An Interview with Alwyn Hamilton

So last week a very exciting opportunity landed in my inbox, and thanks to Kimi and Waterstones Manchester, I had the chance to interview the lovely and exceptionally talented Alwyn Hamilton, author of the Rebel of the Sands series. Both Rebel of the Sands and Traitor to the Throne were 4/5 star reads for me, so I’m definitely looking forward to picking up Hero at the Fall as soon as I can!

I was a little nervous during the day as I was worried that I’d get tongue tied, or run out of things to talk about (despite having a list of 15 questions!) but turns out, I needn’t have bothered worrying at all. Alwyn was super friendly and so easy to talk to, and at times I forgot I was supposed to be conducting an interview at all and I wasn’t just having a chat! Alwyn also recognised me, asking if she’d last seen me at YALC. When I let her know it was actually NYA Lit Fest she responded with “ah yes I thought I’d seen you more recently than YALC”. It was hard to restrain my inner fan girl at this.

During the twenty minute or so chat, we talked about a lot of different things, from Rebel of course to Alwyn’s writing process, to who she’d put together as her own gang of rebels to her predictions for Infinity War! Grab a drink and a snack cause this is a pretty long post, but definitely worth reading for any Rebel fans (there are very minimal spoilers for the first two books)!

InterviewWithAlwynHamilton

Was Rebel the first book that you wrote or did you start writing something completely different as your first?

Yeah it was definitely not the first book I wrote. I wrote 6 finished books before Rebel. I really, strongly believe that there is this false expectation that people put on themselves a lot of the time for writing, that they should be able to put fingers to keyboard straight away. Like I can write a sentence, why shouldn’t I be able to write a book? It’s the same with anything. Like just because I can play a note on the piano doesn’t mean I can play a symphony and doesn’t mean that I should expect myself to have one piano lesson and be like “I’m ready to play the Royal Albert Hall”. The same way you shouldn’t expect to write one book and be like “it’s perfect and should be published!” Some people are like that but not everyone. And people have various ways of doing things, like I know that Sabaa Tahir wrote the same book six times, she wrote her first book six times, whereas I wrote six different books to get to the point that I needed to be at for Rebel. So of all of those, I think that only the one that I wrote right before Rebel would be salvageable, and I think it would only be salvageable with what I’ve learned from writing and editing Rebel ironically.

So you don’t think you could have wrote Rebel as the first book or..

I don’t think so. I think that the idea wouldn’t have come at a time before that because it came from such specific places, but I feel like I wouldn’t necessarily have had the skills because the first thing I ever wrote that was fantasy… Well, I should have been writing fantasy the whole time but it took me a while to gear up to that because there wasn’t too much fantasy in publishing at the time, so it was kind of an intimidating thing to start without example. Especially because it had been a while since I’d read fantasy as a YA myself. So, I wrote a fantasy that was almost there, it was almost the one, and the big problem with it which I realised as soon as I started writing Rebel was that the main character was being led around by the plot way more than she was leading the plot. So that was something that when I then turned my attention to Rebel I was like “ok that was my problem, in this one we need a heroine that leads the plot” and that is a huge part of the book. I don’t think I would have had that epiphany necessarily if I had tried to write Rebel before that book.

That is reassuring, because I want to write my book but I feel like I couldn’t write a book that could be published straight away. I just want to write it because I’ve got this story that I want to tell.

Yeah! I strongly believe that you learn more from finishing a book even if it’s terrible, than you will from writing a perfect three chapters. Because everyone can write a perfect three chapters if edited enough, but writing a beginning is different, writing a middle is different, and so I learned so much from each one. The first one I was like, huh maybe I should think out my endings before I get to the end and be like… “and then I don’t know everything blew up!” and then the next one I’m like, well this plot makes a lot more sense but god these characters are flat, lets develop the characters a little bit more, so I learned something from each book that I finished really specifically. They’re practice books but I didn’t think of them as practice books while writing them. I took them all very seriously but then I was like this isn’t good enough, let’s move onto the next idea, this is unsalvageable.

So in terms of that, when you were researching for Rebel I remember that at NYA Lit Fest you talked about how you spoke with a ship specialist for some of the scenes. Were there any other particular types of research that were different to what other people might do, because that was quite specific?

I mean a lot of random research sort of seeped into me. A lot of stuff that appears in Rebel are Western tropes and things like that, so having seen a fair few Western’s in my time I sort of knew a lot of those. I also was working in Islamic art for a while. I wasn’t on the specialist side of it but you pick up things from doing that or like picked up a lot of names from there, a few characters are named specifically after… so there’s one I’m really worried might sue me! He was my least favourite client, he was a nightmare and I named a villain after him in the first book, and not even a very competent one either. So I sort of absorbed a bit from there.

I have a really distinct memory of coming in in the morning and there being a manuscript page on my desk and I was holding a coffee and I just looked down and it said the value of it in the corner which was £500-£600,000, cause you know, manuscript pages cost a lot and I was just like “someone wanna move this off my desk? Anyone? Anyone at all?” Then the specialists were “fiiiine”. But I remember realising what it was, it was Muhammad riding on the Buraq which is his horse, and so the Buraqi in Rebel are named after this. So there’s like bits and pieces from that.

See it’s really interesting because my friend is Muslim and so I’ve been telling her about some of the parts of Rebel that are inspired by Islam.

I would never say that the religion that they have in the book is Islam. In the past people have tweeted me like “you know we don’t drink right?”and I’m like “I do know that!”. It’s much closer to Pagan religions, some parts are Greek mythology, and parts of it are kind of old pre-record religions so I do want to be careful with that. There are definitely bits and pieces especially from like folklore, from culture and from their storytelling’s that appear.

I really like how they all tie together, it makes for a really interesting world! So, I love the ideas of rebellions I think they’re really cool. Who would you put together for a rebellion? Fictional characters from books, T.V., films, whatever you want!

For some reason my mind went immediately to like building a heist team, and I think that’s what my brain has always done since I read High Society by Ally Carter and I’m like “who would be good in a heist team?!” I feel like Anne from Anne of Green Gables would be good in a rebellion because she’s always questioning things and leading things and being inventive so I think she’d be a good rebel. I’d have to be careful not to pick too many protagonists because I feel like they might butt heads with each other. I think Hermione would do well, she can be the brains, the strategist, you know she can keep things moving when times are difficult as we have seen in the Deathly Hallows… Who else would I pick? I was talking about the Winner’s Curse earlier.

Ohh I haven’t read that yet!

Ah you need to read it, it’s so good! I think Kestrel would do well, she’s sort of a strategist, she’s a much smarter version of Shazad because she’s written by someone smart than me! Shazad is already way smarter than me which makes her hard to write. So I think Kestrel would do well, who else…

It’s hard to think of as well how if they would all work well together.

Yeah like would they all get along? This is why I’m like “not too many main characters”. Hermione has been good at being supportive and I feel she would be like “this is what needs to be done, advise and execute”.

And I think she could bring down any tension too.

That’s totally true!

I think that’s a pretty strong team.

I feel like that’s a pretty good girl squad to begin things with, and then they could recruit

Definitely! So, obviously there’s a bit of romance in the books which I always love to read about, it’s great, but I also really liked that it wasn’t the be all and end all of the books. There was a lot of loyalty and friendship and family. Was it important for you to have a female character who was quite independent and while she had that side of her that enjoyed having that relationship, she could also be alone and be strong and successful?

Yeah, I think a lot of the book is actually Amani learning the difference between being selfish and being independent. So it was especially important for me that she have a strong female friendship, especially because she only has one friend at home who is male… she does not get along with the girls. And I don’t tend to be a huge fan of the trope, I mean it depends how it’s done, but the female character who hates all other girls. So I really wanted to make a point that she doesn’t get along with these girls, but she can get along with other women, so that was really important. Also it was important that in the second book when she’s in the harem and these women are so different from her to just understand, to respect that they have a different way of surviving than she does. Everyone’s just trying to their best. So that was crucial.

Also in my mind every single one of these characters could be the protagonist of the book and that was really important to me that they feel really fleshed out so that as a result of that I think that their relationships with her were quite developed in my mind. I could have started the book a year earlier when the rebellion started and it be Shazad’s story, or start it four years earlier when the boys left on the ship and the adventures on the sea, so I knew a lot of what everyone was and how they would feel.

Would you ever want to write those stories?

I feel like it would be hard to go backwards. I wrote a short story that was one of the boy’s adventures on the sea. I feel like theirs would be much better serialised TV story kind of thing, but I liked the idea of it being a developed thing when she came into it, not her initiating the revolution. Which is why it made sense for Amani to be the main character. I feel like it’s tricky. I’m trying not to be super spoilery for somebody else’s book… I read and loved Code Name Verity. Have you read Code Name Verity?

*Sadly* no.

Ok I’m not going to spoil it then! The Pearl Thief is a prequel to Code Name Verity and it’s a middle grade set in the childhood of the characters in Code Name Verity. I am dreading reading the Pearl Thief because the whole time I’m going to be like “I know what happens to you!” I know what the war is about to do to this family and so I feel like would be quite tricky to write something before if you’d already read the Rebel series you’d be like, “well I know there’s no stakes in this because I know Jin and Ahmed appear in the Rebel series so they don’t die!” That’s just the way my brain works!

So, just a couple of questions about writing. Do you have a process with writing? Do you plan like a beginning, middle and end or do you just write and see where it takes you?

I always have an ending, and I feel that I always have a beginning and then I have pillars in my mind, like “there’ll be a scene where this happens, a scene where this happens” and a lot of the time that will develop ther parts of the story like I remember just knowing that I wanted there to be a scene where they have to fakeout makeout and jump off a train.

Oh I love that by the way!

Thanks! I love a fakeout makeout. That thought then begs the question what is the threat that makes you have to jump off the train? Where did this threat come from? And then it builds in that way. Or just things like I always knew there would be a scene where they would meet quote-on-quote by Amani hiding Jin under the counter and then I would be like, ok what’s her reasoning to trust him enough to want to hide him? How did they get there? Ok it’s because they’ve met previously in the shooting competition and all these other things. A lot of the time, you think you’ve got it all worked out but when you go to write it down you’re like “I haven’t actually worked out the logistics of this!” Some of it does develop on page. My technique a lot of the time is to do a lot of daydreaming of it and figure it all out in my head, and then I’ll start drafting it. So, I’ll do a quick draft that’s really rubbish and just say “they went here, they did this and she said this” and it’s got like no emotions or descriptions and I’ll sometimes leave little notes that say “describe here”.

*Insert emotion here*?

Exactly. Then that often develops, and I’ll move to paper and be like “this moves to this” and put all the stuff from my brain down. I find that the rough drafting is really helpful for me because if I thought of a whole scene and then on paper it turns out not to work, I’m really glad I didn’t waste three days writing the perfect, beautifully and well described scene that I then have to cut. Or sometimes I’ll be like “I’ll skip this because I don’t know what happens there” and I’ll be writing a future scene and be like well “oh if they’re having a fight here that means that they need to start a disagreement earlier” so I know what now goes into that blank I left, So that’s kind of how I do it and then I go through and make it not suck quite as much!

Do you ever get nervous after spending so much time on a book releasing it into the wild as such?

I get nervous when I send it to my editors, because there’s always the sense of…. Well, “another author” tells this story of having sent an early draft of a book to her agent, and they just replied with “did you think that this was good when you sent it to me?” So you always get that fear because they’re the first person seeing it, but by the time it goes out onto shelves my editors have read it, we’ve gone through a round of edits, we’ve talked about these edits, the editorial assistant has read it, the copy editor has read it, and enough people have read it and I’ve read it so many times that I have confidence in it. And I’ve had the, well I don’t want to say approval cause it’s not like I need approval, but someone else has gone “this isn’t garbage”.

I think for me the most nerve wracking part would be the initial bit of saying “this is my idea for a story” and them being like “yeah this doesn’t sound very good”.

Yeah! So my editor is really good about it, like I emailed her a while back before Christmas saying I think I need to add a fourth point of view to this book is that OK? She was like “I don’t know whether it will be OK or not until I read what you’ve done because a fourth point of view could wind up being totally messy and unnecessary or end up adding to the story, so until I see what you’ve done I can’t tell you, so why don’t you write it and then I’ll see?”

So one last question and it’s completely unrelated… I recently saw your tweet about Infinity War. I’m going to see it tonight and so far I have avoided all spoilers!

I really want to see it but I might have to wait until next Saturday! I’m here until Saturday afternoon and then it’s a friend’s birthday Saturday night, Sunday I’ve got to do something flat wise and then next week no one can really see it after work, so I’m going to have to wait. I’m so annoyed about it!

Oh no! Do you have any predictions as to what might happen? Although I have read that it’s completely not related to fan theories which I’m relieved about but also not because I don’t know what’s going to happen!

I don’t know that Loki’s going to make it. If someone died I’d much rather Hawkeye died. I don’t really like Jeremy Renner. I really want Tessa Thompson to make it because I’m obsessed with Valkyrie but I’m basically worried about all the Asgardians because of that scene in the trailer with Thor being picked up by the Guardians and it just doesn’t look like it’s going so great for the ship that we saw at the end of Ragnarok. I’m really worried that one of the women from Wakanda’s going to die but I really, really hope not.

I don’t want to hope anyone dies but Hawkeye? I’m not really fussed. The Hulk I could probably get over. I do hope that little Teenage Groot makes it.

I think all the Guardians will make it because there’s another film, and Spiderman will obviously make it, and Black Panther will obviously make it cause there’s going to be sequels of those highly successful films. I’m usually quite good at predicting. I predicted… Have you read Six of Crows?

I’ve read Six of Crows but not Crooked Kingdom yet!

Ok I predicted who was going to die in Crooked Kingdom (insert groan and “oh no!” from me) so I’m usually pretty good at these kinds of things, but because there hasn’t been so much information… I feel like halfway through the movie I’ll know cause usually those clues are pretty well planted in. Ok. I think Captain Marvel is going to be our deus ex machina. Because what other reason is there for releasing that film between Infinity Wars 1 and 2? That is my thought. Like they’re all going to be down and out, and then like end credits Captain Marvel’s going to come out of ice, because that movie is set in the 90s as well. So like, where has she been? I think she’s going to be the saviour between the movies. That is my prediction. What are yours?

Well I’ve got a little Groot bag with me today that I’m taking for moral support. And so, I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be Captain America, I don’t want it to be him but I have heard something that I don’t want to say it in case it is a spoilery thing.

I worry that he might die as well, because I remember hearing that in the comics…

*cue nervousness and covered ears from others in the room*

I haven’t seen it so I don’t know, we’re just making predictions! I love Captain America and that’s what makes me worry, not because I know anything!

I think it’s so tough because I can’t get out of my brain the practical point of view, like whose contract might be up, who might be going to play James Bond, who might be really sick of doing stunts?

Yeah and not just because of the story in the film, but what’s going on in their real lives!

Exactly!

Well, I am excited! Mute words on Twitter until you can go and see it, that’s how I have survived the day.

I think I might just be off Twitter, because I am also on deadline so it could be an excuse to not be on anything. Instagram Stories is probably more likely to spoil me though.

Thank you so much, do you mind if I grab a quick picture?!

If you made it all the way down here, I commend you! I had so much fun chatting with Alwyn and for my first face to face interview like this, I’m so glad that it was an author I admire and whose books I enjoy. Thank you again to the team at Waterstones for making this happen, and to Alwyn for taking time out of her day to be there and for this awesome interview! Check out my spoiler free review of Rebel of the Sands here.

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