Welcome to Fast Forward Friday, Payal! I’m so happy to have a chance to talk with you about REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR, which will be published by Mango and Marigold Press in May 2021. Can you please give us a synopsis of your story?
Hi Kathie! Thank you so much for having me! REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR is the story about Rea Chettri, an introverted but curious girl from Darjeeling, India, whose life gets turned on its head on the night of her twelfth birthday. After a fight with her twin brother Rohan, Rea discovers that he has gone missing. Her Amma is distraught and blames Rea for his disappearance. So, she takes matters into her own hands. Ordinarily, Rea prefers her own company (often feeling misunderstood by others) but this time she asks her neighbor Leela for help. Together, they visit the village fortune-teller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling quest to find Rohan. In the shade of night, they portal into an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There, Rea and Leela meet Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, and with their help Rea must battle evil creatures, confront a ruthless villain, and find out why Rohan has been captured.
The heart of this adventure story though lies in Rea’s relationships with the people in her life. Her Baba died when she was a baby and even though she can’t remember his face, she misses him dearly. But when she asks to know more about him her Amma and Bajai, her grandmother, evade the topic. Her brother who she was once inseparable from is now the popular kid in school and spends most of his time with his friends. Rea, on the other hand, has always struggled socially, but in her mission to find Rohan she must learn to trust others, find the courage within her, and understand the meaning of friendship and loyalty. Adding to all that, she discovers dark truths about her past that have been hidden from her. Grappling with betrayal and failing courage, Rea has to find a way to rescue Rohan and save the realm of Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking!
I absolutely loved this story and how vividly you described the characters and setting. What was the inspiration for it?
Thank you so much! I love reading books in which the setting feels like a character in itself and I knew from the beginning that I wanted to portray a region of India that was beautiful and underrated with respect to its landscape and people. The city of Darjeeling is a stunning hill station in the northeast part of the country ensconced within hills, the view of the majestic Himalayas and rolling tea plantations. That beauty and uniqueness made for instant inspiration when I had to describe the landscape!
With respect to the main characters—Rea, Leela, and Rohan—I wanted them to have well-rounded personalities with each of them having their own strengths and insecurities. Rea is a flawed but fierce girl who is on the hunt for answers to questions that plague her. Leela is a ray of sunshine, but she too has her own fears. Rohan is extroverted and the popular kid in school, but he comes to learn how that affects his sister.
It is important to me to make sure that South Asian kids see themselves as main characters in a book and know that they are worthy of going on exciting adventures and being heroes. Similarly, I want kids from other cultures and countries to relate with my characters and see that despite their different backgrounds, they share the same hopes, dreams, and fears.
Which character would you have wanted as a friend when you were a middle grader?
Hands down, Leela! When I first wrote Leela as a character, she started out as being Rea’s sidekick, but then she evolved into this wonderful, optimistic, make-lemons-out-of-lemonade type of character who had this adorable lovability about her! When readers read the book, they’ll see that she, too, has her own insecurities and fears, and yet she chooses to look beyond them when it comes to helping others and being there for them. I imagine having someone like Leela by your side would immediately lighten your burdens, shine light into a room, be your rock-solid support, and always be there for a laugh. So, yes, Leela all the way!
I know that representation is really important to you and having a story with Indian characters and culture is something that drove you to write this book. What do you hope young readers will take away from your story?
Diverse representation, especially South Asian representation, is incredibly important to me and it has been my mission and passion in writing this book. What I most hope for is that young readers from all backgrounds see my book as an exciting fantasy story (not one only meant for South Asian kids) filled with characters that can relate to and hopefully love reading about. I also hope that South Asian kids feel seen when they read this story, know that their stories deserve to be celebrated, and feel joy and pride for their culture.
Do you have the story planned out before you sit down to write it, or does it develop as you go? What does an average writing session look like for you?
