Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Interview with Alina Boyden, author of Stealing Thunder

Please welcome Alina Boyden to The Qwillery as part of the 2020 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Stealing Thunder is published on May 12, 2020 by Ace.

Please join all of us at The Qwillery in wishing Alina a Happy Publication Day!

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?

Alina:  Wow, we're really going back to the beginning, huh? The first piece of fiction I actually remember sitting down at a computer and writing was a story in French when I was in third or fourth grade, having just spent the summer studying it. It has not survived the intervening centuries, and so I can't go back and look at how bad my French was at that age. The first piece I wrote of real fiction was when I was 18, I think, back in like maybe 2002, and it was a 300,000 word post-apocalyptic epic about the trials and tribulations of a small medieval city-state in the Santa Ynez Valley of California. I still have it, but can't wholeheartedly recommend it. Some authors can make 300,000 words seem to fly by, but 18-year-old me was not one of those people.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Alina:  I am 1000% pantser. I never outline. I do a lot of research and world-building ahead of time, and I generally know in my head more or less what the starting drama is, and more or less what the resolution is, and then I just let the characters work it out. Sometimes I honestly don't even know what the ending is when I start. In fact, when I started writing Stealing Thunder I didn't have the slightest clue what the plot was going to be. I just knew who Razia was and where she was, and what her situation was, and she took care of the rest.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Alina:  Editing. By far editing. I tend to be one of those people who writes one draft of a thing, and that's the finished product, more or less. That was the case with Stealing Thunder. However, while that's a very entertaining way to live your life, I don't think it's consistent enough for the fiction market, given how competitive it is. So, the sequel, for example, went through about a dozen "drafts." Though none of those drafts was a full draft. I tend to write myself into corners and then erase the path back to where it branched, and start over. So for the sequel to Stealing Thunder, which is around 124,000 words, I wrote something like 400 or 450,000 words. So, maybe instead of a plotter or a pantser I'm a pruner?

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Alina:  History is probably my biggest influence. I'm a history nut, and will happily spend hours and hours researching the history of just the most random things. I don't have a particular place or time that I'm more in love with than any other. They're all equally brilliant and fascinating. I think what I love about it is that you get to see people who are just like us living in a world vastly different from our own, and I think that dovetails brilliantly with fantasy and science fiction.

TQWhat is a cultural anthropologist and how does being one affect your writing?

Alina:  I'm a trained cultural anthropologist, but I don't really identify as one. I'm also a trained archaeologist, and a trained historian from an academic standpoint. We all have many facets to our identities, but if I'm anything professionally at this point, it's a writer. That being said, I think that cultural anthropology is a discipline that has at its founding core a very hopeful message for humanity, and one that is particularly valuable for fiction, as I've often heard fiction described as an exercise in empathy. Cultural anthropology was founded on the idea of empathy, and the idea that if you take the time to listen to other people and to live with other people, you can come to understand something about them. It was predicated, at least in the Boasian tradition, on the idea that no culture is superior to any other, that no people is hierarchically above any other, and that all cultural beliefs and practices are of equal value. Like many ideals, cultural anthropology's have rarely been achieved in actual practice, but I think it's a good message to take home nonetheless.

TQDescribe Stealing Thunder using only 5 words.

Alina:  Trans "Pretty Woman" with dragons.

TQTell us something about Stealing Thunder that is not found in the book description.

Alina:  Page 1 has three trans women having a conversation not about cis people. I don't know if there's some equivalent of the Bechdel test for trans women, but if it exists, Stealing Thunder might be the only fantasy novel in the history of the world that passes it. And it does so on page 1.

TQWhat inspired you to write Stealing Thunder? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy?

Alina:  I was inspired to write Stealing Thunder largely as a result of my experiences with South Asian trans women and their communities. They are some of the oldest communities in the world of trans people who are out and acknowledged by society. That blew my mind when I first encountered it, and it really changed my approach to writing trans girls in fiction in general, but fantasy in particular, because I was so tired of seeing LGBT representation where we're all unicorns who live alone and never encounter anyone like us. (And, like medieval unicorns we also usually die just before consummating our love).

Fantasy is my favorite genre because I get to write historical fiction, but I don't have to be slavish to the history, and if I want to have something different happen, or to have a weird pterano-bird-dragon that you can ride on, I can have that.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for Stealing Thunder?

Alina:  Stealing Thunder didn't require much in the way of special research, because it was stuff I was already doing. At the time I wrote it, I was studying Urdu, reading the history of South Asia, having loads of conversations with South Asian trans women, and so it was something that I was very much already stewing in at the time. For the sequel, without giving anything away, I did delve very especially into certain regional histories and ethnographies, but for Stealing Thunder it sort of naturally followed what I was already doing.

TQPlease tell us about the cover for Stealing Thunder.

