Described as a cross between Dune and The Poppy War, The Boy With Fire is the first in a brand new, South Asian-inspired fantasy trilogy. Three weeks before the book's debut on August 31st, we sat down with author Aparna Verma to talk about the characters, plotline, and inspirations that drive the story of The Boy With Fire.
note: this interview contains multiple spoilers for The Boy With Fire by Aparna Verma
Alefiya: How about we start off with a little introduction? You can tell us a little bit about yourself.
Aparna: Yeah. Well, my name is Aparna Verma. I use she/her pronouns and I'm the author of The Boy With Fire. I am an Indian immigrant, so I came to America from India when I was two years old. I lived in Baltimore almost all of my life growing up on tales of the Ramayana* and the Mahabharata*, and then going to, like, Sunday temple, like most of the time, or having my parents dragging me over and me complaining. But now, as I was starting to write my book, I realized just how important those stories, especially like Hindu mythology, was to me because it played an integral role when I was writing The Boy With Fire and understanding the themes of the world, the world-building, and also ultimately the trajectory of the trilogy. I think if you really study Hindu mythology, You might figure out what happens with the whole trilogy.
Alefiya: Wow, that’s cool. I guess I can relate to that on a level because I'm also starting to draft my own novel. I'm predominantly raised Muslim because that's my dad's faith and I'm like, taking a lot of like Arabic words and changing the ending of them and like throwing them into my book and stuff like that. I think it's so rich when you've grown up with the culture and then you get to just like take it in your own way and then put it into your own world and it's so awesome. I love that, I think it's something special that we have, that we get to do.
Aparna: Yeah, I think it's a great way to celebrate our culture and heritage, as well as our roots, I think. Western literature for a very long time has not had the opportunity to really glorify and understand Eastern cultures. And you know, when they do, it's like a short mention like in Harry Potter. The secondary characters that you know are, quote-unquote, you know, diverse and have these epic cultures, but we don't really learn too much about it because they're the other. So I think we're seeing the shift in literature where a lot of BIPOC writers, a lot of South Asian writers are taking, like, you know, what we've grown up with and shoving it in Western literature’s face.
Alefiya: As we should. (laughs)
Aparna: (laughs) Yeah, exactly, because I think people are just missing out on, like you said very rich storytelling. I think it's insane that a lot of people don't understand, like, the jinn* or the ifrits*, or even anything about Krishna* or Kali Ma*. Like, she's so epic, you know, and I think as a reader, I love to learn about different cultures so I think the younger generations are really open to reading books that are outside of the traditional Western perspective. I hope my readers are like that too.
Alefiya: So, speaking of your readers, let’s talk about your debut. It’s basically three weeks away- how are you feeling?
Aparna: Yes, yes, 19 days. I’m nervous, I don’t think I’m quite ready yet. But I love talking to readers, you know, I love making space and time for them, because I think the more you give to the community, the more it gives back. I find it gratifying to know that people are reading the book, and are loving it. I love that, you know, people from Croatia are reading The Boy With Fire and loving it. And I think books are meant to be shared, no matter what culture it originates from. If it's a good book, anyone from anywhere can understand and enjoy it. But I think it's a special gift for me, when people with a South Asian heritage, pick up the book and see themselves in it because for the longest time, I never saw myself the books I read, so it's nice to turn the tables a little bit.
Alefiya: Yeah, when [my friend] told me about The Boy With Fire, I was like, ‘This is so cool!’ and I immediately added to my list. It’s so rare that BIPOC can see themselves in media in a nice way. In fact, I don’t think there’s even a single ‘white’ character in The Boy With Fire, is there? Does Yassen count?
Aparna: No, yeah, so Yassen* is written as white-passing. And in The Boy With Fire, a lot of the internal struggles that [Yassen] often has is that war of identities that I think so many immigrants can hopefully relate to. He sort of lives his life within edges, right, like within the hyphens of Ravani* and Jantari*. It's also the same for us Indian Americans, Muslim Americans, Hindu Americans, you know. I think what's interesting about Yassen’s character is his ordeal of finding that safe space where he could fully be himself and really own his identity because he's carving his own path. When you live within edges, you have the power to make your own home.
