The life of a writer is somewhat unusual. You spend hours upon hours working away in solitary confinement, battle crippling self-doubt, and never really know how your work will be received. Natasha Ngan knows this all to well, as she’s currently working on her fourth young adult fiction novel (she had her first book published straight after graduating from university).
I’ve known Natasha Ngan for a couple of years, and have always admired her work ethic and creativity. So I’m really excited to delve deeper into her career story in this month’s #My9to5 interview. Natasha and I caught up over FaceTime (she now lives in Paris), to talk about her journey so far and her new book, Girls of Paper and Fire…
Hi Natasha. So, let’s start right at the beginning… When did your love of fiction begin, and how did you get into writing?
I’m the classic case: the writer who always wanted to write. My dad brought me up surrounded by books. Every night he would read to me. And as soon as I knew what stories were I began creating them. It was like a compulsion. Throughout my teens I would write on anything I could get my hands on: receipts, paper napkins, the back of envelopes… I’d just scrawl ideas everywhere.
I wanted to study English at university, but my typical Chinese mum was like, “That’s not going to happen.” Although, she probably said it in a nicer way. I think the idea was scary for her, because the majority of Asian families favour science-based educations.
So I ended up studying Geography at university, instead. And I think it worked out for the best, anyway, because I was always writing for pleasure. I actually got the idea for my first novel (The Elites) whilst I was at university.
The Elites was the first novel you wrote, and the first book you had published. What did the writing process look like for you? And how did you find land that publishing deal?
I began developing the story during my second year of university. I kept a Word Document saved with all of my ideas, and I also collected a lot of images for inspiration too. I did a lot of research because it’s a sci-fi book, and I’ve noticed that when I’m writing I really need to understand the world that I’m creating.
I let the ideas come together quite naturally, because this was back in the day when I didn’t have deadlines.
After I graduated I went straight into a social media internship. And at some point I must have sat down and said to myself, “I’m going to write every evening.” Because I would come home from the office at 8pm and work on The Elites every night. I literally just got words down on paper, and didn’t think about it too much.
Within a few months I’d finished the book, and I started contacting agents, because that’s the first step to get a book published. I found an agent, they submitted The Elites to a publisher and two days later I had a publishing deal. It happened really quickly, which was quite surprising.
You’ve now had two YA novels published (The Elites and The Memory Keepers) and your third novel, Girls of Paper and Fire, is due for release later this year. What first attracted you to young adult fiction?
I get asked this a lot. And it’s funny because I think there’s sometimes a bit of an attitude about YA. As if young adult and children’s books are somehow lesser. But, if you think about it, adults are far more patient. Especially when it comes to reading. I’ll plod through half a book until I start to enjoy it, but kids will put something down immediately if they don’t think it’s interesting.
But, aside from that, I just love the amount of hope in YA fiction. Young adult novels are very idealistic. They can be as dark, and carry as many complex themes as adult fiction – for example, Girls of Paper and Fire is about concubines, so there are elements of sexual abuse, rape and trauma. However, with those dark concepts a feeling of hope always remains in YA fiction.
It’s that idealistic notion that if you want something enough, and you work hard and are a nice person, good things will eventually happen for you. And I think that is something I cling to, because the real world is so hard.
“I love the amount of hope in YA fiction. Young adult novels are very idealistic.”
What does your typical workday look like, if such a thing even exists for you?
Well I’m currently in the first drafting stage for the sequel to Girls of Paper and Fire, so I spend most of my time crying into a cup of tea, hoping the words come to me!
I’m really bad with routine, and I also tend to be one of those people that takes a while to get into their day. I usually wake up between 8am and 10am, and I love to laze in bed for a while, answering emails and checking Twitter. And every morning I have a lemon and honey tea, because it’s good for your digestion.
As well as writing, I also teach yoga. And I always do a bit of yoga every day – even if it’s just to breathe and move around a little bit. Then I park myself down at my laptop and try to write. I aim for a specific amount of words every day, depending on my deadline. Sometimes it flows really nicely, and other days it will take me until 11pm.
If I’m teaching a yoga class that helps to break up the day, because I get to go out and talk to real people. Not just the characters rolling around in my head. And I tend to write until about 9.30pm, so I usually don’t start cooking dinner until 10pm. I think it’s the Paris lifestyle. I’ll chat to my boyfriend over a glass of wine, and we usually go to bed late. Anywhere between 1am and 3am. I’m definitely a night person. I feel more creative and relaxed when there isn’t the pressure of an entire day ahead of me.
How do you like to unwind after a busy week or a stressful day of writers block?
I’m really into cooking! Maybe that’s why I cook so late, because I love the process and if I’ve still got work to do it’s hard for me to enjoy it as much. My boyfriend and I cook these big, fancy meals every day with fresh fish from the market, and we usually have some music going will chat about our days. So it’s really relaxed.
And I also love going out for Aperol with friends. That’s such a French thing. And it’s one of the many things I love about living in Paris – your friends are always nearby and everyone’s very social. Writing is incredibly solitary, so I prefer to relax with company.
What is the biggest challenge that you currently face in your 9 to 5?
The hardest things about writing are the fact that it’s so isolating, and it also all comes down to you. So it’s that pressure of not only being alone, but also being the only person who can finish the job. I can talk to people and say, “This is where I’m stuck with my book”, but no one can give me answers. Not even my editor or my agent.
I used to be able to get out of my flat and write in cafes, so at least I could be around other people. But at the time I couldn’t understand French properly, and now my language is so much better. So if I sit in a cafe to write I can understand what everyone around me is saying, and it’s distracting. I can edit with background noise, but if I’m writing I need complete silence.
How do you stay motivated and focused when you’re working on a novel? And what are your tricks for dealing with writers block?
I think the most important thing is knowing that the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s something that you have to be able to tell yourself when self-doubt is sitting on your shoulder. When that voice in your head is saying, “This is shit, why are you even bothering?”
You can’t edit no words. But you can edit shitty words and turn them into good words. So the key thing to remember, when you’re struggling, is to keep going. But it’s also okay to take a pause and step away for a while. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The process is also different with each book. And, if anything, I find that writing gets harder and harder the more that I do it. I think it’s because there’s more pressure now. For example, I’m on deadlines and I’m writing my first sequel, so that’s completely different to anything I’ve ever done before.
And, finally, what’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given, and who gave it to you?
I think the biggest thing is something I learnt from my parents. I don’t remember exactly when they said it, or even how they said it, but I know that it came from them. And it is not to be afraid of failure.
The only way you can achieve anything in life is by trying, and mistakes are how we learn. So I always think it’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. If you’re brave enough to forge your own path and try your hardest I don’t think it can be classed as a failure, no matter what the outcome is. Because if you tried then that in itself isn’t failing. A lot of people aren’t even brave enough to try, and will go through life taking the easy options instead.
Follow Natasha Ngan on Twitter at @girlinthelens and Instagram at @girlinthelens. Girls of Paper and Fire is published November 2018 from Jimmy Patterson Books; pre-order now on Amazon (UK and USA). All photos courtesy of Natasha Ngan.
Catch up on the previous #my9to5 interviews here >>