I’m the type of writer who plans a story well before I begin writing. I’d say I’m 80% plotter and 20% panster! The first thing I’ll do before I begin my first draft is jot down a bulleted summary of the plot to see how the story unravels. I then enter into research mode which sends me down multiple rabbit holes, but I usually come out of them with twists and details that I couldn’t have concocted myself! By this time, I have a fairly good sense of the plot and the main checkpoints of the novel. It’s when I start writing, however, that I pants my way from one checkpoint to another, having my characters leading me down paths I didn’t think they would take, as cliched as that might sound! Add into that mix my precocious two-and-a-half-year-old, and I’m lucky if I get three hours in a day to write! When I do, a good writing session for me is about 1500 words.
I absolutely love the cover of your book; there are many important elements of the story incorporated into it. Can you tell us about the illustrator, and what you thought when you first saw it?
Thank you! I love the cover as well! The wildly talented Beverly Johnson is our illustrator. I was lucky to work with her very closely and it was an absolute joy. When I first saw the final cover, I was blown away. I wanted Rea to look fierce but also fearful because that is the journey she goes through in the book. Beverly did such a great job in capturing that emotion and seeing an Indian girl on the cover with magic burning on her palms knowing she is about to embark on an incredible adventure was simply incredible. I was moved to tears. I also love that Beverly included little easter eggs like the castle, the banyan, and the fae-golis, which readers will recognise once they’ve read the story. I’ve had people tell me that every time they’ve seen the cover, they’ve discovered a new detail, which is really cool!
What have you enjoyed most about preparing to launch your book into the world?
I’ve most enjoyed getting to know wonderful gatekeepers of middle grade literature such as yourself as well as other librarians, bloggers, reviewers, and readers. I still find it surreal to think that people I don’t know want to read my book! Whenever I get a review or get tagged on an ‘anticipated release list’ or see someone say that they’ve put my book on their TBR list – it’s just incredible. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention #the21ders, a group of MG and YA authors who are debuting in 2021. They’ve become a second family to me. Writing can be such a solitary activity, but I’m so grateful that in preparing for my launch I found my people, my community. Their support and celebration for all our books has been priceless.
What’s one thing that I haven’t asked you about your book or your writing process that you could share with us?
Readers will be surprised to learn that my first draft which I wrote nearly ten years ago, all 70,000 words of it, was written with white characters who lived in the English countryside! It was only when my writing teacher pointed out my lack of Indian characters did I realize how much the books I had read (and loved) growing up had subconsciously trained my mind into thinking those were the only types of stories people wanted to read. I wouldn’t change the books I read as a kid, but I sure would have loved to read books with characters that looked like me! This is why diverse representation is important because underrepresented kids should also see themselves in books, see themselves as complex characters, and should grow up knowing that their stories are equally important and wonderful.
When can we expect to see the next book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series, and is there anything you can tell us about it?
Yes, I can! The sequel is planned for a Fall 2022 release! I can tell you that there is a new character with many shades of grey, who I hope readers will enjoy reading about and…drumroll… the title of the book is REA AND THE SORCERER OF SHADOWS!
Can you tell us where to find out more about you and your writing, please?
All the best to you, Payal, with the launch of your debut, and I so look forward to reading future books in the series.
Thank you so much, Kathie! I’m honored to be a part of MG Book Village and the Fast Forward Friday series. Your support for the book means the world!
Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The New School, New York. Having lived in the UK and US, she noticed a lack of Indian protagonists in global children’s fiction and one day wrote the opening paragraph to what would become her first children’s novel. She was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and three-year-old daughter. When she isn’t writing or spending time with her family, you can find her nose deep in a book with a cup of coffee or daydreaming of fantasy realms to send her characters off into. She loves the smell of old, yellowed books. Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, the first book in The Chronicles of Astranthia series is her debut middle grade novel. For more information, visit her website, www.payaldoshiauthor.com, or follow her on Instagram @payaldoshiauthor and on Twitter @payaldwrites.