INTERVIEW // Take Five with Natasha Ngan, author of Girls of Paper and Fire

Today on the blog, I’m delighted to be hosting a Q&A with author Natasha Ngan as part of my ongoing Take Five interview series!

As ever, my questions are in bold, with Natasha’s answers in plain text.

20180428-DSC04172_edit-cropNatasha Ngan is a writer and yoga teacher. She grew up between Malaysia, where the Chinese side of her family is from, and the UK. This multicultural upbringing continues to influence her writing; she is passionate about bringing diverse stories to teens. Natasha studied Geography at the University of Cambridge before working as a social media consultant and fashion blogger. She recently moved to Paris, where she likes to imagine she drifts stylishly from brasserie to brasserie, notepad in one hand, wineglass in the other. In reality, she spends most of her time getting lost on the metro and confusing locals with her French.

Set the scene: Can you tell blog readers something about where you are right now? 

Natasha Ngan: I’m sitting at my desk in my little studio apartment in Paris, looking out at rooftops and a beautiful blue sky! It sounds idyllic – except there’s two different sets of works going on in my block of flats, so the air is filled with the rumble and squeal of drilling, and people are shouting angrily in French in the street below. However, I have a cup of tea nearby and am wrapped up in blankets, so I’m pretty cosy!

160701411. Girls of Paper and Fire is the start of a new series. What makes this book different from your previous books (The Elites and The Memory Keepers)?

NN: GIRLS is my first fantasy book, which is funny since that’s the first genre I fell in love with and have spent so much time since young creating various fantasy worlds to lose myself in! I also feel like GIRLS is the most personal of my books to date. It’s own voices in more ways than one – the Asian-inspired world, queer characters, the theme of sexual abuse. So it feels pretty vulnerable offering up this story to the world! But I’ve been so overwhelmed by the response so far, and to see readers connecting with something that means so much to me is just incredible.

2. What served as your inspiration for Lei’s story? What kind of research did you do to build her world?

RNN: With Ikhara, I wanted to create a world that felt completely authentic and real to me as a person who has Chinese heritage but isn’t from mainland China. My mother’s side of the family is from Malaysia, and we spent a lot of time there when I was young so I could grow up surrounded by the languages and cultures that my mum is familiar with. But I’m also half English and was born in the UK. So I really wanted a fantasy world that had all these different influences and really celebrated them.

Research-wise, I’m lucky as a lot of things in Ikhara have come directly from my own memories and experiences, so during the writing many details such as clothes, superstitions and symbolism, architectural styles, language and food (LOTS of food!) are things I’m already familiar with. While I was dreaming up the world and story, however, I did do lots of research into the history of the regions I’m drawing from and brushed up on various mythologies and folklore too.

181965163. By the time Girls of Paper and Fire releases, it will have been four years since your last book was published. What do you feel you’ve learned about writing in that time?

NN: SO MUCH! And if you ask me this question again a few more books down the line, I’m sure I’ll say the exact same thing! I love how writing is a skill that constantly evolves alongside you. Not just in style and technique, but also in topics, ideas, the whole being of writing – it’s always changing, just as we are. If I had to rewrite GIRLS today, I’ve no doubt it would come out very differently, since it’s been almost four years since that first draft!

I’ve definitely learnt more about the craft over the past few years. I’m an instinctive writer and a total panster, so I struggle to explain the hows and whys of my writing, particularly whilst I’m actually writing. But I’ve made an effort to study and explore the technique of it more, listening to how other writers work, reading craft books, watching YouTube videos that break down why good films work etc. So even if I’m not consciously applying them, my subconscious is hopefully doing it for me!

4. As well as writing for teens, you’re also a fashion blogger and yoga teacher. Do you ever feel that you’re contributing to the pressure on young women to look a certain way by being involved in the fashion industry? Does that background ever affect your writing?

NN: This is such an interesting question! I actually think blogging back in its youth moved against those pressures by showcasing different looks, styles, shapes and personalities, particularly those underrepresented in mainstream media. Sadly, as blogging has become commercialised and social media use has exploded, it’s lost that quality. I don’t really blog much anymore, and that’s a big reason for it. Now I’m happy just sharing the odd picture here and there on Instagram with little snippets of my life in Paris.

