Renée Ahdieh is passionate about makeup, food, and books – and any situation in which all three overlap. Her first duology, which includes The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger, is a sweeping tale grounded in the mythology of One Thousand and One Nights; her forthcoming novel, Flame in the Mist, begins a new duology inspired by the Chinese ballad of Mulan. Set in feudal Japan, the story follows 17-year old Mariko, who, disguised as a boy, infiltrates a band of thieves and murderers to unmask those behind an attempt on her life. Ahdieh spoke with PW about the duology’s culture-crossing, her hands-on approach to research, and creating multifaceted characters that find strength in femininity.
How did the concept emerge for the new duology?
I’ve been fascinated with girls dressing up as male warriors from childhood. I loved Tamora Pierce’s Alanna, Norse mythology that utilizes this trope, and, obviously, Mulan. I’m a child of mixed race – my mother is South Korean and I spent the first couple years of my life there – so I also wanted to bring to life East Asian culture.
I’ve always wanted to write a female character who plays in a traditional boy world and addresses problematic gender stereotypes. Of course Flame in the Mist has a very feminist vibe; I wanted Mariko to embrace what are traditionally feminine characteristics, which many see as weak because our idea of strength is shaped by the male gaze. I wanted her to find strength in her femininity.
What brought you to writing for teens?
I wrote really bad email poetry when I was younger, then studied poetry in school as an English and political science major. After school, I didn’t have an outlet for my creativity, so I started writing short stories and posting them online. People recommended that I try to have something published. I originally tried to publish an adult novel, but was told that I had a young adult voice. I distinctly remember this moment when I turned to look back at my shelves and thought: “That makes sense.” Considering authors I loved as a kid and returned to again and again – Lloyd Alexander, Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley – writing for teens wasn’t even a conscious decision, I was just always writing for my teen self.
Have you ever considered or wanted to write for an even younger audience, like middle grade or picture books?
Absolutely. I’m the type of writer who goes wherever the inspiration is. I have some ideas for picture books, middle grade, and even an adult book.
I feel so lucky that I get to do this for a living. Even when I still had a day job, the last thing I would think about before going to sleep were the words I put on the page that day. In that almost liminal space between awake and dreaming, I would be editing my words in my head. I was dreaming in words. So I would love to do all of it. It’s more about what inspires me.
The feudal Japanese setting of Flame in the Mist is very rich and descriptive. What type of research did you conduct?
I have a very hands-on approach to doing research; I love to actually play with the weaponry and, if I can’t touch it, study it as much as possible. I also love to cook and it’s a point of pride that every dish described in my books I’ve tried to make. “Tried” being the operative word. It’s a totally selfish endeavor – my favorite thing is to sit on my couch eating these dishes with elastic-waisted pants.
What are some of your favorite dishes you’ve made?
There are two standout dishes that come to mind. One is a Persian rice dish from my first duology. It features a jewel rice. Persian rice is a long-grain basmati rice done with butter and saffron, so the smell and taste is already amazing. Then barberries, which are like dried currants, pistachios, shredded carrots, and a seasoned ground meat are added. The rice is supposed to look like a platter of jewels. For me, it was everything that’s decadent about food and the senses. It was beautiful, it smelled amazing, and the textures hit all the right notes.
For Flame and the Mist, learning to make my own Ponzu sauce was really fun. I thought it would be easy, but it wasn’t at all. It looks very plain, but is so complex. Being from North Carolina, I almost liken it to barbecue sauces; we have these constant fights across the South about what makes the best barbecue sauce. There are also so many ways to make Ponzu sauce, but the one I fell in love with is plum-derived. It adds so many layers to any dish because it’s salty, sweet, and tangy.
Like The Wrath and the Dawn, your new novel also draws from mythology. Why did you decide to put your spin on a familiar tale?
My goal as an author is to bring a different world to life. A lot of people take issue when authors take a story from one culture and depict it in another, but I did so very intentionally.
