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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Fun with Authors at Quail Ridge Books

Em and I knew our evening was off to a great start when we ended up at the same restaurant as the authors we were later seeing (and the food was good, too). Even better was when the waiter, who had supposedly noticed that all we talked about were books, asked us if we were a part of the thing over at the bookstore. Of course, we responded yes.

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Penguin Tour with Renee Ahdieh, Alwyn Hamilton, Lesley Livingston and Natalie C. Anderson

As many readers know, Renee Ahdieh is an old favorite, and someone we bump into a surprising amount (we’ve seen her at Quail Ridge Books before). But we were just as excited to hear from Alwyn Hamilton, of the Rebel of the Sands series, and Lesley Livingston, author of The Valiant. In addition, Natalie C Anderson, author of City of Saints and Thieves, made an appearance as well.

This panel was a little different from ones we had seen before. There were so many authors that the moderator only asked three questions before opening up a Q&A, and there were only three or four questions asked then. With four authors answering, there was a lot of time spent on one question. But the delightful part was that the authors were playing off of each other, bantering and joking, and it was wonderful. Alwyn, explaining her inspiration for Rebel of the Sands, tried to start off serious. But she was immediately derailed by Renee Ahdieh, who declared that Alwyn’s shoes were the inspiration for her series, that she had tried to steal them at least once already, and had Alwyn Hamilton hold up her shoes for the audience (note: they were gorgeous).

Granted, all of the authors had serious and less serious moments. Renee Ahdieh got somewhat emotional about how much her in-laws had helped her to write her Wrath and the Dawn series, and Natalie Anderson spoke about her years of working with refugees, and her attempt to portray some of their stories in a heartfelt way in her book. When someone asked about how each of their characters would contribute to the Women’s Movement going on today, things got a bit political (favorite outcome: ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ as a nickname). Similarly, during the obligatory ‘advice for aspiring authors’ question, they were all serious and respectful, doing their best to illustrate both the challenges and the rewards of the process of publishing. Their advice: be prepared for both success and failure, practice makes publishable, and suggested finding mentors to help with the writing and publishing process.

The author who genuinely surprised us with her wit and humor was Lesley Livingston. From the moment she said that her inspiration had been that she’d had no friends in school and had been reduced to haunting the school library, Em and I felt as if she was a kindred spirit (except of course, we were friends in school). She then went on a rant about how male archaeologists had ignored mounting evidence for years that there had been female gladiators, and even posed for us to illustrate a bronze sculpture, ‘the Bather’, who was bathing triumphantly and as if she had just ended someone with her long, sharp ‘bathing implement’ (Renee here interjected that she bathed triumphantly on a regular basis, which I have no reason to doubt).

Another hilarious moment was when Lesley first asked her agent to step out of the room, and then mimicked panicked sobbing as her writing process. Again, Renee stepped in to declare that out of all of the authors on tour, Lesley was the only one currently writing. Her response: ‘But I look like this when I’m doing it’. But, turning slightly more serious for a moment and quoted Neil Gaiman, ‘you don’t learn to write a book, you learn to write the book you’re writing’. It was at about this point that Em and I looked at each other in a mutual ‘we like her’ look.

What I really love about these author panels is that they give us a chance to show that these authors are messy, silly, humans just like the rest of us–even though they have my dream job. They had a whole conversation about whether Amani, Shazi, Fallon and Tina would be friends (answer: only if they had something like a heist to bring them together). They laughed about the process of cold querying for agents, teased each other about productivity and drafting, and occasionally offered wonderful tidbits that gave us a glimpse into their worlds, and the worlds they write.

And then it was time for the signings. Emily had ‘accidentally’ bought Natalie C Anderson’s book during the talk (she’d walked past the wrong bookshelf when she went to the bathroom), and I had brought my copies of Valiant and Alwyn Hamilton’s books. Despite not having anything for Renee to sign, we did stop to chat with her, since she recognized us as regulars. We even got up the ladyballs to ask her about a potential interview for the blog, which she was wonderful about. We felt so good about it, that we then asked both Alwyn and Lesley about interviews (so, readers, be on the lookout).

Further bonus: pictures with everyone, accidental inclusion in a photo of Natalie C Anderson and her entire extended family, signed books, signed bookplates (Em is the first person to get Alwyn Hamilton’s signature for her third book, it’s confirmed), and plenty of glorious swag.

Our impressions of the evening? Unqualified success.