Alefiya: Wow. (laughs) Sorry, I’m just processing your words. Yeah.
Aparna: (laughs) No, yeah, I was just thinking that that last part would be a good line for a book.
Alefiya: Yeah, like for the dramatic end of a chapter. (laughs) So, actually, let's talk about this South Asian representation that we're getting. What was it like to write these characters and give them parts of your own heritage? Any specific scenes you’d like to talk about?
Aparna: So one of my favorite scenes -and it's a quiet scene- is right before the coronation when Elena’s getting ready in the palace, and the mother is supposed to be there for this ritual is like the mother right, but Elena's mother, unfortunately, has passed away. So in India, there’s this ritual before marriage- the Haldi* ceremony- where they rub the turmeric paste and milk all over the body to beautify the bride and the groom for their wedding.
And in a way, Elena* is getting wedded to her kingdom- she is making an unbreakable vow to her kingdom, so I interpret it as a marriage. When she’s sitting in the tub, she feels very lonely because her family should be doing this. I really wanted to show how leaders can be very lonely, but it's their loneliness and their solitude that sometimes fortifies them because they're able to escape into almost this mental spot where they can be comfortable with solitude.
There's a lot of characters that we've come to know that just aren't comfortable when other people aren’t around, they're not comfortable being in their own skin, being in their own reality. I wanted to show that at that point in Elena’s journey, she's always had people around her. She's always had someone like Ferma* helping her. This is the moment when she is alone and she's coming to that fact.
Alefiya: (laughs) Side note, I was SO hurt by Ferma’s death. She was my favorite character.
Aparna: Oh no, I’m so sorry. (laughs)
Alefiya: You don’t seem sorry. (laughs)
Aparna: Maybe I’m not. (laughs) No, but I do love Ferma, and something that readers commented on was the strong friendship that Elena and Ferma have. Usually, female friendships are missing in adult fantasy, like there's always some kind of cattiness that comes in or, you know, like, some sort of jealousy or betrayal. I really want to show a relationship where we have two very strong female characters who aren't at each other's throats or in competition with each other. So, I want to show that pure, like, very beautiful friendship. And, sadly, (laughs) it had to end, but it’ll definitely play a big part in book two and weigh in on Elena’s character for sure.
Alefiya: Yeah, no, that's what I was thinking while I was reading, that the death probably has to do with Elena’s character arc. I’m still so upset, though, because straight from the start, Ferma was my favorite. I mean, with the hair and everything, I thought that was so cool. She gave me Medusa vibes.
Aparna: So, Ferma’s hair was actually inspired by Kali’s Chandika*. One of the coolest things in cultures around the world, there's an importance of hair, specifically in India where, you know, your mom will sit you down with the coconut oil and everything. And sometimes, hair can be seen as frivolous, especially for women, it's like, ‘Oh, why are you worrying about your hair? Just put it up…’
In The Boy With Fire, I wanted to make hair a source of power, rather than this frivolous thing. So for the Yumi*, the men are healers, they don't have this power of the hair, the women do. And that's because when Kali was having this awesome battle with the water buffalo demon Mahishasura, she called for the army of Chandikas, which were these epic female warriors. Like, they weren't there any men whatsoever. A group of women defeated one of the most notorious demons of all time. I thought that was so cool and so epic, I was like, that's Ferma right there. Those are the Yumi.
I had to like have, like, a proud female warrior who didn't need swords or weapons. She just had to be herself to be powerful.
Alefiya: Wow! Yeah, you totally get that powerfulness and sense of self when you read Ferma’s character. I think that’s why it hurt so much when she died. Okay, so moving on. (laughs) Otherwise, I’ll keep talking about Ferma forever.
Alefiya: So, speaking about inspirations, we know that the world and characters in The Boy With Fire are largely influenced by Hindu mythology, but what about the actual plot? How did you get the idea for that?
