“Don’t think of all the reasons you shouldn’t write”: An Interview with Sabaa Tahir, Author of An Ember in the Ashes
In the wide and varied spectrum of young adult fiction, some writers emerge each year and manage to capture an entire community’s imagination. 2015 has seen debut author Sabaa Tahir forge a stunning new path with her fantasy novel An Ember in the Ashes. Protagonists, Laia and Elias, test the boundaries of their respective social statuses through alternating perspectives, in a world that doesn’t seem to have room for either of them. Two WWAC staff members have shared their takes on the novel, and this particular writer recently had the opportunity to ask Sabaa about the story’s development and her own views on writing.
How did you first become interested in writing? Were there specific influences (people, stories, etc.) that played a role in how you developed your writing style?
I’ve always loved telling stories and I’ve been writing them down for as long as I can remember. A book I read as a child, The Random House Book of Fairy Tales, was probably the first major influence on my writing. When it came to An Ember in the Ashes, the stories I read while working as an editor at The Washington Post had a big impact.
What are your favourite aspects of the world you created? How did you begin to create it, and what challenges did you have to work through?
I really like the masks: these are silver face masks worn by elite soldiers in Ember’s Empire. The Masks adhere to the soldiers’ faces, eventually becoming a part of them, like a second skin. That image of the masks clinging to one’s face is startling and creepy. It’s definitely one of the aspects of Ember that I enjoyed imagining and writing about. As for worldbuilding: I build my world in layers. So first I’d add in a layer about setting, then social stratification, then specifics about clothing and weaponry, etc.
Laia and Elias are complex protagonists set against a dynamic cast of supporting characters. Were there any characters that were particularly difficult to develop or write? How did your approach change for them, if at all?
Elias gave me a lot of trouble at first. He is fearless, and a warrior, and I am neither of those things. It wasn’t until I interviewed modern-day warriors and learned what it mean to really have the soul of a warrior, that I was able to handle his characterization a bit better.
Was there a particular subplot or character that you had to rework or remove during revision? How would its inclusion have influenced the story?
Ha ha, so many! There was a subplot involving some talking animals at one point. Lost that pretty early on because it was a bit ridiculous. Also, for a while the Commandant, who is one of the villains of the book, was a man—and that didn’t work very well at all!
What thoughts or advice would you share with young person-of-colour (POC) writers in particular, who may not feel like writing is a career choice they can pursue?
It’s really the same advice that I give to everyone. Don’t make excuses for yourself. Don’t think of all the reasons you shouldn’t write—whether that has to do with what your parents want, or what you think the world wants. Every moment you spend thinking “no one will want to read this” or “well, I should be studying something else,” is a moment that you could have been honing your craft. I say this not to be harsh, but because I wasted a LOT of time this way. Too much time. Just write. Focus on your craft, focus on learning and improving and becoming part of the writing community. The rest will work itself out eventually.
Our sincerest thanks for your time, Ms. Tahir!
An Ember in the Ashes is available at bookstores, with a sequel due out in 2016.