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Friday, July 22, 2022

Book Acquisition Interview With Aparna Verma (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


 Yesterday Orbit Books dropped a stunning announcement. They have signed on Aparna Verma and her indie debut The Boy With Fire. I was previously introduced to Aparna's writing when I got my hands on a copy of her debut. It was a complex epic fantasy with socio-political issues as well an intriguing magic system & world history.  Today Aparna joins me to chat a bit about her writing journey & how she got inspired to write her fantasy book. Read ahead to know about Aparna and her official trad published debut The Phoenix King.

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic Aparna. For starters, please introduce yourself, who is Aparna Verma?

AV: I’m a proud Indian-American writer who drinks too much tea, has a weird, obsessive fascination with desert kingdoms and forgotten myths, and dances (badly) to Bollywood music.
Q] Can tell us what inspired you to write and describe your journey to becoming a published author.

AV: I knew since I was young that I wanted to be a writer. One of my elementary school teachers reconnected with me a few months ago and showed me my “dream journal.” In it, I wrote that I wanted to write “storeys.” Well, I am doing that now, although with better spelling.

Stories (or storeys) were always my escape. I was the Indian immigrant who didn’t know English. I often felt uncomfortable and awkward in my skin. Fantasy books allowed me to escape from myself and enter a new world where I wasn’t the odd one out. The great irony is that although I am now a so-called “master” of the English language, despite being a non-native speaker, I still feel like the odd one out. But this doesn’t bother me as much as it did before. In fact, I’ve realized it’s made me, and my stories, more unique.

Q] My next question is about the genesis of The Phoenix King and how it occurred? How long have you been working on it? 

AV: I’ve been working on The Phoenix King (previously self-published as The Boy with Fire) for over 10 years. It started with a simple line: “Yassen the assassin goes on an adventure.” It has gotten deeper and far more complicated than that.

I was mainly inspired by modern-day politics and Hindu mysticism. Hindu epics are grand stories of morality, spirituality, love, and courage. But one story drew me in: the origin of Kali Ma and her chandikas. There are many versions, but my favorite is when the gods, in a time of great need, gave parts of themselves to form a being strong enough to defeat an evil demon. They created Kali Ma. And the great goddess created fearsome female warriors, her chandikas, and swept into battle, defeating the evil demon and his army. She went as far as drinking his blood so that he would not regenerate. 

At first glance, Kali Ma sounds scary. Vicious, even. But I blame western media and Indiana Jones for that. Despite her bloody origin, Kali Ma is a fierce, loving protector. She refuses to fit neatly in the boxes of good and evil. She transcends them. Her story, her chandikas, inspired the Phoenix goddess in The Phoenix King, as well as Elena and the Yumi.

The politics and religion in The Phoenix King resemble our own world. In 2020, when I finally decided to write the damn book, the world saw the rise of alt-right fanaticism and nationalism, not to mention a pandemic. In America and in India, we saw leaders abuse their powers. And as their statements grew more and more ludicrous, their ardent followers did not bat an eye. Instead, some grew even more dangerous, going as far as to storm the capital in Washington D.C. In The Phoenix King, religion and politics take center stage. We follow the story of a religious tyrant and meet his ardent followers (handily nicknamed the “gold caps.”) We also meet a princess who is set to inherit this damaged kingdom, who needs to quickly uphold the religious standard while also forging a path of her own. And then we meet an assassin who tries to turn a new page. He battles with his own faith, his dual identities, and his loyalties.

Q] You previously published your debut via the indie publishing route. Was this a specific choice? Were there any plans to try traditional publishing?

AV: I decided to first indie publish The Boy with Fire because I didn’t want to wait. I had my story. I believed in my story. I knew it would strike a chord, so I bet on myself. I gave myself a year and half to write, publish, and market my book. If it worked, then great. If it didn’t, then I would learn something valuable.

Lucky for me, it worked! The Boy with Fire, and now The Phoenix King, is the first South Asian adult fantasy to hit over 1 million views on TikTok. It’s been featured on NBC News and multiple book festivals and became a finalist 2022 International Book Awards. Now, I’m going down the traditional publishing route with Orbit, so let’s see what that brings!

Q] Since The Phoenix King is your first novel, what did you think was the most challenging part about writing the book? What about the easiest or most rewarding?

AV: The easiest part was drafting the book. The hardest was editing. I read the book so many times that by the time I was done, I was sick of it! In a loving way, of course. But I was tired of reading the same pages over and over again! But, I have to say, the most rewarding part of being an author, and especially the author of The Phoenix King, is seeing the fanart. I know every author says this, but I have the best readers. Full stop. They are so passionate and incredibly talented. Whenever I come across a new fanart, or a TikTok of the book, my heart leaps.

Q] In epic fantasy, some authors like to put an emphasis on characters or worldbuilding; others on storytelling. Where do you fit in this picture and what do you feel are your strengths as a writer? What about weakness or areas that you’d like to get stronger in, especially in future books?

AV: For me, I need to have strong, nuanced characters and intricate worldbuilding. If a fantasy book lacks that, I instantly stop reading. I think I’m pretty good at writing complex characters and intricate worlds. I do struggle with pacing though, but that’s something I’m acutely perfecting in Book 2.

Q] Your debut novel is the first volume in a trilogy. Could you give us a progress report on the sequel & offer any details about it, and outline your plans for the series as a whole?

AV: Book 2 is coming along! That’s all I can say, ha!

Q] For someone who hasn't read any of your novels, how would you describe the type of stories that you write? What would be your elevator pitch for The Ravence Trilogy?

AV: I write worlds where landscapes, like the desert, are their own characters. And the characters are deeply intertwined with that landscape. I write about immigrants, about people who live within the edges of identity, in the hyphens between Indian-American, Mexican-American, Chinese-American, etc. As a young girl, I’ve always been searching for a new home. It only makes sense that my characters are too.

Q] There seems to be a number of authors out there who are writing grittier, darker, more realistic fantasy books or are blatantly attempting to defy traditional tropes like R. Scott Bakker, Mark Lawrence, Richard Nell, Michael R. Fletcher, Anna Smith Spark, etc. What are your thoughts on this movement, the audience’s response to such books, and fantasy tropes in general?

AV: I’m biased, but there’s no better way to address our current world, modern-day politics, and socioeconomic issues than fantasy. I think you suspend some disbelief when you read fantasy. It seems like you’re reading about a foreign world where there are phoenix goddesses and firebenders. But as you read on, as you examine the text closer, you realize that this seemingly foreign world is not so unlike our own. I think it is that surprise that gets you. And it makes you feel more open to engaging in dialogue about religion, politics, gender, etc.

Q] For some authors it’s easier writing their second novel, while for others it’s more difficult. How are things going for you with book two and did you learn anything when writing The Phoenix King that helped prepare you for writing the sequel?

AV: It’s funny. Drafting The Boy with Fire was a piece of cake. Drafting Book 2 has been a battle. I was exhausted after debuting as an indie author, and though I’ll be debuting all over again next year with The Phoenix King, I’m wiser now. I now know how to protect my sanity and create space for myself to work uninhibited. The Boy with Fire, or now called The Phoenix King, taught me to love my story. To treasure my characters. I think that’s a valuable lesson because when you don’t love your story, it instantly falls apart. I honestly do cherish my characters, as chaotic and broken as they might seem. Book 2 amps up the anti and puts our characters in even more troubling situations that push them beyond their limits, for better and for worse.
Q] Thank you for your time and for answering my questions Aparna. What new surprise lie ahead for your debut book?

AV: The cover! It’s going to be so epic and gorgeous. I can’t wait for you all to see it!



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