The Tyrant’s Daughter: Exclusive Author Interview & Review

March 10, 2014 book review, interview 4

Happy Monday, everyone! Today, Jess from Reading Nook Reviews and I got to virtually sit down and interview former CIA officer, JC Carleson, author of THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER. We are so beyond thrilled that we had this opportunity and hope that you love the Q&A we had!!

The Tyrant's Daughter by J.C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter by JC Carleson

Released: February 11, 2014
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers–Random House
Pages: 304
Format read: ARC
Source: publisher

From a former CIA officer comes the riveting account of a royal Middle Eastern family exiled to the American suburbs.

When her father is killed in a coup, 15-year-old Laila flees from the war-torn middle east to a life of exile and anonymity in the U.S. Gradually she adjusts to a new school, new friends, and a new culture, but while Laila sees opportunity in her new life, her mother is focused on the past. She’s conspiring with CIA operatives and rebel factions to regain the throne their family lost. Laila can’t bear to stand still as an international crisis takes shape around her, but how can one girl stop a conflict that spans generations?

J.C. Carleson delivers a fascinating account of a girl—and a country—on the brink, and a rare glimpse at the personal side of international politics.

1. Since we’re very much the Twitter/social media age, could you describe THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER for us in 140 characters? 

Oh boy – as someone who remains stubbornly Twitter-averse (not exactly a good thing for an author these days), this is nearly as anxiety provoking as asking me to describe the book in Morse Code! Here’s my beginner’s attempt: 

 After fleeing a war in her homeland, a teenage girl discovers that her new life in the American suburbs is filled with as much tension and deceit as her past. 

2. You wrote THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER based on your own experiences of being in war zones. For those who haven’t read your book yet, can you briefly talk about your experiences and why you wanted to base your novel off of them?

The initial idea for the book came largely from a single place I encountered in Iraq in 2003. On the outskirts of Baghdad, located amidst a cluster of palaces built for Saddam Hussein’s closest relatives, was a children’s playhouse that was so luxurious, so over-the-top, that I couldn’t help but wonder about the children who had played there before the invasion. What did they know? Where had they gone? 

These same questions popped into my head throughout the years, and throughout the conflicts. For every deposed, arrested, assassinated, or exiled leader we read about in the headlines, there is always also a family. Sometimes the family members remain in the public eye, fighting to succeed or avenge their husband or father. But more often they seem to just fade away into a life of quiet exile. I wanted to tell the story of someone who was on the periphery of a war, for whom the question of guilt or innocence wasn’t entirely clear…to anyone.  

3. Readers choose certain books to escape the real world and immerse themselves into a different one. Why do you think it’s important to experience the world you have created, based on real life experiences, in THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER?

I’m a huge fan of immersive, escapist reading! As a reader, I love to be transported to another time or to another world. But I equally enjoy the opportunity to experience my own world very differently, through someone else’s eyes and impressions. In THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER, I take a character unlike anyone most readers will have ever met, and I plunge her right into “our” (western, suburban) world. She’s from a country no one visits on family vacations. She’s semi-royalty (well, sort of). She’s living in exile, having fled a very privileged but very violent past. And because of her background, she reacts very differently to what we consider “normal” life than most of us would.  

On a deeper level, I think that it’s so important to appreciate just how drastically our reactions to the world are shaped by our experiences. For most western readers of YA fiction, the topic of war, for example, is a Big Important Subject, of course, but it’s also fairly impersonal. Unless you or someone close to you has actually spent time in a conflict zone, it’s a natural tendency to think of war as something that only happens elsewhere, to other people. We’re quite fortunate, really, that it’s something we’re typically only exposed to via newspaper headlines or in big-budget Hollywood movies. But the headlines can’t ever capture the smaller stories, the more personal vignettes — the stories that might resonate just as much with an American teenager as a Syrian teenager. Those unreported stories, though, those small tragedies and individual upheavals, are the very stories that allow us to truly understand and empathize across cultures and across situations. 

4. What central theme and message do you hope your readers get from reading this book?

I hope that readers come away with an appreciation for the fact that there are always individual, personal stories behind every major news headline. Up close, politics are always very personal. 

Separately, I also hope that readers feel themselves transported enough by the story that they feel compelled to ask themselves: What would I do in this situation? 

5. Your characters are based on real-world counterparts that you met during your overseas work. How did they impact you and your world purview, outside of providing inspiration for your writing? 

