Kathie: Hi Helle, and welcome to MG Book Village! It’s a pleasure to chat with you today about the North American release of THE HUNGRY GHOST which comes out on September 28th. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, please?
Helle: Thank you, Kathie. I always enjoy #MGBooktober and the other chats you organise, so I’m delighted to visit MG Book Village.
I’m Danish, but I have lived most of my life outside Denmark. Currently, I reside in Switzerland with my husband and two young-adult sons. I have also been at home in the US (New Jersey and Georgia), the UK, Austria, and Singapore.
Whenever I’m not reading or writing, I spend my time outdoors. I love to explore new places and learn about other cultures and traditions.
So, I feel lucky that both my own corporate career and my husband’s have given us opportunities to live abroad and travel.
I’ve always been a voracious reader, but I didn’t start writing until I was in my thirties. At first, I wrote just for fun, then about ten years ago I started taking it seriously and finished my first manuscript. I was 49 when my debut was published—it’s never too late!
Kathie: This book was originally published last September in the UK. Can you tell us what it’s like to be promoting the book for a new audience, and if there are many differences between the UK and US versions?
Helle: It a difficult time to have a book published. Because of the pandemic, all promotion last year was purely online. My publisher had arranged a big blog tour, and I did virtual talks and school visits in the UK and Singapore. I was also lucky that both Financial Times and Singapore’s main newspaper, The Straits Times, reviewed THE HUNGRY GHOST.
On Twitter, I’m quite well-connected with UK teachers, librarians and MG authors, but it’s hard to know to what extent the online promotion results in book sales.
I’m less well-connected online in North America, and publicity from the publisher is limited, so promotion this time around is going to be even more difficult. I hope the fact that the book recently won a SCBWI Crystal Kite award will help.
There are no differences between the UK and the US versions. It’s even the same stunning red cover.
Kathie: I’d love to know about the inspiration for this story?
Helle: I began writing The Hungry Ghost, while I lived in Singapore. When we moved there, I was immediately fascinated by the mix of cultures and religions, and I wanted to capture the vibrant atmosphere in a story.
On my walks, early on, I noticed offerings on the pavements—little collages of food, joss sticks and candles—for ancestors and forgotten restless spirits. The focus on remembering and honouring ancestors fascinated me and gave me the first kernel of a story idea.
At times, when the busy city overwhelmed me, I found solace in parks and nature reserves. My favourite place became an old Chinese graveyard—the biggest outside China. It hasn’t been in use in fifty years, so the rainforest has turned it into a tropical wilderness, right in the middle of Singapore. On my long hikes there, I thought a lot about forgotten spirits.
The idea for The Hungry Ghost really sparked, when I asked myself: “What if a girl who had just moved to Singapore met a hungry ghost who needed her help to remember the past?”
From there, the story, which explores themes of families under stress, grief and acceptance, evolved.
I was aware that I was writing about a culture that isn’t my own, so I anchored the book in the perspective of someone with my own background. Therefore, the main character, Freja, comes from Denmark.
Kathie: Many readers may not be familiar with the folklore which is an important part of the book. Can you tell us more about that?
Helle: There are various beliefs around the hungry ghosts throughout China and South East Asia, but in essence these ghosts are spirits that are not at rest. They are unsatisfied, hungry, because of the way their lives ended or because they were forgotten by their descendants. One month every year, the seventh month in the Chinese calendar, they are on holiday from the realm of the dead and roam the streets, seeking nourishment. In addition to the offerings of food and burnt paper effigies, live stage performances, called Getai, are held to entertain both the living and the dead.
The hungry ghosts are often perceived to be vicious and vengeful, but I mainly felt sad for the ones that had been forgotten by their loved ones. And so, the importance of remembering those we have lost, and how that impacts our way of dealing with grief, became a key aspect of the story.
In the story, Freja also enter a portal to another world. This world, based on ancient Chinese mythology, includes mythical creatures—the azure dragon, the white tiger, the red vermillion bird, and the black tortoise—that are among the foundations for Feng Shui.
Kathie: What sort of research did you do for this story, and can you share an interesting tidbit that you discovered but didn’t include in the book?
Helle: For contemporary Singapore, I walked and walked, visiting all the locations in the book. I tasted the food Freja eats, smelled the frangipani trees at night, and perspired in the humid air. I saw lizards and monkeys and a black spitting cobra. I held a python in the zoo. I even went to the graveyard at night during the hungry ghost month…
In addition to reading about hungry ghosts, I asked Chinese Singaporeans about their beliefs and traditions. After the book was written, I used a cultural sensitivity reader and had Singaporean friends read through the Singaporean dialogue.
The driving force in the book is the mystery around the hungry ghost’s past, so I spent much time researching Singapore’s colonial history. It was especially important for me to understand the situation of the Chinese population a hundred years ago when the ghost was alive. A key source was the newspaper archive at the National Library of Singapore. Several newspapers, going back 200 years, are available and searchable online. Obituaries and small announcements I stumbled upon became clues for Freja to discover in the story.
There were so many things I wish I could have included in the book: details about the other cultures that link to the story, locations I wish Freja could’ve had time to visit, and more of the local food. In an earlier version of the book, the visit to the hawker centre took up a whole chapter and included all the local dishes I miss.
Kathie: What’s one thing you enjoyed about living in Singapore, and how is it similar to where you live now? How is it different?
Helle: I definitely miss the food! I loved going to the hawker centres—the organised street food markets, where you can find a huge variety of inexpensive dishes.
There are no hawker centres in Switzerland, although, occasionally, pop-up street food markets appear. Luckily, I also like cheese and chocolate! And it’s much easier to get hold of fresh organic produce here than it was in Singapore where almost everything is imported from the neighbouring countries or flown in from Australian and Europe.
Kathie: Is there a book or author that has influenced you as a middle-grade writer?
Helle: The first book I fell in love with was The Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren. The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis and The Never-ending Story by Michael Ende were also childhood favourites that influenced me to write books set in the borderland between real and imaginary worlds.
My books are hopeful and have family and friendship at their hearts. In this regard, I admire and am probably influenced by Sharon Creech and Eva Ibbotson, whose adventure stories are full of heart and hope.
Kathie: Where can our readers go if they want to know more about you and your writing?
Helle: My website is www.hsnorup.com. On social media, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @hsnorup
Kathie: Thanks so much for joining us today, Helle, and I wish you the best with your book’s North American release.
Helle: Thank you so much for having me, Kathie.
H. S. Norup is the award-winning author of The Hungry Ghost and The Missing Barbegazi—a Sunday Times Book of the Year in 2018. Originally from Denmark, she has lived in six different countries and now resides in Switzerland with her husband and two sons. She has a master’s degree in Economics and Business Administration and sixteen years’ experience in corporate marketing strategy and communications. When she’s not writing or reading, she spends her time outdoors either skiing, hiking, walking, golfing or taking photos.