For writers, inspiration can come from anywhere: a tweet, an overheard conversation, or even an epic poem. Debut author Shannon Price found the inspiration for her YA novel A Thousand Fires after reading the Iliad in college. A Thousand Fires follows Valerie on her quest for vengeance after her brother’s death. To celebrate the book’s release, Price shared how reading the Iliad and moving to San Francisco helped to shape Valerie’s story.
It was required reading. In a required course, no less. I was a freshman in college and bought a copy of the Iliad along with the rest of my textbooks, angrily muttering at how heavy the damn book was.
That damn book now has a place of honor on my bookshelf, alongside the book it inspired, A Thousand Fires—my debut novel.
As the class began that cool September, I was hooked by the epic in a way I had never before been hooked by a book I was required to read. I visualized every battle, reveled in the interactions between the gods and men, and was genuinely pained by the tragic scenes penned centuries ago. The Iliad had so many layers, and such a richness to the narrative that it boggles my mind how it continues to be “the other Homer epic,” while the Odyssey drinks up the limelight. Here there were massive battles, scheming gods, and gorgeous imagery that lit up the pages like the thousand Trojan fires watching ominously over the Greeks.
Every chapter was saturated with inspiration, but between the bloodshed and winding speeches from kings, something quieter stood out to me: the characters’ mistakes that drove the story were fundamentally human. Divine intervention aside, the whole conflict is caused by Helen and Paris falling in love—what a human thing to do. The biggest heartbreak of the poem comes after Patroclus dons Achilles’ armor to help rouse the Greeks in a time of need—blind bravery for a greater good. Patroclus dies because Hector believes him to be Achilles—what a basic, human mistake to think someone is someone else.
It was this humanness that stuck in my mind long after the class ended. Years later, after college, I kept my well-broken-in copy the Iliad close by as I moved to the outskirts of San Francisco. I had queried a YA fantasy in college, but had decided to retire the project and set about writing another one. But even as I wrote and then queried my new manuscript to moderate success, something about it felt forced.
What didn’t feel forced was the timelessness of the Iliad, of two sides clashing together–each with noble ambitions and each secure in their belief that they were in the right. Once I moved to San Francisco, it didn’t take long for me to find fresh inspiration from my daily life. What I saw back then became a line in A Thousand Fires in which my main character Valerie muses, “If there is ever a place where two opposing forces meet, it’s on the streets of San Francisco.”
The socio-economic disparity in San Francisco is a well-documented phenomenon, but with the introduction of giant tech corporations, that gap has widened dramatically. Although I grew up outside of the city, the short time I spent living and working there exposed me to this stark dichotomy on a daily basis: homeless men and women trying to keep warm while young startup employees with Airpods in and backpacks full of technology stride by without a second glance. It hurt to see back then. It still does.
Like the screeching movement of a BART train, the wheels of my mind began to turn. I began thinking up a plot the way many writers do—I started asking questions. What if someone fought back against the changes they saw in their city? Could one person really make a difference? What if two sides physically clashed and fought, hearts burning with a cause they truly believe in? (That sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?)
All at once, I had a story.
In October of 2015, I started writing a book that felt effortless. I remember that particular timestamp because I later went back and took a screenshot of a text I sent to a friend at that time: “If I can pull this off, it’ll be the best thing I’ve ever written.”
Having a source material as boundless as the Iliad was simultaneously very convenient for a newer writer and monstrously challenging. I wanted my story to honor the text without being a cookie-cutter, scene-for-scene retelling. Some characters came to me as direct parallels of their Iliad counterparts. My Achilles figure Jax, for one, was an absolute blast to write and one of the easiest. He had to be tremendously attractive but stubborn, kindly towards those he loved but vicious to his enemies all in the same breath.
Other characters, like Valerie, were more fluid depending on how I needed them to be in a particular scene. Valerie’s actions mirror those of gods in one scene and of no Iliad figure in another. Valerie’s need for revenge—intermixed with a desperate desire to heal from past trauma—is the driving force of the story. I could always come back to Valerie. What does she need in this moment? Who does she need to be?
The modern setting, themes of grief and social justice, and socioeconomic tension of A Thousand Fires are rooted in reality. The characters, the rage, and the clash of two warring sides are rooted in the Iliad. A Thousand Fires is my nod to both truths: one of a city I hold dear and the other of a timeless, epic poem.
And who knows? Maybe one day it’ll be some hopeful writer’s required reading.
Shannon Price is a proud Filipina-American and Bay Area native. She once led an a cappella group for three years despite not knowing how to read music, and she carries that same level of confidence in every area of her life. When not writing, she can be found watching baking shows, exploring old bookstores, and going to the beach as often as she can. Shannon currently works in the ever-harried Silicon Valley. A Thousand Fires is her first novel.