Aparna: Yeah, so, in terms of plotline, I don’t think a single Hindu myth inspired the plotline. It was more so about the richness of the world, some of the character traits that I really like latched on to, Kali Ma’s ruthlessness and her duality of good and evil that ultimately is a moral grayness. That’s Elena. And then the Chandikas, that’s Ferma.
But in terms of the plotline were really inspired was really the mix of nationalism, alt-right politics, and religion that we’re seeing today in our own world and governments, like a very, very deadly concoction. When leaders start to tell you what to believe and how to believe. To a degree, they already do, right?
Like you know, everyone should take the COVID vaccine, right, I think that's great. I think we should. But what if we had a president who says you don't need to? Like, it’s okay, we can just go back to normal and ignore the issue.
I found this so fascinating and troubling of how easily how some groups of people when a leader says something, can fall in line for you just like that. I wanted to write three characters who had that sort of leadership within them, who are very good at what they do, but sometimes their own ambition leads to their downfall.
So, with Yassen, his ambition was his freedom. And with Leo* and Elena, the current mission is to be this amazing ruler. What [Elena] doesn't really think about is the lives that come as sacrifices towards her goal. And with Leo, I feel like his ambition is sort of the easiest to see. He’s literally just rivaling the heavens themselves and making sure his legacy doesn't get blown away in the sand.
There's this little moment that I hope readers pick up on: when the attack happens and you know, Ferma dies, Leo is waiting at the landing. He sees the hoverpod come in and he asks if Elena is alive because she’s his daughter, but also his heir. His legacy. And I think that very much captures Leo's mindset of like, it's not just a daughter it’s the future of his kingdom. He's always thinking about the kingdom, and sometimes he forgets that this is also his child. That’s sort of unfortunate, I guess.
It’s a father-daughter relationship that's fraught with strife. There's still a deep love behind it, even though they have trouble showing it
Alefiya: Yeah, you can definitely see how much [Leo] loves [Elena], even if it’s not as obvious to the other characters.
Aparna: Yeah, it’s very much like a selfish love, because it's a love for his daughter, but also the love of his own legacy because she's going to be the one to carry it on. He knows if she dies, everything he's built will also die.
Alefiya: Yeah, one hundred percent. So, I think Samson’s ambition is also worth mentioning. I sort of go back and forth with him- is he good? Is he bad? I think that’s the whole point of a morally gray character, but by the end of the book, I still can’t really tell. In the end, he has that line, like something along the lines of, ‘We are no longer praying to false gods.’ So that’s very ominous.
Aparna: Yeah, Samson’s amazing, I love him so much. Samson’s backstory is my favorite. When I was writing the book, I was just, like, itching. I was like, I can't wait for the readers to learn more about Samson* and his story, because he, I think, brings out differences in other characters that those other characters could not. I think Samson is one of those characters that really brings out the brutality of other characters, as well as their ability to be pensive leaders. There's one moment after the Ashanta ceremony*. Elena's at the fountain and Samson holds her hand, and he tells her, ‘Sometimes the moments that define us, those are the moments in which we forgive ourselves, or allow ourselves like leniency’ or something along those lines. And to me, I think that those words really define him as a character, especially like hitting into book two and also will define some of the relationships that he'll start to build with other characters.
Alefiya: Yeah, I’m excited for book two, I really want to learn more about Samson, especially with that mysterious ending. Is there anything else you can tell us about book two, anything we can expect, a title? No spoilers, of course.
Aparna: So here's a little thing about the publishing world. So book two is set to come out in 2023, knock on wood. One of the things that you can’t really finalize is the title because when 2023 rolls around, there may already be a book that's named that. I think I have a title name, but I can’t really decide on that yet.
But, the thing I can say is that [book two] is going to be a lot darker. The world will explore a lot and we’re really expanding. We’re not just going to be in Ravence* now, we're going to see the other nations. We’ll really start to understand whom the Arohassin* are, instead of just being like the mysterious entity that has been shadows. There are going to be a lot more surprising twists, if you thought the epilogue was surprising, just wait until book two.
Alefiya: I’m not sure whether I should be scared or excited.
