The Stanford Daily sat down with Aparna Verma ‘20 to discuss her debut novel “The Boy with Fire” and learn more about her experience writing and publishing a book during the COVID-19 pandemic. Verma graduated from Stanford with honors and majored in English.
“The Boy with Fire” is a South Asian adult fantasy inspired by the Hindu goddess of death and her female warriors. The story centers on the fierce female protagonist Elena Ravence as she attempts to overcome her inability to hold fire in order to successfully ascend the throne and protect her kingdom. The story also follows Yassen Knight, an assassin set to defend Elena to earn his freedom, and Elena’s father Leo Ravence, King of Ravence, as he fights a prophecy set to destroy his legacy. “The Boy with Fire” was published in 2021 and is the first book in Verma’s Ravence Trilogy.
This interview has been lightly edited for concision and clarity.
The Stanford Daily [TSD]: What impact did your Stanford journey have on you as a writer?
Aparna Verma [AV]: I always knew coming to Stanford that I was going to be an English major. Writing stories is one of the few things that I was good at, and I knew right off the bat that was my major. What really helped my writing journey was that I always knew this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Write stories, tell stories and study the craft of writing.
I always say that if you want to be a really good novelist, you need to be a good short story writer, or know how to write a good short story, and to write a good short story you need to know the power of a poem. The reason is because one line of poetry has as much of a punch as a paragraph in a short story. It really teaches you how to be dynamic with all your language and how to be a very powerful writer with just a few words. Taking those [poetry] classes made me realize the power of brevity and the power of words that helped form some of my writing style.
TSD: What inspired you to write “The Boy with Fire?”
AV: Growing up, I never really saw books with representation of Indian women. It was Indian men, and they were always your stereotypical nerd in chemistry class: model citizens that you never saw behaving badly. You never saw them being terrible, tyrannical kings, like my character Leo, or being strong-willed women who are not always morally correct, like my character Elena. I wanted to write a book that I would have loved to read when I was 18.
I’d written this book before for the Novel Writing Intensive class. It was a great class; basically, you had to write a 50,000-word novel in a month — which was insane — as part of National Novel Writing Month in November. I wrote the first version of “The Boy with Fire,” and I hated it. It’s in a box in my room that I don’t look at, but the class taught me how to write a novel well and how to write a novel that adheres to my schedule and my writing habits.
Around 2020 and in the years prior to that, we’ve seen the rise of right-wing nationalism in America and India. Religion has been misconstrued for political action and that’s one of the main themes in my novel: how sometimes leaders use religion to legitimize their actions, but they’re manipulating the religion and its believers for worse. Seeing that happening in real-time, writing the book was just a way of processing that, I think. I’ve seen that phenomenon happen in India and also in America, and it was just really disturbing. The best way I could react to it was to write about it.
TSD: Given that “The Boy with Fire” is your first book, what challenges did you run into during the publication process?
AV: One of the biggest things is that debuting writers normally have a lot of support when it’s not a pandemic. You get to meet other writers and it’s almost like a community experience because you get to connect with other writers who are debuting in your same year. Because of the pandemic, I felt very lonely debuting my book. I didn’t really have peers to talk to and that was an alienating feeling.
Another challenge of publishing during the pandemic is that it’s harder to get your books into bookstores and market as you would in traditional publishing. But I realized the power of TikTok and social media, so I used that to get my book noticed. It ended up working. According to data my publisher and I pulled, “The Boy with Fire” is the first South Asian adult fantasy ever to get over a million views on TikTok.
TSD: What’s one thing aspiring writers should know about the publishing process?
AV: At the end of the day, readers decide what books make it and what books don’t. Publishing itself is a very unequal field in that some books by white authors get a lot more funding or get a bigger marketing budget. The industry panders to more people of that demographic. So, they get a lot more attention than someone who is a person of color or someone who is a woman. It was all about networking. As someone that’s outside of the industry, it’s super frustrating that, especially as a young writer, you don’t have those connections right away.
When publishers look at authors, they’re going to ask, okay, how much of a buzz did it cause? They’re going to look at sales, but they’re also going look at how many mentions you got on Twitter, how many TikToks have been made, and that’s how people of color get better deals because if they can make a bunch of a buzz on TikTok or get enough people interested, it convinces the publisher, “Oh, there’s a chance I’ll bet more money on this author.” And so, I always tell readers, if you love a book, don’t just keep it to yourself; talk about it, shout it from the rooftops because, you know, even one little TikTok can make a difference.
TSD: As a young writer, how do you feel or what do you do when you read negative reviews?
AV: There’s always someone who has an opinion; there’s always gonna be someone who dislikes your book. At the same time, there’s always gonna be someone who swears by it, who raves about it and says, “I want everyone to read this book before they die.” You can’t let reviews get to you. Anyone can have their opinion about the book. By the end of the day, it shouldn’t affect your craft because it’s your story. It’s your baby, and you need to protect it.
TSD: What’s next in your journey as a writer?
AV: Writing the rest of the trilogy. For the next five or so years, I’m going to be working on this trilogy, then it’s off to the next book. Now I’m agented. I kind of went on a traditional route of publishing. I work with a hybrid publisher, and the book did super well. It’s got so much success on TikTok; it’s breaking records, and I love that about it.