Aparna Verma ’20 on ‘The Phoenix King,’ centering South Asian stories and ‘BookTok’

Jan. 31, 2024, 1:41 a.m.

Last Friday, Aparna Verma ’20 embossed copies of her debut novel, “The Phoenix King,” with personalized stamps at a signing at the Stanford bookstore.

On the stamp was a line of text encircling a flame. “From the Royal Library of the Kingdom of Ravence,” the text read.

Touching on Indian and Hindu culture, ritual and traditions, “The Phoenix King” is a sci-fi fantasy that explores the Ravence bloodline in a futuristic desert kingdom. The book follows three characters — Elena, Yassen and King Leo — in a story of fire-magic and action, prophecy and fate, home and belonging, love and betrayal. 

Verma told The Daily that she explores her culture in writing about complex themes. “At some point I was like, ‘I refuse to be categorized,’” she said.

Verma returned to Stanford for a speaker event sponsored by the Stanford Storytelling Project (SSP) last Thursday. Moderated by creative writing lecturer Tom Kealey, the conversation detailed Verma’s writing and publication journey.

“You don’t really see brown Indian people in novels about the future,” Verma told the SSP audience. “When you see books about that, they are usually in a position of servitude — or they just don’t exist at all. Why can’t we exist in the future? Why aren’t we valued in the future?”

As an immigrant, Verma grew up feeling out of place in different social circles. Verma said that she did not want to write characters of color that fit the “model minority” stereotype, but fully flushed characters with passion and flaws.

“You could be a king, you could be a queen, you could be an assassin, you could be any of these,” Verma said. “You could be good, but you can also be terrible.”

Birth of “The Phoenix King”

Verma said she wrote “draft zero” of “The Phoenix King” in English 190E: “The Novel Writing Intensive” (popularly dubbed “The NaNoWriMo class,” short for the National Novel Writing Month). After a brief break away from writing, she rewrote the draft in four months of pandemic isolation.

It felt like a “fever dream,” she said.

With the job market down during the pandemic, Verma noted her shift in mindset for writing the book she has always wanted. “I was thinking, ‘I’m actually going to [write] it this time, and do it justice,’” she said. “It could take as long as I want, because who knows how long this pandemic is going to take.”

After editing the draft with freelance editors, Verna self-published the initial version of the book, titled “The Boy with Fire,” in August 2021. She used a kickstarter campaign to raise money for the costs, and she reached out to everyone she could in the process.

At first, Verma’s parents were lukewarm about her decisions to major in English and write a book. Verma persisted, however, and they have been supportive since. Her dad even became known among coworkers for helping ship copies of “The Boy with Fire.”

Using “BookTok” to her advantage

“The Boy with Fire” was later picked up by Orbit Books after gaining traction on TikTok, Verma said. While she had been reluctant to advertise her book on the app in its early days, her brother encouraged her, citing authors’ success with promotion on “BookTok,” which connotes the app’s collection of users and content concerning book reviews and recommendations. 

Upon joining, Verma did what any Stanford student would do: watched and researched. She noted how she wrote “The Boy with Fire” in silos, not even thinking about the “trope” categories that are popular for finding an audience. She later adopted some tropes to take advantage of TikTok’s algorithm so that her book was recommended to more users.

“I saw what the trends were. I saw what people wanted to see. I saw how people talked about their books in an effective manner that actually got views and sales,” Verma said. “And then, once I had done my research, was when I started posting.”

It worked. The book resonated in the South Asian “BookTok” community, according to Verma.

“I never came across something like ‘The Phoenix King,’ so it felt wonderful and surreal to know that people wanted to read it,” she said.

The road to publication

The process of getting published by Orbit Books was unconventional, Verma said. Describing herself as opportunistic and ambitious, she sent a query to a senior editor after seeing their tweet calling for Asian fantasy stories. The editor told her that another editor, Priyanka Krishnan, who would later become Verma’s editor, was already reading the book. 

Verma noted she was grateful for having an editor of the same background and highlighted the importance of women of color in positions of power. 

“If there’s one lesson to learn it is that you can make your own opportunities,” she said to the audience of students. “You don’t have to wait for someone to say yes. Make them say yes.”

Verma’s path forward

After graduating from Stanford, Verma has been balancing writing with a full-time job of social media content production for big brands, including Barnes and Noble. 

Verma just received the first round edits for a second book in a trilogy that includes “The Phoenix King.” She hinted that the book relies heavily on the theme of “manipulation.”

“People will critique your decisions, your story — and that’s a part of the business,” Verma said. “Writing is a story of courage, of talking about the issues that really matter to you in a truthful way.”

Kyla Figueroa ‘24 is the former Vol. 260–262 Managing Editor for The Grind, the 263 Screen DE for Arts & Life, and a staff writer for News. Throw pitches and questions her way — kfigueroa ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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