New Voice: Miriam Forster on City of a Thousand Dolls

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Miriam Forster is the first-time author of City of a Thousand Dolls (HarperTeen, 2013)(Pinterest inspiration board). From the promotional copy:

Nisha was abandoned at the gates of the City of a Thousand Dolls when she was just a child. Now sixteen, she lives on the grounds of the isolated estate, where orphan girls apprentice as musicians, healers, courtesans, and, if the rumors are true, assassins. 

Nisha makes her way as Matron’s assistant, her closest companions the mysterious cats that trail her shadow. 

Only when she begins a forbidden flirtation with the city’s handsome young courier does she let herself imagine a life outside the walls. Until one by one, girls around her start to die.

Before she becomes the next victim, Nisha decides to uncover the secrets that surround the girls’ deaths. But by getting involved, Nisha jeopardizes not only her own future in the City of a Thousand Dolls—but her own life.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

Nisha came about after I had the original idea for City of a Thousand Dolls. I had imagined this place where girls would be trained in all kinds of different things, where everyone had a place and a purpose. Then I asked myself what would happen if you had someone in this place who didn’t have much of a purpose or place at all. What kind of person would they become?

Originally Nisha was much too passive. She reacted a lot instead of taking initiative. I had to make her more proactive without losing the emotional vulnerability and honest human frailty that I felt was so key to her character. It was a hard balance for me to find, but it was important to me that she not be “strong” in the traditional female fantasy heroine way. I wanted her to make mistakes and stumble around and need help sometimes because we all do.

There is immense strength in not giving up, there is strength in fixing your mistakes and accepting your past. And that strength isn’t related to whether or not you can kick ass.

With Kona AKA “Sneaky Weasel Cat”

Also, sometimes character development can sneak up on you. The original ending was riddled with problems and I had to rewrite it quite a bit, but one thing that it had was a scene where Nisha does the classic, detective-analyzes-the-clues bit, and figures out the killer. But in the rewritten ending, she ends up more stumbling into the solution than anything else. I didn’t do that on purpose, in fact I didn’t even realize I’d done it until people started commenting on it. But I think it fits with who Nisha is in the book. She doesn’t fix things by being smarter or better than anyone else. She fixes them by refusing to give up until she does.

And then there are the cats. My favorite comment about the book so far is that it can turn anyone into a cat person. I’ve heard that quite a bit, and it makes me happy.

Cats are in my blood. I grew up with them, there were always at least two or three around when I was a kid. As much as I like dogs, there’s something about cats that just appeals to me. I like their independence, and how they ask for what they want. How they can go from cuddly and affectionate to ferocious hunters in the blink of an eye. They seemed like the perfect companions for Nisha, who is also independent and determined, and far fiercer than she realizes.

(As for the antagonist, I can’t tell you anything. It’s a secret.)

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts?

A bit of both. Originally I’d envisioned the book as being about expectations and how they shape people, but in the course of writing the first draft, I realized it was much more about different kinds of love and how they react when faced with human frailty. That part never really changed during rewrites.

Miriam’s work station

But the secondary themes and the real world things, those sneaked up on me.

(Other authors have muses that come and whisper to them. My muse likes to hide behind doors and jump out at me and yell “boo!”.)

The most obvious one was the idea that girls in this society were considered less valuable than boys. And that happened because I had to answer the question “Why is there a city dedicated to training orphaned and abandoned girls?”

I wish I could say that answer was hard to find, or that I had to think a lot about how to make it believable. But I didn’t.

I’d already figured out that the Bhinian Empire had been isolated by a magic catastrophe, so it made sense that there would be a restriction on the number of children people could have. And sadly, there is ample evidence in the world today that when you have to choose between having boys and having girls, girls lose out. The effects of China’s one-child policy is the most obvious example, but there are others, and I found them in my path wherever I turned.

The Bhinian Empire is a South Asian-inspired world. Specifically, I took a lot of cultural cues from the ancient Indus River valley civilization and from pre-colonization India. And unfortunately, the value of girls in India is falling. In 2006, my husband went to India and visited several orphanages. He was surprised by the overwhelming number of girls there, and was told that many of them were not orphans, but simply abandoned by parents who could not afford their dowries.

In 2011, USA today ran an article about over two hundred girls who changed their names. These girls had all been named some variation of “unwanted” by family members who’d been hoping for a boy. The New York Times ran an article in October about gender politics in India, and said that even though literacy and education for girls is getting better, the ratio of girls to boys continues to fall.

Miriam’s favorite food: soup!

So it was all too believable that in a world with a two-child limit, there would be a city dedicated to orphaned and abandoned girls. There are some problematic things about the City of a Thousand Dolls that are revealed in the book, but one constant is that most of the people who work there really believe that they’re doing what they have to in order to protect the girls in their care. Because no one else will.

Honestly, my favorite secondary characters are the girls in the City. I love how they’re all different and that’s okay. They have all kinds of skills and talents. Some of them love to learn and some of them love to dance. Some of them are shy and some of them are confident. Some of them match the standards of physically beauty in the society and some of them don’t, but that’s okay.

All of them are different, and all of them are beautiful.

I didn’t start out to write a book about a bunch of female characters who are full of secrets and brokenness and mistakes but still manage to be strong in different ways. But that was kind of what I ended up with. And I’m okay with that.

“Enough books! Pet me!”

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Miriam Forster on City of a Thousand Dolls

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on your book. I have been eagerly awaiting the release of a City of a Thousand Dolls. After reading this article, I am even more excited to read. I watched a 20/20 show a few years ago about the plight of girls in India and began writing my own story about the same subject. After more research I was so overwhelmed for the plight of these girls!
    I can't wait to read City of a Thousand Dolls!

  2. I just bought this book at the bookstore, so I'm excited to see it featured!! I've been waiting for it ever since I first heard about it. I started reading it before I left the bookstore!

  3. Loved the interview. I know about China's one child policy because I adopted by daughter from there and wondered about this influence in reading an ARC of Miriam's book. I also know a bit about India as I was there many years ago. But I loved learning more here, though it's sad how the world treats girls.

    I was lucky to get an ARC for my interview of Miriam yesterday. It's fantastic! I'm so excited for Miriam. I've been following her blog for years.

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