Zoë from BookPeople’s Teen Press Corps got a chance to catch up with YA author Hafsah Faizal, who will be at this year’s Texas Teen Book Festival, October 23-24. Learn more about her writing process, the inspiration behind We Free the Stars, and more! And don’t forget to order your copy from BookPeople!
Zoë: So I guess to start, what inspired We Hunt the Flame?
Hafsah: It’s been a while since I answered this question. The original idea was inspired by a back-to-back viewing of The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings. My sisters and I were outside gardening and one of us was like, what if the games were set in a fantasy world? So that’s sort of how the story began in this world where there are seven kingdoms and characters from all seven of them coming together onto this island to destroy one another in pursuit of a prize. But somewhere along the way, I realized it wasn’t a prize they were seeking, it was something else and it was a lot deeper than that. The story was also very eurocentric and I just ended up scrapping it because it just wasn’t working. So when I sat down and decided I’m going to put together the world’s map because I’m a designer and I’m a very visual person, I realized that the map represented the Mediterranean regions quite a bit and I was like why don’t I just set this in a place I’m more familiar with. So I scrapped the entire thing, started fresh, and this time it was set in Arabia, and it was one kingdom and an entirely different quest. I think the nods to both are still there but it was a lot more similar before.
Zoë: Yeah, I love both of those series and I definitely see certain elements but you also made the story your own, definitely. That’s really cool that your whole series has so many Arab characters in it and was completely based in that area. We don’t have a lot of books that are like that currently so I thought that was really cool. So how long have you been writing?
Hafsah: Well, unlike a lot of authors, I wasn’t a writer the moment I could start holding pens. I wasn’t much of a reader either. I didn’t really like reading as a kid and I realized a lot later that it was because my mom was a teacher and she taught me how to read before I went to school. So everything that I was able to read just was below my reading level so I was bored easily. And then secondly, books were just another reminder that I was so different from the norm and if you can’t fit in the real world then you can’t fit in these books either. But when I was seventeen I’d been homeschooling for a few years and my dad was like, “You need to read more, you need to do something bookish.” He took me to the library and I brought home my first YA, Graceling, and I connected to the character on some level. Then I was just searching for that in as many books as I could find. I kept picking up any book, any YA just so I could connect to these characters on some minuscule level. It wasn’t satisfying but it was something. And I guess I had read so much that I had this really intense dream and I woke up and was like, why don’t I just make a book out of this? I was 17 then. So that became my first novel that I sent to publication. It didn’t work out and I wrote a few more manuscripts and I started We Hunt the Flame at 19. I told myself that it’s either I get published by the time I’m 20 or I’m gonna give up for good. Which is a bad goal to have because publication doesn’t have an age limit. So it did put some pressure on me but it’s what I do. So I ended up getting published at 26. A long journey.
Zoë: Well that’s awesome though. Sometimes that perseverance is what it takes to get you there. Do you have a favorite character in both books of We Hunt the Flame? I’m sure it’s hard to pick one.
Hafsah: Yeah they all hold a special place in my heart and even though I’m working on a new series now I miss them so much. But I think Nasir is probably my most favorite because his arc is the most satisfying and he goes through a lot and I could relate to him on a lot of levels. Not the assassinating part but a lot of the other bits [both laugh]. Zafira is definitely also a favorite but Nasir is the closest I think.
Zoë: We all love Nasir, we all love him. He’s so great. But yeah his character arc is really complex, I love his character too. What character do you feel like you put the most of you in?
Hafsah: Well I told myself when I started writing that I wasn’t going to put anything of mine or people that I know into these stories because I know someone is going to read it and see the similarities. But in the end, when I was answering interview questions it was just like every question somehow wound back to me like the answer always came back to me someway and I realized I was definitely writing from what I knew. So I often think that Zafira was me pre-publication, where I was a lot more confident. I had my act together but once I got my book deal it is a whole different animal. It’s anxiety-inducing, nerve-wracking, and all of these intense emotions I wish I didn’t have to feel. And that’s definitely Nasir so I think the two of them have two different facets of me in them but I could definitely relate to Nasir quite a bit I think that’s probably why he’s my favorite. And Altair is the part of me when I’m not stressed and I can actually just relax for a bit.
