It all begins on the night Rea turns twelve. After a big fight with her twin brother Rohan on their birthday, Rea's life in the small village of Darjeeling, India, gets turned on its head. It’s four in the morning and Rohan is nowhere to be found. It hasn’t even been a day and Amma acts like Rohan's gone forever. Her grandmother, too, is behaving strangely. Unwilling to give up on her brother, Rea and her friend Leela meet Mishti Daadi, a wrinkly old fortune-teller whose powers of divination set them off on a thrilling and secret quest. In the shade of night, they portal into an otherworldly realm and travel to Astranthia, a land full of magic and whimsy. There with the help of Xeranther, an Astranthian barrow boy, and Flula, a pari, Rea battles serpent-lilies and blood-sucking banshees, encounters a butterfly-faced woman and blue lizard-men, and learns that Rohan has been captured. Rea also discovers that she is a princess with magic. Only she has no idea how to use it. Struggling with the truth her Amma has kept hidden from her, Rea must solve clues that lead to Rohan, find a way to rescue him and save Astranthia from a potentially deadly fate. But the clock is ticking. Can she rescue Rohan, save Astranthia, and live to see it all?
About the Author
Payal Doshi has a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) from The New School, New York. She was born and raised in Mumbai, India, and currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and two-year-old daughter.
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.
Interview by Melissa Hope
Hi Payal! I’m SO excited to talk with you today about your debut middle-grade, REA AND THE BLOOD OF THE NECTAR! How does it feel to know it’s finally out in the world?
Hi Melissa! It’s so great to chat with you! Gosh, it feels so surreal. I’m a bundle of emotions all rolled into one—excited, relieved, nervous, ecstatic, and thankful!
Tell me about how it all began! When did you first realize you wanted to write this book?
Oh, it took me a long time! I was never one of those writers who knew since they were a kid that they wanted to be an author. I had no idea what I wanted to do! I was 23 years old when I first realized that I wanted to write a novel. I was writing for a lifestyle magazine at the time and two years into my job and I was feeling demotivated and frustrated. I wanted the freedom to write about things that I wanted to write about and not what my editor was asking me to write about. I remember it was a Saturday morning and I powered up my laptop with the intention of writing something straight from my heart. I had no clue what it was going to be. About twenty minutes later, I had written two paragraphs about a girl who enters these forbidden woods behind her house that have a touch of magic, and I never felt so exhilarated and fulfilled. I loved putting the words together and creating a scene purely out of my imagination. Right then, I knew I wanted to write books. The cool part is that that scene has remained in the book!
You’ve told me before that your daughter has started to call herself Rea. Why was it important for you to write about a character from an Indian background? How do you feel knowing your own daughter has Rea to grow up with?
Hehe, it’s the cutest!! My daughter is three and she calls herself Rea or yells ‘that’s me!’ every time she sees the cover of the book. It’s amazing because I never had that experience growing up and it’s a special feeling to know that she’s going to grow up seeing herself in books. It was very important for me to write about a character from an Indian background because when I wrote the first draft of the book, all the characters were white, and they lived in the English countryside. Only when my writing teacher pointed out the lack of Indian characters did I realize that I hadn’t even thought of writing about them. Unbeknownst to me, the books that I’d read as a kid unconsciously trained my mind into thinking that only stories with white characters and western settings were worth writing about and reading. That stories about my Indian heritage, culture, and background weren’t. This realization really upset me, and I decided that I was going to write thrilling and epic adventures with Indian characters so kids like my daughter and even adults like myself can see themselves as main characters and heroes in books. I don’t want any child from any cultural background to ever doubt that their stories are interesting, important, and worthy of sharing. Because each of their stories is absolutely needed.
There are unique fantastical elements in this book, from a butterfly-faced woman to blue lizard-men. Did you draw from Indian myths or legends when creating the world of Astranthia?