Aparna: Just you wait, there’s a lot in store. (laughs)
Alefiya: No, that is exciting though. I’m really interested to see more of Yassen and Samson and where they come from because they’re not Ravani. So their heritage and culture, that’ll be cool. And the metal stuff with the Jantari, that’s also really cool. I’m not sure if I’m interpreting this correctly, but the Jantari are sort of like cyborgs?
Aparna: So it's more of the royal line, where the royal family has to make half of their bodies metal. So yeah, sort of like cyborgs. But what Elena comes to figure out during the book is that it’s just not the royal family with metal in them now, there are now soldiers being made with the metal, Like, metal killing machines, and that’s where the trouble really begins. In book two, we’re going to really see more of the breadth of the Jantari and their metal force, and also learn more about Samson and his skills and what makes him more special.
Alefiya: Oh yeah, that's another thing I was gonna say, I'm very excited to see [Samson] in more battle scenes, hopefully.
Aparna: Yeah, yeah, There’s so much research that goes into books, and there’s one thing I was researching that I couldn’t bring in book one that I’m so excited to bring for book two is this really cool weapon. It was mostly used in South India, and I’m forgetting the name of the caste of warriors, but it started with a K. I always wondered when I was doing my research, you know there's Kung Fu, and there's Taekwondo, what's the Indian version? And we do have one, apparently, but it's a very ancient form I can't pronounce, but there’s a K. It revolves around also this one weapon called the urumi.
If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Bajirao Mastani’*, that’s the weapon that Bajirao* uses. It’s like a flexible, sort of whip-like sword, the urumi. It’s very, very lethal. And if you’re crazy, like Samson, it’s not just one. Some of them can be, like, three blades at once. It’s like you’re whipping three blades at once, and it can cut through flesh. I found that super, super fascinating. I was like, of course, Samson will be the person who would wield something like that. So that’s some action I’m excited about.
Alefiya: Wow, now that is epic. And again, it’s just really cool how it is just another element of Indian culture and something ancient brought into the sort of modern-ish world.
Aparna: Yeah, I think, yeah, that's just one part of book two that I'm excited about and I think it's amazing. I mean, to me it's like seamlessly weaving aspects of Indian culture and Indian history, not as an interpretation, because I've seen so many like books where it's like, ‘Okay let me just make a fantasized version of like history, or, like, let me just reinterpret a bit’. I strove to create original worlds with aspects of very, very intricate history.
Alefiya: Okay, so one question I'm dying to ask you, and there’s two parts. Who is your favorite character, and who was your favorite to write?
Aparna: Oh, good question. It's so hard to pick a favorite because they all brought something different to the table, you know, and that's why I love multiple POV books. For me, I think my favorite character either has to be Yassen or Samson. Well, so I think Samson is my favorite out of all of them. But Yassen is also sort of my favorite because he was the first character I'd ever imagined, so he always has a special place in my heart. I think he’s probably one of the most emotionally complex characters just because of everything he’s been through. A lot of his arc is about becoming humble and admitting his wrongs like we see him do with Elena and the Desert Oath. That was a powerful scene, I think, and I really loved writing it.
He’s also just a person who has always like lived for himself, you know like, he's very resourceful. He doesn’t like to tie himself down in terms of owing someone or being responsible for the lives of other people, because, you know, he’s usually taking them. (laughs) But when he meets Elena and sees the power that she has, it really reveres him. Like you know that [Bollywood] song ‘Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai’*, sort of like that. To Yassen, Elena is very much a goddess, but also a way for him to find salvation and forgiveness.
In terms of which character was my favorite or most fun to write, it was definitely Leo. Because he's so batshit crazy. (laughs) I have the ability to write things and say things through [Leo’s] characters that none of the other characters would ever dream of saying. That was a fun power trip to go through the story, as the writer, in Leo's shoes. The thing I loved about Leo was the quiet moments he had, where he really understands just how far he’s fallen, and the tender moments when he thinks of honor.
Alefiya: Yeah, to me, when I was reading Leo and his POV, I always thought it was sort of like organized chaos. It was like he crossed a line, he recognized what he was doing, and then did it anyway. Like a weird sort of self-reflection.
