Teymour Shahabi - Mystery Inspired by Childhood Classics
After discarding a couple of manuscripts and inspired by classic childhood myths, Teymor Shahabi wrote and published his debut novel, The Secret Billionaire. This book is loved by readers and critics alike and has since won multiple awards in the Young Adult genre. As our Author of the Day, Shahabi talks about world building, how much he has in common with the main character and how he feels about it when readers compare The Secret Billionare with the Harry Potter books.
Please give us a short introduction to what The Secret Billionaire is about.
The Secret Billionaire is primarily a mystery: one of the world's wealthiest men vanishes, and the heir named in his will is never identified. Decades later, one high school student unexpectedly finds himself drawn into the mystery, and he sets out with his two best friends to discover the real identity of the secret billionaire.
Have you always known you wanted to be a writer?
I wish I could give some complex, intricate answer. But all I have is: yes.
What inspired you to write a story about a secret billionaire?
Most of the inspiration came from classic childhood myths. For the basic elements of the plot, I was primarily inspired by one of my favorite stories, which I've re-read countless times since I was a kid: the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It's one of the first books I ever owned, and it's still on my bookshelf. There's also a heavy dose of The Count of Monte-Cristo. And the atmosphere, along with the concept of someone secretly leading a double life, was heavily influenced by Batman, my favorite comic book character. Much of the atmosphere, from the enormous, empty mansion to the gigantic city with a villainous underground, came from that world.
The Secret Billionaire is your debut novel. What was the experience like?
I'd written several unpublished novel-length manuscripts in the past, so the experience wasn't entirely new. However, this was an exceptionally fun book to write. Everything about it was fun: the mystery, the boarding school setting, the characters (whether I loved them or loved to hate them), and most importantly the enormous support I received from everyone around me (and many strangers who followed my updates on YouTube!) as I was writing it. For some reason, I'd previously thought of writing as a solitary secret activity, something almost sinister and dark. With this book, the entire experience was joyous and warm -- and anything but lonely.
How much do you have in common with Andrew Day?
We have two main character traits in common: (1) a fairly stubborn conviction that life holds great things in store, and (2) helpless excitement about the people we care about. We also spend a decent amount of time wondering about how to be a good person, but I'm actually a bit envious of his willingness to experiment more and take more risks in that regard. Also, he's much better prepared for adventure than I am: he grew up climbing trees, and I was a city kid who spent too much time with books.
Many readers compare The Secret Billionaire with the Harry Potter books. Are you a Harry Potter fan yourself?
Comparisons to Harry Potter are proof to me that magic exists: I've read and loved the Harry Potter novels, and any analogy between my book and JK Rowling's work makes me want to pick up a broom and ride it across the sky. With the Harry Potter books, we are all fortunate to have lived through one of the great chapters in the history of storytelling. Some people may think that books no longer matter, that the age of great classics penned by Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo for universal enjoyment is no more. Harry Potter proves these people wrong. And if any reader of mine is reminded of those books -- and of the tremendous spell (pun intended) that JK Rowling can cast throughout her pages -- then I can honestly state that some dreams do come true.
Your prologue and first two chapters almost read like short stories. Why did you pick this approach?
I didn't choose this approach deliberately, but I loved the idea of starting with an old newspaper article, and then flashing forward to the time of the story. To me, the great, universal stories start like tales from times past -- perhaps I was simply trying to start with a subtle alternative to "Once Upon a Time." I was told by an editor whose opinion I value enormously that readers might not want to start the book with an article written in italics. But I couldn't change my mind. Ultimately, I will always follow the advice of my grandmother, perhaps the greatest storyteller I've ever known. She speaks German, and she tells me the most important ingredient for a book's success is a "spannend" beginning. The word means "gripping." At least I think it does. I don't speak German.
Readers all say that they couldn't put the book down. What is your secret to keeping them hooked throughout the book?
This is the single biggest compliment I can receive from a reader. It's very fortunate that (most) reviews are online -- because when people tell me this in person, I'm very tempted to lean forward and kiss then. To me, the single most reliable gauge of a book's effectiveness is the desire for the reader to turn the page -- to keep on going chapter after chapter, no matter how late the night gets or how urgent real life becomes. One simple trick is just to keep chapters short... and to end as many as possible with cliffhangers! It's not a particularly esoteric technique -- it's even used in many TV shows right before the commercial breaks. But it works for me as a reader -- and so I strive to recreate it as a writer.
Tell us about your writing habits - did you plot the book out before you started? How long did it take you to write The Secret Billionaire?
I think of writing as a regularly scheduled obligation -- much like exercise. If I only went to the gym every time I felt like an athlete, then I would probably go once a year -- perhaps on the first day of summer. Most of the time, the first minute on that stationary bike makes me wonder why I'm my own torturer. But by the time my sweat starts dripping over the handlebars, I know I'm doing exactly what I need to do. The same goes for writing. I approached the book as a task, with daily quotas to be met -- whether inspired or not, whether fresh or under-slept. Going about it this way, it took me about three months to write the first draft -- and about two years to go from the first word to the final edit (number four or five?). I had a sense of the plot before I started, and the beginning and ending in particular, but I filled in the blanks (backwards and forwards) as I went. I started the puzzle from the edges and worked my way in.
Do you have a set of rules for your world? Is there a process you go through that helps define these?
I have an unwritten set of rules: for example, cell phones and the internet are never mentioned, even though they could well exist in the characters' everyday lives, because I wanted to preserve the feel of a timeless and classic story. Similarly, there is no fantasy in the book (blame my ignorance if any of the laws of physics are broken), but I wanted readers to feel that this world is an exaggerated, mythical version of our own -- somewhere between reality and a fairy tale or comic book story. I never defined these rules formally or even set out to choose them. They took shape irresistibly as the story came together.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I'm incredibly serious about breakfast. You may be able to tell from the book.
What are you working on now? Readers have been asking for a sequel to The Secret Billionaire...
There's no greater gift to me from a reader than a request for the sequel. I think about the sequel constantly... And even the sequel's sequel. And since we've talked about plotting and puzzles, I may have started scattering secret clues to future events in this first book. I trust that they're well-hidden, but they're there...
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I've shared video updates from my writing and life at www.facebook.com/teymour.shahabi and www.youtube.com/PageWingChannel. I also love responding to readers' emails at hello [at] teymourshahabi [dot] com. There's also Instagram (@teymour.shahabi), which I discovered fairly recently. What I'm trying to say is: if you're down to hang out, let's do it.