Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Alina Boyden Interview - Gifting Fire

Photo Content from Alina Boyden

Alina Boyden is a trans rights activist, author, and PhD candidate in cultural anthropology. As an ACLU client, her case secured healthcare rights for transgender employees in the state of Wisconsin. Her work in cultural anthropology centers on the civil rights struggles of transgender women in India and Pakistan, and consequently she divides her time between the United States and South Asia. When she's not writing, traveling, or working on her dissertation, she spends her free time indulging in two of her childhood passions - swordplay and flying airplanes. STEALING THUNDER is her first novel.

Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
It's been a wild ride, so there are a lot to choose from. Getting to bring my brother to his first New York Comic Con where I was a panelist was pretty amazing. Getting fan mail from all over the world has been exciting and a little daunting. But I think so far the most rewarding part of getting published has been the reception from other trans women. Seeing my books out in stores inspired several trans women writers I know to work even harder towards getting published themselves, and I think seeing their eventual success will be the best reward of all.

What inspired you to pen your first novel?
I wrote my first finished novel back in 2003, which was of course never published. So my journey towards being a novelist started a long time ago. I think the impetus back then was that I needed an outlet for a lot of the stress and emotions I was going through at the time, having recently transitioned. Stealing Thunder, my first published novel, was sold to Penguin Random House fifteen years later. The inspiration for that story was a mix of my time spent living in South Asia, my experiences learning from trans women there, and my own life experiences and passions, mainly history and flying airplanes. I wanted to tell the story of a strong, trans woman heroine who overcame adversity to win the love and respect she deserved, and the book pretty much wrote itself from there.

Tell us your latest news.
Well, as of the time of this interview, I just got my first COVID vaccine dose, so that's cool! But in the book world, my big news is the release of the sequel to Stealing Thunder, which is Gifting Fire. That comes out on April 13th, and I'm really excited to share it with the world.

In your newest book, GIFTING FIRE (Stealing Thunder #2); can you tell my Book Nerd community a little about the novel?
I warn you all that there might be some mild Stealing Thunder spoilers here, but by the end of that book, Razia, a trans woman who was born a prince of a great empire and ran away from home to be herself, has succeeded in winning the love of Prince Arjun, and the respect of her father, the Sultan of Nizam. So if Stealing Thunder is a love story with a happy ending, then the premise to Gifting Fire is best summed up as "be careful what you wish for." Now that she's officially a princess, Razia gets the same treatment lots of princesses got throughout history – she's forced into an arranged marriage with a man she despises so her father can gain some political advantage. Needless to say for those of you who read the first book, Razia doesn't take this lying down, and Gifting Fire centers on how she manages to scheme and fight her way out of the fate others have decreed for her.

What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
With both Stealing Thunder and Gifting Fire, it's always my hope that readers will be first and foremost excited and entertained by the stories themselves. However, I think what really sets Stealing Thunder and Gifting Fire apart from a lot of other fantasy novels is that you get to take a deep dive into the head of a trans woman and to see the world from her perspective. When I first wrote Stealing Thunder, my primary hope was that other trans women would get something out of seeing themselves as heroines instead of victims or caricatures, but one of the big lessons for me from Stealing Thunder was how much cis women related to it. I think the nicest review I got for Stealing Thunder was from a cis woman who said that it shattered her view of what it meant to be a strong woman, because it was the first time she'd ever seen a strong woman protagonist who was a warrior and knew how to fight, but who was also unabashedly feminine. For her, Stealing Thunder was the first book she ever read that showed that femininity is not weak or shameful or wrong. So, I think that was a pretty powerful reaction to hear, and one that I think Gifting Fire delivers with an even bigger punch.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating Razia?
When I created Razia, she was an aspirational character for me. Being trans isn't easy, and I'd learned over the years to apologize for that aspect of myself, to feel shame sometimes for being trans, to accept the way others viewed me, inwardly if not outwardly. With Razia I wanted to create a trans woman who was totally unapologetic about who she was, who definitely experiences some pretty complex emotions arising from her place in the world and the choices she's made, but who fundamentally doesn't apologize for who she is, and who at her core understands her own worth. And I think one of the most surprising things about writing a character like that is how much she rubs off on you. Writing her in Stealing Thunder and Gifting Fire helped me to sort out a lot of my own feelings, and honestly I'm a lot more like her now than I was when I first wrote Stealing Thunder.

