The following conversation is part of our Beyond The Bio series, featuring conversations between teens and authors they love. If you're a teen who'd like to participate, please click here to find out how we can connect you with authors you love. Today's guests include high school sophomore Michael S. and Shamim Sarif, author of Athena Protocol--out next month.
Michael: Hello there! I have recently finished reading The Athena Protocol and I must say this book had me hooked from beginning to end. Could you give readers a brief explanation of what they should expect from your book?
Shamim: The Athena Protocol gave me an exciting way to explore the choices that we all have to make a difference in the world. And I asked myself—what if three successful women decided they’d had enough of charity lunches and UN ambassador roles? What if they decided to take on trafficking and other issues that governments don’t have the will or resources to deal with? What if they were so determined, that they took the law into their own hands, using young female agents and the latest technology? Crossing those lines comes with a lot of stress and responsibility.
The fact that Jessie and her teammates are very young women just trying to figure out who they are, makes that responsibility even more mighty. Jessie’s super smart and highly skilled when it comes to wielding weapons but, emotionally, she has to navigate all the highs and lows, attractions and confusions, that every teen goes through. I liked the disconnect between the amazing spycraft that Jessie pulls off, and her own inner uncertainties.
I also wanted a female spy agency that brought in some emotional intelligence in the way they treat their agents. The Athena founders are tough bosses but they’re also there to pick up the pieces when their young agents experience trauma.
Michael: You have written a few novels in the past but none seem to come even close to the spy/thriller genre. What made you interested in taking such a huge change in your writing?
Shamim: There are elements that all my novels have had in common – a social justice backdrop, diverse characters, and protagonists who are quite different by the end of the story than they were when they began it. All of that holds true for The Athena Protocol. But writing a thriller with plenty of action was a real challenge but one that I felt was right for the stories I wanted to tell. I loved getting the reversals and twists right, and for us to be uncovering the mission in real time with Jessie. Most importantly, I wanted it to be a thriller that had characters you care about and remember. Jessie starts out a little arrogant and immature. Her journey is about taking down a human trafficker, but along the way, she learns some humility and to grow up a bit too.
Michael: Jessie has been groomed to be a spy since she was 15 years old. If things were different, what other job do you imagine for her?
Shamim: I don’t think there’s another job out there that would stretch Jessie the way being a secret agent does—she gets to use her reflexes, to think her way out of death traps and to hack into information that leads to the truth. But if Athena closed down, I think Jessie’s too renegade to make it in conventional law enforcement. I think she’d end up being a hacker and then creating a technology company.
Michael: My favorite part of the book was definitely during Kit's concert when Jessie and Paulina are subtly flirting while simultaneously spying. What’s your favorite scene?
Shamim: I liked that one too, because there’s more than one thing happening—Jessie’s busy trying to make the mission add up, but meanwhile, she can’t think straight around Paulina. It adds layers and even more danger. Another of my favourite scenes comes after Jessie is fired in the early part of the book and decides to go rogue. She has to con her way back into Athena and use her friendship with Amber, the head of tech, to break in and take her own IDs and weapons. Again, the emotional drama of betrayal is as tense as the way Jessie has to avoid alarms and cameras to get what she needs.
Michael: Hala is extremely guarded about her feelings and emotions, which makes it hard to see her break down and show emotion. What advice would you give to teens who struggle to show their emotions?
Shamim: For Hala, being quiet and terse is a coping mechanism—it’s like she’s afraid that opening the door a crack would let out a flood. But it’s a release she needs as well. I get that. Growing up LGBTQ+ in a fairly religious household, there was a lot I kept very deep inside. Now I’m older, with teenage boys, I wish I could tell every teen that it’s okay, all of it. Whatever you are feeling now, however hard it feels in this moment, it will pass. And in the meantime, it’s fine to express yourself and talk it out. Fewer people judge you than you expect, and if they do—it really doesn’t matter. Be kind to yourself.
Michael: This book reminded me of the Bourne series. What thriller film would you recommend to fans of your book?
Shamim: That’s a good reference—I wanted The Athena Protocol to have the realistic, European, honest feel of the Bourne films, with an emotional centre. Other action thrillers that I like are The Fugitive, and also the original Die Hard. Both had good plots but even better character arcs and relationships. That’s the ultimately satisfying story for me.
Michael: I hear you’ve already written the sequel. Is there anything you can tell us about the next book?
Shamim: With the sequel, I really wanted to push the envelope in terms of plot and character. This book finds Jessie and the team in India looking out for schools that rescue girls from child marriages. It’s a terrific, colourful location. But something even more sinister is going on and Jessie follows these leads, without realizing she’s being led into a web that ends in a terrible dilemma—and choice she makes will change her forever.