav Holst’s THE PLANETS. It’s his entire suite of music. And it’s really funny to me how similar it is. And if you listen to The Planets, people will be like, “Oh, this is the Star Wars theme.” And I’m like: “Nope. No, no. It was written way before John Williams ever penned a single note for this. And it’s inspired by that.” And again, it’s very recognizable, like the Imperial March and all that kind of stuff.
ENNI: Ah, and you’re like, “We’ve done this stuff before!” Interesting. And actually, I do show notes for these, so I’ll link to all of the things that we’re talking about, so people can check them out.
AHDIEH: Oh, awesome! Okay. It’s MARS, BRINGER OF WAR by Holst.
ENNI: Okay, we got way off a little bit, but that’s great. I would love to hear, just lead me to how you started writing? Going to school? Or, what kind of brought you into that?
AHDIEH: I didn’t start writing novels until I graduated from college. When I started working, and I was working in real estate as soon as I graduated from college, my boyfriend – who is also my husband now – he started working in real estate [too]. He had sort of an “Annie Get Your Gun” moment about it, because it was like, “Anything you can do, I can do better.” So, when we graduated from school, he’s a year older than I am, I started working in real estate. And I didn’t really have any outlet for my creativity. Whereas, when I had been in school, I double majored [starts coughing] … I’m gonna take a minute.
ENNI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. [Talking to Sarah Nicole Lemon] You can come sit over here, or do whatever you want, it’s all good.
Sarah Nicole LEMON: I have a few more questions about your life! I did not know half of this, and I’m sitting here like: “Shit! We need to talk about music too because …” When you were talking, I was like, “I bet that’s why she likes Tool and Metallica!” Because it’s arranged as an orchestra.
AHDIEH: Yep. It’s symphonic.
LEMON: And that’s what I like writing to, too. Because the words attract me, but the complexity of that arrangement, I guess, is what fires something in my brain about writing.
AHDIEH: Well, symphonies mirror the three-act structure. Most well-known symphonies mirror the three-act structure, so even if you look at Tool or Metallica - the symphonic line there - the melodies behind it are very much telling a story. Because you have a refrain, you have a hook.
LEMON: That’s interesting! And I love the Planets thing. I listen to that while writing books. That’s one of my favorites. And then, Explosions in the Sky…
AHDIEH: Oh, I love Explosions in the Sky.
LEMON: And a HUMAN BELL is another one that is a very weird, sort of, I don’t know, post-rock.
LEMON: Godspeed You Black Emperor is the reason… if you actually, oh sorry… I’m so sorry.
ENNI: Yeah, yeah, no worries!
LEMON: The opening of DONE DIRT CHEAP is written because of Godspeed You Black Emperor.
AHDIEH: What?! How did I not know that?
LEMON: Especially the part in that one, I forget what the title of it is, where he has an opening monologue? It’s basically this post-apocalyptic story in the beginning. And it ends in this line that’s like, “And the flags all hung dead on their poles.” And it was this immediate turning moment.
AHDIEH: Oh, my god! Now I know where that’s coming from, the first scene!
LEMON: And I was trying so hard in that first scene to replicate that feeling in that music.
AHDIEH: Dead air, desperation.
ENNI: Yes! Oh, my god, yes. I was just talking to someone brilliant, that we all know, about writing books to fit around a feeling. There’s a 30-second interlude in a Beck song [Blue Moon] that I spent two years writing a book trying to feel like this.
AHDIEH: Oh, my god. Yep, yep, mm-hmm.
ENNI: That’s so crazy. And I knew that Metallica had toured with a whole symphony.
AHDIEH: The San Francisco Philharmonic. They have an entire album, which isn actually one of my favorite things to listen to, and one of Victor’s favorite things to listen to. And the album is called S&M. And it’s basically covering all of the songs off of THE BLACK ALBUM.
ENNI: It’s all about atmosphere, too. It sounds like we are all kind of similar. For me, the point of a book is that – and I would love to hear about how food, and all of that ties in, too – where it’s [at], and what people are wearing, and it’s just this very…
AHDIEH: I’m just a heathen [laughs].
ENNI: Well, I think it’s very tied to fantasy stories. And actually, what I love about DONE DIRT CHEAP is that it is a heightened reality, right? It’s like a technicolor, saturated reality, that evokes the kind of fantasy stuff that I grew up loving so much.
AHDIEH: I think you’ve just hit the nail on the head of why I love reading [Sarah Nicole Lemon’s] stuff so much.
AHDIEH: No, I think that’s exactly it.
LEMON: It’s funny that you say that, because when I’m writing anything, I think, “I want this to be reality, but painted bigger, broader, and in brighter colors.”
ENNI: I love it. You were talking about working in real estate and not having a creative outlet.
AHDIEH: Oh yeah, I didn’t have any creative outlet and so what – I think it was actually Victor who told me that I was becoming insufferable as a result of it – and he was like, “You should write.” And so, what I started doing, was I started writing. I guess they were short stories. And I posted them up on FictionPress. And when I posted them on FictionPress… you know that website?
ENNI: For all the young’uns, out there!
AHDIEH: That’s a website where you can post your stories, and have other people comment on them. Offer you feedback. So, I put up a short story, and people would be like, “You should work on this, and work on this.” And, invariably what happened was, people turned around and they were like, “You should try to get published, this is pretty good.” So, I went to the store, and I bought a book on trying to get published. And did not do anything that the book told me to do.
AHDIEH: I was trying to be unique! I was like [raises her voice to a whiney tone], “I’m gonna be different!” And I wrote my first query letter in second person like, “Uncle Sam wants you.” So, it was bad! It was really bad. It was super bad. I actually think at one point, I read that query letter to my current agent right now, and she guffawed so loud she startled toddlers [laughing].