Which of your characters do you feel has grown the most since book one and in what way have they changed?
I think the biggest growth arc in Gifting Fire belongs to Sakshi. In the first book she's the heart of Razia's little family, the one who gets Razia to rein in those cutthroat ruler instincts she has, and acts as a sort of counselor figure and sounding board to keep Razia on the straight and narrow. In Gifting Fire, Sakshi isn't just a background character there to help Razia when she needs it, she really steps into her own power, fighing right alongside her sister, while retaining her place as the one who doesn't lose sight of the emotional core of what they're all really struggling to accomplish. I'll be excited to see what fans think about that development in her character over the course of the book.

If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
In Gifting Fire there are not one, not two, but three dragon-riding princesses, two trans and one cis. Not one of them turns her back on the morals she has developed over the course of the story and murders a town full of innocent people. So, I suppose if I were introducing a character of mine to a character from another book, it would be introducing Razia to Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones – at the least the Game of Thrones that we all saw on HBO. I think Razia, having been forced to spend time as a courtesan, having had to learn to survive on the streets, and having struggled to gain back what she lost, would have a lot to teach Daenerys about leadership, and entitlement, and how to make hard personal sacrifices to protect the lives of other people.

What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Shadow of the Tomb Raider. As a trained archaeologist and cultural anthropologist, and a woman who loves archery, I find those games alternately addictive and unbearably frustrating. My friends love hearing me shout at the screen about the archaeological and cultural inaccuracies I'm witnessing while sneaking up on people with a bow. Though I don't actually consider it a distraction from writing, not exactly. I don't like plotting books out in advance, I sort of organically develop it as I go, but that sometimes leads me into dead ends in my writing, where I have to chop off what I've done and go back to a choice that I made and make a different one. When that happens, my brain needs time to mull over the story, and I find that zoning out and playing a game or going outside for a bike ride tends to help with that. But for Gifting Fire it just happened to be Tomb Raider. I got the book done, and 100% completion on the game, so win-win.

What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Chase a dream. Everyone is so different, not everything that I like is going to necessarily resonate with someone else, but I would say that each of us should take the time at least once in our lives to chase a dream that we have. That thing that you've been wanting to do and you've put off – do it. Whatever it is. Go for it. Give it a try. Everything good in my life has come from pursuing my passions and my dreams, and nothing good has ever come from letting them languish.

If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
I wouldn't actually want to go back in time, but I think the question maybe is a good indicator of where we should go in the future. I don't believe in regret, because I believe that we are, in some ways, the product of our experiences, and so to regret those experiences is to regret ourselves. However, I think that what we wish to change about the past, or what we wish to relive in the past is a pretty good indicator of what we should spend more of our time and energy focusing on in the present.

Which incident in your life totally changed the way you think today?
While there are quite a few watershed incidents in my life, I think the one that changed me most was when I was in graduate school back in 2015, and my doctor thought I might have cancer and referred me to a specialist. The specialist's office refused to see me because I was transgender. I had spent years up to that point hiding my trans status from everyone. At that time, I didn't even have any friends in the state I was living in who knew I was trans. And in that moment of thinking I might have cancer and being refused the opportunity to see a doctor for it because of who I was, I had this epiphany. I had, at every step of my life, hidden who I was for the comfort of cis people. I had allowed myself to feel shame and guilt and doubt about myself because others told me that I was shameful, that I wasn't who I said I was, that I ought to feel guilty for having been born. I had done everything I could to blend in seamlessly into a world of cis people, to not rock the boat, to find ways around the institutional discrimination that plagues our community, and in the end, I had been treated worse than a criminal. And in that moment, I realized it was all bullshit. I realized that it didn't matter how out I was, or how stealth I was, it didn't matter what I looked like or how I acted. In hiding the truth about myself, I hadn't made it harder to hurt me, I'd made it easier. I'd isolated myself from communities who might have helped me, and worse, I'd used my cis-passing privilege to allow the heaviest burden of discrimination to fall across the shoulders of trans women who didn't have that privilege. So, I made two decisions that day. The first was that I was going to fight back, and the second was that I was going to be radically out in all times and in all places from that day forward. I fought, and together with the ACLU and another trans woman, I sued the state of Wisconsin in federal court, and we won trans healthcare rights for every employee in the state. It took three years, and in that time I became a public figure thanks to my activist work and because of the sale of Stealing Thunder. In 2015, if you'd googled my name, you would have had almost no search results, and you certainly wouldn't have found anything to even hint that I was trans. Now, when you search my name, a little infographic pops up, and the first thing it tells you is that I'm trans, which I think is about as radically out as you can be.

