Zibby Owens: I did this Instagram Live with Sabaa Tahir for the Good Morning America Book Club Instagram page, @GMABookClub. You can watch it there, I’m sure it’s saved in their Instagram archives, and is also up on my IG TV as well if you want to watch it, plus, of course, YouTube and everywhere else. Here is her bio. Sabaa Tahir is the number-one New York Times best-selling author of the Ember in the Ashes series which has been translated into over thirty-five languages. She grew up in California’s Mojave Desert at her family’s eighteen-room motel. There, she spent her time devouring fantasy novels, raiding her brother’s comic book stash, and playing guitar badly. She began writing An Ember in the Ashes while working nights as a newspaper editor. She likes thunderous indie rock, garish socks, and all things nerd. Sabaa currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. I was really excited to talk to her about the number-four book in her series called A Sky Beyond the Storm. By the way, Sabaa is one of the few Pakistani America authors writing speculative fiction. She brings a unique perspective to the fantasy genre. I really loved talking to her.


Sabaa Tahir: Hello. How are you, Zibby?

Zibby: I’m good. How are you?

Sabaa: I’m doing well. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Congratulations on book four of the series. So exciting, oh, my gosh.

Sabaa: Thank you. It’s very exciting. It’s crazy.

Zibby: I read many times over that you said you were not a crier, but that finishing this series made you really cry. Tell me about what that was like.

Sabaa: I think I didn’t anticipate how characters start to feel like friends. Especially, I’ve spent thirteen years with these characters. I started writing this series in 2007. It took me seven years to have the first book published. I just didn’t realize that it was going to be so emotional. I sort of compare it to when I was a little girl and I was afraid or nervous or whatever, I’d go hide in the laundry basket. I would sort through my thoughts there and everything. These books and these characters ended up kind of being my adult laundry basket. This is the world where I would hide when everything got to be too much or I just needed an escape. Now my laundry basket’s gone, so I’m like, I’m so sad.

Zibby: Sabaa, I am going to FedEx you a laundry basket from Amazon. You can have one.

Sabaa: Aw, thank you. Zibby, it’s going to need to be really big so that I can fit in it.

Zibby: Maybe we could put two over your head. Maybe you just need a laundry room. I don’t know, something.

Sabaa: Something. Maybe I just need a laundry room. There you go.

Zibby: So many people depend on characters and story to get them through everything. When it’s your own and you’re creating it, I imagine that’s just a millionfold. What does it feel like to hold the torch as one of the first women Pakistani American fantasy writers and how you got to represent a whole new cross section of people, I should say, in both the protagonist and the villains and every character in your book and the community in which you’re writing and how you basically went from feeling bullied in the motel your parents had you living in with eighteen people or something growing up to being a number-one best-selling author? I know that’s a big question.

Sabaa: It is a big question. One thing is I try really hard almost not to think too much about it, not to look too directly at it because it does feel so big sometimes. I think what really helps me is to focus on the art, to focus on the writing because ultimately, it’s so important to me to tell these stories for every single one of those young adults from all over the world who send me messages. They’re like, thank you for telling this story. I really needed to see myself. I needed to see my family. I needed to see my friends. I really try to focus on that because that allows me to put the art first. I feel like you’re only as good as your last book to some degree. It’s very important to me that that’s my focus. Then I have two little kids. I think that they don’t let me focus on anything other than them. It’s one of those situations where anytime I might be like, I’m really cool, they’ll be like, Mom, you did A, B, or C wrong, or I just dropped everything on the floor and I don’t know how to clean it up, or whatever the case may be. It forces me back to down to earth.

I didn’t really consider the impact that Ember would have until a couple of years after it was published. I started really seeing people reading it and saying, this is the reason why I’m a writer or this is the reason why I believe I can be a writer. As book four has come out, I have gotten hundreds of those messages. It has blown my mind because I didn’t know when I wrote it that that’s what it would be. I was just trying to write a story where I could see myself, where my sons would be able to see themselves one day, where my niece and nephew would be able to see themselves one day, and where the problems that people whose ethnicity is from my part of the world, which is Pakistan or South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa — a lot of these places with the mythology that you see in An Ember in the Ashes and a lot of places that are going through some terrible things right now, I wanted to see that in a story. I hadn’t seen that in a story. I felt very erased. That’s why it was important to me to write these. It really has only started sinking in recently.