Zoë: Yeah I mean his character is definitely that character that is like I’ll just go with the flow, I might have some damage, but I’m fine. I can crack a joke.
Hafsah: That’s him.
Zoë: So something I was curious about was your book is really big on TikTok right now. When you first wrote it did you expect the big blow-up on social media to happen?
Hafsah: I did not. I actually, well I have self-published one book and I had been a book blogger for a long time before I got published. I started in 2010 when I was 17 when I was reading all those books. Then I stopped soon after I got my book deal which was in 2017 I think. I was always fascinated by the marketing efforts that came with books, and how it becomes a product that you have to try and market and push to as many people. So I was pushing my book as much as I could because I knew if I didn’t it might not go anywhere it might just sit there. And so the fact that it found its people and started picking up on its own was just miraculous and I was just so grateful for it I didn’t expect it to happen. I’m just so used to doing everything on my own. I started homeschooling when I was in 7th grade so that meant teaching myself. Then I started my own business so I never worked for anyone else so everything I did I had to do myself. I figured that this book, for anything to come of it, I needed to do it on my own. So it was just sort of a reminder and like this eye-opening thing that I didn’t have to do everything on my own and there are people that will support you and be with you the entire way. It’s not just booktok, it’s librarians, booksellers, other authors, and it’s just been an incredible journey.
Zoë: My friend was curious if you ever planned on writing a book with hijabi representation?
Hafsah: I do. I actually didn’t start off that way because I didn’t want to be writing into something and being like, this is why she got published because she’s writing her minority, writing her oppressions and issues, so that’s why I started with fantasy. I always intended to write a YA contemporary because I don’t really feel comfortable writing my faith in fantasy. But after We Hunt the Flame came out it made the most sense to write another fantasy, which is A Tempest of Tea, which comes out next year. So I do want to write one and I’ve had an idea percolating for a long time. I will say that I am publishing a short story either next year or the year after that has a hijabi main character in it so I’m excited for that. It will be a short one though.
Zoë: Well since you’re talking about A Tempest of Tea, could you tell us a little bit about that? I’m really curious.
Hafsah: Yeah, it’s set in the same universe as We Hunt the Flame but we’re zooming out of Arwiya and visiting a few new countries particularly Athena, which is basically a parallel fantasy England, Victorian-era England. It’s about a girl named Arthie Casimir who runs a tea room that doubles as an illegal blood house that caters to the local vampires. And so she has to save her tea room, she strikes a deal with a detective sort of guy who’s a little bit handsome but definitely her enemy. So she has to infiltrate this vampire society to steal something for him in order to save her tearoom but along the way, she discovers some conspiracies that she might be right smack dab in the center of. I’m very excited about it, it’s got a lot happening.
Zoë: That does sound like a lot. Now I’m even more excited because I knew you were writing a new series but I was trying to look and find out what is it about? But that is a great explanation, it sounds really fun!
Hafsah: Yeah it’s supposed to be more fast-paced than We Hunt the Flame, a lot more happening and we haven’t released an official synopsis yet so that’s probably why you haven’t heard anything.
Zoë: What was the most fun thing transitioning to this book from We Hunt the Flame and do you have a favorite character?
