With her stunning debut Wings of Ebony, J. Elle introduced readers to Rue, a young girl from Houston who discovers she’s from a lineage of gods in a magical world called Ghizon. Becoming an instant New York Times bestseller, Wings of Ebony garnered a huge fanbase, including us here at Nerdist. Elle’s the kind of storyteller who creates worlds you want to lose yourself in. And with Rue, she crafted a new unforgettable fantasy heroine. A year later, she’s back with the epic conclusion of Rue’s story, Ashes of Gold. To celebrate the highly-anticipated sequel we chatted with Elle over email about continuing Rue’s journey, love triangles, and the power of fantasy storytelling.
Nerdist: Wings of Ebony was such a massive success. What was it like to become an instant NYT Bestseller and see so many people fall in love with Rue and the world you created?
J. Elle: It was unreal. I’m still pinching myself. I never dreamed I’d be able to write books at all one day. So to not only accomplish something like that and have my debut novel end up doing so well floored me! I am so thrilled that I get to tell another story from Rue’s world. Ashes of Gold is a different story, but so much more of the magical world is in this story, so it’ll be fun to see readers deepen their understanding of the unstoppable heroine they fell in love with in book one.
Ashes of Gold is such a vital continuation and conclusion of Rue’s story. Did you always know there’d be a second book, or was that something that happened naturally while writing Wings of Ebony?
I’d always imagined Rue’s story told in two iterations. Though the heart of Ashes of Gold evolved on the page in real time. I always knew the central conflict she would face—dealing with the Chancellor—but how she approached that and the personal journey she had to go on to get there came to me as I developed the story. Once I’d figured out that I wanted book two to be an exploration of worthiness and self-love, I was able to figure out how the plot would unfold fairly quickly. I completed the first draft in about six weeks I believe.
We get to really learn more about Ghizon and Rue’s ancestry in Ashes of Gold. How much fun was that for you to dig into?
It was a lot of fun. I was living vicariously through Rue at times. Can you imagine, digging into your roots and finding out your ancestors wielded magic? There were bittersweet moments as I explored Rue’s history, much like when I explored my own personal family history. But I tried to give Rue space to have power over things so often out of our control. That’s my favorite thing about fantasy—creating seemingly impossible possibilities.
Just like Wings of Ebony, Ashes of Gold does a brilliant job of balancing themes of racism, privilege, and marginalization with high fantasy and inspires conversations around them. Why does fantasy offer up such fertile ground for telling a story like Rue’s?
Fantasy provides a means of escape for so many of its readers. The idea that you could create something completely imaginative and steep deeply in it, is so enthralling to me. I wanted to try to mesh that escapist experience with a narrative that explored some very tough topics. Many teens are very aware of what’s going on in the world, far more aware than many adults give them credit. And I wanted to create a narrative work of fiction that gave them an opportunity to explore some of those harsher realities one step removed from themselves. Fantasy provided the perfect veneer.
Something I found really profound in this book was Rue’s journey to learn how to trust those around her and to trust her own role in her story in the face of massive opposition and against terrifying odds. Why was that such an important part of her journey?
Trust is a hard thing for many. But especially for someone, like Rue, who has only had a small circle (community) that she’s been able to rely on. Rue’s hard shell is a symptom of her tendency to distrust outsiders, those she doesn’t really know. And I have a lot of respect for the way Rue protects herself. I also completely understand why her walls are up. But, I wanted to explore the many nuances of her closed-offness. She isn’t only wary of trusting others, she struggles to trust herself. And that fascinated me. This girl who seems self-assured and all powerful is actually quite unsure of herself and vulnerable. I hope that juxtaposition snags readers in a relatable way.
When you were writing Ashes of Gold was there anything that surprised you as the story took shape? Any character who took unexpected precedence or became an unexpected favorite as the story evolved?
I think the most surprising part of writing Ashes of Gold was how much Rue led the story. I was really curious to see how I could grow a heroine that was so seemingly self-assured and “unstoppable.” So I found myself pleasantly surprised to see how much Rue still needed to learn. One of my favorite parts of the way the story fit together is how the love interests, Julius and Jhamal, aren’t just eye candy but they both play an integral part in Rue’s journey. It felt like a nod to the people we allow into our lives. They end up influencing, shaping us and we them. So it was really neat to see the love triangle unfold in a way that really undergirded the heart of the story.
Is there a moment, page turn, or character beat that you’re most excited for readers to experience now the book is out there?
In Ashes of Gold I made an intentional pivot to widen the scope of Rue’s story. I have seen Black heroines, Black characters, be boxed into this idea that they exist on the pages of a story to battle racism. To be the hero. And I didn’t want that to be the only presentation I gave readers because Black characters—Black people—exist to do more than fight racism. It was imperative for me to be super intentional about that message in Ashes of Gold and make the final iteration of Rue’s story reflect a wider breadth of her humanity. I’m so excited for readers to walk in Rue’s shoes as she’s just a teenage girl. As she gets to have a crush. As she gets to be kissed. As she gets to be a kid. While also being a fiery, magic-wielding, “superhero.”
I’m also dying to see what readers make of the love triangle! When it comes to Rue’s true love are they TeamJulius or TeamJhamal?
Now that the duology is done, what do you hope that young readers—and readers of all ages—will take away from Rue’s story?
Ashes of Gold is such a different book than Wings of Ebony. I set out to give readers something different and fresh because sometimes a sequel can feel like a letdown if it’s too much of the same as book one. So there are new characters, much more of the magical world, new mysteries to explore. But the thread that binds both books is that there are many teachable moments intentionally paralleled to real history. I won’t spoil anything from Ashes of Gold, but I’ll say that readers will be wow’d with just how twisty the story is. They’ll find more and more surprises the further they read. And isn’t that the beauty of learning? Discovery! I want reluctant teen readers to expect books to be enthralling. To expect learning to be immersive and all-consuming and fun!
More specifically, Ashes of Gold is a story of worthiness and love in its many nuances. Love isn’t some altruistic, colorful, hollow platitude. It is a real, tangible, affecting reality that impacts everything, even, yes—classrooms. It’s love that fuels those extra hard working teachers. You know the ones. They’re going above and beyond to bring their curriculum alive for their students to foster an unforgettable learning experience. It’s love that fuels community leaders working tirelessly to bring about systemic change. Love is powerful and that’s something I explore very intimately in Ashes of Gold, in hopes that readers walk away from its pages understanding they are worthy love, the highest and most resilient, and unwavering sort of love.
Both Wings of Ebony and Ashes of Gold are available now wherever you buy books.