ENNI: Oh, my god. That’s amazing! It’s really interesting to me that you immediately sought out this feedback. I don’t think everybody necessarily jumps in and is like, “I really want…” You know? It’s like you were taking an online writing workshop, basically.
AHDIEH: Maybe what I was craving was the academic atmosphere, because everything else that I had written had been because I majored in English and Political Science in college. Everything that I wrote, in both of those classes, was then up for review. People would debate whether or not you were valid, your points were valid. Whether or not you’d done an accurate analysis of The Brothers Karamazov, or whatever. So, we would be discussing that in class, and I think I was craving that same sort of feedback. And also, the validation that comes with that feedback. That your time is being well spent. And I also knew I wanted to grow as a writer.
I majored in Poetry in school. Writing poetry, and writing prose is very, very different. And I still feel like the poetry background bleeds often into my prose. It’s a struggle there, because you want to tell a story, but you have so much more room to do it. And, I’m a big fan of white space. So, I always put in white space, even in my prose. And I know that that can be annoying to people, because when they are looking at wide swaths of text, it’s comforting. I don’t know… I like white space, a lot! [laughing]
ENNI: And you are thinking about the visual experience of the reader.
ENNI: That’s very interesting.
AHDIEH: It’s more about my experience. It would be nice if I were thinking about the visual experience. I’m like, “This is aesthetically pleasing to me.” I just want the beats, the natural beats, that come with having your eyes having to jump to the next line.
ENNI: And beat is the right word for it. I’m writing a book right now that’s supposed to be funny. So, then it’s all about timing. But you have to manipulate the reader’s pace.
AHDIEH: Exactly, slow them down. And that’s what I try to do too. Because that’s what they teach you in poetry. Slow a reader down so that they savor every word. And if something is really meaningful, a point is really meaningful, a phrase is really meaningful, or if I think something is pretty. I’ll give it its own space to sit.
ENNI: I love that! That’s amazing that you majored in Poetry. So, you’re writing it as well as analyzing it in school?
AHDIEH: Yes, yes, a lot of that, yeah. And I loved to do that. I’m somebody that stares at sentences way too long. And changes the order of three words. And changes them again. Comes back to it. Gets a snack. Comes back to it again. And then just leaves it the way it was. And twenty minutes later, I really should have written – I’m so sorry if you’re listening to this Barbara, or Stacey. That’s my editor and my agent – I am working on the next book. [Laughing]
ENNI: But also, I relate to this hard, the feeling of… I think a lot of us are just people that miss school.
AHDIEH: Yes, yes! Yes, and it’s so sad though [laughing]. Because you’re in school, and you can’t wait to get out of school. And you can’t wait to be an adult, have your own adult things. And then you’re an adult and you’re like: “Just put me back there. Where the only thing I had to do was go back to school.”
ENNI: “I want a lesson plan, and I want a gold star!”
AHDIEH: “I want an A. I want somebody to come pat me on the back for it.” [Laughing]
ENNI: I love that you were getting the feedback, and you were growing. But then, was it still short stories, or were you building to something? Were you looking to get published with novels?
AHDIEH: I quickly learned that it’s very, very difficult to get published writing short stories. And so, I decided to take a topic that I had written a short story about. It was a really dear friend of mine, whose fiancé had left her in a horrible way – via text message.
AHDIEH: Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
ENNI: Oh, my goodness.
AHDIEH: So, he left her in this horrible way, via text message. And I felt the tragedy of that, interlaced with… I just see so much that’s great about technology. And so much that’s great about social media. But there’s also this distance, this built-in distance, this cushion that people abuse often. And kind of what we were talking about on the panel the other day, of how you’ll have this one tone that you use with people online, on G-Chat, on text messaging, or on Facebook. And you would never use that same tone in person. You are a completely different person. You have this internet persona, and often, the internet persona is a great deal more fearless than probably he/she/they should be.
I think that he broke up with her via text message, because he felt that that was controlled and safe for him. And I had so much to say about this. I had so much to say about my friend, too. Because it happened at three o’clock in the morning, and she waited three hours to wake me up, because she wanted me to have a full night of sleep. And so then, I got in a car to drive to help her move out, [the] two of us. And I just remember that the whole experience, again, it has so much wrapped around it.
So, I had written a short story about it, but I knew I could do so much more. So, I wanted to turn that into, basically, a chick-lit novel. And again, because I never was paying attention to trends, or anything like that, I was writing a chick-lit novel at the time when no one was buying chick-lit. It was right after Bridget Jones’s Diary had peaked. The Devil Wears Prada was out, and everyone was like, “This is not a thing anymore.” And so, I wrote what amounted to a chick-lit novel about this girl and her friends, and how she comes back from being… and it was contemporary romance. It was an adult. And I queried that with “My Uncle Sam Wants You” letter. I thought I was clever. I was not.
ENNI: The cleverness is, I think, what kills people. When they’re inexperienced it’s like…
AHDIEH: It is!
ENNI: You’re like, “How do I stand out?” It does stand out when you’re just [pauses] high quality. It’s hard to get that across to newer people.
AHDIEH: Absolutely, and I feel you’re in a world where you’re inundated - especially in the U.S. Especially in first world countries - inundated by propaganda. Inundated by what amounts to ditties. These little shock value things that are supposed to catch your attention. Hooks. And you’re like: “That’s what I do. That’s what I need to do.” We don’t like to assume that good work stands out on its own.
ENNI: Right, it’s like, “No, trust yourself!”
AHDIEH: So, I wrote that. And I actually had an agent off of that, amazingly enough. And whenever she was submitting it to various editors, they came back to her and they said: “You know? I like her writing. But this is not gonna sell. We can’t do anything with this. There’s no market for this.” Also, [there were] a couple of different editors that were like, “Her voice is incredibly young adult.”