Hafsah: Oooh well the transitioning was kind of bittersweet because there was this lushness to writing We Hunt the Flame and setting this story in an Arabian setting and just a lot of the beginning portions being really sad over leaving We Hunt the Flame and Zafira and Nasir and the cast. But I found my groove eventually. The world in A Tempest of Tea is definitely a lot more cutthroat and gritty and the writing had to evolve because of that, and I didn’t feel like I could evolve because I had this set writing style. But as I got into the heads of these characters it sort of changed eventually and everything kind of honed itself. It was a lot sharper to the point where I was like it seems like I’m an entirely different author. But my friends were like no, it’s definitely you, but it’s fitting this world a lot more. Again, I don’t know if I have a favorite character, there’s another cast of five here. There are three points of view. Well, Arthie is definitely going to be my favorite because she’s the closest to me where she is a woman, a girl trying to make her place in this world of men. Establishing holding her ground, running her own business all of that. But I think Jin, her adopted brother, kind of steals the show. It wasn’t intentional but yeah everyone who reads, everyone who meets him really loves him and I can’t wait for everyone to meet him.
Zoë: So I was actually curious, this is sort of a question more for me. I’m kind of doing an entrepreneurship program currently and I was curious, since you have your own business and it’s been really successful. Do you have any advice for a young woman like me going sort of into the business area?
Hafsah: It can feel very very lonely because, in the beginning, you’re just shouting into the void, “Buy my product please, purchase something from me!” And that first sale, you aren’t going to earn anything from it, but it’s going to feel incredible and it’s definitely a journey that you need to enjoy every bit of it, every little milestone that you can take for yourself you should celebrate. I also really, really suggest surrounding yourself with people who will love you and support you, because like I said, in the beginning, you’re not going to have any sales and it’s going to be like ok maybe my product is terrible that’s why no one’s buying it. But the fact is that you haven’t found your people and if you keep that mindset. You might have to be a little shameless, talk a lot on social media to take the reigns– this is yours. But it was definitely a long, long journey. I started I think right before I turned 18 and it started with a blog design space where I kept changing my blog’s look all the time. Until other bloggers were like, oh this is nice can you make one for me? Then I started designing blogs for other bloggers, then an author reached out and was like can you make a website for me? So now Icey Designs primarily makes websites for authors. And then I just needed an outlet for being on the computer all the time, so that’s when I started hand-lettering and making these offline goodies, which I ended up making a shop for. It was mostly like I had all this energy I didn’t know what to do with it. I also was from a poor family with financial issues, and so I didn’t have assets and I didn’t have funds and I couldn’t take loans. So I just started from the ground up, I didn’t have anything to help me. And on the other hand that was sort of a good thing because I wasn’t reliant on these loans and other people, it was all my own and every risk I took was my own risk and I knew, ok I can come back from this at some point. Sorry, that’s a really long rambly answer but [laughs] I don’t have one particular piece of advice except just go for it and enjoy it.
Zoë: Well thank you, that is really helpful. It’s very intimidating when you’re starting to learn all the things and learning how a business works especially when you’re really young. I’m 17 and I’m like I don’t know how to do this.
Hafsah: Well it’s sort of like, if you read into it and keep reading into it you’re never gonna stop. So I’m the type of person that wants to start working wherever I am, put my hands in and just dig in. And I learn along the way, it’s more rewarding for me that way. If there’s an instruction booklet I’ll rarely read it. If there’s a rule book on how to write stories I don’t really pick at it. It wasn’t until I started writing A Tempest of Tea that I really started looking into how to write a book and I was using We Hunt the Flame as an example and it fit that outline to a T. And I hadn’t even used it or looked at it before I didn’t even know it existed. So I’m more like it’s the experience that will give you the tools that you need.
Zoë: So this next question is kind of a Teen Press Corps legend question. We always ask it because it’s the most random thing but it’s so fun to hear the answer. If you could be any kitchen utensil what would you be and why?
Hafsah: Oh this is definitely random. I’ve never heard this one before and I hear a lot from my sisters. I would say a knife but I feel like that’s the expected answer. Maybe I’d be a spoon because I’m the one that provides everyone with whatever they need.
Look out for Hafsah Faizal at TTBF! You can order her latest novel, We Free the Stars, from BookPeople!