Zibby: There’s certainly nothing like kids to make you feel like you’re two inches tall instead of — . In fact, you even wrote the most beautiful dedication that I had read at the beginning of your fourth book. You said, “For my own children, my falcon and my sword, of all the world wherein I dwell, yours is the most beautiful.” That is so nice. It just sets such a tone for the poetic, lyrical way you write in general. It hearkens back. I know it takes place five hundred years ago, but it definitely hearkens back to another era and another time of life and is just completely escapist. I feel like particularly now, everyone needs that.

Sabaa: I hope that the book provides an escape. I really hope that it allows people to feel some measure of hope. That’s what I need right now. That’s the books that I’m turning to, the ones that even if something really harrowing and stressful is happening, there’s hope in the book. That matters to me so much. I wanted to give that to my readers. I worked on that. Dedications are always so difficult for me because it’s the first thing people read. Some people just skip them. Generally, I think people read dedications. It’s the very first thing they see that I’ve written. This is for my kids, so I was like, this has to feel good when they’re twenty-five. Hopefully when they’re much older and I’m gone, I want them to be able to open this book and feel that love coming from me. It took me months to actually figure out that dedication. I wrote it. I rewrote it. I read it to my husband. I was like, “Is this good?” He was like, “No, write it again.” I read it to my mom. She was like, “I don’t know about that.” It was a process. I’m glad I got there in the end.

Zibby: You totally got there. Check plus. Loved it. Maybe you should compile all the discarded dedications. Maybe they’d want to see that in twenty-five years too.

Sabaa: I should totally do that. I had one where I was like, “To my falcon and my sword, you’re the reason I almost didn’t finish this book.” Then I was like, ha, ha, ha, I’m not going to put that in.

Zibby: For the people hanging from my ankles who are not letting me do this, do my job, thank you. I did it anyway. Do you read fantasy yourself? Are you a huge fantasy fan? How did you learn how to write like this?

Sabaa: I am big, big fantasy fan. I’ve been reading fantasy since I was ten, eleven. The very first fantasy book I got was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. It was written in the seventies. It’s all dudes. It’s a very classic, old-school fantasy. I just loved that book. It took me away from my troubles. I was in middle school at the time. Everyone knows middle school’s awful. It was just a wonderful escape. That was really my gateway book into fantasy. Then after that, I started reading a lot more. I found that I really connected to these characters and these places that didn’t exist. As I grew older, I got into literature, more literary works, that kind of thing. Actually, that’s what I was working on. I was working on a memoir. I was twenty. I don’t know what I was going to write about, the motel. My mother was talking to me on the phone. I was complaining yet again about how I was having a difficult time writing this book. I was just doing it in my spare time as I was working.

She was like, “Why don’t you write a fantasy? You love fantasy. You read it all the time.” As per usual, she was right. I started working on it. Then in terms of training, it was really working at The Washington Post. I was an editor there. I was a copy editor. I worked late at night. I worked on headlines and captions and did the last edit on a story. I learned so much about the building blocks of writing from reading all these incredible reporters at The Washington Post. I always recommend to young writers that if you are struggling with the form, you’re struggling with making your sentences beautiful or making them something that you feel like convey what you want to convey, read a newspaper every day for a year. The economy of language and the way that stories are structured that you can learn from a newspaper is so helpful.

Zibby: That’s great advice. I thought you were going to just tell everybody to try to get a job at The Washington Post.

Sabaa: I mean, it’s a great place to work.

Zibby: That might not be the most easy thing for everybody to do. It’s nice to throw it out there as a suggestion. I want to talk a little more about your relationship with your mom because you obviously are very close. You said in one of the interviews I read about you that you were going to kill off one of your characters. She said she wouldn’t cook for you anymore if you did that. That’s not even passive-aggressive. That’s just outright, on the table, controlling.

Sabaa: She threw down the gauntlet. We were talking about the book. She’s really funny. She’ll always try to get me to talk to her about it. She’ll be like, “What’s going to happen? Who’s going to end up together?” She’s very invested in these characters. I told her, “I’m thinking about killing this character. These are the reasons why.” She just looked at me like I wasn’t her child anymore. She was like, “Don’t you dare. What are you thinking? No.” Then there’s this Pakistani bread called paratha which is a deep-fried bread. It’s so good. She was like, “I’ll never make it for you again.” That’s a serious threat. That’s the rest of my life not having it. I had to capitulate. I was like, okay.

Zibby: Gosh. If I knew deep-fried bread was on the menu as an incentive tool for anything, I think would have to veer in that direction. Now that the book is out, what has this week been like? How are people even responding? I know it’s probably too fast for people to read, but you have so many fans from the whole series. Now you have the ending of it. What is it like now that it’s out there?

