Sabaa Tahir is tired of books where a spunky, lone hero goes off and saves the world.
“I really didn’t like the idea that a heroine was super brave off the bat and was going to go and kick some a-- from Day One,” said the author of “An Ember in the Ashes.” “I wanted to build up to that.”
And over the course of two books, she has.
Tahir got the idea for her series while working as a copy editor on The Washington Post’s international desk several years ago, well before she began writing as her full-time job.
She read a story about Kashmiri women whose male relatives were imprisoned by the military and never seen again. Inspired, Tahir conceived the plot of her series: Young Laia seeks help from a rebel army to free her brother, who has been imprisoned by the ruling empire. The soldiers will help her only if she spies for them, going undercover as a slave for a ruthless warlord. In this guise Laia meets Elias, who is plotting his escape from the empire.
Tahir’s second book in the series, “A Torch Against the Night,” comes out next month and will continue Laia and Elias’s journey to escape the clutches of the Martial empire.
Tahir talked to The Post about where her ideas come from, how racism shaped her book, and why she’s afraid of supernatural beings called jinn.
This interview is part of “It’s Lit,” a digital question-and-answer series about women who write books. It has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Q: Where did you get the confidence to go forward with your idea?
A. I didn’t have a lot of confidence. It was almost like it was stubbornness more than anything else. If you are willing to sit down and spend time on a story and make it work, no matter how unconfident you are on the surface, deep down somewhere you think this story is worth telling [so it’s] worth the effort, the blood, the sweat, the tears, the embarrassment, the humiliation.
I mean, I was a copy editor on the international desk writing a young-adult fantasy. It was kind of weird, you know? My co-workers totally made fun of me! All in good fun, they were very sweet, but it was like, “How’s your fantasy coming?”
Q: You’ve mentioned before that your book has a lot of Roman influences, but I noticed a lot of South Asian influences as well.
A. There are some North African, South Asian and Middle Eastern influences. I included the whole region because it’s the mythology of jinn and ifrits and marids [supernatural beings often found in Arabic mythology, and you find that mythology all over that area.†
That really comes from my mom. When I was little girl she would tell me jinn stories to scare the daylights out of me. She told me they lived in trees and you don’t want to disturb it at night because there might be a jinn living in it, and so to this day, if I’m taking a walk at night and I see a tree I will go around. I’m like, “Uh-uh, I’m not going to disturb the jinn.”
Q: How did your background shape your stories?
A. I grew up in an isolated town, out in the middle of the Mojave Desert in the middle of a naval base. My family was one of the only South Asian families in this town. We felt it. We knew. And there were absolutely wonderful people in the town, and I had a lot of friends there, but there were a lot of people who didn’t want outsiders in the town — who felt like it was a personal affront. So there was a lot of racism and a lot of prejudice, and it was everywhere from the schools to the teachers all the way to just how you were treated.
The other side of it was meeting so many people and hearing so many stories and really experiencing life through so many different people. And that kind of gave me a very early interest in the idea of stories and of storytelling. The way I felt growing up, which was like an outcast — I was weird, I was a nerd, I read fantasy books — I think a lot of fantasy book readers and a lot of readers and writers in general have that experience of isolation. But mine came from what I look like and what my background was, and I think a lot of people can identify with and relate to that.
Everdeen Mason is an audience editor at The Washington Post and Book World contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @EvMason.
By Sabaa Tahir
Razorbill. 464 pp. $19.95