ENNI: Oh, interesting.
AHDIEH: And so, my agent at the time, was like, “Yeah, they keep saying that you’re really young adult.” And I remember looking at my shelves, which were covered in the Hunger Games, Twilight, and I was like, “That actually makes a lot of sense.” I had loved reading it, even going back to Nancy Drew, which is young adult. I loved to read Babysitters Club when I was first here too. My mother didn’t want me to read it because she thought it was trashy. And so, my aunt always snuck books to me – my aunt on my dad’s side – always snuck Babysitter Club books to me.
ENNI: I love that the cool aunt is the one you …
AHDIEH: Yeah, the cool aunt, exactly!
ENNI: I mean, they are not not trashy. They are what they are.
AHDIEH: Exactly, exactly. And I loved them. And she was basically my book supplier. It’s good stuff… hiding them from my mom! And then, my father made the huge mistake, when I was twelve, of telling me not to read any Anne Rice, because he had a shelf of Anne Rice. You don’t tell a twelve-year-old that!
ENNI: No. Unless that was his master plan.
AHDIEH: No, I don’t think it was. I don’t think he had any intention of me reading those books.
ENNI: I was twelve when I read Anne Rice too. It was transformative.
AHDIEH: And I was like, “What is this?” I was underneath the covers. And Lemon and I have actually talked about this, a lot. About trying to emulate the feeling that those books gave us. Especially the first time that I read them. Again, that murkiness, thick, heavy sort of sensuality. Even if it’s not necessarily a sexy scene, being able to impart that into my own work has been something that I’ve constantly striven [to do].
LEMON: I’m so jealous of y’all reading Anne Rice when you were younger. I feel that would have been…
ENNI: When did you read it?
LEMON: I didn’t read it until I was twenty-six. And it was because Renée told me, she’s like: “Have you read any Anne Rice? Have you read Queen of the Damned?” That’s what she told me to read. And I read it, and I can still remember - it was so funny, because we talked about this a couple of days ago - the one scene that stands out the most for me, was a scene, like you were saying, “I just want to replicate this feeling in a book.” Till the end of time, that’s all I want to do. And it was the same scene that had stood out for her too. It’s that feeling of thickness in the atmosphere, and being so lost to everything else, except the book that you’re in. It’s incredible.
ENNI: When I read Twilight, [there] was this scene in Twilight – and I read Twilight all in one go, on a plane in the middle of the night. So, it was this whole immersive experience – but the scene where they’re in science class, watching a movie, but she’s bodily close to him and is so aware of him. I was like, “How did she make me feel like I was back there?” She really nailed it.
AHDIEH: Because it’s such an id book. It’s such an id book, and I feel that way, too, when I’m reading Anne Rice. And I feel what happens, and it’s such a tragedy with writers, is we get wrapped up in the idea of craft. Wrapped up in the idea of how I should be writing this book, and lose sight of writing. And I try to constantly push myself to write id books. And I know that obviously, because they’re id books, they can be very [pauses] I don’t know if I can say this… masturbatory. Yeah, they can be very masturbatory, because they’re self-satisfying. I’m trying to write what I would want to read. And I don’t care about the prose. I don’t really care about like, “Am I doing what will get me good reviews?” This is just pure wish fulfillment.
ENNI: That’s what you mean by id book.
AHDIEH: Yes, exactly. Incredible wish fulfillment. I think it’s a really difficult thing, especially for newer writers to straddle, writing an id book, or an ego book. Because you obviously want the accolades. You want people to give you attention, and treat you as though you are actually a good writer. Somebody of good merit. I love reading id books, and I think Twilight… they’re so id. And I want to bottle that, because that’s how I felt about Anne Rice, too. People have accused her of being masturbatory, and I’m like, “I’m okay with that.” [giggles]
ENNI: And plus – we’re just going to go there – it’ female masturbatory.
AHDIEH: Yes, yes.
LEMON: That’s so true. It’s like no tolerance for male masturbatory books.
LEMON: Like, “This is disgusting! I don’t want to read this!”
ENNI: I feel like, and this is a theory, but for men, it’s like, “Oh, aren’t I such a brilliant writer. It’s such a long sentence.” And with female writers, they are talking about love, or this feeling of desire. And that is id for Stephanie Meyer. But I understand it so well, that now it’s my experience too. So, it’s just a different thing altogether.
AHDIEH: I totally agree.
LEMON: I think that’s why I loved Twilight so much. Twilight, for me, was so sticky. I blew through it. I got a migraine and missed work. The thing that transcended everything in that book for me, was just that feeling. And I think the word I loved, that you used just now, was desire. I remember feeling the intensity of desire. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a healthy feeling. It doesn’t matter if other people think that this is a good idea. It didn’t matter at all. It was the first experience of desire for something, as a young woman. And that’s just so special. And the fact that she was able to capture that feeling. To me, whatever, I will defend Twilight until the end of days.
AHDIEH: Absolutely! Because the other thing she did so well, [besides] the desire aspect, [was] also the illicitness. And that was the thing for me, that I think, really propelled me through Anne Rice’s books; The Vampire Chronicles. Firstly, my father actually made it illicit for me to read these books. But even those books have such an illicit tone. And the desire in Twilight is an illicit desire. And I think that’s something… again we remember feeling something we shouldn’t feel, when we were younger.
LEMON: Because I think, in our culture, female desire is still very much illicit.
AHDIEH: Absolutely. It’s illicit. It’s illicit on the page. Even if you look at the way that Stephanie Meyer writes it in Twilight, I’d say she writes it in full awareness of the fact that we are not allowed to have these things on the page. Because they’re not… it’s very sort of shadowed. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s very watered down, even in the book. But even that slightest tinge of it, it can captivate us, because we understand it so well.
