Sweet Sixteener Melanie Conklin recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Sabaa Tahir about her debut YA fantasy novel, AN EMBER IN THE ASHES (April 28, 2015 from Penguin/Razorbill).
Sabaa Tahir grew up in California’s Mojave Desert at her family’s eighteen-room motel. There, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother’s comic book stash, and playing guitar badly. She began writing An Ember in the Ashes while working nights as a newspaper editor. She likes thunderous indie rock, garish socks, and all things nerd. Sabaa currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
Set in a terrifyingly brutal Rome-like world, An Ember in the Ashes is an epic fantasy debut about an orphan fighting for her family and a soldier fighting for his freedom. It’s a story that’s literally burning to be told.
Laia is a Scholar living under the brutal rule of the Martial Empire. When her brother is arrested for treason, Laia goes undercover as a slave at the empire’s greatest military academy in exchange for assistance from other Scholars who claim that they will help to save her brother from execution. At the academy, Laia meets Elias, the academy’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias is considering deserting the military, but before he can, he’s ordered to participate in the Trials, a ruthless contest to choose the next Martial emperor. It is not long before the far-reaching arm of Trials snatches not just Elias but Laia as well; and soon the two will find that their destinies are more intertwined than either could have imagined and that their choices will change the future of the empire itself.
Melanie: When and how did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Sabaa: I’ve always loved writing, but I never admitted to myself that I wanted to be a writer. Even while working as a journalist, I was an editor, not a writer. It wasn’t until I thought of the idea for EMBER that I realized I needed to write this book. Still, I didn’t fully accept that it would be my only career. It wasn’t until 2009, when I quit my job and began working on EMBER with much more focus, that I realized that this was what I wanted to do forever.
Melanie: Are you part of a critique group? If so, how did working with your CPs benefit you?
Sabaa: I’m not part of a critique group, but I do have specific readers who give me feedback on whatever I’m writing. Having more eyes on your work is incredibly helpful. I’m lucky in that my readers are both smart and merciless, so they will call me on mistakes.
Melanie: How did you come up with the idea for your novel? Did you know this was “the one”?
Sabaa: In 2007, I decided I wanted to write a novel about people who were voiceless and powerless—likely because I felt both emotions as a kid. At the time, I was working at The Washington Post and reading stories about some of the most voiceless and powerless people in the world. The two factors came together and the seed for EMBER was planted. I didn’t know it was the “one.” I just hoped it was.
Melanie: Revision is often the most challenging part of novel-writing. What was your revision process like for this book?
Sabaa: Intense. I revised this book so many times. It was humbling, because every time I’d finish a revision, I’d hope it was the last one. But then I’d reread and find another thousand things to fix and go back and revise again. But this is how I became a better writer—and how I was able to see the mistakes I was making. Every revision made the book a little better.
Lightning Round Questions
Metal-work is prominent in EMBER. Did you ever work with metals or jewelry yourself?
Sadly no—I just did a ton of research. I’d love to do this one day, though! There’s a katana-making class up in Oregon that I’ve had my eye on for years now….
You make sweet mixes as well as writing. What music are you writing by these days?
Thank you! I’m listening to Baa Mix 82, which is here: www.sabaatahir.com/music/
Sibling relationships are important in EMBER. Are you a big sister, little sister, in the middle, or one and only?
I’m the youngest of three—I have two big brothers.
Have you ever baked a moon cake? How did it turn out?
I have not! I need to get on this though.
Knowledge is power in EMBER. Did you like to read growing up? What were you reading when you were 16?
Like a maniac. At 16, I was reading Toni Morrison, Terry Brooks and Arundhati Roy.
Do you write longhand or type?
I type, except when I don’t have a computer, in which case I write on whatever I have.
About the Interviewer:
Melanie Conklin is a writer, reader, and all-around lover of words and those who create them. She lives in South Orange, New Jersey with her husband and two small maniacs. Melanie spent a decade as a product designer and approaches her writing with the same three-dimensional thinking and fastidious attention to detail. Counting Thyme is her debut novel. Find her on Twitter.