In today’s climate, with politics and diversity at the forefront of so many important conversations, there’s a lot of pain. For me, there’s the pain that I experienced moving to the United States as a small non-English-speaking child. When I was in Korea there was a lot of denial of my Americanness, but I was never Korean enough. The same thing happened in reverse when I came to the U.S. People channel that pain in many different ways, but for me, I like to channel that pain into my writing. It’s not an accident that a girl from South Korea chose to write a book set in a fantasy feudal Japan inspired by a traditional Chinese ballad. Even amongst Asian cultures, there is a lot of interethnic racism grounded in history.
How long did it take you to write Flame and the Mist compared to your first two books?
It usually takes me between four and six months to write a book. It’s been a little bit different as I’ve become more involved in the business of publishing because I travel and am not solely in front of the computer. I like to get things done in no more than six months, otherwise I know I’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, but it’s more important to get it right than fall within a timeframe.
My easiest book to write was The Wrath and the Dawn because it was written without any expectations. I’m a little bit nostalgic for that time, though I’m thankful I’m not at that stage anymore.
How do you find balance between writing and traveling? Do you write while traveling?
I cannot write on the road, though I’ve tried. I’m protective of my time. If I’m traveling, I want to be fully part of the festival or event. I don’t want to feel that I should be alone in my room writing; I want to interact with and meet readers. I try to be conscious of each individual sphere. If I’m at a festival, I’m there to meet with readers. If I’m home and I’ve carved out time to write, that’s what I’m doing.
Was your writing process or approach to this novel different than with your first published books? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I am definitely a plotter. The way in which I wrote all three books hasn’t really changed, but the way I edited them has. Flame in the Mist was sent to my editor without an ending because I had three potential endings. I was very uncertain where and how I should end the first book to segue properly into the second. My editor [Stacy Barney] highlighted where I always knew I needed to go and gave me the courage to do it; she supplied the vote of confidence to find the right ending. I had never turned in something that wasn’t finished before, but working with the right team, with people you trust, means your ego is less and less of an issue. You can trust others to provide guidance and believe in the process.
Did you purposely write in duologies or paired novels?
I initially pitched The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger as a trilogy, but a duology was suggested because my publisher was concerned with series fatigue. What I write next will likely be longer, probably three or four books. I struggle to write standalones because I love building words that are difficult to contain in one volume.
Your first duology includes The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger, but you’ve also written three short stories set in the same world. Can you talk about the creation of that world? Is there any chance you’d return to the world or characters of The Wrath and the Dawn again?
I would love to return to these characters. I don’t like to say I will never do something because I don’t know what will inspire me. There’s a lot that I could do, especially if I wanted to stay within the inspiration of A Thousand and One Nights because it contains stories culled from the oral traditions of many different cultures. For example, the first iterations of Cinderella and Aladdin are Chinese. There are so many different cool things that could be done. Sinbad would make an amazing pirate story.
Your main characters are resilient and smart young women. Can you speak about the creation and development of your characters?
The idea of strong female characters always grates on my nerves because we don’t have entire panels or dialogues on writing strong male characters, it’s a given. I want to create multifaceted characters that display many kinds of strength.
Flame in the Mist is inspired by Mulan. The seeds of her being an inventor are evident in the story, but I wanted to expand on that. Her strength isn’t that she’s the best warrior but that she has the most ingenuity. She was inspired by Hermione Granger and my younger sister, who is a brilliant scientist and helped with some of the more science-heavy elements.
How would you describe your relationship with your agent and editor? Can you talk about your interactions?
I’m heavily biased, but I think I have the best team in the business.
I was terrified of interacting with my agent, Barbara Poelle, at the beginning of our relationship because she is such an intensely smart and sharp woman. I have such admiration for the way she understands story and business.
My editor, Stacy Barney, is a powerhouse. I knew I needed to work with someone just as loud and assertive as I am. She is so aware of character and story; this is truly what she’s meant to be doing. I know that if she points out an issue, she’s right.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the sequel to Flame in the Mist – especially if you talk to Stacey. I have a couple of projects that have been simmering on the back burner for a while, but finishing this sequel is my priority.
Flame in the Mist by Renée Ahdieh. Putnam, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-399-17163-5