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I was sold by the flying serpent, of my review of The Rose and the Dagger

The Rose & The Dagger

The Rose and the Dagger (The Wrath and the Dawn #2)

By: Renee Ahdieh Continue reading

Two Authors and a Bookstore, or my chance to meet Sabaa Tahir and Renee Ahdieh

I was in a no-good, very bad mood Tuesday afternoon. I had missed the bus back from class that would have made me early, and the bus that would have at least gotten me back to my apartment on time didn’t show up. (I have a suspicion that the transport system is designed to defeat me at every turn). I double-checked my route to Raleigh, and found out that it was 10 minutes longer than I thought it would be, due to a slowdown on I-40. I searched my apartment for snacks, or even decent sandwich supplies, and found a few cashews. Thus armed, I set out for Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.

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Two Authors and a Bookstore

Why was I driving through rush-hour traffic to Raleigh, one might ask? Why was I going to this particular bookstore? Oh, well, there was a simple answer. Renee Ahdieh, author of The Wrath & the Dawn and The Rose & the Dagger, and Sabaa Tahir, author of Ember in the Ashes and the brand-new Torch Against the Night, were going to be speaking and signing books. Emily and I had plans to meet there–because neither of us can resist a signed book, and we had a suspicion that a night with these two authors would be highly enjoyable.

I met Em there, both of us about 15 minutes later than we planned on being–but we still had plenty of time. We grabbed Em’s books, plus the ones she was getting signed for a friend, and found seats a few rows back from the front, my mood improving as we sat there. We took the time to people-watch, noting however that most of the crowd was comprised of young-ish females (although, it must be noted, the crowd wasn’t exclusively so). Mostly, though, we waited for the moment when Sabaa Tahir and Renee Ahdieh would make their appearance. They emerged at 7, with only one small thing knocked over.

I honestly hadn’t been sure how the talk would go, but I found myself very much enjoying it. It was clear from the outset that they were both very good friends, in a vaguely goofy yet totally relatable way. The digressions on food were hilarious, and I loved how easily they bantered back and forth. Not surprisingly, both were also excellent storytellers. They were able to easily and skilfully build the picture of how Renee’s kitchen almost caught fire, or the awkwardness of Sabaa’s meeting with George RR Martin. They bounced from topic to topic in a way that wasn’t set, or stilted, but entirely organic, and I loved it.

I also really appreciated the emphasis on research. For all the wisecracks about how in Fantasy you can just make stuff up, it was clear that both Sabaa and Renee had a passion for making every aspect of their worlds as real as they could make it. Renee talked about making all of the Persian dishes mentioned in her books, Sabaa gushed about a katana-making class she was going to be taking, and Renee gave us all a mini-lecture about how high heels were created by mounted archers in the Middle East to give them a more stable foothold when standing and firing arrows. Both of them clearly LOVED to know things, and my heart swelled two sizes in solidarity.

The night ended with a quick Trivia game and then an open forum for questions. Kudos to the small child who apparently had both Ember and Torch memorized (Sabaa: YOU are AWESOME). But there were also numerous questions about the writing process, including the standard ‘advice for aspiring authors’ question. Sabaa Tahir answered in a typical manner: Read everything you can, don’t give up, but then she also said something about ‘don’t ever get complacent’ (I’m paraphrasing). Basically, don’t get all hurt and offended all the times your book gets rejected or something doesn’t work out. Put on your big-girl (or boy, or whatever) panties (or thong, briefs, boy shorts, or pants if you’re British or just like going commando) and deal with it. Which, honestly, I find to be refreshing advice. It’s a lot like ‘never give up’, only it leaves out the petulant obstinacy when things go well, and focuses on making things go better.

And then, of course, there was the book signing, wherein I had both Sabaa and Renee sign my books, and I got novelty bookmarks, and also a poster with a map of the Empire on it. Renee also remembered Em from a previous book signing, which blew me away. I mean, how many thousands of faces has she seen lined up in front of her? That gesture made me, as a fan, feel hugely appreciated, and more than a little touched on Em’s behalf. I came away feeling very happy with both Sabaa and Renee, and also with Quail Ridge Books. They put on a great event, and from the calendar I got it looks like they’ll be having a few more good events down the line!

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So I’m a sap sometimes, or my review of The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn

The Wrath and the Dawn (The Wrath and the Dawn #1)

By: Renee Ahdieh  Continue reading

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