Sabaa Tahir on ending her Ember series: 'It was my last chance to say what I wanted'
Sabaa Tahir's reprieve is coming to an end. Since 2015, she’s been immersing herself in the universe of her Ember series — a collection of YA fantasy novels — to escape and, often, process tragedies from the real world. “The way I faced things like genocide or the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan was to create a story where similar things happened, but I could control them,” she says. Now, with the publication of The Sky Beyond the Storm, the fourth and final installment, she takes advantage of what she describes as her “last chance to say what I wanted about people of color and the problems that uniquely affect them.”
But, while the series itself is wrapping up, it isn't the last that Tahir's devoted fans will see of her or her work — to start, she joined EW from her home in the Bay Area to discuss the highly-anticipated novel's release and just what it means for her (and society at large).
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What have these books meant to you over the last five years?
SABAA TAHIR: When Ember first came out, there were very few books that had people of color as the heroes or the love interest. That’s why I wrote the book because I wanted to see more of it. I was the first Pakistani-American to be on the New York Times bestseller list — there were so few of us. I think it opened a door, in a weird way, in publishing. You can be an author of color, and you can write about fantasy and characters of color. And those books sell. That message has gotten stronger and stronger since the first book, and so many books have found their home. Nicola Yoon is one of those authors who, very early on, was like, "I’m writing books about kids of color, and they’re going to be about joy!" For me, I write fantasy; it’s not about the immigrant experience. It’s brown kids having amazing adventures. We stand on the backs of the authors who came before, but my hope is I’m starting that foundation.
What's the most important thing for readers to know about A Sky Beyond the Storm?
I think this book is really about the cost of war. Even when you know that you have to fight it, the cost is just too high — nobody ever wins because the cost is too high. It's also about who pays that cost. In this book, it's the children who suffer most from war. When it comes to war, childhood is somehow no longer sacred. We think it's sad that they're caught up in it, but you know what, there might be a terrorist in that village, so we have to bomb it. Part of the inspiration for this was the children of war whose stories have never been told. I think about the Pakistani army school that was bombed years ago in which 100 children were killed. And how much you must hate humanity to do that. This book focuses on the idea that children who have to fight war are the ones who we are failing.
Part of this series' appeal is that amongst the important topics it's bringing to light, the plot moves lightning-fast — are there any twists you can tease for the final installment?
It’s kind of nice because I have beta readers who are fans of the series, and one of my beta readers is [YA author] Nicola Yoon, who is also one of my best friends. Midway through the book, she called me and said, "I hate you so much; I want you to know that I don’t even want to talk to you anymore." [Laughs] I was like, okay, I hit that note exactly where I wanted to; it’s the reaction I wanted. There are a few moments in the book that are going to kick them in the feels. I’m going to get the angry DMs and tweets. There’s also a moment early in the first quarter of the book that I think people might not expect, and I’m excited about them reading. One of the things I was most excited about is that there is a friendship between two characters that weren’t friends before.
Is there anything in the book you were surprised by or that went in a direction you weren't expecting?
With the third book, I was on a writing retreat, which is really just an opportunity to eat a lot of In-N-Out and talk about books. [Author] Marie Lu was on it — she’s someone I consider a good friend — and she was like, you know, I think you go a little too far with this certain story arc, I think you need to stop the arc earlier. I think it’s more interesting to explore their flirtation with the scary parts of themselves. I was like, that’s a fantastic idea, thank you, Marie. And then with Sky, Nicola gave me some feedback on the end, I can’t say what it is, but she gave me some changes, and I ended up rewriting the end to work in her suggestion because she was 100 percent right. One of the things I like about YA authors is they don’t have any ego — we know we’re surrounded by insanely talented people, and you have to listen to what they say.
The publishing industry has made some good strides of late, but where else would you like to see improvement?
I’d love to see more books by marginalized authors get the support, funding, publicity, and attention that books by white authors, and previously published white authors, have gotten. There are so many incredible marginalized authors out there who don’t necessarily get those lead title spots. They don’t get the write-up. They don’t get the opportunity for success. I remember a few years ago, I pitched a column to a big newspaper and said I’d love to interview debut authors that no one has ever heard of, and I want to ask them 10 fun questions. Lighthearted stuff. And I didn’t get any bites because they didn’t know if anyone’s interested in those authors. It was so painful because I was like, how could you not be interested in these authors that no one has heard of until now?
What's your secret to being such a productive author?
I have an offsite office — it's a private office I can go to without worrying about running into other people. I have two children, and I take care of them in the first part of the day, so now I only have from 1 p.m. or so until 6 to work. So that’s rough. But what I do to be more efficient is dedicate one day to emails, one day to social media content creation. Tuesday is my script day; Wednesday is just Embers stuff. It’s forced me to be much more efficient; I have no choice. It’s also forced me to work until 3 a.m. So I scramble as much as I can, and stay up really late and drink coffee and eat chocolate.