The launch of Sabaa Tahir's debut novel, "An Ember in the Ashes," is the stuff of literary legend.
The book "was greeted with such breathless accolades before its April release that it seemed unlikely it could live up to the hype," the New York Times reported, before concluding: "The hype appears justified."
Ahead of the book's debut, Paramount Pictures bought the film rights in a seven-figure deal and foreign publishing rights were sold in 24 countries; "Ember" hit #2 on the young adult best seller's list in its first week, and Tahir subsequently signed on to write a sequel (whose title was announced last month).
"An Ember in the Ashes" is frequently described as an amalgam of three other wildly popular fantasy series. "It has the addictive quality of 'The Hunger Games' combined with the fantasy of 'Harry Potter' and the brutality of 'Game of Thrones,'" said one review for Public Radio International.
The author's life sometimes reads like fiction. Tahir grew up in her parents' far-flung 18-room motel in California's Mojave Desert, "hundreds of miles from anything worthwhile." The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she was "the only brown kid in a not-brown town," an outsider who found solace in books and "thunderous indie rock".
A college summer internship at the Washington Post turned into a editing job on the foreign desk, where she was immersed in reporting about war zones and crimes against humanity. "Specific stories stuck with me," she said, "and had me asking myself about the oppressed and the oppressors, as well as about what I would do if I were stuck in some of the situations I read about. 'Ember' was born from those questions."
Tahir wrote the novel over six years, through a pregnancy and the infancy of her first son. In an interview with HuffPost earlier this year, Tahir explored her early influences, how she works and how she parents, the realities of sudden success, and how to go "booking" with someone you love.
Let's talk about your early influences. Was there anything your parents did for you that many parents don't do that left a lasting impact?
My parents worked harder than anyone I have ever met. They had so many businesses. There was the motel, but throughout my childhood, they also had a drive-through dairy, a gas station, a clothing store, a computer reselling business.
Anytime you own a small business, it's all you. There is nobody to fall back on. For my parents, it was everything. They live and breathe it. And they have to because that's how you survive, that's how you pay the bills. My mom also worked a retail job so that we'd have health insurance. I have just never seen two people work harder in my life in this country.
They never gave up, but it wasn't a sort of rah-rah, "Never give up!" thing. It was just that they got up, they did their work, they didn't complain. They made sure we were provided for. And they really, really encouraged hard work.
My dad was very strict. He was absolutely the Tiger Dad. You know, "You got a 98% on this test? Why didn't you get 100?" That was normal life for my brothers and I. It was not considered weird; we didn't really start thinking that it sucked until we got older. We were like, "Hey! All our friends are getting B's or A-minuses and it's okay." But not in our family.
When I went to college, it was so easy. And I worked two jobs while I was in school all the way through, I put myself through school. But working and studying was easy for me because I had worked so hard in high school, studying all the time. Taking only three classes and then working was an easy life in comparison. A lot of my friends really struggled, even though they're super smart people, because they hadn't had that background.
My parents always kept us busy. The motel was right across from the school district offices and they had a big room of spare textbooks. Every summer, we would go in there and get the books for next year's classes. My brothers and I dreaded it. "Crap. We have to get our school books and we're going to have to study all summer." My parents weren't totally crazy about it; we'd study them, say, once a week.
And it actually helped. Honestly, I'm totally going to do that with my kids. We don't have a school district office to go to where they can dread it, but I'm going to go to the bookstore and say, "Okay, we're getting first grade stuff for you now because you're going into first grade."
You immersed yourself in books, partly as an escape from the reality around you, but I assume you're grateful for it now. How are you approaching reading with your own kids?
Books were my savior. It was like having a constant friend, especially as a kid when I didn't always feel like I connected to my friends. I had friends but I didn't, I still felt alone. So books were my friends. I understood them and they understood me and that's how I felt.
Obviously I don't want my children to feel lonely, but I would love it if they could feel like they could open a book and disappear into it. There was this lovely gif that I posted on my Tumblr. Sorry, I have to mention this. It has this person running from reality, a reality monster is chasing her, and she jumps into a book and it slams shut. Reality's just like, "What?" You know, and can't do anything. That's the perfect gif from my childhood, that right there.
It's such a paradox. If your parents weren't driving you to do more, would you have necessarily developed your work ethic?
I would never have. If my parents hadn't taught me what it is to work really, really hard, I never would have been able to write my first book, or the second. Doing all of this with two young kids and a family is just a ton of work. But it is not even a question as to how much effort I'm going to put into it.
