I recently got the chance to sit down with Sabaa Tahir, author of the newly released An Ember in the Ashes, to chat inspiration, masks, dragons and movie news. Thanks to Penguin for arranging this meeting!
I grew up in the desert and so it’s the setting I know the best. I also find the desert both inspiring and frightening. It’s a place that can be very, very beautiful and also really deadly. Growing up, I both loved and hated it. As far as ancient Rome, I think it’s such an interesting period of time. All the politicians are trying to kill each other and steal each other's wives, and the women are so conniving. It was such a den of nastiness, and yet there were people who stood out, like Cladius, who was this example of a good person. It’s rich with possibility of betrayal and politics, terrible decision making, people taking advantage of each other. I thought it was a perfect time period to set this book. It’s intense.
There is a lot of intensity and violence in this book. Did you ever feel like there was a line that you had to stay behind?
No. And it took me a couple years to let myself write the story fully, to tell myself I’ve been holding back and pulling punches. You know, I was inspired by real world stories and in some places, the type of violence is very specific. For example, in the Sudan genocide, women and children were constantly at threat of violent rape. Even in the refugee camps ... people would go outside the camp for water and be assaulted by militias on horseback, who could ride away after creating so damage. All this happening, right in the shadow of these UN protected camps. I didn’t want to go there, originally, but when you write for teenagers, you must be honest. Can’t lie to them. The're very astute readers. Can’t give them a fairy tale version of reality. The Empire is not a friendly, happy place.
And even the villains, you can see how they were shaped by this society, this violence.
Yeah, they’re hard because of what they’ve had to live through. They've been made that way. And there are places in the word where that's a reality.
Probably my favorite scene in the book comes early on. It’s when the first Mask shows up at Laia's house. I liked this scene because I thought the Mask character and concept was really intriguing. There’s something so creepy and beguiling about the unknown behind a wall. What was your inspiration for the Mask?
Thank you. That was one of the hardest scenes to write, because of what happens to the characters. But while I was writing EMBER, I was reading a news report about riots in a former Soviet republic. There was a photo of riot police with their shields over their faces, and protesters around them. The protesters had all these raw emotions on their faces: fear and anger. And then you have this wall of police and you can’t see their faces. You can’t see their emotions, if they’re afraid, anything. There’s something scary and intimidating about that. It’s meant to be intimidating, of course. That image stuck in my head and I transformed it into a mask, into something that takes over you and becomes part of you, because your actions are something that can’t ever be taken away. Maybe you can be forgiven for them, but your past can’t ever be taken away, so that’s why these masks become part of the person.
You have two POV characters: Laia and Elias. Do you favor one or the other?
Not really. It’s like kids. You can’t favor any of them. I think of them kind of as my big children. There are some I’m afraid of, kind of, like the Commandant, but I don’t favor them.
What is your ideal writing set up?
Does it have to actually exist?
No. Can be total fantasy!
It would have to be a turret, with lots of windows to let in the light . . . that would be closed because I like to write in the darkness. There would be a roaring fire and a fake sheepskin rug. A dragon would live on top of the turret and I could discuss plot ideas with her. She’d be totally smart. And would fly me to see my friends when I wasn’t writing. I would have an unending supply of Coke and chocolate and Pellegrino. It would be in northern California, because that's such a beautiful place with really cool people.
Congratulations on your film deal!
Do you have, or hope to have, any involvement in the process? I know there usually is limited or no involvement for the author in film proceedings. Is that the case for you?
I’ve been lucky with this. The film rights were bought by a friend of my brother’s. I didn’t know him before all this happened, he just knew my brother, but they’re really cool about letting me know what’s going on. Checking in to see if things are okay, but I’m still not very involved, and I’m fine with that. I don’t know scriptwriting, which is this whole different skill from writing novels. But I trust them to do a good job. It feels pretty good to have people who know my book backwards and forwards working on the film. But writing is my art, my home, and I think if I started getting involved in film I might compromise my writing and I don’t want to do that.
This book was sold as a stand-alone, but it sounds like there might be a sequel…
Maybe? (laughs) As soon as I find out I’ll shout and scream. But Penguin makes the decision there and…who knows!
Sabaa, we wish you all the best and, in fact, heard some exciting news just today about a sequel! An Ember in the Ashes is Sabaa Tahir’s debut novel. Learn more about it on Goodreads, and more about Sahaa on her website or twitter.