Sabaa: It’s a relief in many ways. It feels like sort of a weight off my shoulders. It’s out in the world. I can’t change it at this point. It is what it is. That’s really wonderful. I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response. My readers are so sweet. So many of them have actually said something that I think is very selfless as a reader. A lot of them have said, no matter how it ends, no matter what you decided, I want you to know that these books have meant so much to me. That’s such a sweet and beautiful thing to say to an author because it really shows faith in my skill as a writer. They’re basically saying, hey, we trust you. We trust what you did. I’ve had a couple of people who were like, how dare you? For the most part, it’s been overwhelmingly positive.

It’s been a weird week, Zibby, because usually I’m traveling. I’m going to bookstores. I’m going to schools. I’m meeting readers. It’s really cool. It’s something you look forward to almost as a way to acknowledge that the book is done and it’s out in the world now. It doesn’t belong to you anymore. It’s sort of like a weird ritual, I would say. I’ve kind of turned it into that. That’s not happening this week for obvious reasons, but I’ve still managed to have these events. I have a bunch this week and next week where I’m talking to a friend or a follow writer about the journey and the process and then doing these one-on-one meet and greets after that are really short but really lovely because you just get to talk to readers face to face. That’s awesome. We live in time where it could be so much worse. I think that if this was ten years ago, that wouldn’t be an option. We would just be like, sorry. Book is out. Find me on Facebook. Tweet at me if you want. That’s kind of it. The fact that we could do something like this is really wonderful. I found it to be lifesaving as I go through this week because it’s really allowed me to connect to the readers. I love that part of writing. It’s one of the best parts.

Zibby: I think it’s been lifesaving for so many people for the whole year. What would we have done? Every so often, I’m like, what if it disappears? What if Zoom crashes? It’s great because I’m sure hearing from the fans directly is part of the reward in and of itself like you were saying earlier with people writing because of you. At least you still can access them somehow, which is great. I was watching the trailer for your first book. I was like, wait, is this is a trailer for a book, or is this a movie that I didn’t know was a movie? Then I was like, why is this not a movie? What is the deal? Is this going to be a movie? What’s the story there?

Sabaa: It’s going to be something, but I can’t say anything about it because the producers will find me and kill me. Maybe they won’t kill me, but they won’t be very happy. It is in development as something. It’s iterated a few times, as fantasies often do in Hollywood. This iteration is one in which I’m more directly involved, which is awesome and I think makes a really big difference to everything about it, being able to make sure that the cast properly reflects the book and being able to make sure that the story properly reflects the nature of the actual book. All of that is really important to me. That’s all I can say about it. I’m really hopeful and crossing my fingers. I hope everyone else does too.

Zibby: I won’t ask anymore. We’ll see. We’ll all be just waiting and watching. I’m sure whatever form it takes will be fantastic. What are your writing plans going forward? You finally have put a capstone on this whole collection. This is a lot of pages, and this is still missing the most recent one. What’s next? Are you going to start a new series? What’s the plan?

Sabaa: I have something coming up. I can’t say much about it again because my publishing house this time would yell at me. It is very different from anything I’ve written before. At the same time, it has the hallmarks of a Sabaa classic book, which is very harrowing and very stressful. I will probably be announcing that next year. I’m really excited about it. Then after that, I’m really considering what I want to do. I think there are so many stories left in the world of Ember. I have absolutely left that door open in the hopes that I will be able to return there when I’m ready and when readers are ready for that. We will see. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of these characters.

Zibby: I feel like you should pull that memoir back out. Maybe now with the vantage point of all of these experiences and being a mom yourself, I feel like maybe there’s something there.

Sabaa: You might get your wish.

Zibby: Maybe I read your mind. Awesome. You’ve already given a little bit of advice, which was fantastic, that aspiring authors can read a newspaper every day for a year, which is really so important anyway. I feel like I’m one of the last people who reads paper newspapers. Do you read paper?

Sabaa: I read online mostly, but I do buy the actual physical paper occasionally, not so much anymore. Before, I would try to get it. At least once a month, I try to pick up the papers that are available to me, which is usually The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. I try to just grab a copy and read it. I really think there’s something for reading it end to end. I always would find something that I wouldn’t anticipate. I feel like when you read it online, unless you’re very methodical and going through each section, it’s a little bit more difficult to do that. It was such a beautiful ritualistic thing to have your paper with your coffee and read through it, especially on Sunday morning. That’s what I would usually try to do, is grab that Sunday New York Times and just enjoy it.