As far as my kids go, I would love it if they loved to read. At the same time, I don't want to be the parent who's cracking the whip, making them constantly read. If my sons really enjoy comic books, for instance, I'm going to let them follow that and explore that.
I was a really late reader. I started reading when I was six and a half. And I hated reading at first, I thought it was the worst thing because I couldn't do it. As I got a little bit older I started realizing that this was a great escape and then developing a real love for fantasy in particular. And then, even though it was still sometimes a struggle for me to read, the story grabbed me so tightly—actually, that's how I started reading really fast.
It's totally the product of my childhood. When I was a kid, my parents hated it when I read novels. They felt it was a waste of time. "You should be studying!" So I read really fast because I didn't want them to catch me. It was totally a flashlight-under-a-blanket kid. I would read until my eyes were like sore and I knew I had to get up in the morning. I didn't want to get caught and I didn't want the book to get taken away.
You've mentioned that you and your husband would go "booking". What is that?
Ugh, I'm going to establish our nerd-hood forever in print. We would go on dates, we'd get dinner, and then instead of going to a movie or, I don't know, mini-golfing or whatever, we would go to a bookstore. We would wander around the bookstore for two hours, just browsing. Then we'd each get a book and we'd go home and read. It was just the greatest thing.
I still remember my mom asked me, when I'd first met my husband and we were seeing each other, she was like, "Why do you like him?" The first thing that popped into my head was, "Because he reads a ton." I'm like, "He reads as much as I do. I've never met anyone who reads as much as I do." And she just said, "You're right." So, yeah, books are big in the family.
Also, it's nice to read with my husband because he has a completely different perspective than me. Getting him to read "Harry Potter" was one of the biggest coups of my life. He does not read fantasy, he does not read Young Adult. He reads these giant, boring-ass books about World War II, and he loves them. They're delicious to him.
So getting him to read "Harry Potter" was great, and what was interesting was that after we were finished, he saw it in a completely different light. He was seeing Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain. "Oh, this is totally like World War II Britain. It's so cool! And I can't believe she did X and --" And I'm reading it going, "Oh, I didn't see that at all."
You've had a crazy wave of success with your first novel. Are there any downsides to that?
The more success you have, the more you're aware of how far you have to fall. If I screw up, if I write a really bad second book, or if things don't go the way I was hoping, you know? Doubt and anxiety have become a bigger part of my life since I sold the book. You do sometimes wonder, "Are all these people crazy? Is this book terrible and they're all just delusional?"
It's the Imposter Syndrome, where you tell yourself, "I shouldn't be here. I'm just that nerd who told stories. People are actually reading that story now? Why?" You find yourself sitting there thinking: your book is out there in the world, and people are reading, and judging it. And by extension, at times reading it and judging you.
And that can be scary, you know? Especially when you're kind of an introvert like I am.
So are you obsessive about reading reviews of your book on Amazon and Goodreads?
Oh, god, no. No! I actually blocked my book's Goodreads page. I can still go on Goodreads but I can't see the page for "Ember". And it was really just to keep my sanity.
Early on, in particular, I could not help myself. I had to go online and see what people were thinking. I think now I could actually unblock it and I wouldn't be tempted, because I started to see it from my point of view as a reader. There are books I like and there are books I don't like. It has nothing to do with the author, it's not personal. It's just like, "Eh, I didn't love it."
Learning to not take it personally was a big part of being able to let go and not read the reviews and not really care about the reviews. I do read trade reviews still, and they're so public that sometimes it can be hard. But I'm really lucky. There hasn't really yet been anything where I've wanted to go crawl under a rock and live there for two years. And I'm very thankful for that.
I know that that happens in every writer's life, so I'm just like waiting for it. Maybe it will be with the next book, I don't know. But I feel pretty thankful that at least for this first one, it wasn't too rough.
Do you have a routine for writing?
I do, I write every day. I try to start writing around 8 o'clock. I have to work myself into it. I have these playlists, these massive playlists, and they're how I sink into my world, with whoever I'm writing that day.
"Ember" has two points of view. So if I'm writing Elias' point of view, I'll find like Julian Casablancas+The Voidz and listen to a really loud, angry song about running away and that helps me sort of get into his mindset. If I was doing Laia, I'd find a song for her.
Then I'll write in bursts. I'll stop and then I'll write and then I'll stop. It requires so much discipline to not get distracted. I started using Anti-Social which is one of the Freedom apps and it shuts off all your social apps. So no Tumblr, no Twitter, no Facebook, none of that stuff. It's really helpful, and it's funny how much I'll still go. I don't even know I'm doing it. It's like a disease. I just click and I'll be like, "Oh, I just clicked on Twitter even though I'm not supposed to be doing that. I'm supposed to be writing."
