Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Maiya Ibrahim, Author of Spice Road – On Crafting Tea Magic, Her DVPit Journey, and Sharing Cultural Mythology in Storytelling

Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Maiya Ibrahim, Author of Spice Road – On Crafting Tea Magic, Her DVPit Journey, and Sharing Cultural Mythology in Storytelling

Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.

Our Friend is Here: Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of May, where Asian and Pasifika authors are invited to celebrate being Asian and Pasifika work and literature! Find the introduction post for Asian and Pasifika Heritage Month here.

At the Pond, we love rich worldbuilding with fascinating magic systems inspired by culture and mythology. So when I heard about a new young-adult trilogy titled Spice Road set in an Arabian-inspired land with a teen who must protect her people’s tea magic – yes! tea magic! – I was immediately enthralled, and I wanted to learn more.

Friends, I am absolutely delighted to have Maiya Ibrahim, the author of Spice Road, visiting us at the Pond today as a red fox wearing headphones! I was so excited to learn more and pick Maiya’s brilliant brain about her forthcoming debut trilogy, and I think all of you will be just as excited as me once you have read her thoughtful answers. Though Spice Road won’t reach out shelves until 2022, I am certain that this YA fantasy trilogy is going to be worth the wait.

And just in case you missed the announcement, have a peep below – and maybe follow Maiya on Twitter, so we don’t miss any news on her debut!

Spice Road by Maiya Ibrahim

Text in tweet:

From the Publisher’s Weekly Rights Report: 
Kelsey Horton at Delacorte has acquired, at auction, Maiya Ibrahim’s debut YA trilogy Spice Road, a fantasy set in an Arabian-inspired land where a nation of tribes famous for their spices are attacked by an occupying king after he discovers their secret tea magic. The first book follows a teen girl who must guard the key to the source of her nation’s magic, and the orphan-turned-assassin whose future depends on him taking it from her. Publication is slated for spring 2021; Pete Knapp at Park & Fine Literary and Media negotiated the deal for North American rights.

Add Spice Raod on Goodreads! | Follow Maiya on Twitter

Author Interview: Maiya Ibrahim

CW: Hi Maiya! A huge and warm welcome to The Quiet Pond; we’re so excited to have you visit us today. For our friends out there who may only be meeting you for the first time, can you tell us about yourself?

Maiya: Thank you for having me here! Hi everyone, I’m Maiya, a Middle Eastern-Australian author who writes fantasy and science fiction. I love video games, collectibles (especially Pokémon!), and adding more plants to my ever-expanding garden. Spice Road is my debut YA fantasy, coming from Delacorte Press in 2022. 

CW: Congratulations on your debut! Before we dive into questions about your book, I’d love to learn more about your writing journey. When did you start writing, and was your experience with DVPit? (Do you have any advice to share with authors looking to pitch with DVPit?)

Maiya: Thank you, I feel so lucky to be able to put Spice Road in readers hands very soon!  

I spent most of my childhood lost in fantasy worlds, and once I started writing my own, I was hooked. I began seriously querying a manuscript sometime in 2017 to not much success. Around this time, I also finished writing Spice Road, but I was nervous to query it, given its setting and focus on colonialism. I was worried it wouldn’t be well received or even have an audience. When I came across DVPit on Twitter, I was amazed to discover that 1) pitching events even existed, and 2) there was one for historically marginalized authors and illustrators. I pitched Spice Road and was taken aback by the enthusiastic response I received from agents and editors alike. It really took me time to process the idea that there might actually be a place for my book in the world! Eventually, I nervously sent my query and sample pages to the agents who’d reached out, and I ended up connecting with the fantastic Peter Knapp of Park & Fine Literary and Media. 

To authors interested in participating in DVPit, this is my formula for crafting an eye-catching pitch: tell us who your main character is, what they want, what stands in their way, and what they must do to overcome the obstacle. Go for specific language over broad terms and try to mention the elements of your story that set it apart, for example, whether it’s inspired by a certain mythology, features cool magic, a twist, or a trope turned upside down. Whatever it is, don’t be afraid to tell us what makes your story unique. I know putting your work out there can be scary, but your voices and stories are wanted and needed. 

CW: Your debut, Spice Road, releases sometime next year and we could not be more excited for you! Your story has quite the incredible pitch – a YA fantasy that takes place in an Arabian-inspired land, about a teen girl who must protect her people’s secret tea magic from a colonial king, and the journey she must take across a monster-plagued continent to reunite her family and save her country. (Wow!) Can you walk us through your inspiration for Spice Road? What was the ‘spark’ or inspiration of your story, and how has the story changed since your first draft?

Maiya: Growing up, it was disheartening seeing so few Arab and Middle Eastern fantasy stories and authors. I think the ‘spark’ was just me wanting to challenge my own fear that someone like me didn’t belong in fantasy, and wanting to share with others the culture and mythology of my roots. More specifically, Spice Road revolves around a fantastical version of the real-life spice trade. One day, I was reading accounts of Arab spice traders, who, wanting to protect their lucrative business and discourage competition, told tall tales of how their spices grew in places that were guarded by monsters and magical creatures. I began associating spice with magic and asking myself: what lengths would people go to in order to protect and control a spice that could grant magical powers?

