Author Spotlight: Aparna Verma (THE BOY WITH FIRE)
Aparna Verma was born in India and immigrated to the United States when she was two-years-old. She graduated from Stanford University with Honors in the Arts and a B.A. in English. The Boy with Fire is her first novel. When she is not writing, Aparna likes to ride horses, dance to Bollywood music, and find old cafes to read myths about forgotten worlds. You can connect with Aparna on Twitter and Instagram at @spirited_gal.
Welcome to the Hive, Aparna. Let’s start with the basics: tell us about The Boy With Fire! Why should readers check out your work?
The Boy with Fire is about a world teetering on the edge of war, and the people who push it over. It has blends of sci-fi and fantasy, so it’s perfect for fans of Dune or The Poppy War. More importantly, The Boy with Fire celebrates South Asian heritage! I was raised on the tales of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but I did not see myself in mainstream books. Brown women were depicted as nerdy, co-dependent, and submissive. I wanted to change that narrative. I wanted to show brown characters, male and female, who weren’t your typical engineers or lawyers, but were powerful warriors, mad kings, and ruthless prophets. I suppose it worked, because I’ve received personal messages from Indian readers who have seen themselves in my characters — I love that.
Tell us a little something about your writing process – do you have a certain method? Do you find music helps? Give us a glimpse into your world!
Oh boy. I’d like to preface this by saying that my method changes from time to time because we, as humans, are suspect to change. Before the pandemic, I was a writer who only wrote when struck by inspiration. The music sent by the book gods. Long story short, it didn’t work. I had hodgepodge stories with no plot. When the pandemic struck, it altered my view towards my craft. Suddenly, time was of the essence. Who knew what the next day would bring? So I wrote, everyday. Some days, the writing flowed; other days, it felt like pulling teeth. I often listened to music, mostly movie scores and instrumental sitar and flute melodies. I even made a writing playlist of The Boy with Fire and when I listen back to it, I can remember which scene I was writing.
Speaking of worlds, what inspires your worldbuilding? Do you have a magic system/s? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
I am a huge lover of myths. If I could, I would try to read the myths of every culture, no matter how odd or archaic. Myths just have this timeless allure. So when it came to writing The Boy with Fire, I gravitated towards Indian mythology, one in particular — the life of Kali. There are about three (that I am aware of) origin myths of Kali, but my favorite is when the gods gave a part of themselves to create her. One god, Agni, gave Kali his fire spear, which makes an appearance in The Boy with Fire.
Along with myth, I gravitated towards sci-fi when constructing The Boy with Fire. I wanted to create a world that was technologically advanced, so there are hover trains, holopods, cruisers, gamesuits, etc., but also respectful of tradition, so there are fire blessing ceremonies, prophecies, etc.
Speaking of fire, there’s a lot of fire bending and fire magic in The Boy with Fire. Without giving any spoilers, the fire magic plays a critical role in how characters perceive the world, as well as how they protect themselves.
What (or who) are your most significant fantasy/sci-fi influences?
I love anything and everything that Neil Gaiman writes. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Ted Chiang, Nghi Vo are also favorites, but when I’m stuck with a writer’s block, I tend to go outside of SFF to amazing literary writers, like Jesmyn Ward, Ruchika Tomar, and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Who are your favourite characters in literature or pop culture? And do you have a favourite type of character you enjoy writing?
I love amoral characters, which is probably why my favorite type of character to write is the morally ambiguous. The turncoats, the back-stabbers, those who live within edges. I just find them more interesting.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped they’d portray?
I was heavily involved with my book cover, but Mario Jeric, my cover designer, beautifully executed the vision. I knew from the start that I wanted a red and gold color palette to match the Ravani flag. I’m also a sucker for double exposure and images within images. So when I explained to Mario that I wanted a silhouette of a man with a desert city inside of him, he took it and ran.
And boy, did he run. The cover is beautiful. I printed a poster of it and now it hangs right above my writing desk. The subtle gold around the sun, and the stunning metallic gold title, really grabs your attention. I couldn’t be happier.
We see such varying opinions from authors when it comes to the time of editing their books. How have you found the editing process? Enjoyable, stressful or satisfying?
