Interview with Sabaa Tahir
Interview with Sabaa Tahir, author of An Ember in the Ashes
Contributed by Hannah Hudson, YABC Staff Reviewer
The King’s English hosted a wonderful event, “Sabaa Tahir in Conversation with Ally Condie,” on May 4th. Nestled in the heart of Salt Lake City, the local bookstore was the perfect place for great conversation with an intimate setting ‐ which is exactly what attendees were given.
Ally Condie was a gracious host, and she and Sabaa Tahir played off one another throughout the entire event. When asked about her life, Tahir shared that she was “the only brown kid in a not brown town,” explaining that, “when that happens, you feel lonely and scared. I turned to fantasy. When I grew up, I learned I had a voice through writing.”
Tahir’s family owned an 18‐room motel in the Mohave Desert, which Tahir says was “200 miles from anything worthwhile.” While she talked of not having many friends and being picked on, it is clear that Tahir’s family means the world to her. While perhaps not making direct correlations to her characters, Tahir spoke of her “feisty grandmother,” and “having wonderful, brave women” in her life. Her love for her brothers also helped her in understanding her heroine’s motivations.
When asked about her characters and writing process, Tahir had this to say: “My characters are like my children.” Through a long process of revisions, Tahir “got to know them, then love them.” While Tahir joked with Condie about how they write fantasy to avoid research, I was impressed with just how much unusual research Tahir did for her characters. From interviewing police officers, to a West Point Academy student, it is clear that Tahir has worked hard to ensure that the Martials’ rule feels as real to her readers as it does to her characters.
It’s not just her fictional world that Tahir cares about. Tahir’s fans are important to her, and she realizes the potential impact her book might have in their hands. As she talked about her reasons for writing, she mentioned various real life events that inspired her story. “The book was inspired a lot by the Nazi takeover and the Sudan genocide. It really disturbed me how humans can treat each other – I felt I needed to write something that reflected the brutality of our world. The darkness in the book absolutely comes from the darkness of our world.” While Ember does deal with dark subjects such as oppression, torture, and war, that’s not what makes Tahir’s book stand out from the rest. Her themes of love and courage in dire situations bring vibrancy to her work, staying with the reader long after the story comes to a close.
When asked if she will be writing a sequel to An Ember In The Ashes, Tahir replied, “I can’t not work in the world of Ember. I am hopeful, but I don’t know yet.” With a story so full of truth, I also find myself hoping for a return trip to Tahir’s dark, brave world.
Prior to the event, I was able to sit down with Sabaa Tahir and ask her a few questions. We had a great time talking about her life, books, and her debut novel, An Ember in the Ashes.
Hannah: Have you always been an avid reader?
Sabaa: Yes, I’m obsessed with books. My husband and I liked to do something when we were dating called “booking,” which is where we would go on dates to the bookstore. We’d go to dinner, then lurk around bookstores and hang out.
H: If you could take three books to a desert island, what would they be?
Sabaa: I would take The Book Thief, because it’s so much about hope; I count this as one: the collected works of J.K. Rowling, and then I would probably take a SEAL survival guide, because I wouldn’t want to die.
H: What is your favorite fantasy world?
Sabaa: Hogwarts. I think that it’s endlessly interesting – secret passages, secret rooms, and the fact that the castle itself feels alive to me ‐ that it felt like a character.
H: What is your favorite aspect of your own fantasy world?
Sabaa: I like that it’s realistic. It is a really dark and troubled place. There are still places of hope, but it’s not an easy place to live and you have to survive. I think that there are so many places in our world that are still like that, and I wanted that to be reflected.
H: You have two main characters in your book, Elias and Laia, and two points of view. Was it difficult to create all the nuances between your two main characters?
Sabaa: It took a lot of drafts to get it right. My main character Elias started out as slightly more passive and then I had to make him more active, but still have him internal, and considering things, and still be a twenty‐year‐old male. That was really important.
Laia had to develop earlier in terms of how afraid is she really? And having her develop realistically, because you don’t go from a coward to a badass in a month. It’s a really short time, but I think it’s realistic for her.
H: Was one point of view easier to write than the other?
Sabaa: Laia was easier. Elias was harder, because I’m not a dude and he’s a warrior. I did all these interviews with modern day warriors, and that’s when Elias got easier, because I had all these voices in my head.
H: How did you write such excellent fight scenes?
Sabaa: I watched a lot of Kung Fu movies when I was little, and I had two brothers, so I had to learn to dodge! I would go through the fight scenes in my head. I closed my eyes and I imagined what Elias would do based on all those Kung Fu movies I watched, and then went from there.
H: Would you ever attend Blackcliff?
Sabaa: No, no way! I’d be dead within a week. I might survive, because I’m quite stubborn, but I think I’d probably just be dead.
H: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this novel?
Sabaa: Not pulling my punches. What I mean by that is making what actually happened in the book something that is realistic even when it caused me sadness.
H: What would you like to say to your readers who might feel voiceless?
Sabaa: It’s okay. They will find their voice ‐ they will have to look for it, but they shouldn’t be impatient with themselves. It took me 26 years to find my voice, which is a really long time to be looking for your voice. It didn’t end up being through journalism, it was through the writing of a fantasy novel. I hope my book helps people realize that. I think that there are so many people who are not super brave, and they have to see heroes and heroines who are like them who can surmount that.
Thank you Sabaa Tahir and The King’s English for hosting such a wonderful event!
*For more about Sabaa Tahir, click HERE!
*To find more about Sabaa's book, including reviews, click HERE!
Hannah Hudson is a YABC Staff Reviewer. In addition, she has her MA in Children's and Adolescent literature from Hollins University, which allows her to read lots of YA and MG fantasy and fiction on a daily basis. When she's not busy reading or writing, you can find her swinging swords with the Medieval Armored Combat League.