I write a lot at night too. I feel like I do my best writing at night and I get my best ideas at 2 AM. Which is not good for my morning writing. My husband calls them "writing benders." I think you need that as a creative person. You need the freedom to write when you want and how you want, and to know that no one's going to be judging you the next day. No one's going to say, "Hey, why aren't you awake yet?"
This is why it's really great to have somebody in your life, whether it's your husband or your mom or your roommate, who is telling you that it's okay to do that, so that those creative voices can speak. If I'm having one of those days where things are going really, really well, my husband's not like, "Dude, you should really go to bed. You've got to get up tomorrow. The kids." He's just like, "Ride the wave." And he'll handle stuff in the morning.
That's one of the joys of a creative life is those moments where you are really inspired, where the muses take you. It's something that people joke about but it's real. It happens. It happens to me maybe once or twice a month. But sometimes I'm up late writing just because I haven't made word count that day because I was screwing around on Twitter. So I'm like, "Okay Sabaa, you need to write now. And now you'll suffer in the morning." On those days I will make myself get up the next day as punishment, basically. "Don't do that again."
On the other hand, you also need to let yourself sit with ideas. Sometimes it's not about word count. I was at my parents house one day—my parents have been really wonderful in helping me with the book. When I really need free space to write all day long without worrying about picking up children or anything, they have said, "Come and stay with us for a week. We'll take care of the kids and you can literally just leave and go and write and do what you want." I'm very fortunate to have that.
So I was doing one of those types of parental retreat-type things. I was sitting at the table and just staring into space. My dad walked by and he says, "It doesn't look like you're doing any writing." Then he just sort of keeps walking. Then I hear my mom say to him, "Half of writing is dreaming. So she is writing." I loved that she said that, because she got it, you know? She was 100% right.
I was staring off into space. I don't even know where I was—I was not here. I was in the Empire, probably in the middle of a battle scene, you know, about to get my head lopped off. And I thought it was great that she could feel that.
With the popularity of "Ember," you've also had financial success. Has the prospect of a different financial future changed your life in any unexpected ways?
I'm trying to think about how to answer this gracefully. When I had kids, I didn't want them to be as worried about putting themselves through school. It was something my brothers and I had to do. Our father was great in that he helped us apply for everything, he was always on top of it. But our parents could not pay for our education.
If there's one thing that I'm very grateful for, it's that all of this has created the possibility that I will be able to help my kids. I can set that aside for them and hopefully over the course of time I can help them through school. I'm still going to be like, "Go get a job." Because I think it's good for their character. But that would be nice.
I remember, we used to turn in the financial aid form every year, and then you would have to wait a few months to find out if you got aid for the next year or not. It was like so stressful to be wondering, "Is my GPA high enough for these grants? Did I get my scholarships? Did I get whatever work/study programs so that I can supplement?"
You lose sleep over it, and you lose opportunities. I really wanted to go abroad but I couldn't do it because it just wasn't something that was feasible. I would like it if my kids won't have to worry about that.
A lot of young people are reading your work. Looking back at your transition to adulthood, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
I wish that I had written much more as a younger person. I didn't do it because I thought it wasn't practical. I thought, "These stories are never going to go anywhere so I should not waste my time telling them." I wish I had not made that decision.
I should have written whenever I wanted and for as long as I wanted. I would've learned about storytelling and how to tell a story much earlier, and then it might not have taken me six years to write my book. A lot of that was the learning curve, just figuring out how to write.
I also wish that I'd known about the writing community earlier, before I became a published author. I really wrote in a vacuum. My friends and family were all very supportive but they didn't really get it. I would go three or four days where I hadn't written and it would be completely frustrating for me.
The biggest thing that the publishing deal has changed for me is that I'm a full-time writer. That is the biggest gift in the world. That was the first thing that popped into my head when I got the deal: "Oh, I can do this full-time now." That's very rare and major luck so I'm just riding that wave like my husband tells me to.
I wasn't writing full-time when I first started this. When I had the opportunity to write more, like when I was in school and I could've written three or four hours a day, I didn't do it. I don't know what I did with those three or four hours, probably screwed around. I wish that I had taken that time and worked on the craft. Because I think it would've really helped later.
Would you have approached your education any differently?
My parents wanted me to become a doctor. I worked at a hospital in my senior year and was like, "Ew!" They were disappointed, but said, "Do something where you can get a job." That was their main concern. Journalism was something where I felt like I could get a job.
It ended up teaching me so much. First, about the world, and what a dark place it is. Plus, the great thing about journalism and a good newspaper like the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, the stories are wonderful examples of the building blocks of writing.
