Endings can be hard. When Tahereh Mafi’s “Ignite Me” publishes today, it’ll bring her bestselling young adult "Shatter Me" series to a close. Mafi is entirely confident in her choices, but she’s also aware that her books are more than art objects -- they’re in conversation with her readers, including the devoted Mafi Mafia. Here are some thoughts from Mafi on her books and writing. Her book tour begins later this month, with an appearance at Barnes & Noble at the Grove Feb. 24 at 7 p.m.
Did you know you were going to be a writer when you were in school?
I was going to be a professor -- that was my whole plan. I went to school to study literature and philosophy because I'd been so in love with books my whole life, but once I'd graduated I found that I'd forgotten what it was like to read for the sake of reading. I had spent so many years studying elevated texts and fancy literature and things in foreign languages. I was really pretentious about it. I realized that I had studied everything for an exam, to write a paper, to have a debate, to have a discussion in class. It wasn't because I just wanted to escape into a book. I'd forgotten what that was like, what it was that inspired me to first fall in love with books to begin with. When I graduated I started reading young adult fiction. I wanted to go back to the root of what made me fall in love in the first place.
Which books or authors were those?
This is going to be the really obvious, cheesy, everybody says this answer: But, a million percent hands down J.K. Rowling. I grew up with the Harry Potter books. I was the same age as Harry when he got into Hogwarts and it has broken my heart every year since then that I did not get accepted to Hogwarts. ... They were the books that changed my life. I remember my mom being so upset because they cost like 30 bucks. The day the book would come out she would go and buy it, it was like 800 pages or whatever. And I'd read it in one day. I would go sit in my room, close the door, I didn't talk, I didn't eat, I didn't come out of my room until the book was finished. And then I'd put the book on the table, and my mom would say [she does an angry mom voice] ‘I paid 30 bucks for this book and you're already finished? Go read it again!’”
Do you think young adult fiction inspires a more intense reaction than books for adults?
A lot of people ask why are so many people reading young adult fiction today -- I really think it has everything to do with that experience of firsts. Nothing is quite as potent as experiencing life as a teenager. Everything is either the worst thing that's ever happened to you or the best thing that's ever happened to you. You're on a high. You're exhilarated constantly. You're either so sad you've never been so sad in your life, or so excited and happy you don't even know how to describe it. Your first kiss, first any kind of romantic encounter, your first driving experience, your first vacation, your first betrayal, your first everything. ... Every person, no matter how old you are, remembers what it's like to be 16. No one forgets that. You never forget what your first kiss was. You never forget your first big experiences in life.
What’s it like writing a sequel -- or a last book in a series?
At the end of the day, I think I identify much more as a reader than I do a writer. Because I spent the majority of my life reading books, not writing them. So I understand so well what it's like to be impassioned by a novel. What it's like to finish a book and be so angry you just want to chuck the book across the room and send that author a very lengthy letter full of very unkind things. I've been there. I understand it. I also know what it's like to finish a novel and want to weep from the beauty of it. It's incredibly rewarding that to imagine that I've been able to re-create that in somebody else. The anger or the happy passion. I like it. I really do. But at the same time I'm a little scared. I don't really know how people are going to react to the third book. I definitely take their feelings into consideration. Because I know what it's like to feel betrayed by an author when you follow a story. Not betrayed, necessarily. I remember when I finished "Mockingjay" ... I loved, loved “The Hunger Games,” just passionately loved those books. And when I finished "Mockingjay" I was absolutely devastated. I walked around in a daze for weeks....
I was thinking about this the other day. That this same enthusiasm in teenagers applies to just about anything: their enthusiasm for music, pop culture, movies, actors, actresses, whatever it is, the big pop culture phenomenon that's happening, they get really excited about it, they get really overwhelmed and impassioned. They're the best and the biggest fans. When you take that enthusiasm and direct it toward books, direct it toward literature, you get critical thinkers that are simultaneously just incredibly enthusiastic and so passionate. You're dealing with very excited, hyper-intelligent, imaginative, creative people. It's a combination of really great things. They're not just throwing their underwear at Justin Bieber. It's like a focused passion. They're readers. They're people who are devouring books. And if they've taken the time to contact you, that means they're taking more time out and devoting that to books than the average child is, the average teenager is.