ENNI: And then for us, I feel like there’s another level of illicitness. Where it’s like, we’re supposed to love higher levels of literature. We’re not supposed to be…
ENNI: It’s like “F – you!” That’s bullshit. It gives it a… I love it fiercely, you know?
AHDIEH: I love it fiercely. And I loved reading it. I love writing it. And then, you still have to pull back and try to find a way to justify whether or not this has literary merit. And that angers me, a lot. At the same time that I do it. Because you have to make sure that you’re writing a book that people can wrap their minds around. It has a cohesive plot and well-rounded characters, and still give yourself these moments of melodrama, I guess is the way to say it. And I love that, I love that. My favorite books that are written – Lemon and I were talking about, just not long ago, The Brothers Karamazov, because it’s one of her favorites.
ENNI: Russian literature!
LEMON: It’s very old. Yeah, Russian. It’s not even a famous one of his. Crime and Punishment is super famous. But, the plot of that book, [is] so trashy, deeply philosophical. Everything is a mess, and it’s glorious. Absolutely glorious.
ENNI: Well there’s a lot of magical realism, too. A lot of Latin American writing is very emotional. And yet, luckily, a lot of those book have risen to the level of being seen as literary.
AHDIEH: Because so many of them are written by men.
AHDIEH: So many of them are written by men. I remember the first time that I read anything by Isabel Allende. Because I love South American, and Central American magical realism. It’s huge for me. And I read ZORRO when I was maybe fourteen, or fifteen.
LEMON: We have shared feelings about ZORRO.
AHDIEH: Yes, and I actually read her after we read CHRONICLE of a DEATH FORETOLD in school. And I do love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, we can talk about the issues there too. But I do love him, very much, as a writer. I think his prose is beautiful. But, I read Isabel Allende and I fell in love with it. Because again, it’s from the female gaze.
ENNI: Okay, again…
AHDIEH: We’re all over the place!
ENNI: This is my favorite thing, this is the best. But, I want to make sure that we do talk about your books. So, you wrote a chick-lit book. Then you were hearing that your voice is really young adult friendly. I love that you were already deep in it.
AHDIEH: I was already there!
ENNI: So then, when did you, or how did you, take that advice and roll with it?
AHDIEH: So, I started to write another book, and then my first agent and I parted ways. I had to go back to the query trenches, but nobody would work with me on a book that had already been shopped.
AHDIEH: And no one told me this. So, I tried to go out with another query letter. I was working on something else, another contemporary romance sort of thing, and I kept getting rejections. I had a much better query letter. I had sort of learned that second person wasn’t the way to go. I had a much better query letter, and nobody was biting. I was so confused. It was an agent who finally messaged me and was like: “Hey, I feel really bad. I took a look at your pages, and I think you have a lot of talent. No one’s gonna represent you off of this, because it’s been shopped already.”
And the book that I was currently working on was a sequel, of sorts. It was more of a companion. I didn’t even know that was a thing, that I was writing a companion novel to it. And so, I just decided, “This is not for me.” At the time I was twenty-six, I think, and I just decided: “Yeah. This is not for me. This has just been a world of pain. A world of hurt.” I think the melodrama. I called it a pride swallowing siege.”
ENNI: Oh, my gosh. Yes!
AHDIEH: So, I stopped doing it for maybe nine months. And my husband, again, turned to me and he was like: “You are insufferable. Please do something.”
ENNI: I love that writing is saving marriages!
AHDIEH: Exactly! I think he saw… because I was on this furious bent for cooking. A furious bent for painting. And I think for him, he recognized even before I did, how settling writing was for me. How it centered me. It was having that sort of outlet, where I could look at my musings in black and white and just sort of leave them there and step away. So, I started writing again. I started writing a YA book. And the book that I started writing was urban fantasy [chuckles]. It was YA urban fantasy. I loved this book. It was an incredibly id book. But again, I have no understanding of what’s popular. If I had known what was popular, I should have been writing dystopian! At the time, that was what was going on, right?
And I wrote this urban fantasy book right after the whole Twilight, and all the vampire craze had died, and I’m writing urban fantasy. And I got my current agent off of that book. I remember she signed me off of it, and she was the first one to offer. I remember knowing when I got off the phone with her, “This is the agent for me.” Because she didn’t mince words. And she wanted me when no one else did. I feel like too, when you get an offer of representation, then tell other people, “I have an offer.” It’s almost like, “Oh, what’s the shiny new toy that may not have interested me before?” Perhaps that’s really bleak of me to say, but that’s how I felt.
ENNI: No, that’s real.
AHDIEH: I think it’s real. She said to me, in the phone conversation, “I might not be able to sell this book, because the market for this book isn’t there anymore.” She was like, “I’m so pissed at you.” That’s what she said. “If you’d given me this book four years ago, I could have sold the shit out of it.” That’s exactly what she said to me. And I was like: “We can hang. We can hang.” And she’s like, “This one may not sell, but I will sell you one day.” And the fact that she was willing to take that chance, even knowing that perhaps I didn’t have something at that moment that she could actually sell. And we took it out on submission, and heard very similar feedback to my first book, which was: “I love your writing. Give us what she writes next. Not this book.”
So, I told her over the phone - because it was a little bit disheartening. And I had sort of picked myself back up to write again, and this one wasn’t gonna sell – and she was like: “What do you want to write? If somebody told you to write something, what’s on the tip of your tongue? You don’t know you can ask for it?” And I said, “I’ve always wanted to write an Arabian Nights retelling.” Because the story of Scheherazade is a Persian story. And my mother-in-law had a tapestry on the wall, that at a distance looks like a hundred different vignettes strung together randomly. And when I asked my mother-in-law about it, she said it was Tales From 1001 Nights, and the story of Scheherazade is Persian. And I really wanted to re-explore what that would look like as a YA novel. And my agent was like: “Yes. Write that.” And I was like: “Are you sure? I don’t know. It’s such a big part of the literary canon, I don’t want to be disrespectful. I also don’t want to muck it up, or anything like that.” And she was like: “No. This is what you need to do.”
