We spoke with Sabaa Tahir at San Diego Comic-Con about an Ember in the Ashes sequel and movie adaptation.
‘An Ember in the Ashes’ was partially inspired by Sabaa Tahir’s childhood.
Tahir first spoke of what inspired her novel, saying her childhood in the Mojave Desert and the isolation she felt growing up made her feel as though she had no sense of self. She later discovered that sense through writing, and wanted to write about characters who felt how she had felt as a kid. Later, working at the Washington Post as an international news editor, she was moved by images from war zones across the world, which helped develop the idea for her book.
An important theme prevalent in Ember centers around one’s identity and the mask one wears in public. In the book, the soldiers wear masks that form to their faces, and it’s one of the most visceral images in the novel. Inspired by a picture of a riot she saw somewhere in Eastern Europe, where the rioters’ emotions were clear on their faces and the riot police all wore masks, she wondered what it would be like to have to wear those masks and be emotionless. “And then what happens when that becomes a part of you?” she asks.
Sometimes the mask, like our past, does not want to let go.
That idea certainly comes through in Elias’ character, but Tahir takes it one step further, saying, “And then I’m also really interested in this idea of the masks we all wear, whether it’s physical or not, like Laia’s mask and how that becomes real to her eventually. She plays at being brave, and then eventually she starts to get there. Or Elias wearing not just a physical mask but a metaphorical one, trying to be part of this group knowing that he […] never will be.”
Tahir says she put a lot of thought into the way the mask clings to the face of a solider. She describes the masks as covering half the face, leaving the mouth open, and then having a claw that wraps around the back of the neck, digging into the skin there. “This idea of someone taking it off and it not wanting to let go, that was the very first image,” she explains.
And just like the mask, our pasts — and those of these characters — hold onto us, clinging, refusing to set us free.
What’s next for our favorite characters from ‘An Ember in the Ashes’?
Fans of An Ember in the Ashes have been clamoring for a sequel. “I’m working on it,” Tahir says, laughing. “We’re going to follow Laia and Elias as they head north to save Darin, Laia’s brother.”
And Tahir is, of course, aware of fans’ interest in the relationship between Elias and Laia. “I do want to throw out this idea that they’ve been through a lot,” she cautions. “Their trial, which was really hard on Elias, has just happened a couple of days before. I think they’re going to be dealing with a lot of psychological trauma, as well as the physical fear of having the empire after them.”
But the sequel to Ember isn’t just going to be about Laia and Elias. “We’re also going to follow Helene,” she says. “So I am very much hoping that if all goes well and I don’t completely screw it up that she will be a point of view in the novel. We’re going to follow her as she is ordered to go on a mission that is probably going to destroy her. And she knows it. Helene is pretty strong, but how far are you pushed before you break?”
Paramount Pictures bought the rights to ‘Ember’ before it was even published.
What would be a hit book without a potential adaptation? “Excitingly, the adaptation is moving,” Tahir tells us. “The script is almost done. They’re really hoping that it’s almost there.”
As the author, Tahir is excited about a movie being made of her book, with the hope it can stay true to the spirit of her novel. “I completely understand, as a movie lover, that sometimes you have to shift things around to get it to work,” she says, but would love for the film to have the same dark atmosphere found in the book.
“A weird thing that I’m interested in is the sound,” she also admits. “I’m going to be really interested in how they do the drumming for the announcements and the sound of the soldiers fighting and all that kind of stuff because that to me was sort of a type of music.”
Even writers have to make time to read.
Setting aside Ember for a moment, we also asked Tahir which book was the best one she’s read lately. Immediately, she responded with Uprooted by Naomi Novik. “I freaking love that book,” Tahir says. “It’s one of the most fascinating villains I’ve seen in a book because it’s a forest, so it’s not the classic villain. There is a power at the heart of that forest, but it’s just a really nasty, mean forest. It’s super smart and sentient and trying to get people and it’s so cool. It’s just the best idea.”