Aparna: Oh, yeah, for sure. This is what he chose, he did this to himself.
Alefiya: Okay, I just wanna ask you more about you and yourself in the process of writing. Did you always want to be a writer?
Aparna: It was always on the back of my mind, you know? I don’t think I really understood what being a writer meant, like the gravity behind it. For me, it was always like this dream or like a bucket list item. It didn’t really become serious until I went to college at Stanford and I really began to understand art, literature, the art of crafting the story, but also when the pandemic happened. I had The Boy With Fire in the back of my mind all throughout college and actually intended to write it during NaNoWriMo of 2018. I ended up writing maybe like 53,000 words, all scrapped.
Having looked at that manuscript, I think was terrible, but I needed to get that out. It was out of one of those books that really spoke to me at the moment because I think it really applies to our modern-day in terms of racial tensions, nationalism, religion, alt-right politics, socialistic tendencies...It was almost like I had this sense of urgency where I just had to write the book.
There was like a voice in my head saying, ‘You're about to graduate, what do you have to show for it?’ And a part of me was answering, saying that there's this book that I've been harboring. I think the world needs this right now, I need it right now, you know,
Alefiya: Yeah, as a writer myself, I can totally relate to that. Like, itching to write something because it speaks to you so much and you love the idea so much and you just need to do something with it or you’ll go crazy.
Aparna: I think that's the beauty of when it comes to storytelling, is that it always begins with us.
I think the act of writing is a brutal horrible act. There are really tough moments when you’re writing, when you’re literally taking your own experiences and putting them into your writing. But, I think what always amazes me is when you write a book that is so true to the core of who you are, and other people can look at it and say, ‘Me too.’ I think that's the moment that I really look forward to as an author.
Alefiya: So, this is a sort of silly question, but are you a plotter or a pantser?
Aparna: Yeah, this is not a silly question at all. For me, the biggest lesson I learned was never pants. So I'm very much a plotter, but not so insane that I have to have, like, a thirty-page outline before I start.
What’s interesting, though, is that some of the best work is writing that’s just happened at the moment where I didn’t really predict what was going to happen.
So I like to have a very rough outline- what I'll do is basically create that character and ask questions like who is this character, what do they value, and ask a silly question, what would you do on Friday Night Live? What’s their comfort book?
But there's one question that really helps when I’m planning and that is, ‘What would my character do on death’s door?’ Like, what is their purpose, did they feel fulfilled... How are they feeling when they’re literally at death’s door?
Once you figure out their purpose, I think you can also figure out their motivations, their desires, and also their fears. I always think of the characters first, and then the plot from there.
Alefiya: Yeah, I think that’s a really cool way of looking at it. I also love to write characters and their backstories and create situations for them to be in. I love adding parts of myself and my friends in there, it’s sort of like a form of therapy.
Aparna: Oh yeah, for sure. When I was writing The Boy With Fire during the pandemic, something magical happened to me, and I’m not sure if it’ll ever happen again, but I never had writer’s block. I think The Boy With Fire really came from the heart, like when I would go to my desk to write, it was just like play. I love the book, I love the characters and the world. Like, this world is so woven with my own molecular structure in a way, if that makes sense. And I really hope that love translates to the page.
Alefiya: It definitely does. What I'll say is that I think the world-building was one of my favorite parts of the book, like it was so unique. I think the sci-fi element really changed things for me. When I think of ancient Indian kingdoms, I’m thinking of ancient texts and ruins of buildings and royalty and fancy lehengas*, and then you add in all this futuristic technology like gamesuits. I’m not even really into worldbuilding too much, but for me, the world in The Boy With Fire was truly fascinating.
Aparna: Thank you! Wow, that means so much.
Alefiya: Of course. So I want to talk about the writing process with book two. What's the difference now that you've written a first book that’s about to come out and now you’re in the process of drafting book two? What’s that feeling like?
