Diversity, Strong Women and the Proper Way to eat hot Cheetos: an author event at Flyleaf Books

The weather in Chapel Hill was horrific on Wednesday. Rain was pouring down, the entire county was under a tornado watch, and there was a collective reluctance to take one step further from car to bookstore than absolutely necessary–not that I can blame them. Even I took some *ahem* creative license with parking so I wouldn’t have to face the overflow lot across the street. But Flyleaf Books was warm and welcoming once I finally dashed through the rain to get there. I picked up my preorder, accepted the complimentary goodie bag, and found a seat. There were a surprising amount of people there, for the weather. But the Tour De Force of Roshani Chokshi, S. Jae-Jones, and the great Renee Ahdieh herself was enough to make even my creative parking job worth it.

Diversity, strong women and the proper way to eat hot cheetos: an evening at Flyleaf Books with Roshani Chokshi, S. Jae-Jones, and Renee Ahdieh

Em and I have met Renee Ahdieh more times than we can count on one one hand–and we saw Roshani Chokshi less than two months ago at this same bookstore. But the thrill of an author event never wears off–as was shown by the loud applause when the three authors swooped in. And the authors looked just as excited, with Renee even having nails that matched her book. They (and I) were there to celebrate the recent release of Flame in the Mist, which is #3 on the New York Times list. But I was also excited to see Roshani and ‘JJ’ (S. Jae-Jones) talk about their works.

Renee started the conversation off with a favorite go-to: What is the wackiest thing that any of the authors had done in the name of research? She cited, for instance, the previously discussed Kitchen Fire incident and how she and Sabaa Tahir are going to learn how to make katanas from a famous swordsmith somewhere in the Pacific Northeast. When the other authors hesitated, she tried to egg them on (c’mon, no shame–I’m already on a watchlist because my last name has two ‘h’s). But to no avail–both Roshani and JJ said that research was less wacky than necessary in their eyes. Roshani did admit to once sneaking into a San Tropez club by posing as an Arabian princess, though.

They then continued on to the topic of Hogwarts Houses, spurred on by the declaration that JJ was the most dangerous (to be fair, she was using a lollipop roughly as a villain might use a cigar the entire time). They talked about how it was to write characters with opposing personalities to themselves–JJ especially said she wanted to strangle her protagonist Liesl through the computer screen sometimes. But there were also interesting tidbits about how the characters came about–for instance, the protagonist of Flame in the Mist had Hermione as inspiration.

As could be expected, the topic then turned to food. This may have been because none of the authors had eaten dinner, but Renee asked what snacks were necessary to the writing process. JJ admitted to needing twizzlers and iced coffee in order to write, although she doesn’t like sugar (aside from lollipops) at any other time. When pushed, Renee admitted ‘I just really like cheese, guys’. She then made the claim ‘all asians like hot cheetos’, which neither Roshani or JJ could dispute (also, all of the smart people eat cheetos with chopsticks, apparently). Roshani, however, had the most horrifying writerly snack–she admitted to eating plain coffee grounds while writing, which made her look more than a little deranged. Fortunately, all agreed that the writerly uniform of ‘yoga pants just respectable enough to wear to the mailbox’ (a quote from JJ), accommodated a little strangeness.

When things came time for the Q&A, however, things got a little less silly and *very* interesting. The first girl asked how all of the authors balanced writing historical characters, and also writing feminist characters. The conclusion the authors came to was that there have always been strong women, even constrained by their historical circumstances, who still managed to do great things. Renee cited Mulan and the historical figure Ching Shih as inspiration for strong non-European female figures, and also pointed out that only women characters had to be specifically written as strong–male characters are seen as strong by default. But Renee also said that there are different forms of strength, a strong theme in Flame in the Mist.

The next question was even more of a whammy: How to write successfully from a diverse perspective? (the girl who asked said that she had been told by someone that writing from her own perspective of a black woman was not ‘relevant’, a statement that had all of the writers bristling). As they pointed out, after all, all of the writers were culturally diverse and wrote across their own culture and other cultures. Renee said that the best way to write diverse novels was to be responsible–responsible in research, responsible to every aspect of your writing, and responsible to the various elements of that culture. She said to always think about different perspectives and lenses, and to learn from criticism–no one’s experience is alike, after all, even if the they hail from the same culture. JJ followed with an amendment to the ‘write what you know’ rule: write what you know to be true.

Someone else asked which strong female characters, historical or otherwise, the authors found inspirational. Roshani gushed about her adoration of the Empress Theodora, who rose from ‘actress’ to Empress and was by many accounts quite successful. Renee took the opportunity to point out that the whiff of prostitution had been used to cheapen strong women or diminish their achievements. She pointed out that Ching Shih had also been cited as being an ‘actress’, for example. She also talked about how her inspiration, Cleopatra, is known only as a seductress despite documentation of her immense intelligence and achievements. JJ continued by pointing out that Hatshepsut, another Egyptian queen, had only been able to maintain power by employing masculine symbols. However, JJ said that there were numerous trailblazers who were ignored simply because they weren’t white men, citing the Chevalier de Saint-Georges as a contemporary and equal to Mozart who history had conveniently forgotten.

There were the usual questions that pop up at these events as well, of course. Someone asked about what plate each author would be, and then there was the usual ‘what advice do you have for aspiring authors’ (answer: tenacity). We learned about Renee’s obsession with flying mythological beasts. Roshani laughed about having to convince her parents she really was dropping out of law school to write, not because she was pregnant (the writerly browsing of baby name sites did NOT help).  Roshani did, however, let slip that all of her character names are ‘dead giveaways’ to importance/traits, and Renee admitted Kenshin was named after a certain anime show. She also told us the title of the sequel to Flame in the Mist (unfortunately, she swore us all to secrecy over it). All authors agreed they had no plans or desire to revisit early unpublished works, but were all VERY vague when someone asked about the stories that they most desperately wanted to write.

We then circled around to the idea of original stories–when someone asked about trends in YA, Renee said they were all far more organic than they seemed, and referenced Christopher Booker’s thesis that there are only seven plots that exist, it’s just your own flair that makes yours original. When asked about the tropes/plots they keep going back to, Renee said that the Chinese epic the Romance of the Three Kingdoms had always been a source of inspiration. Roshani confessed to liking Bluebeard/Beauty and the Beast stories, and S. Jae-Jones said she enjoyed the Death and the Maiden trope (readers of Wintersong and the Star-Touched Queen already knew this).

Finally it was time for the signing, which was neatly organized depending on whether you had bought a book from the bookstore or not. The calling of groups was, however, made worth it by a special treat–someone in Renee’s family had arranged for homemade Flame in the Mist-themed macarons to be present at the signing, and they were DELICIOUS. Renee once again recognized me, and even smiled indulgently as I scooped up multiple copies of the stylized character cards. I then stopped to chat with Roshani, who was an absolute doll and signed something for me even though I already had her signed books at home.

Laden down with books and swag and stuffing a chocolate macaron into my face, I felt happy even as I walked back out into the driving rain.

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