We Hunt the Flame is 25-year-old Hafsah Faizal’s debut novel, set in a fantasy world inspired by ancient Arabia. The YA novel follows a couple of misfits who embark on a quest to retrieve a lost artifact that will restore magic to their land—a teenage girl who disguises herself as a man to move about freely, and a young assassin who will himself be killed if he dares show compassion. PW spoke with Faizal about the inspiration behind We Hunt the Flame, her journey from blogger to influencer to published author after finding an agent via #DVPit, weaving tales to dispel stereotypes, and the impact of her identity as an American Muslim upon her writing.
What inspired you to write a YA fantasy novel? Was there any specific, real-life experience or incident that led you to weave this tale?
Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of how far-fetched yet relatable fantasy is, but there’s something about the genre that makes me gravitate towards it no matter what. When I started writing We Hunt the Flame, it only made sense to set it in the genre I loved. I wouldn’t say any particular real-world incident inspired the story—it was, in fact, sparked by the question, “What if The Hunger Games was set in a fantasy world?”—but in the uncanny way that the subconscious works, the real world did find its way into the narrative, from the current misconceptions surrounding women to the horrific gassing of innocent civilians in Syria.
How and when did you begin writing fiction—and do you write poetry? There’s a lyrical element to your writing that is reminiscent of poetry.
Funnily enough, I’ve never had the patience for poetry, so I’ve never tried my hand at it. That said, I’d never been a fan of writing or reading either, until I was so lonely that I picked up a book just because I had nothing else to do. I had my first foray into YA fantasy through the sweeping tale of Graceling, and I've been an avid book lover ever since. I wrote my first full-length novel at 17, after a particularly vivid dream wholly unconnected to We Hunt the Flame, which was my 5th novel, though it felt like my first in many ways.
There’s been an interesting evolution in your relationship with the publishing community. You entered it as a fan and blogger, and became a website and swag designer, and now you are an author. How does it feel for you, going from being a reader to actually becoming a published author yourself?
It was certainly an evolution! I started blogging in September 2010, so it's been a nearly 10-year journey in the making. After being a long-time observer of the publishing world from the outside—marketing and publicity—it's interesting to see the dynamics from within publishing, particularly before ARCs are printed. I won’t deny the invaluable knowledge blogging and designing have given me, much of which I continue to use as we lead up to publication. At the very least, it has made the experience that much more surreal, because I know publishing is such a difficult industry to break into.
You were born in Florida and grew up in California, and now live in Texas. You are also a Muslim woman who wears the niqab. Are you concerned about any backlash due to your identifying as Muslim, particularly in light of the Islamophobia recently directed at Congresswoman Ilhan Omar?
Being part of a minority constantly vilified and demonized in the media means I’m always concerned about backlash due to my identity, but I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who are genuinely kind, caring, and supportive.
Do you consider We Hunt the Flame to be a political book or making a political statement?
There’s this automatic assumption that when an author of color creates a piece of art, it must be an allegory, which is one of the two reasons why We Hunt the Flame isn’t connected to my faith—the other being that I didn’t feel comfortable mixing elements of Islam with fantasy. I did, however, want to create a world that displayed the Middle East as it is: home to thousands and thousands of people—not the demonized and exoticized region that fiction and the media portray it as—in the hopes that someone will think, “Hey, we're not so different from them after all."
Can you describe your writing process, the world-building and character development? Plus you are a designer, so how does this affect you as a wordsmith?
Each story I write follows a different process, but for me, the world always comes more easily—constructing the architecture and landscape, painting the atmosphere, and the history of the kingdom. I’d say this has to do with being a designer and a very visual person. Characters, on the other hand, develop through edits as the story progresses. With each new pass, I tend to uncover new facets to the cast, from the protagonists and secondary characters to the leaders and villains.
Who are your three primary literary influences and why?
Tough question! I’m continuously in awe of countless authors, but there were a few whose literary masterpieces inspired my own writing. Renée Ahdieh and her The Wrath and the Dawn duology, with its lush and alluring storytelling. Leigh Bardugo and her Six of Crows duology. It’s bursting with action, yet somehow manages to keep track of six characters and their wholesome stories. And last, but not least, Roshani Chokshi. She’s so down-to-earth, relatable, and fun, yet her writing is out of this world in terms of how magical and lyrical it is.
You found your agent, John Cusick of Folio Literary Management, through the Twitter pitch event #DVPit. Many authors have found their agents through #DVPit, and everyone has a great story. Can you tell us about your experience?
I had just finished up the first draft of We Hunt the Flame the month of #DVPit, and it was nowhere near ready for pitching. But I had been tweeting avidly about the book before, and a few agents encouraged me to participate. And so on the day of the event, I just threw together a pitch and thought, ”Let’s see how this goes.” It turns out, the pitch was better than I gave it credit for: it garnered over 100 requests. I queried about a third of those agents, received offers from a third of them in less than a week, and ended up signing with my agent shortly after.
How much can you tell us about what’s in store for Zafira and Nasir—and the other characters—in the second installment of your duology?
In book two, we see the characters thrown out of their element. Neither persona—the infamous assassin nor the legendary hunter—is entirely accurate anymore, and both Zafira and Nasir will need to fit into their own skins in order to defeat their foes—within and without. As for Altair’s fate? Well...
We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18.99, May 14 978-0-3743-1154-4