This story is deeply personal for me on a number of levels. Not only are some of the characters based on individuals I encountered while working as a CIA officer, but many of my characters’ reactions are based on my own reactions and feelings of reverse culture shock after I returned to the U.S. after spending a considerable amount of time overseas. 

For example, Laila’s constant sense of disorientation and hyper-vigilance are very much based on my own experiences living in different countries. Once you leave the tourist zone in a foreign country, for example, a stranger approaching you on the street, speaking rapidly, may be totally benign, or may represent an immediate threat. Is he asking for directions? Trying to sell you something? Warning you? Shouting threats? When you don’t speak the language and your grasp of cultural norms is weak, your brain has to be on high alert all the time, scanning for clues and insights that might help you decipher each and every encounter. It gets to be exhausting after awhile.  

Early in the book, Laila reacts strongly, even angrily, to the overabundance on American grocery store shelves. That was another example of reverse culture shock that I actually experienced shortly before starting this book. I returned to the U.S. after several years away, only to discover that the varieties of mayonnaise available here had grown exponentially, and my first reaction was to be sort of appalled. I had grown used to choosing between two brands of mayo, and then all of a sudden I was staring at a shelf full of an unbelievable variety of flavors and sizes and fat contents and configurations. I just stared at all of these choices and felt irritated and overwhelmed.  

I also interviewed a number of friends who had emigrated to the U.S. as young adults, specifically asking them about small details (like the mayonnaise) that shocked them. Surprisingly, almost every single person commented on libraries — describing them in glowing, amazed terms. 

6. Before THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER, you’ve largely been known for your motivational, non-fiction work. What’s been the biggest (and most interesting) transition toward writing young adult fiction? 

I’ve loved writing each of my books (and I will undoubtedly continue to genre-hop in the future), but I found writing fiction to be far more difficult, yet also far more rewarding than writing non-fiction. With non-fiction, the facts sort of serve as cushions, or maybe bumpers. You can only veer so far before the facts at hand rein you back in. With fiction, of course, anything goes! It gives you beautiful, creative freedom, but it also means that you can digress wildly and terribly. 

7. And a follow-up question – is there a particular reason why you wanted to transition to also writing young adult fiction? 

(I’ll be honest – I think it’s awesome that you’re so versatile! – Jess)

Thank you! You know, I didn’t set out to be a writer from an early age. And maybe because I didn’t study creative writing, I approached my new career more as a lifelong bookworm than as a trained writer. And since my reading tastes are nothing if not eclectic, then I suppose my writing choices have followed suit. Honestly, I just try to write something I’d like to read. (And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that, although I’m sticking to young adult fiction for my next book, it is wildly different from anything else I’ve written to date!) 

8. A lot of your readers are at that point in their lives, where they’re in the early stages of trying to figure out what they’re interested in pursuing for a career.  I think it’s safe to say that you’ve pursued two career choices that are likely of great interest to many of those readers.

What’s the best piece of advice you can give to readers who are interested in pursuing a federal position in the defense sector or a writing career – especially in light of the challenges that exist in both sectors?

Confession: I started trying to come up with a single, unifying bit of advice that would cover both fields out of sheer laziness. But the more I think about it, the more I really do believe that this single bit of advice has served me well both while working for the CIA and while pursuing my writing career: Above all, I recommend that you do everything in your power to see the world.  

Before I even applied to the CIA, I had already spent a considerable amount of time studying and traveling overseas. And once I started working for the CIA, my passport obviously filled up quickly. Some of my experiences were grand, bucket-list-cross-offs, and some were harsh eye-openers. All of them have shaped me, and shaped my writing, profoundly. 

A narrow point of view and a limited exposure to cultures and communities other than your own will limit you in many fields, but none so much as in the intelligence field or in writing. Get to know the world!  

9. Whew! That was kind of a heady question! On a lighter note, what’s one book that you’re reading or looking forward to reading right now? 

I’m a little late to the game on this one, but I just finished THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson, and I was actually sad to reach the end, because it was so enjoyable that I wanted it to keep going! For some reason the first few pages didn’t resonate me the first time I picked up the book, but I recently started it again as a book club read, and I am so glad that I did. It’s an amazing book that draws you into a reality-based world that is even wilder and more fascinating than anything completely fictional. 