I feel like everything happened the way it should have happened, because her vote of confidence was what I needed to really tell myself: “Yes! I need to sit down and write this.”
ENNI: I would love to hear what you think… because this is advice that is often given to newer writers, or anybody, about not writing to trends. You’re talking about being intentioned between wanting to write what you want to, but also the market exists. We can’t deny that either. If she’d said no, because of the market… I don’t know… this is interesting to me.
AHDIEH: And she never does that, because she is very much like me. She doesn’t really know… and it’s funny now, cause I think a lot of people think that I knew what the trends were gonna be. And I had no idea. I had no idea.
ENNI: That’s so impossible to forecast!
AHDIEH: At the time, when we sold THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, I don’t think there were many Arabian Nights inspired books that were being pitched. There were probably ones in the past. I’m very wary of ever saying that, “I was the first to do something.” Because that’s nonsense. Who’s the first to do anything? But, I didn’t see many of these books, and I don’t think even my editor acquired it from a place of, “This is gonna be a trend.” It was just a book she really loved. And that really has worked out for me. I’m working with all these people who have such passion [for] what I want to do. It’s something I am now allowed to do. Which is wonderful.
ENNI: I’m really curious about you exploring the story from, maybe even a way of further understanding, your husband’s stories that he was told as a kid. It’s kind of diving into another cultural… A 1001 Nights is so universal, but it’s so specific and beautiful. How did you jump in there?
AHDIEH: For me, again, it was just about the passion that I had for these stories, and it was an amazing opportunity too. Because, at that point, I had been with Victor, both married and dating, for quite a long time. He and I have been together for almost sixteen years. And his family is my family. It was all selfish at its core, because the chance to be able to learn how to make Persian food from my mother-in-law, it’s still been some of the biggest gifts writing this series has ever given me. It got to the point too, where my father-in-law, who is this incredibly loveable, kindhearted, warm man, would call me at random parts of the day. And he’d be like [said with a lilting accent], “Renee, I have another joke for your book!” Because he would give me all of these jokes, and these one-liners. Then he would explain them to me as they were said in Farsi, and I would retool them for English, and fit them in. Maybe only another Persian girl or boy, would realize, “Oh, my grandfather says stuff like that to me.” And I love being able to weave that into the story.
ENNI: I thought about you writing a book, and knowing that your husband is Persian. What a cool way to be able to ask him questions that otherwise wouldn’t have come up. And [to] talk to his family, and to listen.
AHDIEH: Absolutely, and so fun. I remember one time Victor and I were having this conversation, I was trying to come up with a good insult. And I wanted it to make sense. Because a lot of insults don’t translate properly. Like you could call somebody the “daughter of a cow”, and that would be a horrible insult in one culture, and meaningless in another. And he came up with a word “jakesh” [?], and the translation I think he gave to me, which obviously, I couldn’t put in the glossary, was “Pimp Lord”, or something like that. And it’s like “The Lord of the Pimps”, or something like that. And I was like, “This is amazing!”
ENNI: It’s great that you had that background, because you do want to tell the story sensitively, obviously. And be aware of all those things going into it. How else were you navigating telling the story, being sensitive, but also telling it how you wanted to tell it?
AHDIEH: I think you have to realize, and this is sort of bleak. I have this conversation a lot with people, especially with the climate being what it is right now in writing in children’s books. Where everybody’s trying to be almost so careful, that they’re so afraid to do anything at all, is really what it comes down to. The truth of the matter is, you are going to get shit no matter what you do. Because that’s the nature of this business. You put something out there for public consumption. You tell somebody, “What do you think about this?” You will not be able to please everybody. That’s just impossible.
And yes, there’s certain times where people who express their displeasure to you, where it stings a little more. But all I can say to myself, and all I can say to the people around me, the people whose voices are ringing the loudest and truest in my ear is: “Did I respect you? Did I respect what’s beautiful about your heritage and culture?” And if my family around me, and the people around me whose voices are really ringing loud and true, say to me, “Yes, absolutely.”
I cannot please everybody. And people will find different things that will upset them. And their voices are valid. Because again, when you put something out there for public consumption, somebody criticizing you, somebody disagreeing with you, their concerns could absolutely be valid. And they are entitled to that. And I did, to a degree, put that on myself when I put it out there. It’s not mine any more. I can’t control the narrative around this.
ENNI: I’m really compelled by how you’re describing that, because it reminds me of how you talked about presenting your stuff in college. I love thinking about books as you putting it out there and saying, “What do you think?” A book really is the beginning of a conversation. And a lot of that conversation is gonna be like: “Here’s all the things that I would have done differently. And here’s the things I didn’t like about it.” Just like when we go see movies, and then afterwards I spend an hour talking about all the ways they got it wrong. And blah-blah-blah. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t love it. It’s engaging with it.
AHDIEH: Absolutely. And that dialogue, I think, is often the most meaningful aspect of it. I haven’t seen GET OUT yet, and everybody keeps telling me I need to watch Get Out, because of that exact thing. You step away from that, and even if you are somebody who doesn’t like horror movies, or even if you’re somebody who this kind of movie makes you feel incredibly uncomfortable about your own privilege, or whatever it might be. That dialogue is so meaningful.
ENNI: And we need to have stuff to start it, and we need to be able to have conversations where you can say the wrong thing, and someone can tell you why. And then you can grow, and learn, and change.