Alina:  If you zoom in really close on the full-size digital image, the details on the columns on either side of Razia are amazing. Greg Ruth did a really wonderful job, and I am so happy that my first book has such cool cover art. Lots of authors aren't so lucky.

TQIn Stealing Thunder who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Alina:  The easiest characters for me are always the jerks, I think. I don't know what that says about me, but I find them to be really fun. I don't mean villains necessarily, but antagonists. So Sikander, Razia's father, Arjun's father, they're all really easy for me. Even Karim to an extent. But the hardest were Razia's sisters, Sakshi and Lakshmi. Lakshmi because she's a kid, and I was never a normal kid, so writing a normal kid is really hard for me. And Sakshi because she's the supportive one, the kind one, but I can't make her too one note, or she's just not a character. People like drama, they like tension, and so when you write characters who are adversarial, I think people tend to see them more vividly. So a supportive cast is tough to write without making them dull.

TQDoes Stealing Thunder touch on any social issues?

Alina:  I don't think Stealing Thunder so much touches on social issues as it does just take a flamethrower (or maybe a fire-breathing zahhak) to them. I think it's easy, if you live in a liberal bubble in the US, to forget that in most of the country trans people's rights are being eroded every day - especially trans childrens'. Just in the last three weeks we've seen bills preventing trans girls from playing sports and preventing all trans people from changing their birth certificates made law in Idaho, just to cite one example. At this very moment, the Supreme Court is waiting to rule on whether or not I can be fired from my job just for being transgender. If the case goes against us, Title VII will no longer apply to trans people anywhere in the US. So, while the climate is not nearly as bad as it was when I transitioned eighteen years ago, it is far from good, and to have a book put out by the biggest publisher in the world with a trans girl heroine is really making a statement.

TQWhich question about Stealing Thunder do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Alina:  What does it mean to you to have an unapologetically positive story with a trans woman main character?

It means everything to me, and I hope it will come to mean something to those members of our community who read fantasy novels. Stealing Thunder counters so many negative messages for trans women in our country - that we're not pretty, that we're not desirable, that we're not worthy of love, that we're not heroic, that we're not noble, that we're sinful, that we're weak, that we're mentally incompetent, insane, deranged, perverse. I've been called every single one of those things in my life, and so has every other trans woman I've ever met. We've seen it in literature, on TV, in film, and acted out on the nightly news. I somewhat jokingly summarize Stealing Thunder as trans girl Pretty Woman in the Mughal Empire with dragons, but we didn't actually get Pretty Woman. We got the Crying Game, where we're portrayed by a cis man, and when our romantic interest finds out we're trans, he vomits and punches us in the face. And as horrible as that sounds, that was the most positive representation I saw of a trans woman in film in my youth. Normally we're creepy serial killers or confusing corpses for criminal investigators to figure out - if we're included at all. So, to finally get a chance to see a positive portrayal of a trans woman in my favorite literary genre is really a special experience, and I hope it's inspiring for other trans women who pick it up and read it.

TQGive us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Stealing Thunder.


"How do you explain your soul to another person? How do you give them a glimpse of it?"

"As difficult as life could be here, at least my life was my own, and at least I was me."

TQWhat's next?

Alina:  Next for me is editing Stealing Thunder's sequel, which is slated to release in May 2021. I have a couple of other fun projects brewing that I can't really talk too much about yet, but mostly I'm just looking forward to seeing Stealing Thunder finally out in the world!

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Alina:  Thank you so much for hosting me!

Stealing Thunder
Ace, May 12, 2020
Trade Paperback and eBook, 368 pages

Protecting her identity means life or death in this immersive epic fantasy inspired by the Mughal Empire.  

In a different life, under a different name, Razia Khan was raised to be the Crown Prince of Nizam, the most powerful kingdom in Daryastan. Born with the soul of a woman, she ran away at a young age to escape her father’s hatred and live life true to herself.

Amongst the hijras of Bikampur, Razia finds sisterhood and discovers a new purpose in life. By day she’s one of her dera’s finest dancers, and by night its most profitable thief. But when her latest target leads her to cross paths with Arjun Agnivansha, Prince of Bikampur, it is she who has something stolen.

An immediate connection with the prince changes Razia’s life forever, and she finds herself embroiled in a dangerous political war. The stakes are greater than any heist she’s ever performed. When the battle brings her face to face with her father, Razia has the chance to reclaim everything she lost…and save her prince.

About Alina

Alina Boyden is a cultural anthropologist focused on organized communities of transgender women in Pakistan, known as khwaja siras, or more popularly as hijras, focusing on how they use their unique community organization to advance the fight for their rights at home and abroad–something which has inspired her, as a transgender woman, in her own battles for civil rights in the U.S. as she fought for transgender care in a major court case with the ACLU.

Website  ~  Twitter @AlinaBoyden


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