Interview with Chelsea Abdullah (THE STARDUST THIEF)
Chelsea Abdullah is an American-Kuwaiti writer born and raised in Kuwait, where she grew up listening to stories about mysterious desert creatures and wily (only sometimes likable) heroes.
Consumed by wanderlust, she has put down roots in various states. After earning her MA in English at Duquesne University, she moved to New York, where she currently lives. When not immersed in her own fictional worlds, she spends her free time playing video games, doodling characters, and hoarding books she doesn’t have the shelf space for.
Welcome to the Hive, Chelsea. Firstly congratulations on the release of your debut The Stardust Thief. How does it feel to have your book out there in the wild?
Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here!
It’s still a little surreal to know my book is out there, though I’ve had more time for the reality to sink in now. It’s been a dream come true to see it on bookshelves!
Can you dazzle our readers with a bit of an elevator pitch and describe your book in five words?
Panic! in a perilous desert.
That describes it perfectly!!
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
I’m a pantser who is also an overwriter, so my first drafts tend to be long and wordy. Some writers call pantsing “discovery writing,” and that phrase really resonates with me. When I write my early drafts, I feel like I’m experiencing the plot for the first time with my characters. I like to explore tangents that, while unnecessary to the narrative, help me learn more about the world.
Once I know how the story ends, I write a second draft with the goal of chopping the novel down to its heart and taking out the extraneous bits. The Stardust Thief was originally 297,000 words. It was published at around 144,000 words after various rounds of edits pre- and after my book deal. I cut words, POVs, characters, and many scenes.
Ooh Chelsea!! Will we ever get to see any of these extra scenes and POVs? Maybe a book of short stories? (Haha can you tell I’m excited?!)
I really hope so! A book of short stories would be such a fun project. (Loulie and Qadir have gone on so many adventures before this novel—it’d be fun to write them!)
There is one POV from the first book I’m considering releasing outside of a collection, perhaps in the lead up to Book 2, as that content is specific to the first book in the series. That POV belongs to a certain charismatic politician and totals to about 10,000 words or so—it’s a substantial amount of words and the perspective keys readers into important events from the first book in a different location. I really loved writing through that character’s eyes and would love to share more of his voice!
Well, yes please!
Other parts of my process I love to talk about:
– I’m definitely a music writer! I tend to listen to a lot of orchestral and video game music while drafting but, that being said, the majority of songs on my playlist for The Stardust Thief are 90’s Arabic tracks…so I guess it varies with the project!
– I sit on my ideas for years, which means every project is a very slow burn for me. I mused on the concept of The Stardust Thief for two years before I started it, and then it took me five years to see it through to completion. Because I’m a pantser and need a solid anchor into the world to begin, I don’t let myself start writing until I have a compelling opening scene for the main character.
Speaking of worlds, your world is heavily inspired by Arabic mythology and the stories from One Thousand and One Nights. Did you have any particular favourite stories from the collection? Were there any aspects of the mythology which sparked your inspiration the most?
It’s one of the more well-known tales in the collection, but I’ve always been so fascinated by Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I think it’s because it’s one of the stories I remember my dad telling me most when I was growing up. Back then, I remember being unimpressed with Ali Baba as a character. His actions just seemed foolish to me! But the female servant who outsmarted the thieves who were out to take his life? That character left a lingering impression on me. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder if some of her wiles inspired Aisha, one of the fierce thieves in The Stardust Thief…
As far as folklore: There’s a scene in the novel where one of the main characters is telling stories to an audience in a marketplace.
Ah that scene was one of my favourite parts!
That makes me so happy to hear—it was definitely one of my favorites to write!
It’s precious to me not just because it brings so many of the novel’s storytelling themes full circle, but also because the character is referencing folktales that are more specific to my upbringing in the Gulf. Bu Darya, Hemarat Al-Gayla…those terrifying creatures mentioned in night-time stories feel especially nostalgic to me. And because The Stardust Thief is a hugely sentimental project, those little pieces of oral storytelling very much influenced the tone of the novel.
Ok, time for a fun question! What kind of jinn would you be Chelsea? What powers would you want to have or which relic would you want to possess?
Ah, this is a tough one! If I had control over any element, I’d like to say it would be water. Or maybe wind? As a restless person, I rather like the idea of just being able to disperse into wind and travel the world in the blink of an eye…
That would be so handy, I’d especially love that! Where would you travel to first?
Hmm, Japan, probably! I’ve been wanting to visit for years but haven’t yet had the opportunity.
As for relics: If there was an object in my life that was important enough for me to want to possess, it’d probably be a book. Perhaps a traveling journal enchanted to transport you to the places you recorded in its pages..?
Again Chelsea, you come up with the best ideas!
Loulie, Qadir, Mazen, and Aisha are all wonderfully distinct characters. Who did you enjoy writing about the most? What inspired their personalities? And did you find any of them particularly tricky to write?
I enjoyed writing all of them for different reasons! I love writing Mazen for his soft edges and his unbridled enthusiasm for stories. Loulie is fun because she’s such a mystery; she’s full of layers, and she makes me work to figure out what’s beneath the surface. She and Qadir appeared in my head together, so their relationship lies at the heart of the story and is one of my favorite things to write. Aisha is delightful because she’s so decisive; she basically writes herself, and I’m just there to steer her away from the plot holes.