AHDIEH: And pain is valid. Pain is valid. And I think that’s probably what we have a hard time as an industry, totally wrapping our minds around. And I really would hope that it gets better. Your pain is a valid thing. If you could just say to somebody who is experiencing pain, whether it be because a book has problematic content, or a book hurt them in a specific way. I think the dialogue around 13 REASONS WHY is absolutely indicative of this. Your pain is valid. And oftentimes, the things we love are problematic.
ENNI: Yeah, almost always! Because we’re human beings.
LEMON: One of the things I really loved about… especially the way that you talk about THE WRATH AND THE DAWN. [And] especially not being of Persian descent, and writing a book that is rooted in that. I feel like an important thing that doesn’t often get specifically talked about, is the fact that you had a stake in presenting that. It would have hurt you, directly as a person, in a way that had far-reaching implications to your life, to get that wrong. And I think that when we’re talking about diversity, or what kind of stories, and who can tell what stories, I think that that’s a really important thing that I love actually hearing from you. Because you bring that up every time. You had a stake in doing this the right way. And if you hadn’t, you would have suffered as a person.
AHDIEH: I would have hurt people around me.
LEMON: You would have hurt your family.
LEMON: That’s a really big deal. That’s a much bigger deal than publishing. You know?
AHDIEH: [laughing] That’s true! Because again, publishing… you can shut your computer off. You can’t shut your in-laws off. I don’t want my holidays ruined!
LEMON: Haters gonna hate. Even if the damage you’ve done is totally real, you can separate yourself from it. If you had done damage to your family, you can’t separate yourself from it.
AHDIEH: Absolutely not. Nor would I want to. You don’t want to separate yourself from pain that you cause, but you also don’t want to internalize it to a point that it inhibits you. And I think that’s what I’m seeing happen, a lot, in the industry.
ENNI: Thank you, for saying that. It’s such a good point. Because, I think the root of the real problem that we’re seeing, is when people say like, “I need a reader for this, because there’s no one in my life who fits this marginalization.” And it’s like: “So, wait. Why are you telling the story?”
LEMON: It’s a big, giant, red flag.
ENNI: You didn’t have a stake in telling this kind of story, and the next step for you is to think about why you are interested in it. You know what I mean? If you don’t have anyone in your direct circle who has that experience, then you don’t have that kind of stake in it.
AHDIEH: The thing is though, I think having a stake in it absolutely makes a huge difference. I think you, as a writer - regardless of whether or not you have a stake in it – need to be responsible to every aspect of your story. Ask yourself why it is that you chose to make that character that skin color [or] from this background. What are the reasons for doing it?
If it’s intrinsic to the narrative, if it shapes who they are as a person… their backstory. Do they have a cohesive backstory that you understand, that you fully wrapped yourself around? If not, and you’re just doing it because you have some internalized checklist, really question why it is that you’re doing these things. Because that’s what a responsible writer does. Again, check off… got an act one. Why is that gun in the room? What are you doing? You have to constantly ask yourself these questions. And if you don’t have a good answer, then you need to dig deeper on all aspects.
ENNI: I do want to hear you talk about your unique expression within that though. And this happens to everyone who does any kind of retelling, or engaging with stories, [or] fairy tales that have been around for so long. Trying to get the modern, and the new, and [putting] a new take on it, while knowing that there is a world and a structure that already exists. Was that limiting ever?
AHDIEH: It was, initially. Again, my agent was so important to this. I think when I first turned in one hundred and seventy pages to her to take a look at, to see if it was [any] good, she turned around and she called me, and she was like, “This is a monster.” And she’s like: “Right now, it’s a monster. Not in a good way. We’re gonna make it in a good way.” Because again, my agent doesn’t mince words. And she said: “What I think you’re doing, is you are too married to the source material. Why don’t you tell me what you love about this?”
And I told her. And she’s like: “Okay. Take all that. Discard the rest.” She’s like: “You’re creating your own story here. You don’t have to worry about following every part of this to a ‘T.’ Really ask yourself, what are you trying to do with this? What do you love?” And that was incredibly freeing as well. Because I realized, she’s right. In my zeal to be as accurate as possible, and prevent anybody from yelling at me, prevent anybody from saying, “You’re doing discredit to the source material, whatever it is.” I was really wrapped up in too much minutia.
ENNI: You’re saying “Shahrzad”? Which I’m going to fail at saying this properly. But, her story has already been told, in its original sense. So, the world needs to know Renée’s version of it.
AHDIEH: Exactly. And what Renée loved about it. And what she thinks you will enjoy.
ENNI: The other thing that 1001 Nights and THE WRATH AND THE DAWN get to do, which is so cool- and part of what I love about fantasy, and fantasy adjacent stories - is stories within stories. Building mythos within stories. How did you think about what stories you wanted to be told within THE WRATH AND THE DAWN?
LEMON: Wait! Talk about BLUEBEARD in your story. The presence of the Bluebeard story in THE WRATH AND THE DAWN is… the first time I read it, I was like, “Ahhh!” It was perfect. Because it was calling a whole entire history of folk tale, and mythology, that’s present in many cultures. Because obviously Bluebeard, even though we use that story as kind of a reference point for a lot of cultures that have very similar stories - not to overrule your question at all, because I think it’s the same question. It’s just specifically, it’s a perfect example of what you did in that book. To call back an entire tradition of storytelling.
AHDIEH: Thank you. With THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, I really didn’t want to retell the stories that everybody was incredibly familiar with from a western lens. Even pulling back from 1001 Nights that, as we know it in the west, is translated from the Arabic. Translated from the French. Translated into English by Sir Richard Burton. That’s the version we’re most familiar with, and again, that’s telephone. You’re missing so many aspects of each translation, because people are taking from it what they found valuable. And they’re also culling from the oral traditions of so many different cultures.
