For more than two years now, bookstores, authors, and readers have made do with virtual events, finding silver linings in challenging times: virtual events are more accessible, for example, and they’re often more convenient. And yet, since the pandemic began, book lovers have held out hope for the return of in-person events. For YA author Sabaa Tahir, whose new novel, All My Rage (Razorbill), released in March, the moment finally arrived: an in-person tour.
Tahir’s bestselling fantasy quartet, which debuted in 2015 with Ember in the Ashes, was a breakout success, with each book landing on numerous lists, including Time’s 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time and Entertainment Weekly’s 10 Best YA Books of the Decade list. Throughout the pandemic, the enthusiasm of her fans has not waned and anticipation was high for her next book.
A marked departure from that series, All My Rage is a contemporary realistic novel that draws inspiration from Tahir’s childhood experience in her family’s 18-room motel in the Mojave Desert in California. Crossing continents and spanning generations, the book explores cultural identity, family, forgiveness, love, and loss. “Many authors talk about ‘the book of my heart,’ ” Tahir said. “I tore this book from my heart, over the course of many years and in many iterations. It’s a story that demanded to be told, a love letter to the desert and rock music and tiny motels and the kinds of friendships that save your life.” The book has received seven starred reviews (including one from PW) and debuted on both the New York Times and the ABA’s IndieBound bestsellers lists.
Tahir had last toured in the summer of 2018 with the release of A Reaper at the Gates. For the six-stop tour that kicked off in March, she visited independent bookstores across the U.S., including Anderson’s in Chicago, Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., the Novel Neighbor in St. Louis, and Third Place Books in Seattle. She appeared in conversation with Karen McManus at Boston’s Brookline Booksmith and with Nicola Yoon at Cellar Door in Los Angeles. For each stop, bookstore protocols ensured that both author and readers re-entered the event world feeling it was safe to do so. We asked Tahir how it felt to be back on the road again.
What was it like to reconnect with readers after all this time?
It was a mental game-changer. It just brought me so much joy. In the two years of the pandemic, I, of course, heard from readers via social media—and was very thankful for it! But in-person energy felt very different, very positive and very buoying. I am an introvert, certainly, but I missed my readers and their comments, questions, and excitement.
In Chicago, I let the audience know that the first person who asked a question about a certain secret topic would get a box of goodies from me. I waited and waited for someone to ask about my cat/Friday Floofs (a little series I do every Friday on Instagram). A young reader finally did! She was so happy to get the box! Later, her mom wrote a very sweet note to me about what it meant to her. It was such a fantastic reminder about why in-person events are so special.
Does book tour life feel different now than it did pre-pandemic?
I expected it to feel very different, but it really just felt like returning home. Booksellers were lovely and thoughtful. Readers were excited. Seeing and being in conversation with fellow authors felt beautifully familiar and comforting. There were some changes. For example, I pre-signed books for the tour, and didn’t do signing lines for Covid safety reasons. That removes a personal element of a book tour that I think readers and authors enjoy. But in a way, I also think it was an important middle step. After zero face-to-face interaction, so much might have been overwhelming!
What does your readers’ response mean to you?
My readers have always been kind and engaged and respectful at events. I saw that again on this tour—but with the added energy of “Finally! In-person events!” The fact that readers were willing to come out, to mask up, to show vax cards, and social distance meant so much to me. There’s a lot of love there, and I feel lucky to have the readers that I do.
You were also in conversation with other writers during the tour. What was it like to do that in person again?
Wonderful! One of the greatest things about writing is the community of authors. I got to see so many friends who I last saw in 2019 or 2018. We got to trade ideas and catch up and it really felt like a refilling of the creative well.
You visited a lot of independent bookstores. What does the support of independent booksellers mean for authors?
Indie bookstores are one of the biggest reasons I have the readership I have today. These booksellers know their communities, they know the readers who come in, they know how to match books to readers. I cannot tell you how many of my readers, when I ask them where they heard about Ember or All My Rage, have said, “My local indie!” This tour was extra special because Cellar Door Bookstore, with whom I’ve been hoping to have an event for years, hosted an event for me. Linda, the store owner, is a friend and it was just wonderful to be able to finally work together!
You worked on All My Rage for quite some time. What was the process like and what does this book mean to you?
All My Rage started as a book about the motel where I grew up. But over time, I began to work on the draft every time I was angry—at the world, myself, fate. I didn’t know that the book was a book, really. It was just a repository for my frustration for a long time. A conversation with myself.
Finally, in 2017, it began to take a more book-like shape. The story, the characters, became more clear. But at that point, I had to take years and hundreds of pages of writing and figure out what would work for the story and what wouldn’t. It took a great deal of patience and self-reflection. It also took self-love. I realized that I had been trying to tell a story for a very long time, but hadn’t been patient enough with myself to do so. So I slowed down. I told myself that it was OK if no one read this book. Because I wasn’t writing it for them, I was writing it for me. That’s when the words came. That’s when the story finally made sense.
All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir. Razorbill, $19.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-593-20234-0