Author and MFAC alum Sarah Ahiers talks about her second novel, Thief’s Cunning. Thief’s Cunning, published June 13, is the companion novel to Assassin’s Heart. Thief’s Cunning picks up eighteen years later and follows Allegra Saldana as she uncovers the secrets about the line of killers she descends from.
What Inspired Assassin’s Heart and subsequently Thief’s Cunning?
Assassin’s Heart was inspired by three things sort of happening at the same time. The first was that I was thinking about murder (like you do) and I was wondering what would it take to have a culture where they not only accepted murder, but welcomed it. And while I was thinking on that I read two books that pissed me off. In the first one, the main character has no family and only a single friend. And she loves that friend desperately. Then that friend gets murdered due to plot reasons. And the main character is sad for, like, a paragraph, but it’s just that there’s this new boy and he’s so dreamy…
So that pissed me off because I don’t care how dreamy the boy is, grief just can’t get erased like that. It doesn’t go away.
And then I read another book where the main character, a girl again, gets terrorized by this boy. He legitimately scares her. And yet, she thinks he’s dreamy and interesting.
And I called BS on that. Because I, as a woman, have never once felt attracted to a man who has frightened me.
So these three things merged together until I had a culture that welcomed murder. And a girl who’s family is killed, and who’s grief permanently changes her, and follows her forever. And a love interest who is kind, and supportive, and never frightening.
In Thief’s Cunning, I wanted to tackle women. Because after edits, there weren’t as many women in AH as had been in earlier drafts. And I wanted to discuss the clipper women, and the women of a matriarchal society and what happens in this world when your culture worships more than one god, instead of the singular god of the first book.
I’m also a fan of epilogues. Like, those 80s movies where at the end they do a freeze-frame over each character and tell you what happened to them (one of them always dies or is never seen again or something.) Even though I knew Lea and Les’s story was complete, the fallout from their actions would still reverberate. And I wanted to see how those reverberations would play off the next generation. And the ideas that, even when we do the right things, or good things, those acts can have consequences, often bad consequences, for yourself and for others, and there’s no way to really know.
And that parents are people and make mistakes and that nothing hurts us more than love.
What were the challenges (literary, psychologically, logistically) in bringing these books to life?
Looking back it feels like Assassin’s Heart was super easy to write. I do remember that beside removing 2 minor characters and a few scenes, the first draft didn’t undergo much revision. But in fact it wasn’t that easy to write. I actually had to take a year off in the middle because I just wasn’t feeling the book. I’d written 40-50k and it just was fighting me. I tried changing the POV and then changed it back and nothing seemed to help. So I set it down for a year and worked on something else.
And when I picked it up again, and re-read it, that first 50k was perfectly fine. And that first 50k is present in the final book with very few changes.
Thief’s Cunning fought me the whole way. At one point I had to stop drafting, cut 30k, and try to wrangle my plot back into shape. I’m very much a plotter and know where my stories need to go, but this one wanted to go in 18 different directions. Even after I turned in the draft to my editor I had to cut another 30k to whip it into shape.
I felt like I had forgotten how to novel. But also, second books are notoriously difficult for everyone and it turns out I was not the exception to the rule.
If you could be friends with only one of your characters, who would you choose and why?
Oh Les, I’m sure. I mean he’s just a nice dude. He’d probably pay for your lunch and tell you interesting facts and stories.
What did you edit out of this book?
Well, in Thief’s Cunning, I cut 60k, which is pretty much an entire book. I lost a very large subplot, which I’m still a little sad about. Not because it didn’t need to go (it really did) but just because it was exciting and interesting and I’m sad I couldn’t explore it more. I also cut a few minor characters, and cut a massive scene involving traveler death rituals, which were so cool and I loved, but really slowed the pace of the story for no reason other than just being cool. Kill your darlings and all that.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Mostly feel guilty about how I’m not writing.
But otherwise I have a day job, which pays the bills, and they let me work from home, so I also spend a lot of time with my dogs. I play a lot of games (board and video) watch tv, go to movies, cook and bake a lot, and hang out with my friends and family. And read of course.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
You just got to keep at it. The more you write, the better you become. And the better you become, the closer you’ll get to your goals. But, also, try not to stress too much about those goals. There’s a ton of luck and other things out of your control in regards to getting published, but the one thing you can control is the craft. So put your energy there because you’ll never regret becoming a better writer. And when things get rough (which they will, sooner or later) if you can return to the writing, remember why it was you first started scribbling ideas in the first place, you’ll be better off.
What is next for you? What are you working on now?
Working on a few things, but mostly waiting to hear back on a few other things. Publishing is honestly like 90% waiting, which is what it is, but it means I can’t really speak in specifics about anything just because nothing’s set in stone at the moment.
So get used to long periods of hearing about nothing, and then suddenly a bunch of work that needs to get done asap, because that’s pretty much being an author in a nutshell.
Sarah Ahiers has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University and lives in Minnesota with her dogs and a house full of critters. She has a collection of steampunk hats and when she’s not writing she fills her time with good games, good food, good friends and good family.