The original 1001 Nights, if you can even call it that, it’s multi-volumes. And it is also stories that span many different cultures, which is what I wanted to do too. The first story of Aladdin is actually Chinese in origin. And there’s so many stories that are inspired by South Asian oral tradition narratives. And then you have the Middle East. I think people most associate, because of what Sir Richard Burton did, the stories of 1001 Nights as being the Arabian Nights. The version that I really liked was the one that was translated by Husain Haddaway. And it’s translated directly from the Arabic.
Again, you’re at the mercy of the translator’s perspective, the translator’s gaze. But I really liked the idea of reading the stories as close as possible to their original. Even then, it’s still colored by cultural lens. What I really wanted to do, because the story of Bluebeard that we know all the time, is inspired by the French version of the tale. That same tale exists across many different cultures. Just like Cinderella exists across many different cultures. Beauty and the Beast exists across many different cultures. I wanted to do honor and homage to the beauty of these oral traditions, transcending culture. I also wanted every story that I selected to tell, in both THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, and THE ROSE AND THE DAGGER, to have a deeper narrative meaning. So, even if it’s a story people are familiar with, I wanted to turn it on its head and make it be reflected of what was going on in the story. And I wanted to pick stories that were unusual too.
ENNI: Can you tell, for people who aren’t familiar with the Bluebeard tale in general, a little bit of that?
AHDIEH: THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, and THE ROSE AND THE DAGGER, are inspired by the story [of] Scheherazade. Which is the story of this girl, who volunteers to marry this ruthless king. Who has been inexplicably taking a bride every night, and then having her murdered at dawn. She tries to break this cycle by volunteering to marry him, and then telling him a story at night and ending it on a cliff hanger at dawn. And thereby staying her execution for another day. And the tale goes that over 1001 nights, he fell in love with her. They had kids, and this whole terrible cycle was broken.
The story of Scheherazade is the story about this girl who volunteers to marry this man who is killing all of his brides. The story of Bluebeard is very much that as well. This girl marries this man whose brides have been disappearing for a long time. And she is told by her husband - who treats her very, very well - that she’s allowed to go into every single room in his palace, or his castle, save for one. He gives her keys to all of them, and he tests her trust, and loyalty. And she goes into the room, and invariably finds these bodies of his old wives - his former wives - hanging there and blood everywhere.
In THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, Shahrzad uses this tale to shame Khalid into telling her – and Khalid is the king in this story – into telling her why it is that he keeps murdering all of his brides. She’s trying to, I guess, hold up a mirror and be like: “This man is a monster. Are you this monster? Why are you doing these things?” And to me, Shahrzad doing this, is a clever way – because she’s been trying for a long time to figure out the secret here – a clever way to show him, and shame him. We often do this in relationships. Especially because we know how to hurt the people we love. And I think that that was what I really wanted to get across there too. Some sort of growth there too. And her recognition that she was hurting him, to get at something she needed.
ENNI: Interesting! And how stories and fiction can reveal more truth.
AHDIEH: I was fascinated by what would cause a girl to fall in love with a monster, a murderous monster, firstly. I wanted to give that more teeth. And with these stories, upon stories, really continuing to reinforce the power of story to change the course of people’s lives. To be a basis for love. To be a basis for relationships. Be a basis for changing the way we perceive our society. That whole new world where even a story can save a kingdom.
ENNI: I’d love to hear about your new series, FLAME AND THE MIST. Do you want to give the pitch for it?
AHDIEH: Absolutely. FLAME AND THE MIST is the story of Mariko. A girl who sets out to discover why it is that this notorious band of Ninjas tried to assassinate her. And in an attempt to try and figure out why it is that they tried to assassinate her, she disguises herself as a boy, and infiltrates them. As is par for the course with most things I write, not all is as it seems. I had such a good time writing this, because it was inspired a lot by the stories I loved when I was a kid. The fantasy stories especially. I loved Tamora Pierce’s THE SONG OF THE LIONESS series. I loved a lot of Norse narratives. One of my favorite things by Shakespeare is TWELFTH NIGHT which has Viola dressing up as a boy. So, that sort of trope I’ve loved in many different things, and obviously, MULAN. I’ve loved Mulan.
So, when I started writing this story, I deliberately made the choice to set it in feudal Japan, because [of] the juxtaposition of the Samurai, and the Ninja. I feel there’s a lot we can see in a Western culture’s perspective of knights. Knights of the Round Table. And a lot of people are familiar with Arthurian Legend. They might not be as familiar with that code of chivalry that exists with Samurai. So, I really wanted to explore the difference. Samurai have a code of ethics. Ninja do not. Ninja were often tasked with doing the things that Samurai were, by virtue of their code of ethics, not allowed to do. But you have to ask yourself if they’re basically tasking out their dirty work. They’re still responsible for the dirty work, it’s just the idea of not engaging a throw in the back, or something like that. That’s why they have ritualized death as a part of it. And I start the novel with that.
It was very intentional for me, as somebody from a South Korean background, to write a story that brought to life a Japanese inspired world. And also, had nods to a very famous Chinese ballad. I feel that all throughout East Asian cultures in particular, there’s a lot of animosity because of the difficulties that have occurred between all of these countries in their history. Everyone is responsible for doing ugly things to each other. Koreans, even in modern day, continue to do [so]. You look back [to] the Korean War. Koreans have done terrible things to Koreans. Japanese people have done terrible things to Koreans. Koreans have done terrible things to Chinese people… ad nauseam.