Aparna: This is another great question, and it's funny because I was on a panel a few weeks ago talking to other authors and we were all just discussing how much writing sequels suck! With your first book, that’s your baby and you want her to be amazing and perfect and you take the time to write it. But I think when it comes to book two, you kind of have to remove yourself from all the fanfare that book one is getting and get to work. And so the thing that really changes for me is that the stakes are higher. What makes me really looking forward to book two is understanding some of the characters on a deeper psychological level.
Alefiya: Ooooh, intrigue. Honestly, the more you tell me about book two, the more scared I get. (laughs)
Alefiya: Okay, so one last question to close this off. If there’s one piece of advice you could give to your younger writer self, what would you say?
Aparna: Hmmm. I think I would tell younger Aparna to not be afraid of her culture and heritage. When I came to America, one of the biggest things I struggled with was the language. English was not my first language and I would always trip up on words, and I still do every now and then, and I still get super self-conscious about it. You know, when you're other, you're always trying to erase your otherness. You try to assimilate, you try to adopt the mainstream culture, talk the way they do, dress the way they do, you know. I would literally loathe myself.
When I wrote one of my first stories, in fact, I think it was about a white character. I think, as an immigrant child, I wanted desperately to fit in. And it took a lot of like learning and unlearning and being gentle with oneself and realizing, like, no you can talk about yourself, you can talk about that culture because other people will respond well to it. I think the response so far to A Boy With Fire is proof enough of that.
So yeah. Don’t be afraid.
*Glossary (in order of mention)
[some definitions are taken from the glossary in The Boy With Fire by Aparna Verma]
Ramayana: a largely important text in Hinduism that narrates the life of legendary prince Rama.
Mahabharata: another important epic in Hindusim that tells the story of two different sides of a family that are fighting in the Kurukshetra War for the Hastinapura throne.
Jinn: supernatural creatures that appear in early Arabian and Islamic mythology
Ifrit: a powerful type of demon that appears in Islamic mythology
Krishna: one of the most revered gods in Hinduism, often worshipped as the eighth reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu
Kali Ma: the Hindu goddess of time, death, and doomsday. Also often considered a strong mother figure and symbol of feminism.
Yassen: one of the main characters in The Boy With Fire. Used to be a notorious assassin with the Arohassin.
Ravani: the people of the kingdom of Ravence.
Jantari: the people of Jantar. They are known for their pale skin and white, colorless eyes.
Haldi: the Hindi word for turmeric.
Elena: one of the main characters in The Boy With Fire. The heir of the Ravence throne.
Ferma: one of the characters in The Boy With Fire. She is Elena's mentor and friend. Ferma is also part of the Yumi.
Chandika: also called Chandi, she is the demon-destroying version of the Hindu goddess Shakti. Also associated with Hindu goddesses Kali Ma and Durga.
Yumi: a race of skilled fighters. The Yumi women are known for their long, silky hair that can suddenly harden into harp shards; their hair can cut through diamonds. The Yumi men are known for their healing abilities. Once plentiful, the Yumi were nearly wiped out by the fires of the Sixth Prophet. Now, many serve as soldiers, guards, or mercenaries.
Leo: one of the main characters in The Boy With Fire. The current king of Ravence.
Samson: one of the main characters in The Boy With Fire. He is to be married to Elena and serves as part of Leo's guard. He is Yassen's oldest friend.
Ashanta ceremony: a fire blessing ceremony used to bestow the ruler(s) of Ravence with the power of the Phoenix.
Ravence: a desert kingdom founded by Alabore Ravence three hundred suns ago. The kingdom is considered to be part of the holy land created by the Sixth Prophet. Alabore Ravence named the kingdom after himself, bestowing his bloodline the burden of maintaining his dream of peace.
Arohassin: an underground network of criminals and terrorists who are known to assassinate leaders and take down governments.
Bajirao Mastani/Bajirao: an epic historical war-time romance film in which Maratha general, Baijrao, and his second wife, Mastani, face many obstacles to make their relationship work
Tujh Mein Rab Diktha Hai: a popular love song from the Bollywood film 'Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi'. The Hindi title literally translates to 'in you, I see God.'
Lehenga: a long, patterned, or intricately embroidered skirt worn by women in India for special or formal occasions