On the other hand, being a yoga teacher is all about empowering your students to look after themselves from the inside out, and becoming confident and comfortable with who they are. I’ve struggled with anxiety since young, especially surrounding my chronic genetic health condition, and yoga has helped me enormously to be at peace within myself and whatever is going on in my body. These issues definitely come into what I write. GIRLS is a lot about inner strength and reclaiming your body after others have controlled and abused you, and I hope these messages come across positively.

5. Finally, can you tell us what’s next for you (and for Lei)?

NN: I’ve just finished the first draft of book two in the GIRLS trilogy! It was an … experience. There’s still a lot of work to come of course, but I’m actually very happy with the direction the story takes and the new characters, settings and conflicts book two explores. [BLOGGER’S NOTE: What comes next is a mild spoiler for Girls of Paper and Fire. If you’re not lucky enough to have read the book yet, skip over the white out. Highlight it at your peril!] Without giving away too much, I can tell you that Lei and a certain someone have escaped the palace, and they’ll be travelling all across Ikhara in a bid to secure allies for the upcoming war.There’s a big cast of new characters to fall in love with (I hope!) and we’ll see Lei learn and grow from what happened to her in book one, as well as explore the ethical dilemnas of the dark side of what she’s got herself caught up with. I can’t wait for readers to continue her journey! 

Thanks to Natasha for this fantastic and detailed interview! Girls of Paper and Fire is out on November 6th 2018 in the USA and March 21st 2019 in the UK and Ireland. On that note, there’s a special postscript from Natasha for readers in the US: 

Oh and I’m also coming to the US on a tour in November to celebrate the release of GIRLS! I’d love to meet you and chat all the bookish things. I’ll be posting up my tour dates very shortly over on my website. Please do come say hi!

———–

39449484Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for… and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, traumatised by the loss of her mother. Now, the guards who took her mother are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after. 

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

Is Girls of Paper and Fire on your TBR? Let us know in comments down below!

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Most Anticipated Reads of 2019

Today on The Paper Alchemist, it’s time to peel back the curtain and look ahead to some of the most exciting releases of 2019!

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

Hands down my most anticipated title of early 2019 is Samantha Shannon’s standalone high fantasy novel The Priory of the Orange Tree. There’s some terrific worldbuilding in her Bone Season series, from its different levels of clairvoyance to its inventive use of Victorian-style gang nicknames, so I was pleased to hear that she’s swapping dystopia (bleh, one of my least favourite genres) for high fantasy (YAY, one of my faves). Just some of the things that have me intrigued: it’s set in a world with bioluminescent dragons, the cover art is amazing, it has four narrators including a queen in a matriarchy, the book is the size of a brick, and DID I MENTION THE DRAGONS?

The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth, the sequel to 2017’s much-awaited and highly dramatic His Dark Materials sequel La Belle Sauvage, was also on my list of most anticipated books of 2018. It never materialised then, so back on the list it goes. According to reports, we’ll finally get to see Lyra again, this time as an adult, probably working with the alethiometer, as well as characters we first met in La Belle Sauvage, like good-hearted Malcolm, and of course, those world-famous daemons.

The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi

The New York Times bestselling author of The Star-Touched Queen, A Crown of Wishes and Aru Shah and the End of Time returns to YA with The Gilded Wolves, a historical novel set in the darkly glamourous world of late nineteenth-century Paris. Séverin Montagnet-Alarie is a treasure hunter, wealthy hotelier and keeper of dangerous secrets. When the powerful Order of Babel seeks his help, he is offered a chance at recovering his true inheritance. To find the artefact they seek, he must bind together a ragtag collection of misfits, including an engineer, a historian, a dancer and his brother in all but blood. As you may have seen, I struggled to get into the likes of Leigh Bardugo’s books, so maybe this historical treasure hunt will be more my kind of thing.