As for inspirations for the POV characters: Loulie began with a title and a strong visual image. The first time I saw her in my mind, she was a nameless merchant on a ship, dressed in starry robes and vanishing a coin between her fingers. The Midnight Merchant is the first thing that popped into my head when I saw her. I worked backwards from there to figure out who she was—and what her story would be. Loulie has always been the hardest character for me to write. She’s a storm cloud of emotions, and it’s often difficult for me (and her) to untangle those feelings. Her thoughts become clearer and clearer to me with every draft, but it takes me a while to figure out what’s going on in her head!
Mazen stemmed from an idea: What if I wrote a hero that was allowed to stay soft-hearted? I love a good, jaded hero, but I always find myself searching for softer protagonists in fantasy. Protagonists who, maybe, mess up a bit more than usual because they haven’t been trained in the way heroes in fantasies usually are. The core of Mazen’s character began with that concept, but he’s grown far and beyond it since the first draft.
I really love the way Mazen develops throughout.
Thank you! I really loved fleshing out his arc and watching him grow into his strengths. “Empathy is not weakness”—that’s a central part of Mazen’s mindset, and something I’m proud to see him hold on to, even as he undergoes so many hardships.
Aisha is the only POV character I didn’t conceptualize pre-first draft. She simply appeared on the page and I was curious enough about her to keep writing her into the narrative until she cemented herself as a central character. At this point, I’m shocked she was ever “minor” in any capacity!
Your book heavily celebrates the art of storytelling, so tell us who are your most significant female fantasy influences? Which authors did you grow up reading and are there any creators whom you dream of working with someday?
Growing up, some books that left an impression were Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart and Lois Lowry’s The Giver. The former, unsurprisingly, I loved for its fiction-within-a-fiction narrative. The latter, I enjoyed for its thoughtful musings on human nature and skewed narratives.
I’ve always been interested in stories and the ways we’ve told them, so authors that address those themes in their work are a huge inspiration to me. There are so many incredible women writing in the SFF sphere right now, many of whom I’ve been lucky to befriend. But if I’m thinking specifically of authors whom I admire for their innovative storytelling structures, I really enjoy the works of Erin Morgenstern, Alix E. Harrow, Tamsyn Muir, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
As far as working with other creators: I’ve always wanted to be a part of an SFF anthology! I would be thrilled to work on a project with any of the women writing in SFF right now, so long as they didn’t mind my chaotic writing process!
It would be great to make this happen! I think an anthology of Middle-Eastern and Asian inspired stories by female SFF authors would be fabulous.
I would truly love that! I don’t think I’ve ever seen an anthology for SWANA writers on the shelves, but I would really love to be a part of one if ever it was in the works.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
I think it depends on how stuck I am and how tight my deadline is. If I have the time, I usually like to step away from the manuscript and garner inspiration through some other kind of creative media. For me, that’s usually video games. When I’m unmotivated, I’ll usually let myself write a future scene I’m excited about, even if I’m not entirely certain of the context.
If I feel like a chapter’s simply not working, I’ll try writing it through a different character’s eyes. Sometimes, it’s through the POV of a side character. But it will turn out that watching things unfold through their eyes gives me the perspective I need to write it through a main character’s POV. In general, I do a lot of head hopping when I’m uninspired. If I’m having trouble grasping one character’s voice that day, I’ll slide into another’s perspective just to stay productive!
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! The Stardust Thief has such beautiful artwork, the details on the astrolabe are stunning! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
One thing I really wanted to see on this cover were my characters, and I really appreciate the way the Orbit art team incorporated that visual of them into the astrolabe itself!
As far as my involvement: I provided some ideas for objects and symbols that were important to the story, but after that initial brainstorm, the art department sort of ran with the idea of the character carvings in the astrolabe and came up with a composition they thought would suit the book. The first time I saw the astrolabe, I gasped—I was so stunned by the details!
Can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel? Pretty please!
Everything is still very much in flux, but some things I believe are here to stay:
– Birds. Many of them. One even sings a familiar song…
– Inspirations from different 1001 Nights tales, including the Sinbad stories
– Sort-of-maritime travel
– Flying carpets
– More complex magic
– A palace filled with traps
– Side characters from Book 1 getting more of a spotlight
– New characters, many of them jinn
This is all music to my ears Chelsea, I really can’t wait.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
Ugh, I wish I could say I’d ride a rukh into battle, but I’m awful with heights and would probably faint off the bird. Perhaps the shadhavar? It’s a mythical creature with branch-like horns that play a mournful and/or beautiful sound depending on the way the branches catch the wind…
Truth be told, I’d much rather move my enemies to tears than face them with a weapon!
Oh wow, I’ve not heard of a shadhavar before, but I love the sound of it! I now need to find a book which features one.
I wish I had recommendations! But if a book doesn’t exist out there yet, I have hopes we’ll see one soon…
Okay Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
Mostly, I hope readers enjoy the journey for as long as it lasts! This world was a sanctuary for me when I was writing, and I hope it feels that way to some readers as well—like a world you can escape into and lose yourself in sometimes.
I also hope it inspires some musings on storytelling. We’re surrounded by stories on a daily basis; they shape who we are and how we exist and relate to other people in the world. We don’t often think about that, I think, especially when it comes to oral stories (which we tell all the time!), so I hope The Stardust Thief brings to light some of the ways stories shape our lives, histories, and traditions.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thank you so much for having me!