Spice Road has evolved a lot since the first draft. Some things were shifted around, others cut because they no longer fit. That said, the core story I set out to tell has remained the same. Spice Road has always been a book about a determined girl fighting to protect her family, her people, and their tea magic from a colonial power. Revising a novel can be really challenging, both emotionally and workwise, but seeing the book go from strength to strength has been incredibly rewarding.

CW: I’m so excited and intrigued by your worldbuilding and the idea of tea magic! I’d love it if you could tell us more about this: What sources, real life or other, did you draw from when crafting the tea magic in your book? What does tea magic mean to you personally?

Maiya: Thank you! It’s been really fun hearing people’s excitement over the tea magic! It’s one of my favorite parts of the book.

As I mentioned before, I started with this idea of magical spice, inspired by the historical accounts of Arab traders. I knew I wanted to write about a spice that could bestow magical powers when consumed, so the next question became, how? The tea part felt intuitive, as tea and coffee play such big roles in my culture; it’s taken with meals, it’s served to guests, and during special occasions, the cups and serving trays are especially ornate. I was also inspired by the spiced teas my parents always drink, such as yensoon (made of anise seed) that have lots of health benefits. Ultimately, I wanted to tie my culture with the magic itself, so that it really spoke to the story’s inspiration. I think spiced tea magic is my way of uniting fantasy with a tradition that is beloved across the Middle East. 

CW: Spice Road will be a trilogy, which is such an exciting prospect. What has been the most challenging aspects of writing a three-part story? What have you found most rewarding or is something that you are most proud of?

Maiya: I think the hardest part of writing a trilogy is the forethought involved. A reveal that’s taking place in the third book needs clues planted in the first book, and character arcs have to develop over a much longer period, which also requires some careful plotting. 

The most rewarding part has been striking the balance between crafting a story that is satisfying to read on its own, but that also leaves a few questions unanswered for the next instalment. 

CW: Which character are you most looking forward to readers meeting in Spice Road

Maiya: Oh, this is a tough question! I have to say my protagonist and lead, Imani. She’s very strong willed, loyal to her family, and pretty terrifying with a blade, haha. Her interactions with a certain antagonistic male character have been SO much fun to write. (Yes, there are enemies-to-??? in the book!)

CW: You have a background in law and you also enjoy video games! How have these two things influenced your storytelling or the themes that you write about? (And what are your two favourite video games?!) 

Maiya: Law is a surprisingly useful background to have when it comes to worldbuilding. Knowing how real-world governments and legal systems work has helped enormously in building functioning fantasy societies. Thematically, I’ve always been interested in the concepts of justice and the rule of law. What happens when not everyone has equal access to justice? Or when some members of a society aren’t subject to the same laws as everyone else? I think these questions boil down to issues of privilege, corruption, and inequality, and these are all themes I explore both in Spice Road and other works.

Along with books, video games are a huge influence on my writing. They let me live lives and go on adventures I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. As silly as it may sound, when I sit down to write about magic, or an epic battle, for example, I have ‘experiences’ I can draw on from the games I’ve played. I have an idea of the emotions someone might experience journeying through a dangerous wasteland, or learning magic for the first time, or stalking a target from the shadows as an assassin. Games have also taught me a lot about the craft of storytelling, like what makes a story pacey, or how to continually raise the stakes. And I can’t neglect to mention that they are amazing sources for music to listen to while writing!

Ahh, having to choose just two games is SO HARD. I play a lot of online competitive stuff, but for solo, story-focused gaming, my first favourite is Skyrim, which is just fantasy in the purest sense (magic! dragons! dungeons! a gorgeous snowy landscape to explore!) My other favourite is Red Dead Redemption 2. It tells one of the most emotionally compelling stories of any game I’ve ever played, (yes, I cried after it) plus, there’s something so soothing about just riding around on my horse looking at things, LOL. 

CW: Maiya, thank you so much for visiting us and talking with us today! My last question is one that I ask all of our guests: What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?

Maiya: Thank you for having me, this has been so much fun!

For me, home will always be family, and the food that reminds me of them most is one my mum cooks amazingly: bemye (okra and tomato stew with rice). I love it so much it’s even in Spice Road

About the Author

Maiya Ibrahim is the debut author of the SPICE ROAD trilogy, forthcoming from Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House (date TBA). Born and raised in Sydney, she has a Bachelor of Laws but prefers studying the laws of magic systems instead. When she’s not writing or reading, she can be found playing RPGs, adding new plants to her garden, or enjoying Middle Eastern desserts with her family.

She is represented by Peter Knapp of Park & Fine Literary and Media.

Find Maiya on: Website | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads | Pinterest

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