The Elites: an interview with Natasha Ngan

I first met Natasha Ngan when she came along to a Science Fiction night with which I was involved  at Heffer's bookshop in Cambridge. She was a student at that time, but told me she was working on a novel of her own. And two years later here it is: The Elites, one of the lead autumn titles from Hot Key Books

That made me feel very OLD: readers who enjoyed Mortal Engines when they were children are now all growed up and releasing books of their own. But I hope it's encouraging for anyone who is writing stories and dreaming of one day getting them published - it does happen, and sometimes the process is quicker and easier than you expect! (Though 'easy' is a relative term here, of course. To attract the attention of agents and publishers as swiftly as Natasha did, you first have to write a decent book...)

The Elites is set in Neo-Babel, the 'last city' in a blighted future world. Silver is an Elite, a teenage warrior chosen to guard the city due to her superior DNA. When she fails to prevent an assassination she is forced to flee the city with her best friend Butterfly (a boy with genetically-enhanced wings). Together, they begin to uncover murky secrets about the city's rulers

It's a fast-paced,violent story, and packed with well-imagined detail. I suspect it has been quite carefully tailored to fit the 'YA dystopian' genre, and like many such books it seems more interested in the characters and their emotions than in the big ideas which seem to hover, intriguingly out-of-focus, in the background. I felt this was a pity - I'd have liked to know a bit more about this teeming future city, with its deadly politics and simmering racial tensions - but then I'm hardly the target demographic. Anyway, it's a promising debut, by an author of whom I'm certain we'll be hearing a lot in future. I've been talking to Natasha (via e-mail) about her book, her influences, and her future plans.

PR: One of the most appealing things about The Elites is its exotic setting - the floating cafes and abandoned solar energy structures, the air trams and so forth.  What's your approach to building a world?

NN: I studied Geography at university, so I adore world-building, and go completely overboard when I'm constructing a world for a new story! For me, the world needs to feel authentic and realistic, even if it has elements that seem fantastical. This takes a lot of time and research. I like to be sure that every detail, whether it's a type of futuristic material or a mode of transport, is feasible scientifically. It's a shame really, because the majority of those details don't actually feature in the book at all! But it means that if I can believe in my world, hopefully so can my readers. 

Another rule I have when approaching world-building is to write a world you want to spend time in. A lot of the world-building in The Elites was based around locations I wanted to set scenes in and just creating places I'd like to visit. The multicultural aspect of the book also let me take inspiration from different cultures and create a more varied social and physical landscape. It was fun getting details in from my experiences living in Malaysia too, and holidays with my parents - though I had to cut out so many food references from the first draft!

PR: I thought I detected a Mortal Engines influence (Calpol and Lemsip!) which was quite an odd feeling for me. Who/what are your other influences?

NN. Mortal Engines has definitely been a huge influence on my writing! It showed me just how imaginative, unique, quirky, and downright witty young-adult fantasy and sci-fi could be. Those are elements I certainly want to weave into my own work, though I am sure I don't pull it off nearly as well! I think The Elites was also influenced in part by writers such as Patrick Ness and Paolo Bacigalupi, whose dystopian worlds have a real sense of exoticism and originality to them. I didn't want it to be a typical YA setting.

I'd say that to some degree, everything I read influences me. If I really love a book, I'll use it as a learning tool and motivation to push myself further with my own writing. If I didn't enjoy a book so much, I'll ask myself what elements let it down - then try to recognise and avoid those in my own work. I always try and avoid reading books that are too similar in plot or style to mine though whilst I'm writing, just to make sure my story doesn't become derivative. 

PR: YA writers often say that YA is a marketing category, not a genre - but it does seem to have its own rules and recurring tropes - 'strong heroines', for instance. Were there things that you felt you 'had' to include when you set out to write a YA novel? And was that helpful, or restrictive?

NN. It's not something I consciously thought about, though now I look back at my reasoning behind some of the decisions I made whilst writing The Elites, I do recognise how some of the tropes in YA fiction influenced them. The trope of having a strong heroine with enough vulnerability for readers to connect with certainly affected Silver's character, and the common theme of having characters who are suddenly revealed to the ugly truth of their world was something that influenced the plot. 

I wouldn't say these influences were restrictive though. They were something that happened on a more subconscious level, and I don't even think they are even constrained to YA fiction either. Having characters readers can emphasise with, or plots where characters discover the world is not quite as they first perceived, are elements that many novels of all genres and age-groups have. I try not to think about other books too much though as I write. Instead, I try to remain true to my own stories, to make sure I tell them as honestly and authentically as possible.

PR: Despite the futuristic flourishes (DNA testing, genetically engineered wings) the world of The Elites is, in many ways , more primitive than our own (their surveillance technology isn't up to our standards, for instance). Obviously this is true of my Mortal Engines world as well. Is it just easier to tell a story like this in a world without modern technology?

NN: I certainly find it easier to tell a story in a world without highly advanced modern technology all around. Especially security technology! I think it restricts the kind of plot you can have, and a super-tech world just wouldn't have been a place where the story of The Elites could evolve naturally (or I could write it authentically). It's realistic, that even as we progress leaps and bound scientifically, some technologies will regress due to social and ecological influences. 

I also think it's about what you enjoy writing. Aesthetically, I find it a lot more fun to write about worlds where technology has both evolved and faded - it allows for a lot of creativity when world-building (I think I talked to you about this once and you said something similar?) My second novel, The Memory Keepers, which is out next year, is set in a futuristic London where memories can be downloaded and 'surfed' to experience over and over, and again, it's a world where advanced science and less developed aspects go hand in hand. There's just something so alluring to me about writing these types of societies! 

PR: What is it like to come straight out of University and become a published author? This doesn't happen to many people!

NN: It's all rather surreal, to be honest! Even though The Elites is now out there in the world, it still doesn't feel real. 

In some ways, I definitely think I'm lucky to have gotten a book-deal so quickly. I didn't have to experience a lot of rejection, and it has given me a boost of confidence in my writing. But I also think there are downsides to having work published young. The Elites was the first novel I've ever written, and I feel as though I've progressed so much just in the last year as a writer... Sometimes, I even feel a bit like a fraud - as though it shouldn't have happened this easy, and there's all been a huge mistake. 

In the end though, I just have to remind myself that all writers have a different route to publication, and this was mine. I'm beyond delighted to be able to live my dream, and just want to keep pushing myself to further evolve as a writer and not ever take this wonderful opportunity for granted. It's a daunting feeling, but it's absolutely wonderful too.

PR: Thank you!

For more information, visit Natasha's website, here.


Tim Knight said...

That's a very eye-catching cover.

Philip Reeve said...

It's good, isn't it? I'm very envious.

David Bridger said...

This is an excellent interview! The book sounds and looks good too. Thank you!

Stephen West said...

Very interesting. The technology that captured my heart in Mortal Engines was the airships, not just the machines themselves, but the entire infrastructure including the caravanserai and the "bird road" way of life, all inspired bits of invention. In my book Airship City I tried to capture a bit of that, but in a different setting- an alternative-history 1940's.

Jack said...

I really like her cover! That alone made me want to read the book. I'm going to see if my library will get this one in.

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