The moment Sabaa Tahir relishes most so far about becoming a novelist involves crying in her hotel room during ALA Midwinter.
A junior high school teacher from northern California, Shari Conradson, had brought two letters from students who read an ARC of Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes (Razorbill, April), a high fantasy set in an ancient society (think Sparta), which explores violence, oppression, and the effects such brutality has on both the victims and the perpetrators (see the recently released book trailer here).
“I was afraid to read them right away so I stuffed them in my bag,” Tahir said. “When I finally got to my room, I read them, and to hear two teenagers tell me how much they loved my book? I totally cried like a big baby.”
Tahir’s teenage readers joined a chorus of early praise. Ember is #2 on the Spring Indie Next List. Foreign rights have sold in 24 countries, Paramount bought the film rights, and the book has drawn comparison to The Hunger Games and even Harry Potter, although the boarding school in Ember is what Hogwarts might be like if everybody lived in Slytherin House, its cadets (almost) completely devoted to evil.
Finding Her Voice
Tahir is just 33 but her success is hardly overnight. She worked on the novel over the course of six years, a transcontinental move, and becoming a mother, twice.
She grew up in Ridgecrest, Calif., a small town surrounded by mountain ranges in the Mojave Desert where (improbably) the principal employer is the U.S. Navy. Her parents, Pakistani immigrants, ran a small motel. It was isolated – the closest shopping mall was an hour and a half way, and Tahir didn’t realize there were “restaurants besides Sizzler” until she was a teen. Tahir never felt completely comfortable there. “I was an outsider, I looked different, and I felt really voiceless as a kid,” she recalled. Tahir coped by “disappearing into books,” a strategy her parents did not support. “My parents called me ‘kethab-ki-kiri,’” which is Urdu for something close to bookworm. “What are you going to do with these novels?” they would ask her. “You need to study.”
Fortunately for Tahir, two older brothers had blazed somewhat unconventional trails, one going into the tech industry, the other into film. This allowed Tahir to choose journalism instead of her parents’ preference (medicine) at UCLA. Creative writing or English would not have flown. “Writing was not considered practical enough,” she said. An internship at the Washington Post led to her first 15 minutes of fame when in 2003 she wrote an op-ed piece about why she agreed to consider an arranged marriage. The essay led to offers for a reality TV series, which Tahir declined. After graduation, the Post offered a job, copyediting on the foreign desk, which she accepted.
It was those shifts on the copy desk, reading stories filed by the Post’s foreign correspondents, that provided the seed for Ember, which she began writing in 2007.
“Reading about people who were so truly voiceless and powerless – Liberian child soldiers, Sudanese refugees, and, especially, Kashmiri women whose husbands or sons were imprisoned by the army with no hope of release – made me think about how I would feel if someone took my brothers from me,” Tahir said. Her heroine, Laia, is a slave, whose brother has been abducted by the government.
She worked on the story in her spare time for two years. In 2009, she had her first child, a “champion sleeper,” whose lengthy naps gave her time to work on the book. In 2012, she, her husband, and now two young sons, relocated to San Francisco, where her husband had moved his tech startup. Tahir’s manuscript, still a work-in-progress, traveled with them. A year later, she gave it to a friend, who had read an earlier draft and offered suggestions. This time the friend said, “You’re done. You need to send this out.”
Tahir queried a dozen agents and received lots of interest. She flew to New York to meet with Alexandra Machinist (now at ICM) and knew “within five minutes” that they would be a good team. Very soon afterward, Razorbill bought the book in a pre-empt.
One of her brothers, Haroon Saleem, had worked with Mark Johnson, who produced The Chronicles of Narnia and The Notebook. He told Johnson about his sister’s novel. Johnson read it; Paramount bought the film rights, with Johnson and Saleem signed on to produce. “Very serendipitous,” Tahir admits. Also: “a bit surreal.” The script is currently being written.
The book’s title was also a bit of serendipity, involving Tahir’s oldest son, now five. She had settled on An Ember in the Rafters, part of a lyric from a song by the indie folk band Sea Wolf. But then her son, a big fan of Thomas the Tank Engine, intervened.
“He told me, ‘You should call it ‘An Ember in the Ashes,’ because what Thomas the train often says is, ‘Embers and ashes!’ ” Tahir recalled. “So my three-year-old named my book.”
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill, $19.95 978-1-59514-803-2 (April 28)