Some of the elements, creatures, and names are inspired by Indian and Celtic folklore but most I invented from my imagination. I wrote Astranthia to be a magical otherworldly realm and a melting pot of all creatures and cultures. Symbolically, it is a representation of the East-meets-West culture I grew up in as a kid in the 90s in Mumbai, India. As a twelve-year-old, I was surrounded by all things Indian (naturally!) from the food we ate to our traditions, the regional languages we spoke and constantly heard around us, our festivals, our weddings. At the same time, my friends and I devoured British and American pop culture from knowing every song from the Backstreet Boys and trivia details about Keanu Reeves to the TV shows we watched. (You can probably tell how old I am!) So, when I sat to create Astranthia, my version of a utopia or a magical realm intuitively stemmed from that ‘glocal’ culture I lived, experienced, and consumed as a kid growing up in an urban Indian city.
That’s another thing that is special about this book: the names! Tell us more about your process on choosing names for characters and places, and just how you approach worldbuilding in general.
I love coming up with names for characters and places. It’s an intuitive process with a bit of trial and error. Names are our first introduction to a character or place and naming it well can add subtle depth and nuance to the story. Names can sound creepy, dreamy, smelly, fantastical, practical, and can even give clues to a character’s personality. I use a few methods to come up with names. Sometimes, I scramble the letters of regular names, or I’ll mix two names together. Other times, I look at Indian names and terms and blend them with western terminology. Or I’ll simply google ‘fairy or goblin names’ or use a name generator to get the ball rolling!
When it comes to worldbuilding, I love reading books in which the world feels like a character in itself. I wanted both settings of Darjeeling as well as Astranthia to feel immersive, verdant, and magical. I find that descriptions of plants, leaves, trees, flowers, and animal life add greatly to the atmosphere of a place and make the reader feel like they are right there with the characters.
To set the scene, so to speak, I like to employ the use of all my senses, not just the more widely used ‘sight’ and ‘sound’ senses. So, when I describe a landscape or scene, I ask myself what it smells like, how cold or warm it is, if there is a wind blowing or a feeling of impending rain, what a plant or flower feels like to the touch, etc. In my book, I also used the device of showing the world through the eyes of Rea who was seeing Astranthia for the first time. This allowed her to ask questions about the oddities she encountered like magical creatures or Astranthian homes that look like giant flower buds and this gave me the opportunity to describe the realm without making it seem like an info-dump that might pull the reader out of the story.
Rea is faced with many hardships from the world and from her brother and Amma. Why do you think it’s important to write about hard things?
Because life can be hard even for kids. When kids turn 11 or 12 years old, they become hyper-aware of the world around them. They go from being kids to little adults-in-making who are beginning to see the complexities arising from family situations, friendship dynamics, first crushes, the perception people have of them, etc. I wanted to write about a character who is an ordinary kid trying to cope with an imperfect family dynamic—she has lost her dad, her mother is aloof and battling her own demons, her twin brother is outwardly smarter and more popular than she is. I wanted kids to know that they are not alone in their struggles, even if they may not be the same struggles that Rea faces. I also wanted to them know that most times there are deeper layers to what seems like an unfair situation and that they shouldn’t give up or lose hope, especially on their loved ones. Family relationships and friendships can be complicated, convoluted, and difficult, but they are relationships worth having and fighting for.
What do you hope readers will take away from this novel?
I hope that 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.
Thank you so much for chatting with me, Payal! I am so excited for you and happy to celebrate Rea’s book birthday!
You’re welcome, Melissa! This was such a great interview!
I do have one last fun question: If you could portal anywhere in place or time, where would you go?
Just for a visit, not permanently, I would love to portal to Mughal Empire and be a royal Indian princess or pop by the worlds of Bridgeton, Pride and Prejudice, or Downton Abbey and attend one of their famous balls! 😉
Pick up a copy of Rea and the Blood of the Nectar at your favorite indie bookstore or at the following retailers:
Melissa Hope is passionate about helping writers improve their craft and connect with the writing community. She escaped the frostbite normalcy of Canadian winters to live in Florida with her family, bipolar cat, and growing collection of scuba gear.
Visit her website www.authormelissahope.com to watch free writing tutorials.