Rebel of the Sands is one of the most widely anticipated books of 2016. Sold immediately at auction across the world, this breath-taking novel is the first in a trilogy packed with shooting contests, train robberies, festivals under the stars, powerful Djinni magic and an electrifying love story.
The author, Alwyn Hamilton, has an interesting tale to tell. Born in Toronto, she spent her childhood bouncing between Europe and Canada until her parents settled in France. She grew up in a small town there, which might have compelled her to burst randomly into the opening song from Beauty and the Beast were it not for her total tone-deafness. She instead attempted to read and write her way to new places and developed a weakness for fantasy and cross-dressing heroines. She left France for Cambridge University to study History of Art at King’s College, and then to London where she became indentured to an auction house. In this interview she talks to journalist and author, Graham Marks.
Rebel of the Sands is a saga, an epic journey, can you tell us how you came to write it? I had the vague notion, a while back, that I wanted to write a Western about a girl with a gun and then I realized I didn’t actually want to write a Western because the history would be too in terms of what could happen and what couldn’t happen. I was working in the Islamic Department at Christie’s at the time, so it’s surprising that it didn’t occur to me earlier, but at one midnight I thought, ‘What if I did the Wild West meets The Arabian Nights?’ Then, like most ideas that arrive at midnight, I immediately thought ‘No, that’s probably idiotic’. So, I spent the next hour awake, talking myself into it and thinking of the elements I could combine: they both have desert settings; they are both romanticised by modern society. I began to see where they overlapped and I was enjoying the idea.
Once I had talked myself into it, I realised that I didn't have very much apart from the setting. I had the first step but I needed to to answer the question, ‘What happens next? And so it went on.
This is all the while working on the day job?
Yes, I was working full time, so I could only write on weekends, and nights - and in between, when the mood struck.
And this was at Christie’s Islamic section? How did you come to work there?
I studied history at Cambridge and after graduation in 2011 I ended up getting a job at Christie’s in the Bid’s Office. There was a three month probation period and I imagined that I would do it for three months and then find something else. At that point, I didn't have much direction. However, I ended up staying at Christie’s for five and a half years. I moved on from Bid’s Office to Client Services, from Client Services to Administrators/UK. My last role there was Senior Administrator for Interiors, having been inducted into the company and becoming a ‘Christaphide’, as they like to call it…
…is that p-h-i-d-e at the end?
I’m not sure. Christie's invests a lot in its employees and that creates loyalty. There are people who are there for a year, or people who are there for twenty-five years, and there isn’t much in between.
Did you research for the book?
A little bit but I didn’t want to be too bound by the real world. I wanted to be inspired by it. Rebel of the Sands is a mix of two fictionalized ideas that were never totally grounded in reality. For instance, The Arabian Nights was westernized when it was translated, so it’s not set in a specific country. I think it would be a mistake to say: ‘Oh, well, it’s all Arabian Peninsula, or Iran or Persia’ because those borders change all the time.
Did you travel to North Africa to do any research? I’ve been to Cairo a couple of times and I felt very at home in your descriptions.
I’ve visited in the past, but I didn’t go to research the book. I kept trying to get sent to Qatar for work, but that never quite panned out [laughs], and I gather it’s quite different anyway. I went to Morocco when I was about fourteen and stayed in the desert, so I have memories. I have always been a big fascinated by extreme climates and I am much more likely to be interested in reading something that happens in a desert or in the middle of an ice floe, than if it’s set in a very pleasant field.
At the opening paragraph of the book I was thinking, ‘Okay, cowboys…’, then at the bottom of page one, it was ‘What's a sheema?’, and by the end of page two, I was thinking, ‘Djinni?’. It’s a fairly intense introduction to this world of yours. Was that your intention, to throw the reader in at the deep end?
I guess so. When I wrote that first chapter, I had the world in my head and that’s what I was building. That first chapter remained very close to how I originally wrote it.
Before my protagonist had a name she was just the 'blue-eyed bandit'. Then, when I introduced the Middle Eastern elements, I thought she can’t be blue-eyed if she's not European - well she could, but it's more problematic So that idea became a major plot point. I ended spiralling off from there.
You have currency, you have politics, you’ve industry, sociology, mythology, history – and, to a certain extent, language – all plotted out, planned out; is there anything that you intentionally left out before you started writing?
No. I think a lot of it was figured out while I was writing, rather than before. I discovered that I work it through in my head before I set it in down on the page.
It’s really easy to do that because you’re thinking, ‘Oh, there’ll be a scene when she goes and gets some more money…’ and then write that and you have to name the money. Then she puts on an article of clothing and you have to work out what it's called.That's quite different to writing something set in a modern society because all you would have to say is, ‘I put on my jeans and my T-shirt’.
Is a 'sheema' an actual thing?
Basically, it’s a amalgamation of a couple of things. It's similar to the clothing worn by Lawrence of Arabia as protection from the desert. All of the actual words that exist for that type of clothing are either linked to religion, or culture or something political. I didn’t want to use anything that was strongly connected to the real world. The word ‘sheema’ is a twist of a real word so that it has some resonances without being factual.
Do you have 'a book of your book', a collection of your research and notes about what happens in your world, that you refer to, like encyclopedia of The Rebel of the Sands?
I take notes as I go along but I don't refer to it at the point of composing. Sometimes when I’m drafting I’ll forget what I named a secondary character, or a complicated word for a festival, but instead of stopping when I’m in the flow of writing, I just put, ‘Festival name here’ and I’ll go back and fix it later. Afterwards I check everything to make sure that I have written the correct names for characters and what people are doing and that there’s a reason for every object to be there.
Is this a story you could only tell in a fantasy setting?
Yes, I think so. In a realistic setting you could write about a lot of the same themes: it could still be the story of a girl desperate to get out of a home town and finding strength to do it, but it would probably be more subtle. The focus would be finding inner strength finding a place in the world, rather than magical.
Writing fantasy means you can write on a much bigger scale. If you limit your story to history, well everyone knows what happens. You know whether the French Revolution is going to succeed or fail, or the Russian Revolution’s going to succeed or fail. Whereas, if you place your story in a fantasy setting you don’t know whether that king is going to die, or whether your character is going to be involved with a doomed or successful rebellion.
What did you work on after writing that first chapter - the plot, the characters or the setting?
Probably setting…I took a gamble because the first idea was to write a story with a girl with a gun and that was a Western. Then the setting idea developed to make it a non-Western. Then Amani developed and became more than the girl with a gun. I think the characters drove the plot. The plot definitely came last.
I didn’t have a very clear idea of Amani until I wrote the first line, ‘I was up to no good, but I was up to no bad neither’, and then I knew exactly who she was. She was someone who was getting into trouble, not always deliberately, but not really making any great effort to avoid it. Any time I was stuck with the plot, my thought was, ‘Okay, what’s the most reckless, impulsive thing that comes to mind – this, she’ll do this!’.
For me there were hints of Lawrence of Arabia, but I also got a hefty kick of Indiana Jones, and that led me to thinking that Amani was very like Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood character.
Interesting…I love Indiana Jones, but I hadn’t thought of the Marion Ravenwood connection.
And Amani also seemed to have a lot of that…what’s the word?
Yes, exactly! that’s the word, - the moxie of Marion Ravenwood.
I like characters who drive their own stories and have a little of the moxie…I like female characters who have their own incentive and Marion Ravenwood clearly shouldn’t have been replaced by evil Nazis in the third movie.
When it comes to language, you have a Western cowboy/Middle Eastern mash-up. You have names like Deadshot and Juniper City alongside a cast list of Arabic names. Was there a reason for running the two side by side like that?
There was. Basically anywhere that’s a newer city, not one of their old cities has a name in modern language. The real world equivalent would be places in North America that have literal names - like the town in Canada called Moose Factory. But there are also places that have old names, like Toronto and Ottawa that are derived from older roots. Any of the cities that have names which are not a couple of English words combined are older cities. That was the concept.
So, as I was reading I was thinking: Albish equals English, Sves were Scandinavians and Xicha was either China or Japan…the Ionian Peninsula, Greece, Gallen, France and Jarpoor was India. How am I doing here?
That’s right, yeah.
I’m glad the jigsaw picture I was building up was correct…
So, changing tack, is magic in the book like religion for your characters?
Yes, I think the magic and religion are really closely linked in origin
The creation or origin myth is the foundation of any religion. One of the things I wanted to approach is how different cultures and religions dealt with magic. For some, the first beings are the first creatures of God but others think they’re demons.
The first beings seemed to operate a bit like earth spirits or old gods, and then you’ve got the first mortal, who I imagine is Adam?
I’d love to get to write out a full mythology of the first hero at some point, but he's based on the Indian myth of a reincarnated the prince, the epic heroes, rather than the Christian tradition.
I thought that the Destroyer of Worlds sounded like a Krakatoa-style volcano.
The Destroyer of Worlds, in my mind, is a woman, or at least the society projects that it’s a woman. I envision her as a shadowy, dark figure who is never seen but operates her puppets, in the form of demons, on the earth.
Why does iron takes the place of rarer, more precious metals in your mythology?
Iron has a place in western mythology. The origin of hanging iron horse shoes above doors is to counteract the devil, keep out evil spirits or to bring good luck. It’s a pagan belief, like using cold iron against fairies. There are also Christian connotations, with the iron nails from the cross…
Your world is quite a violent one. I wondered, if this was a contemporary setting, do you think you could have written it this way? In other words, are you ‘getting away’ with more because it’s a fantasy world?
Well, you can get away with more things in historical settings too, not only fantasy. You include more killing any time from the Victorian era back, because life was less perceived to be less valuable. Hopefully, none of the violence could be seen as gratuitous.
It does speak of the society you’re talking about, so in that respect it isn’t gratuitous.
Did you have a specific reader in mind when you were writing this, or was it just for you?
I think you write what you want read. I don’t think it’s a mistake to write for yourself, but you also need to have some regard for your audience in the sense of whether it’s entertaining. I wasn't thinking of any specific reader though, because if you do, you end up writing a passive crowd-pleaser.
Are you holding up a dark mirror to our world today in your book?
I think you can’t completely escape what’s going on in the contemporary world, because the same things happen over and over again. If you want it to be a relatable story it has to have the universal themes in it. I realized that I was probably coming closest to making a commentary on modern day when a fervently religious character was destroying everything in his path, with not much regard for life. However, the intention has never been to make a point about modern jihadists; those are incredibly complex issues that are impossible to tackle in the scope a fantasy novel that doesn’t have thousands of years of history behind it, and a larger modern context. I think it probably touches on some of those things, but more in terms of the Battlestar Gallactica ‘This has all happened before and it will all happen again’.
I think, in that respect, it is whatever the reader bring to it.
Absolutely, you can read it as a straight fantasy or you can see reflections of modern society. In the same way people can read a character as very distant to themselves or as very identifiable.
Is Rebel of the Sands Part One of a larger story , because it was a complete story, with a proper ending that didn’t leave me thinking 'how long am I going to have to wait to find out what happens next?’, which can be frustrating...
It’s trilogy, so I’m working on the second book at the moment. However, I did want the first one to wrap up the story. I’m a firm believer that everything should be structured, the same way that Star Wars is structured: the first episode is a complete story, the second one leaves you hanging and the third is one is a conclusion to the three, but each film has its own story arc.
When I was writing, I reached about a third of the way to the end and realized that I already had 60,000 words. I know that a book shouldn’t be 200,000 words long., so I did some rejigging and worked the story into a self-contained arc that cut off at about a third of how far I’d envisioned it could extend. So I knew what would happen afterwards, but I was satisfied the story would feel complete for the reader.
It’s a very different experience writing the second book of a series…there are different challenges, you’re introducing new characters, rather than writing about the main characters…
Do you have all three books plotted out?
I have the pillars, so all the big moments. But thinking that the characters are going to get from point A to point B isn't enough. I have to work out how they are going to get from point A to point B. That's a whole new challenge. I think the big pillars will stay the same, but all the little bits in between could change.
Do you still have a 'day job'?
I left Christie’s two weeks ago. Writing full time will be different. I was a little bit worried about it at first, because obviously you need to have the self-discipline to get up and get dressed and because I also enjoy talking to people and not just myself and my own characters. I’ve always found that when, for instance, I took a three-day long weekend to write, by the end of the Monday I would be thinking, ‘Oh I need to look at spreadsheet and talk to another human being!’ because I’d spent too long thinking about how a dragon works. I think full-time writing will be about finding the rhythm.
Are you going to miss this world when you finally put the last full-stop at the end of the book three?
I will because I have enjoyed writing the characters so much. I have other ideas that I’m toying with and it’s nice to have those on the side and to occasionally cheat on your book with them. I’m in a committed relationship with Rebel until it is finished, but I sometimes sneak off and write a paragraph of the other idea.
The world of Rebel is big enough to be able to come back later and write something set in another of the countries. I have another idea with the Albish/English Queen that could turn into a story. There are also lots of possibilities on the periphery of the world, which can't be explored in the trilogy as it currently stands...
Thank you Alwyn for taking the time to talk to Just Imagine.