Tahereh Mafi wrote her debut novel in less than three months, has completed the second and has Hollywood knocking on her door. Maryam Ismail meets the young author who has taken the publishing world by storm with her saga of a uniquely tactile teenager.
Tahereh Mafi heard a voice in her head and started to write. The musings of this voice turned into a novel and that soon turned into a trilogy. Now she's an example of a literary success.
I first found out about Mafi on the blog of the author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford, when I was learning the ropes of writing and publishing. I had no idea that this quirky young woman from California would blow up as one of the hottest young-adult writers of 2011. It seems that as soon as I found her she came out with a whisper of a novel (advance reader copies), then two book trailers. Now she's hitting the stratosphere. I can only dream of being so lucky. But it seems luck had little to do with it. Hard work, perseverance, good writing and a fascinating story put Mafi on the swagger list.
"When I'm drafting, I write from 4am to 2am," says Mafi, 24. "I need this much time to find my words. Sometimes, I send my family away for a week until I'm done."
This intensity helped Mafi finish that debut young-adult novel, Shatter Me, in two and a half months. And if you can write like that, you don't want to wait around to see if it's a success. So she queried publishers.
The literati may be pitting self-publishing against traditional publishing, but Mafi hit a home run for the old school. "There is so much more in terms of promotion that a publisher can do for you," she says. (For Shatter Me, HarperCollins created a website, released those advance reader copies and filmed two book trailers, one of which premiered on MTV's Hollywood Crush.) "Also, it's so easy to get lost in the e-book world unless you're really willing to work very hard to get your book out there."
Which is why Mafi doesn't waste time when it comes to using social media; she tweets only with one goal in mind, to make contact with her readers. In this respect, she borders on Machiavellian in her calculated effort to go from someone who plays around with words to one who creates worlds. In fact, she says she had no intention of writing a novel.
"I started writing after graduating from university [Soka University of America, in Orange County, California] because I didn't have much to do," she says. Now, with her second novel, Unravel Me completed and set for publication in February 2013, she is working on the last instalment of her trilogy, and awaiting progress on a film of Shatter Me, on which 20th Century Fox has an option.
Mafi's blog, Grab a Pen, which she started before she got her book deal, features writer-friendly advice as well as angst, doubts and straight-backed marching towards an uncertain future. She is traversing the same bumpy, treacherous valleys and sun-kissed hills as do so many writers. Now that her book is out, the daughter of Iranian immigrants is focusing on her website and again on her Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr accounts, where she connects with her fans, who seem to love Shatter Me's three main characters, Juliette, Warner and Adam.
Shatter Me is set in an authoritarian society filled with human misery, war and environmental damage. To break up the gloomy background, Mafi adds a twist of teen love in this chaotic world controlled by the shadowy Reestablishment, and the relationship between Juliette and Adam is a steamy one. Mafi says that Shatter Me is being marketed in Germany for adults, not teens, because of the darkness of the novel, but it might be because of the love scenes.
"The teen years are when we discover these feelings," Mafi says in defending her romantic explicitness. "Juliette needs love. She's been abandoned by everyone." As it turns out, Adam's care and affection help Juliette to shatter doubts about her self-worth and the claims that she's a monster, a teenager with a lethal touch who is highly sought after to be used as a weapon of war.
Yet it is up to Juliette to decide what to do with her power, and this concept underscores the many ways in which women are used as an ends to a means, from war to marketing.
"I wanted to show how we can change a negative into a positive," Mafi says. "A hammer can be used to destroy a house or build one." The author knows this herself, noting: "I wasn't the most popular in high school, but I've overcome that."
I ask if her family was surprised by her success. She laughs and says: "No. When they found out, they said: 'Of course, we knew she could do it.'"