Last week, I had a great opportunity to speak with Sabaa Tahir, the author of An Ember in the Ashes, which debuted at #2 on the New York Time Bestsellers list. I read the book, which is a fantastic Young Adult epic adventure about two characters trying to survive a brutal, violent Ancient-Rome-like world.
After reading An Ember in the Ashes, you’ll find yourself wanting to talk about the characters: their perspectives, decisions, feelings, and relationships to each other. The world Sabaa creates for them is just as interesting.
It was a pleasure chatting with her before her book signing at The Book Stall in Winnetka, a suburb a few miles north of Chicago, IL. A transcript of our conversation can be read below. Also, any major spoilers that were discussed have been edited out, since we know many haven’t had a chance to read this awesome book yet.
Gabrielle Bondi: Congratulations on the New York Times! How does that feel?
Sabaa Tahir: Thank you! It feels awesome. It’s really the BEST feeling.
Were you anticipating that? I know they put a big marketing push behind your book.
I wasn’t anticipating anything, just really hoping.
What inspired you to write this story and drew you to this setting of Ancient Rome?
The inspiration for this story is really seated in my childhood. I grew up in a small town, very isolated. It was in a desert, similar to where the book takes place. I just didn’t fit in. I felt like an outcast, and I felt like I didn’t have a voice or any power. I turned to books for comfort and for friendship, basically. I had friends, and they were lovely, but I still never felt like I fit in, even always with them. I think when you grow up feeling that way, you know that feeling like you have no power and just you don’t matter? It’s a lonely place to be. So as I grew older, I started realizing I can have a voice; I can have that sense of control or that sense of belonging by writing. The problem is that my parents are South Asian, and they wanted me to go into medicine. I decided to go into journalism, which they weren’t thrilled about, but they got over it.
I’m sure now they’re very happy.
Now, they’re very happy. Their concern was just worry for me; they wanted me to be able to hold down a job. I went to college, majored in communications, worked for the school newspaper, and got an internship at the Washington Post. That was sort of a “rocket to the moon” for me. I went to the Washington Post; I worked there one summer, then the second summer as an intern, and then I got a job there.
While I was working at the Washington Post in 2007, I decided that I wanted to write a book, and I wasn’t sure of what it was going to be about, but that it was going to be about people who felt like me as a kid and didn’t belong. Whereas I sort of internalized it and didn’t do anything about it, I wanted these people to fight against this feeling and fight back to get control of their lives, their destinies. That’s really the inspiration for the book.
As far as Ancient Rome, I was always interested in it; it was such a fascinating period of time: the social stratification, the architecture and like the weird intersection between logic and theology, which are not opposing, but how they work together. They had an Oracle, and how the emperors would always go to her and get predictions for whatever was going to happen during their reign. I just think it was such a fascinating time period.
I also noticed how magic is kind of weaved throughout the story, but yet, it still feels very grounded in reality. I was wondering how you balanced that.
The Augurs are sort of based off the Oracle. The Oracle was one woman, and she basically sat on this tripod over a crack in the ground. Historians believed that there were these fumes that came from the crack and made her have visions and hallucinations; that’s where they were coming from. But of course, the people who went to see her believed that they were coming from the gods, so she would predict things. I thought it was fascinating, but I really wanted to make it grittier. I want these Oracles to not be stuck in this little place, but to come out into the world and cause havoc.
The idea of magic, some of it is the magical creatures or Middle Eastern myth, like jinn and all that. That comes from my mother; she used to tell me stories that would scare the daylights out of me when I was a little kid. That just worked its way in naturally.
You see that a bit with [a certain character] and [their] power.
Yeah, it’s meant to sort of be the beginning of that for [them]. So [that character is] pretty bewildered because you know for the Martials, that’s witchcraft essentially.
I think it’s funny they think that’s witchcraft, but they’re totally okay with the Augurs.
Well, it’s not from the Augurs, and it’s not anything they know. That was really common in the ancient world. That our magic and our rights and our traditions are okay and real, but yours aren’t.
I’m going to be weird here, but you think about The Inquisition and how that was based on people not being basically the same religion, and yet they still believed that if you repented, you would be forgiven. If you didn’t repent, you would go to hell. These people actually believe very similar things but had these little differences. I think this is sort of how the world works; people have their own ideas of what is right. I was trying to draw on some of that ridiculousness.