I had the privilege of interviewing Helle Norup for her debut middle grade fantasy book, The Missing Barbegazi, back in February 2019 and I am glad to be posting this interview for her new book, The Hungry Ghost, which will be launched at the Asian Festival of Children's Content 2020.
Let's hear more about this exciting new book from Helle.
Tell us about your new book
The Hungry Ghost is the story of Freja, a twelve-year-old girl, who moves to Singapore to live with her father and his new family. When a mysterious girl in a white dress appears, Freja follows her on an adventure to unravel old family mysteries and uncover long-buried secrets.
What inspired you when working on this project?
When I began writing The Hungry Ghost, I was living in Singapore. Quite early on, I noticed the offerings on the pavements—little collages of food, joss sticks and candles—for ancestors and forgotten restless spirits. During the seventh month in the Chinese calendar, these ghosts are said to be on holiday from the realm of the dead, and they roam the streets, seeking nourishment. I was intrigued!
The focus on remembering and honouring ancestors fascinated me, and I thought a lot about these forgotten spirits, especially on my hikes in the wilderness of an old Chinese graveyard. The idea for The Hungry Ghost 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 her past?”
From there, the story, which explores themes of families under stress, grief and acceptance, evolved.
Tell us about the creative process for this book.
This book was a long time in the making and went through three different incarnations of the plot.
I began writing the story in early 2017, before I had a publishing deal for my debut novel. When I then signed with Pushkin Press, I put The Hungry Ghost on hold, while I worked with my editor on The Missing Barbegazi, so I didn’t finish the first draft until early 2018.
My editor, the brilliant Sarah Odedina, liked the story, but she suggested I developed it into a more emotionally powerful exploration of loss and grief. That summer we moved back to Switzerland, so I didn’t get much writing done. I mulled over the story and had some good discussions with Sarah about it, including at an editorial meeting in the graveyard-setting of the book, when we were both in Singapore for a writer’s conference.
I kickstarted the second draft at the SCBWI Switzerland retreat in late 2018, and finished it a few months later, but this time the plot was too complicated.
The last major rewrite, the third draft, was therefore focused on removing superfluous subplots and strengthening those that remained.
After the structure was in place, I went through my self-editing process, and then came line- and copyedits until the final text was ready in March 2020.
Did you encounter anything unexpected while working on this project?
I learnt many interesting and unexpected things about the traditions surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival. For instance, that, in addition to offerings of food and burnt joss paper, stage performances are also held as entertainment for the roaming spirits. At these Getai shows, the first row of seats is reserved for the hungry ghost, and terrible things can happen if a living spectator takes one of these seats.
Throughout the writing of the story, I was aware that I was writing about a culture that isn’t my own and a place where I was only a resident for four years, so I anchored the book in the perspective of someone with my own background. Therefore, the main character, Freja, comes from Denmark. I also used SCBWI Singapore friends as sounding boards and Denise Tan, a wonderful Singaporean children’s bookseller, as my ‘cultural’ sensitivity reader.
Now for something completely different! Classical Music or Pop Music.
As background music for writing, it definitely has to be classical music. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics while I’m working.
Thank you, Helle, for sharing with us your creative journey in getting this book from idea to print. I am particularly eager to read this one because it is set in my home country!
We wish you all the best for the launch.
Bio - H.S. Norup
H. S. Norup is the 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 teenage 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.
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