10. Could you tell us about any other writing projects that you’re working on right now? 

Gladly! I’m currently working on a weird, wild kind of YA novel (weird and wild in the best sorts of ways, I hope) called PLACEBO JUNKIES, about a group of people who make their living by participating in medical trials. It’s a dark, psychological thriller in many respects, but it also has elements of reality-based levity and absurdity. 

(This book sounds awesome, JC! I can’t wait to read it!–Christine)

About the Author

J.C. Carleson never intended to be an author. Although she was always a proficient writer of term papers, reports, and other necessary but mundane documents, she didn’t consider herself cut out for the creative life.

Nearly a decade as an officer in the CIA’s clandestine service changed that.

With her head now brimming with stories of intrigue, scandal, and exotic locales, Carleson was finally ready to give writing a shot. Her fiction and non-fiction works alike tap into her unique experiences, drawing readers into the highly charged, real world of espionage.

Laila has only known one way of life: being the daughter of a king, lots of riches, having handlers and private tutors. She knows nothing of what the real outside world is like, until her father is killed. Forced to flee to America, Laila’s idea of the world is completely shattered. Everything she thought she knew was true about her father, his regime, and her country were all grossly glamorized to keep her life simple and pleasant. But now she is in a foreign country, with foreign ways of life, and her world is just falling apart, in more ways than one.

THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER really took me by surprise. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting but I quickly became so absorbed in Laila’s heart-wrenching story. Nothing sounds worse than finding out from your new “friends” that everything about your life was a lie. Your father apparently was dictator, there is war raging on in your country, everyone hates your family, and you’ve been kept in the dark…about everything. Coming to a new country is tough enough as it is, but then to learn all that too? I couldn’t imagine. I really liked Laila. She puts on a brave front and doesn’t act like any of this shocking news surprises her. She takes things in stride. And for the most part, she really didn’t seem to have too much trouble getting used to American culture. Sure she was shocked about our way life from time to time, but she was willing to give things a shot, despite how odd it seemed to her. You could obviously tell she was vulnerable and wasn’t used to these things but I applaud her bravery.

While the passage of time is a bit vague and unclear, I loved how short each chapter was. It kept the momentum of the book going, kept me interested, and made it easier to tell myself “just one more chapter before I go to bed!” I ended up reading two or three more chapters, if that is any indication about how well the pacing of the book was written. Some events did come and go too quickly and I would’ve liked to get to know some of the secondary characters a bit more, particularly Laila’s new friend, Emmy. But this story isn’t about them. It’s about losing everything you’ve ever known, being thrown into a completely different world, trying to fit in, all the while finding out that your whole life was a lie. It’s about coming to terms that you don’t know everything, that your life will never be easy again, and how you can’t fix everything in a day. It’s most importantly about bravery. Bravery to experience something new, to step out of your comfort zone, to put on a brave face for your little brother who truly doesn’t know what is going on in the world, bravery to accept things you can’t control, bravery to try to control things you can.

As I mentioned, the plot was well paced and I loved getting to watch Laila experience the American way of life for the first time. Growing up here, you don’t realize how weird our customs are until someone else tells you it is! There was also a little mystery going on regarding Laila’s mother and the CIA that I enjoyed reading about. You never really know for certain what she is up to and whose side she is on. This subplot added more depth to the pages and made me want to know more and how it would ultimately affect Laila and her family.

THE TYRANT’S DAUGHTER is an important book to read, in my opinion. It shows just how privileged we are living in this country. It’s an eye opener and really makes you examine your life and the things we do without taking into account who we may be affecting along the way. There are people out there who have it far worse than we do, and this book and Laila’s story made me appreciate everything my family has done for me and how fortunate I am to be living the life I do. You really should read this book!

4 Thought Clouds
I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!


4 Responses to “The Tyrant’s Daughter: Exclusive Author Interview & Review”

  1. Cait

    I can’t WAIT for this book!! It looks sooo awesome (and I think my friend is giving me a copy! Whoohoo!) And I particularly like the sound of that new book the author is writing. Weird medical thriller? Um, heck yeah.

  2. Brandi Kosiner

    This story does sound very emotional and I am all about the heart wrenching, but that isn’t what I would expect with a title and summary either

  3. Natalie Natflixandbooks

    This is the second positive review I’ve read for this one, but it just doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. It’s awesome how it is a realistic look at the excess of American life, and I LOVE it when books have short chapters (I always end up reading more than I was planning, too). Argh. I don’t know, maybe I’ll give this a try. Great review!

Leave a Reply

(Enter your URL then click here to include a link to one of your blog posts.)