Zibby: I have to say, I get them every day. I get The Times and The Journal and the New York Post every day. I have to read it. Sometimes they stack up for a week. I’ll say to my husband, “Oh, my gosh, did you know this happened?” He’s like, “It happened a week ago.” I’m like, “Whatever. I’m catching up.” I’m with you. I love to read the papers. I think it’s great to also just train yourself based on a certain type of writing. What other advice do you have up your sleeve? You don’t have to. You already gave great advice, but if you happen to have more writing advice as somebody who can obviously — how do you keep your focus and just keep churning out words? Do you have days where you sit down and you’re like, I really don’t feel like doing this or I can’t think of anything?

Sabaa: Absolutely. I have days where I don’t feel like writing. I have days where everything I write is garbage. I have days where I’m supposed to write, but like I said, I have a family and I have children. That takes precedence. With everything that’s happened with COVID, I’ve actually found that my hours have been significantly cut because I have to educate my kids in the morning. Then my husband will usually take over for a few hours in the afternoon. That has really had a huge impact on my ability to write. Look, I started writing when I was working at The Washington Post. Then I continued writing through the infancy and toddlerhood of two children. I was a stay-at-home mom during that time. I found that I had to write very much as Toni Morrison once described it, in these slices of time. I call them elbows of time. It’s not really about getting a ton done at once. It’s about just taking any little snippet and finding some way to make it worthwhile in terms of writing. I would talk into my phone. I would be holding my baby. I have a nice big hand, so I’d be holding my baby with a bottle. I’d be talking into my phone to dictate part of a story or talking into a recorder way back when to dictate part of a story. I would steal an hour whenever I could to start scribbling and working on it.

For the first couple of years, that’s how I wrote. Sometimes I had help, but it wasn’t really dependable, regular, and it wasn’t a lot. Sometimes it was family. Sometimes it was someone I hired. I just was clawing away at this book. It added up. That’s what I would love for writers to know, particularly writers who are parents or who are caretakers or who have really demanding jobs. You don’t have to write all day every day to finish a book. If you can write a page a week, then over the course of a few years, you will have a book. Like I said, it took me from, when I started writing it to when I saw was seven and a half for An Ember in the Ashes. It’s a long time. That’s true. I know that a lot of people would love to just write a book in six months and then see it on the shelf. If you don’t have a choice, if you really can’t quit that job or you can’t become a full-time writer, this is a way for you to claw away at it little by little and just get a little bit done. That’s really my advice for writers. You don’t have to listen to people who are like, you must write every day. You must write for four hours a day. You must have your own room to write. None of those rules apply to you if you don’t want them to. Writers write. Ultimately, they can find a way, usually. If you’re lucky, you can find a way to write. That’s my advice for writers out there.

Zibby: I am ridiculously impressed at the visual of you dictating while dealing with the baby and the bottle. My thoughts were so incoherent at that time. Even if you weren’t holding anything, that you could dictate and it could become — I feel like when I speak, as is evidenced right now, it doesn’t always make sense. When I write, it’s clear. I can go back. If it comes out, that’s just super impressive.

Sabaa: It never came out well. It was always like, and then my character runs away because they’re scared. Later on, I would sit down and be like, how do I turn that into something that I want to read and that doesn’t make me want to run away? It’s also about iteration. I think a lot of people think that the first version of a book that writers write is perfect. You know what? If you’re that author, that’s awesome. I am not that author, Zibby. My first drafts are so embarrassing. It’s shocking. I think that if people read it, they’d be like, how did you become a writer?

Zibby: I’m sure that’s not true.

Sabaa: You just iterate. It’s gets better and better with each iteration. I must have had like fifty drafts of Ember. The first one was something completely different. The last one and the one you see is the work of just little by little making it better, one paragraph, one page, one chapter until the entire book is better.

Zibby: Wow. That’s very inspiring. You should also write a children’s book, while we’re talking about all the things you should do. I feel like you can bring it down to a kid’s level, especially just how you want to represent different backgrounds and everything. I feel like you need to have a children’s book in the mix at some point.

Sabaa: I would love that. I will now keep note of that and tell my agent.

Zibby: You get on that. Thank you very much.

Sabaa: Zibby write a children’s book.

Zibby: Just put me in the acknowledgments somewhere. That’s all I need.

Sabaa: I got you.

Zibby: Sabaa, thank you so much. This was so much fun. My son is going to dive into this whole series. I’m hoping this gets him off the video games for a few hours. Thank you for taking the time to talk and coming on GMA Book Club. This will also be a podcast on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” so my listeners can hear as well. Thanks for chatting and all that great writerly advice. It was awesome.

Sabaa: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure. I really appreciate your time. It was wonderful.

Zibby: Thank you. Congrats on your book.

Sabaa: Take care. Thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Bye.