The Shelf Care Interview: Sabaa Tahir, Nicole Andelfinger, and Sonia Liao

Welcome to the Shelf Care Interview, an occasional conversation series where Booklist talks to book people. This Shelf Care Interview is sponsored by BOOM! Studios.

In this episode of the Shelf Care Interview, Ronny Khuri talks to authors Sabaa Tahir and Nicole Andelfinger, as well as artist Sonia Liao, three of the creators behind the forthcoming graphic novel, A Thief among the Trees, which is a prequel to Sabaa’s best-selling An Ember in the Ashes series.

A Thief among the Trees will be released by BOOM! Studios this July.

You can listen to this Shelf Care Interview here. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

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RONNY KHURI: Sabaa, can you kick things off by introducing us to A Thief among the Trees and telling us how it fits into the Ember universe?

SABAA TAHIR: So A Thief among the Trees is a graphic novel that takes place about seven years before the events of An Ember in the Ashes. It focuses on a couple of characters, Helene Aquilla and Elias Veturius, and their crew. At this point in their careers, they are fighters with Blackcliff Academy, meaning that they are sent out into the greater empire, where the story takes place, and are sort of thrown out with nothing and told to survive. So that’s what they’re doing right now. They get missions, and this story, A Thief among the Trees, is about a mission that they are sent on to procure some poison for the empire from a sort of notoriously deadly island.

Sabaa, I know you’re someone who cares deeply about her characters and you’ve spent a lot of time developing this world and investing yourself in it, so how does it feel to open it up to other collaborators?

TAHIR: At first, it was definitely strange. I’m really possessive of my characters and my world. Whenever I work with beta readers or whatever, if anyone ever suggests an idea—if it’s a very complete idea, where they’re like, “Well, why don’t you do this in the plot?”—I almost never use it, because I feel like I have to have a sense of ownership over my own creation. I like everything to come from me, so at first, it was definitely difficult, but very, very, very quickly it became apparent that Nicole and Sonia and the broader team at BOOM! Studios were really, really great at collaboration, that they understood that these were my babies and that I definitely saw them in a certain way. And they added their own spirit and soul to the story, which just enriched it, so it was actually really wonderful. I do love collaboration in general, and this gave me a lot of hope for working on other collaborative type stories within the Ember universe, because this was just so much fun.

Nicole, can you pick up there and talk about your collaboration with Sabaa and how the script was shaped?

NICOLE ANDELFINGER: There’s always this nervousness you get when you are working with somebody who has such an amazing, rich universe, because you always want to keep true to those characters and not overstep, but you also want to help give the comic form the same vibrancy of the originals. And so, working with Sabaa, it was wonderful getting an outline and then basically helping craft all of these ideas into an actuality, into a script. And of course, I always say with comics that the script is well and good, but there’s just such a magic to being able to collaborate and then send it off to somebody who’s going to put that into beautiful pictures. And that’s when it really starts getting real.

Sonia, in this book you’re working with characters—Elias, Helene—that a lot of readers already know and have really strong feelings about, so what was your process for bringing them to life visually? Did you have any sources you could draw on, or was there anything particularly challenging?

SONIA LIAO: It’s obviously very, very challenging when you’re dealing with characters that people love, but thankfully the people at BOOM! and Sabaa were actually really great at providing character descriptions and basically everything I need to know about what the characters look like, what the characters acted like. These details really help when I’m sitting down and drawing the potential character designs for everyone.

And I imagine making them so much younger must’ve been an interesting challenge in itself.

LIAO: Oh, yeah. At first, I actually drew them in their older form before they told me that this is the prequel, they’re actually younger, so I had to go back in and draw them as kids. But yeah, for visual reference I did look at the covers that were published—the Ember covers—and then I also got a picture of some armor that people are wearing. So I wasn’t starting exactly from scratch, which was good, but when I first start drawing, I always make sure to draw a lot of sketches, basically trying to cast a wide net before sending it off and hoping at least one of them will look somewhat like people want and then, after we pinpoint that, working from there. So, yeah, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be because of all of the support and extra information.

Could you speak more generally about some of your artistic influences or inspirations?