The way that I channeled the pain of that, and having family members who lived through that, is through my writing. And, as we talked about earlier, I understand everybody’s pain is valid, but I really wanted to do respectful homage to the Japanese culture. Because there’s so much that is beautiful there. That is, again, immersing yourself in the writings. Immersing yourself in the narratives. I love to read Miyamoto Musashi’s A BOOK OF FIVE RINGS. I would have likened it, and maybe this might be [a] very infantile thing to say, but likened it to Confucian way of thought. But from a Japanese lens, which was really cool. And just reading the poetry of that time period, and looking at the art from that time period. I’m talking about the Sengoku and Muromachi periods of time in Japanese history. I love weaponry. I love food. I always have to research all of the food. I make everything that’s in all of my books.
AHDIEH: I have to. Because I have to know how it tastes. I have to know how it smells. So, I can impart it into my work. And obviously, getting to look at the amazing kimono, and getting to study the world of the Geisha for the purposes of one of the characters that’s in it. And of course, studying the amazingly ingenious tactics that Ninja employed to get done what they needed to get done. It was really fun doing all of that research.
ENNI: Yeah! I was going to say, you had me at “notorious band of Ninjas.” It’s like, “Yes, tell me more.” It also strikes me that you are looking for rule sets. It seems like Feudal Japan, where there’s a rigidity, there’s a structure, there is a way that things are meant to work. Everyone had roles, and society functioned in a very understood way. That’s a world that you can work within creatively. And 1001 Nights, that structure of telling 1001 stories… there’s these enclosed spaces. It reminds me of whatever that saying is, of limits actually bolstering creativity. Were you thinking about that?
AHDIEH: Not at all! That’s a very wonderful observation. I was not thinking about that at all [laughing].
ENNI: It’s really cool. You learned about all of that, and then as a writer, how do I blow all of this up?
AHDIEH: Especially from a place of gender. Because everything I write has, I don’t think a very hidden, very feminist agenda to everything I write. And I really wanted to explore these very traditionally male landscapes, from the gaze of a woman.
ENNI: The gender bending, and the feminist context in modern storytelling… what you write is some of my favorite fantasy, that is historical. It is so rich. And it is based in the real world, but goes off on flights of fancy, which are so wonderful. But as women storytellers, we do want to talk about now; issues now. You can’t avoid talking about feminism if you’re a woman right now. So, was that your explicit “in” on this story? How did that work into constructing this story?
AHDEIEH: I’d like to say that I’m clever enough to do these things intentionally. But I think what it just is, is I’m writing a book I want to read. And I’m writing a book that I, especially as a teenager, would have loved to have. I wish I were that clever. I just think that these are the things that are important to me, so they naturally weave their way into everything I write.
ENNI: So many fantasy stories deal with palace intrigue and [are] political, and that’s also very melodramatic. Sweeping through halls, and all these wonderful things. But that is also something that has been happening a lot politically lately. We’re talking a lot about Trump, and competing factions. And it feels like, unfortunately for the world, but fortunately for us as writers, it’s kind of getting back into this thing that historical fantasy writers have always been fascinated by.
AHDIEH: Again, I wish I were clever enough to say this was all [planned]. I think for me, the biggest thing that I wanted to get across when I was writing this book, I was writing this book before what happened in November, happened. I think that anything that I write, that’s especially subversive when it comes to established government or established hierarchies. I am someone who really likes to question why it is these things are in place? And what is the motivating factor from an emotional place? I feel like what happened in November, is largely from a place of fear. And I feel like fear motivates people to do amazing things, at the same time it justifies the occurrence of horrible things. And I think when you prey upon established fear, it doesn’t matter the time period, it doesn’t matter the culture. The things that you can accomplish…
I have this really good friend. He lives in Mumbai, India. And he was raised there. And he talked about the fact that the reason why there are no buildings like the Taj Mahal, or the pyramids that have stood the test of time for thousands of years, is because these were built with slave labor. And the things you can get people to do, when you make them afraid for their very existence, are amazing [pauses]… but horrible at the same time. Because these are testaments to a very dark part of our civilization’s evolution. And when I think back on when I wrote for FLAME AND THE MIST, and the narrative that it presents - this very debauched emperor, I would say is the best way to describe him - powerless, but wrapped up in his own world of self-importance. I find it a little bit interesting that I think that’s what we’re dealing with now.
ENNI: So, we wrap up with advice, which I would just love to hear. You write books that are quite challenging. I think it’s intimidating to think about writing historical fantasy, or fantasy books. It takes a lot of work. But I’d love for your advice for people who are beginning that journey of wanting to write this kind of story.
AHDIEH: I think the best advice I could offer for somebody trying to write historical fantasy is know where to begin, and know where to end, at all aspects of the writing process. Understand what story you’re trying to tell. What’s the most pressing thing about that story? Don’t get bogged down in the details. And know when to stop messing with it. Know when to stop messing with your research. Know when to stop messing with your… like how many sensitivity rates can you get, really and truly? There will never be a moment when you know you’ve dotted every “I” and crossed every “T.” Because as we all know, we have these books that have gone through eight, nine, ten, twenty different pairs of eyes, and there’s still mistakes that slip through the cracks. Own any errors you make as yours, and yours alone. But know where to begin, and where to end.
ENNI: People have been asking a lot of questions at events lately: “How do I know? How do I Know? How do I know?” At some point, you have to give yourself permission. Or, just set boundaries, and go from there.
AHDIEH: Exactly. Whatever you need in place to tell yourself to cut it out. We always have to tell each other this. Whether it’s a friend telling you to cut it out, know what those limits are.
ENNI: Yeah. Well, this has been the best conversation. Thank you so much Renée!
AHDIEH: Thank you so much Sarah.
ENNI: Thanks for taking all this time!
AHDIEH: Are you kidding? It’s been my pleasure.
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