It's like classic like Strunk and White shit, basically. This is how you write a sentence. This is how you create a lede. This is how you generate interest. This is how you structure a story. I used to be a writing tutor at UCLA and when people would ask me, "What should I do to become a better writer?" I would always say, "Read the newspaper." It's one of the most engaging ways to really understand how to create good sentences.
That gave me a basic foundation that I needed to be able to write "Ember," to be able to write clearly. People often take that for granted. You need to know how to correctly form a sentence and to use punctuation and create a paragraph, because that then leads to: How do you build suspense? And how do you pace correctly? Then that leads to, how do you characterize? How do you make sure that characters are fully fleshed out? And that leads to plot. They're all related.
Any advice for new parents who are trying to work on a passion project while they've got a newborn or young kid?
I had to resign myself to piles of laundry, grilled cheese for dinner, a sometimes-grumpy husband, because writing had to matter more than everything else. When I was feeding [my son] at night, I would hold the bottle with one hand and write with my other hand. I did that so many nights. Sometimes I'd turn on my iPhone and recorded what I was thinking about, then I would write it the next day.
Be inventive. Find any spare moment, because all of those moments will add up to a first draft or a first chapter or something. Staying connected to the writing every single day, even if that was like, "Okay, he's asleep. I really want to take a nap. I really should take a nap. But I'm not going to. I'm going to use this 45 minutes to write." You are sacrificing something, it's true. Like your own health. [laughter] And I know a lot of people don't agree with that.
And there's an extreme you probably shouldn't go to, but I think within reason it is really, really important to make sure that writing is number one. Even when, like I said, you have the pile of laundry that you really need to do. I also think asking for help if you can, whether it's from family, neighbors, people you trust. For me, in those early months, being able to have my mother-in-law come over and watch the baby for two hours while I wrote.
A lot of people don't realize how much it adds up. I wrote a draft, a bad draft but a draft nonetheless, by December 2009, almost entirely in those little spare pockets of time. It wasn't good, but it was something. It was a place to start from. So take what you can get, man. Especially in those early months. And if you have two kids, it's even harder and it's even more important that you sometimes prioritize your time to write.
Also, tell your partner or spouse, if you have one, "Sorry, no, you're not watching the game. You're watching the kids so that I can go write." You shouldn't have to be bossy, because hopefully that person will want to do that for you, but I was really lucky. There was a million times where my husband was like, "Go write, go write." He knew that it's something that needed to be done.
Any advice more generally about raising young kids that learned the hard way?
It goes by really fast and you think that you will have the time and then you don't. So just enjoy it. My first got big really quick. He's six now and I'm like, "Where did you go? How did you become almost my height?"
My second, I've enjoyed his babyhood much more because I know now. I get it. It's just going to fly by. So enjoy those quiet moments. You'll be waiting for your baby to walk, encouraging her, sometimes getting impatient. And then she'll start doing it and you'll be like, "Oh, I miss when she crawled." Then you'll be waiting for her to speak, and it's wonderful when they start to speak, but at the same time you miss the looks, where you're starting to interpret what they want by the little sounds or looks they use.
Every age is really precious, so yeah. Take lots of iPhone videos.
Anything that you want to pass on to your readers?
There's a piece of advice that I read in Steven Pressfield's "The War of Art." You really should read that book, it's wonderful. But it's really mean.
It's like, "Write your book!" The entire time the author is telling you, "Why are you reading this? Go write." Go do! Create! Whatever it is that you want to do, go and do it. I made a lot of excuses for myself in the six years that I was writing where I said, "I'm not writing because of blah. And because I don't have time. And because I have to do X. And because I suck at it."
The most damaging thing you can do is to make those excuses. I always tell young writers, "If you find yourself making excuses for why you are not writing, reconsider your priorities. Those excuses are probably BS and you shouldn't make them if you want to be a writer."
I really wish somebody had told me that 10 years ago. I spent a long time making excuses for why I wasn't writing. Now I can't.
Is there some next chapter in your life that you envision? Some other passion of yours outside of writing that—
Oh, no man. This is it. This is my true love, right here. Writing is all I want to do. My friend Adam Silvera, he wrote a book called, "More Happy Than Not." Wonderful book by the way. I sent him a congratulatory note when it came out, and he wrote back and said, "This job... god, we're so lucky."
That's the perfect encapsulation of how I feel about it. I would not want to do anything else. Writing is, it's my home. It's really all I want to do. I'm just glad I get to do it. As long as I can, I'm just going to hold on to that. Sink my claws in and never let go.
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