What are 4 things you never leave home without?
A key to get back home, my cell phone, a bicycle, and a multitool.

Where is the best place in the world you’ve been?
It's so hard to pick just one place because they all have their special charms, but I would probably say the woods north of Vancouver, British Columbia. I'm a huge lover of hiking and the outdoors and big trees, and the woods of the Pacific northwest have always really resonated with me.

  • 1) Gifting Fire is a roller-coaster of an adventure story, full of tension and romance and action.
  • 2) Gifting Fire has some amazing aerial duels with feathered dragon-like creatures called zahhaks.
  • 3) Gifting Fire features some of my favorite swordfights that I've ever written in fantasy.
  • 4) Gifting Fire tells the story of a princess who isn't anyone's political pawn.
  • 5) Gifting Fire is, at its core, a story about found family and the struggle to keep it.
  • 6) Gifting Fire has the most satisfying conclusion to a relationship with an evil mother-in-law ever found in fiction.
  • 7) Gifting Fire tells a redemption arc that I'm especially proud of, but you'll have to read it to find out whose it is.
  • 8) Everyone who has read Gifting Fire has cried.
  • 9) Gifting Fire explores the complicated family dynamics trans women often face.
  • 10) While it's always tricky making big claims, I'm fairly confident in saying that Gifting Fire has more trans characters than any other book ever written.
Writing Behind the Scenes
My brother jokingly calls me a method writer, because I have to do all the things my characters do, from eating the food they eat to developing the skills they possess. Of course, sometimes this operates in reverse, sometimes I like to write about characters who are into the same things I'm into, or who have skills that I've also been developing. In the case of Razia and Stealing Thunder/Gifting Fire, I finished my pilot's license while writing the book, to help add verisimilitude to the flying scenes. I tried my hand at rock climbing, and learned I'm terrible at kathak dancing (thanks for the lessons, Sneha!). I was already a skilled fencer, archer, and martial artist, but I absolutely had to get my hands on a real katar from the Mughal period so that I could see what it was like to train with one. I also lived in South Asia and became fluent in Urdu, though the book came out of those experiences rather than the other way around.

In addition to getting as many of the physical experiences of my characters as possible, I study history intensely when I'm working on novels. I think that one of the best ways to understand what it would be like to experience life in some of the situations my characters get themselves into is to read the accounts of historical figures who lived in similar circumstances, or who had similar experiences. I find that it really helps my world-building and really informs some of the choices I make around my fantasy cultures.

Generally though you can get a pretty good sense of what kind of book I'm working on by looking at what I'm reading and doing on any given day. Today, I've been picking padlocks. I think we all know what that means…

The battle has been won, but the war is just beginning.

Although at long last Razia Khan has found peace with herself and love with her prince, Arjun, her trials are far from over. In order to save her prince and his city from certain destruction, Razia made a deal with the devil--her father, the Sultan of Nizam. Now the bill has come due.

Razia must secure the province of Zindh, a land surrounded by enemies, and loyal to a rebel queen who has survived her father's purge. But when her old tormentor Prince Karim invades her new home and forces her into a marriage alliance, Razia finds herself trapped in the women's quarters of a foreign palace, with her beloved Prince Arjun exiled from her side.

Now, in order to free herself, and her province, from Karim's clutches, she must call upon all of her training as a royal princess, a cunning courtesan, and a daring thief to summon new allies and old friends for a battle that will decide her fate, and the fate of an empire.

You can purchase Gifting Fire at the following Retailers:

1 Winner will receive a $15 Dollar Amazon Gift Card.


  1. "What’s the most expensive gift you’ve ever given someone?" Hmm. Maybe a shirt!

  2. The most expensive gift Is I gave my sons my house.

  3. I once bought my niece a kids sized moped.

  4. Alina Boyden is a new author to me, but I look forward to reading this. I always love meeting new authors. Thanks to this blog for the introduction.

  5. I bought my daughter a laptop that I am sure cost more than my car.

  6. Most expensive gift I gave was perfume.

  7. I gave my son an Xbox or Christmas.

  8. Biggest gift I've ever given is an iPad for my sis.