LIAO: I have a lot of influences in my art. My parents are from Taiwan, so growing up, I watched a lot of what people nowadays call anime, but in Asia it’s just cartoons, or children’s cartoons. I grew up reading a lot of manga—Fumi Yoshinaga. Everyone else in my generation watched Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, all that stuff. But I also read a lot of books in my local library. I was kind of an introvert, so I basically just spent all my free time reading young-adult books and graphic novels. The ones that stand out were Strangers in Paradise, by Terry Moore, and a couple of books by Faith Erin Hicks.

When I got to college, I started reading more Marvel and DC comics. I think, before, I was intimidated because there’s just so much dialogue, but I discovered it’s pretty fun and it’s very different from what I grew up with. And I think the more I expand what I read and what I understand, the more I can draw from my own art. So, artistically, my stuff still draws a lot more from my Eastern heritage, but writing-wise, and in the way I structure stuff, I do think the Marvel or DC comics tend to condense story a lot more. Each issue is usually around 24 pages, while Japanese comics tend to be 45 pages per chapter. So I think that’s definitely influenced me a lot, and the comics I draw for fun and sell on my own time tend to follow more of that superhero flare, just because I find that interesting. Also, I can draw less—25 pages instead of 45!

Nicole, when you’re not writing, what kind of stuff do you read?

ANDELFINGER:

I used to have a three-hour commute into work, and I used the library’s Hoopla app, so for a good, solid year and a half I was actually not really reading as much, but I was listening to audiobooks. But now I have a shorter commute, and since I loved listening to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzie Lee, so much, I went back and read it in physical form. But I read a lot of YA. When BOOM! came to me saying, “Hey, do you want to work with Sabaa on Ember in the Ashes?” it was like they reached into my soul, and I said, “Well yes, I absolutely do.”

A lot of the comics I read are also geared in that vein. I love superheroes, but I also love pretty much anything Rick Riordan writes. Yehudi Mercado writes Sci-Fu and Hero Hotel, which are a little bit more on the younger side of YA, but I’ve been loving those. And of course, BOOM! has this huge collection of just about any genre you could ever love. And Ghosted in L.A., by Sina Grace, right now is probably one of my favorites. So I read a lot. And then, eventually someday I’ll catch up on One-Punch Man because I’m so behind.

Sabaa, can you talk about how libraries have played a role in your reading and writing life?

TAHIR: I mean, libraries were my safe place. When I was in seventh grade, I still remember very clearly that the lunch hour was such a difficult time for me because I didn’t really have any friends I was very close to. The friends I’d had from elementary school had drifted off to newer, different groups of friends, and I just found myself alone a lot. So, I went to the library every day for months. And I don’t remember the name of the librarian—I actually don’t even remember what she really looks like because it was so long ago—but I do remember she was this very calm presence and she would always have a book for me. And she was like me; she was an introvert, so she wouldn’t really talk. She would just have a book around that she knew I would like, and I would pick it up and and go and sit in the corner and read.

That’s really what rocket-shipped my reading, I guess you could say. I started reading way more, consuming way more, reading all sorts of things from fantasy, to contemporary, to history. And it would never have happened if not for her. And then, strangely, in my adult writing life, I found myself returning to the library when I was working on A Torch against the Night, which is the second book in the Ember series, and even when I was working on Ember, too, I didn’t have a dedicated home office because I live in the Bay Area and everyone has these tiny, little townhouses or apartments. And so, my place is really small, and my kids would go either to school or preschool or whatever, and then I would leave and work. And sometimes it’d be a coffee shop, sometimes it would be the park, but I always found myself going back to the local library because it was quiet, they had great internet, and no one would bother me. And I was surrounded by books, so it was a reminder of why I was doing what I was doing. So libraries have been huge in just creating me both as a young lover of books and also in allowing me to have the space and the quiet to work on my own books.

This Shelf Care Interview was sponsored by BOOM! Studios, the publisher of A Thief among the Trees, which will be available this July. Until next time, stay safe, and happy reading.

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About the Author:

Ronny Khuri is an associate editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. His dæmon is a Siamese cat named Tiger Lily.

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