Stressful, and then satisfying haha. We call it the editing wormhole. I think we may have done up to 5-6 rounds of editing for The Boy with Fire. I’m glad we did — the book is far better for it, and the writing sings, in my not-so-humble opinion. But boy, it felt like running a mental marathon. I felt exhausted afterwards and didn’t write for a month after I turned in the final manuscript.
Looking back on it, I think the thing that kept me going was my love for the story. You really, really need to love your book, or else you won’t make it through the wormhole.
Can you tell us a bit more about your characters? We know you’re probably not supposed to, but do you have a favourite?
Elena is a savage Beyoncé, Yassen has his sad boy hours, Ferma is the GOAT, Samson is Bruce Wayne with a dash of Hrithik Roshan, and Leo is just… Leo. Or, as the fans have called him, le DILF.
On a serious note though, there needs to be more representation of constructive female anger. I don’t mean a Dany Targaryen but intense female wrath used effectively to create change. Elena’s journey in the trilogy is that for me. When writing Elena, I drew inspiration from Kali. Kali literally saved the world with her bloodlust and anger in her battle against the buffalo demon, Mahisha. She can be terrifying, yes, but there is a power that comes from a being who will do anything for the protection of her family, her home.
Ferma is a Yumi, a special breed of warriors whose hair can cut through diamonds and flesh. I made the Yumi after reading about Kali’s epic battle. She created female warriors called chandikas who were wild, ferocious, and loyal — just like Ferma.
Leo and Samson were inspired by charismatic leaders who have a vengeful bent; our history is littered by such men. I won’t dive into them here — you’ll just have to read the book to see what happens!
You mentioned favorites and honestly, it’s hard to pick. But of all the characters I’ve imagined, Yassen Knight was the first, so he’ll always have a special place in my heart. Yassen is part Jantari, part Ravani which means he’s always been ostracized. In a way, it reminds me of my immigrant experience. Like Yassen, I too live a life between edges, between the hyphen of Indian-American, East and West, traditionalism and self-expression. And somewhere within the edges, I’m still in search of building a home.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write. How do you choose to spend the day?
Oh, I’d go out and explore. If I happen to be in the Bay Area, I’ll go ride the polo ponies (I was a player on Stanford University’s polo team); it’s always fun to give those big boys a hug. I’m also a big training enthusiast, so I’ll either pick up my boxing gloves and head to the gym, or grab my shoes and find a new hiking trail. Funnily enough, I picked up boxing during the pandemic, and those training sessions helped me write some of the fight scenes in The Boy with Fire. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to go up against Ferma.
One of our favourite questions here on the Fantasy Hive: which fantastical creature would you ride into battle and why?
A dragon. No doubt. Those guys are so cool, yet also misunderstood. Dragons are often depicted as villains in fantasy stories, or something to be conquered. But I find them beautiful. Resourceful. In every culture that I’ve read stories about, there’s always a myth that involves a dragon. Always. They’ve captured our imaginations for centuries, and I think they will for many more.
Tell us about a book you love. Any hidden gems?
A book that doesn’t get talked about enough in the Book Twitter universe is A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar. Granted, it’s not SFF, but its desert scenery is so captivating. It’s a coming-of-age tale about two girls living in the American desert, warding off lecherous men and finding the unbeaten path. Ruchika Tomar’s writing is haunting, alluring, and it makes me want to write better. I can’t wait to read her next book.
Can you tell us a little something about your current work(s) in progress? Have you any upcoming projects which you can share?
I’m currently working on Book 2 of The Ravence Trilogy. You’ll see some old characters from The Boy with Fire, as well as new ones. I’ve also been ruminating over a fantasy space opera about an anti-heroine who takes no prisoners. I pitched it to my editor, but I don’t think I’ll be able to work on that until after The Ravence Trilogy.
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
At the end of the day, I hope my readers see themselves in my story. Growing up, I hardly saw strong, complicated brown female protagonists, like Elena, or those who live within edges, like Yassen. I cannot represent or write for everyone, but I hope to create characters who, though not always conventionally good, are honest. Hopefully, that will land with readers.
Thank you so much for joining us today!
Thank you for having me!
Thank you so much joining us for Women in SFF Aparna.
The Boy with Fire is due for release 31st August from New Degree Press. You can pre-order your copy from: