Interview with Alwyn Hamilton

Posted by Goodreads on December 12, 2016
The critically adored young adult fantasy that secured Alwyn Hamilton the Goodreads Choice Debut Author award is a riveting, magical story that crosses Wild West action with the Arabian Nights.

In Rebel of the Sands, part one of a trilogy, Amani Al'Hiza is a headstrong, gunslinging orphan who enters a shooting contest disguised as a boy in a bid to escape her dead-end life. She meets Jin, a mysterious fugitive, and is soon astride a mythical horse fleeing across the dangerous, djinni-filled desert. Hamilton's sequel is being eagerly awaited.

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Goodreads: Congratulations on your beloved debut novel and your Goodreads Choice Award! Rebel of the Sands is such an intriguing blend of Arabian Nights and an old-fashioned western. When did these elements first come together in your mind?

Alwyn Hamilton: The idea for Rebel of the Sands started out with wanting to write a young female sharpshooter. I'd seen a few people online saying that female characters shouldn't be playing the role of the weapon-wielding fighter in fantasy novels. It was unrealistic (unlike the dragons and unicorns and wizards, of course) because they weren't physically as strong as men and shouldn't be able to lift swords and best the evil king's soldiers. The argument was "I'm not sexist, it's just biology." Cue a million eye rolls from me and an "I'll show you" idea to create a female fighter whose weapon was a gun, something that relied on skill over strength, and so smashed that argument to pieces.

That nebulous young sharpshooter, whom I nicknamed "the Blue Eyed Bandit," very clearly belonged in a western. The only trouble was I didn't want to write a historically based gunslinging book; it felt confining. I kept trying to think what twist I could put on a western to make it a fantasy. I was working in Islamic art and Oriental rugs and carpets at the time, and the idea hit me at midnight to combine the mythical world of the 1001 Nights with the Wild West.

As soon as I thought of it, I started seeing all the elements that weren't so disparate. Desert, arid settings, strong religious societies, bandits, etc. And before I knew it, I'd talked myself into it.

GR: Let's talk about Amani, your fiery sharpshooter heroine who's "more gunpowder than girl." Which other book characters—or friends and family in your own life—inspired her personality? Do you see a little of yourself in Amani?

AH: Amani's core is that she's totally reckless and impulsive, which couldn't be more different than me, and that's why she works as a driver of the story, I think. I'm habitually an overthinker, I can debate both sides of anything until the cows come home, I can see the risks going into things. Amani will tend to act on whatever the first thought that enters her head is. She jumps off the cliff and figures out if it's a soft landing on the way down.

I think the core of her is a mix of quite a few YA heroines I loved growing up. She's got a heavy dose of Alanna from Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness Quartet, with the crossdressing and refusing to see herself as lesser than men. There's also a dash of Harry Crewe, aka Harimad Sol, from Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword, with her adaptability, and Ella from Gail Carson Levine's Ella Enchanted, with her tendency to seize her fate in her own hands.

However, what Amani and I do share is her inclination toward truthfulness. I am basically as physically incapable of telling a lie as she is, compulsively honest. I'm the sort of person who, if I turned up late to work, instead of mumbling a lie about traffic, would just admit that I didn't want to come in and chose to stay in bed an extra ten minutes. Amani might be a bit more deceptive, but she can't lie.

GR: On your website you share that, while you were born in Toronto, you grew up in a small town in France and would often randomly start singing the opening song from Beauty and the Beast. How do you think your upbringing influenced your approach to storytelling?

AH: Growing up in your second language is weird. I speak fluent French, and I did the entirety of my schooling in French until I was 18, wrote my essays and tests in it, spoke to all my friends in it. But I've still always preferred English. This was the language I spoke to my parents in and watched TV in and read books in for pleasure.

For one thing, the fact that the only things I was ever made to read were in French, it meant it never destroyed my love of reading, as sometimes happens.

The other thing is, it made me incredibly reliant on books and movies and TV for contact with my first language. I relied on reading for English, and I think in a weird way writing started as a way of communicating back, before the option of online communities and so on sprang up.

GR: Tell us about the research that went into Rebel of the Sands. Any trips to desert locales or long nights spent in cozy libraries?

AH: The one thing I really wanted to do as research for Rebel was shoot a gun, and it was incredibly hard to find anywhere to do that in London. Unless I wanted to drive out to the countryside and shoot at clay pigeons basically. I have actually spent the night in the desert in Morocco and ridden there on a camel. So very, very uncomfortable. But that was in my early teen years, long before the idea for Rebel sprang up.

The trouble with historical research is that a lot of it focuses on the upper echelons of society, so you get endless information on rulers and who overthrew who and what their crown was made of, and none on how the rest of the population lived their daily life. So I did a fair amount of reading of folklore and fairy tales when I was researching for Rebel. There are some great collections of translations from Amina Shah, which I really loved and which gave me a great sense of the mythology as well as everyday life and which was closer to the world I wanted in Rebel.

I also invited myself on a trip to Turkey (Istanbul and Izmir in particular) with my parents, and internally reasoned it out as research, even if I didn't tell anyone that at the time.

GR: The highly anticipated sequel to Rebel of the Sands, Traitor to the Throne, is set to hit shelves in early 2017! What has been your favorite part of your journey as a published author?

AH: Yes! I can't believe Traitor is almost here. It seems like it was just yesterday I was staring at the blank Word document, and now it's almost a printed book.

Writing Traitor has actually been a highlight. I'd written things before Rebel, and Rebel obviously, but never to deadline. The first draft I handed into my editors, in January 2016, is far from what Traitor became, but they immediately saw what I was trying to achieve, and the process of getting that first draft there to where it is now, adding spying and subterfuge and sandstorms until it knitted together perfectly, was incredibly satisfying.

I also loved getting to tour in early 2016 in the U.S. and Canada. After being alone with a book for a really long time, getting to talk about it with readers is a huge amount of fun.

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message 1: by Cash'Lion (new)

Cash'Lion Elud'Ox I am still reading the book, Rebel of the Sands and not finished and already I can't wait for the next installment. I love the different pace of scenery and the different actions of mishaps showing the twist in nothing always goes the way you want it even for the hero/heroine of a story. Chap 9 is well played with sizzling heat but not overboard where it gets in the way of the story. I hope to be able to purchase or your books one day. Again, can't wait for the sequels.

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