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Fierce Fragile Hearts by Sara Barnard

Sara Barnard writes such resonant and enjoyable contemporary UKYA. I adored the warm, romantic love story of A Quiet Kind of Thunder; I was surprised by the dexterous and unputdownable Goodbye, Perfect.With Fierce Fragile Hearts, Barnard returns to the world of her very first book, Beautiful Broken Things, which focused on the intense friendship between three teenage girls. Sheltered Caddy, outgoing Rosie, and whirlwind Suzanne look set to return – this time from Suzanne’s perspective, set two years after the first book, with Caddy and Rosie are about to start university. I can’t wait to get hold of this sequel in spring.

Enchantée by Gita Trelease

Back in Paris, next on the list is another historical novel – this time set on the simmering eve of the French Revolution, with added fantasy twists. Orphan Camille relies on petty magic (“la magie ordinaire”) to provide for herself and her siblings. After an apparent betrayal, she decides to risk dark magic and to pursue a richer, more dangerous mark: the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Some of my favourite books of 2018 were historical fiction and historical fantasy (albeit from the children’s section), so this has the potential to be fabulous.

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Song of the Abyss by Makiia Lucier

Makiia Lucier’s Isle of Blood and Stone was one of my anticipated reads of 2018, perhaps the most anticipated by a new-to-me author, and it turned out to be one of best fantasy books I read in the first half of the year. Song of the Abyss is set in the same world (it’s apparently being termed the Tower of Winds series) but is described as a companion novel rather than a straight-up sequel. Still, I’m intrigued as it promises some more of the things I liked best about Isle of Blood and Stone – exploring, secretive kingdoms, a high-stakes mystery – and this time with a female lead.

Paper Avalanche by Lisa Williamson

Another book initially slated for a 2018 release, the pushed-back Paper Avalanche instead makes it into the 2019 publishing slate in January. Lisa Williamson’s debut The Art of Being Normal received critical acclaim, while the exuberant All About Mia proved that second book syndrome was no match for this accomplished contemporary writer. Paper Avalanche seems reminiscent of Susin Nielsen’s No Fixed Address, with guarded protagonist Stevie juggling crushes, the temptation of friendship and her love of music with one big secret. The house where Stevie tells people to drop her off, No. 56? She doesn’t live there at all.

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Izzy + Tristan by Shannon Dunlap

I am, as a general rule, wary of YA retellings of stories as old as this. Reimaginings of Romeo and Juliet tend to rely too much on instalove; reworkings of the love affair of Guinevere and Lancelot can seem clunky. It just seems that taking them out of their medieval or early modern context and into a teenage experience is a bit of a wrestling match. And yet, rather like the irresistible forces which brings these figures together, I am tempted back into the world of retellings every couple of years. I can’t wait to find out if someone can finally do the stories justice. Izzy + Tristan is a reimagining of the Arthur-adjacent myth of Tristan and Iseult. Set in modern-day Brooklyn, Tristan is a chess prodigy who meets Izzy, a practical-minded teenager who wants to become a doctor.

Serious Moonlight by Jenn Bennett

I was surprised by how much I liked Jenn Bennett’s Night Owls, and in the absence (so far) of an announced 2019 title from big-hitters of contemporary USYA like Sarah Dessen, Morgan Matson or Stephanie Perkins, this book is filling the gap. Serious Moonlight is the story of sheltered Birdie and gregarious Daniel, two teenagers who start summer jobs at a Seattle hotel and stumble upon a mystery surrounding a reclusive author. It will have to strike a careful balance between quirky and thoughtful to avoid the pitfall of pretentiousness which sometimes plagues talky, character-centric contemporaries like this, but if it does, it could be really enjoyable.

The True Queen by Zen Cho

When I reviewed Zen Cho’s near-brilliant fantasy opener Sorcerer to the Crown earlier this year, I bemoaned the fact that the release date of the sequel had been pushed back again and again – but there is one upside, in that it can now be included in my 2019 list of anticipated reads. The world of this series is undoubtedly one of its best features: there’s something so engrossing about an alternate Regency London where a decadent aristocracy meet an unruly Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers. It’s also the second (third if you count Pullman’s widely-appealing Secret Commonwealth) adult fiction title on this list, and perhaps indicates that historical fantasy really is becoming my jam…

What books are you looking forward to reading in 2019? Do you have any recommendations I should add to the list?

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