H.S. Norup and The Hungry Ghost: A Q&A | Pushkin Press

H.S. Norup and The Hungry Ghost: A Q&A

Posted 23rd October 2020

As spooky season is upon us, we sat down with author H.S. Norup to talk about her wonderfully gripping yet hugely moving new book – The Hungry Ghost. Wondering where that fabulous title comes from? Keep reading to find out…

Q: Hi Helle! Thanks so much for talking to us about your new book, The Hungry Ghost. It’s a fantastic story about intimate friendships, family and grief, but it also spans two continents. Why did you choose Denmark and Singapore to set the story in?

Helle: When I began writing The Hungry Ghost, I was living in Singapore and I wanted to capture the vibrant atmosphere and my impressions of the wonderful multi-cultural society. But 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 background. As I’m Danish, Freja comes from Denmark.

Personally, I love to read stories that are set in unfamiliar places or different time-periods. Novels are, of course, filtered through the perspectives of both the author and the narrator, but, compared to most non-fiction books, I think fiction provides more immersive experiences. You can travel anywhere in a novel, and next to actually going somewhere, it’s my favourite way to explore.

Q: Where did Freja come from? She is a wonderfully vulnerable and brave character – what inspired you to create her?

Helle: All my characters are based on me and my dreams, hopes and fears—even the villains—but some, like Freja, more so than others.

For this book, I wanted a protagonist who was at odds with living in a city, but would be completely at ease in the wilderness. As I was a scout (and still am at heart), and it taught me so many useful skills, I thought my main character should use these skills and her knowledge of nature to solve the mystery.

On a deeper level, Freja has also inherited traits from me, particularly in the way she avoids facing certain internal issues but appears to be fearless when confronted by external adversity. On adventures in the wilderness, she’s much braver than I am, though. I’m a real chicken and scared of the dark—having a vivid imagination is not always a good thing.

Q: What is it about family mysteries that is attractive to you as a writer?

Helle: I love reading mysteries and guessing along with the protagonist as they are uncovering secrets, especially if they are discovering a truth about themselves. And I’m fascinated by memory—how and what the mind chooses to retain or repress—and how the things we remember and those we forget shape our perception of the past and impact the present.

In The Hungry Ghost, Freja’s outlook on herself and her family is distorted because of a repressed memory, and secrets further in the past set the story in motion. The hungry ghosts that roam the streets are lost spirits, forgotten by their descendants, with their own secrets to reveal.

Q: What role can magic play in children’s books that are set mainly in the real world?

Helle: As soon as there’s magic in a story, the only limitation is the imagination. The scope of the story world expands, allowing the characters to deal with situations that would be unbelievable in a book set entirely in the real world.

Magic or fantasy elements in a story also create a space where it’s possible to experience scarier situations and explore distressing themes like loss and grief. The gap to the real world gives the reader a kind of escape clause. If a book gets too scary or upsetting, they can tell themselves that whatever is happening is fictitious.

The wonderful thing about reading, and the reason it’s vital for children to read books about monsters and distressing situations, is that they learn that monsters can be beaten and difficulties overcome.

Q: It’s been a strange time for all over the past year. Tell us a little about your writing day and how lockdown has been for you as an author.

Helle: In the last five months, with the whole family at home, I have not been able to follow any kind of routine. But when the world is normal, I write in the morning, ideally before any distractions from the news or social media. If I’m drafting, I set myself a target, usually 500 words, and write until I reach it. Sometimes it’s a one-word-at-a-time slog, sometimes I’m speeding past 1500 words in an hour. I work with a loose outline of the plot and end the day’s writing by planning what comes next. That way I can mull it over during the rest of the day and make notes of ideas for bits of dialogue and descriptions in emails to myself, written on my phone.

I much prefer editing to writing a first draft, and I can edit until late at night and endlessly.

Q: What are you reading at the moment?

Helle: I have just read the Starfell books by Dominique Valente—such delightful witchy adventures—and I have a stack of middle grade debut novels I can’t wait to read: The Ten Riddles of Eartha Quicksmith by Loris Owen, The Wild Way Home by Sophie Kirtley and Elsetime by Eve McDonnell. For nighttime reading, I have Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin on my Kindle. I also always have an audiobook on the go for when I’m doing chores around the house. At the moment, I’m listening to The Chronicles of Narnia and discovering things I had forgotten or perhaps didn’t understand when I read and reread these stories as a child.

Q: Tell us a little about how you got started as a writer.

Helle: I have always been a voracious reader and a daydreamer. But when I was a teenager, I didn’t think authors were ‘normal’ people like me, so I never considered writing for a living. I pursued a business career instead and forgot my dream until I was in my thirties. At the time, I was reading children’s books again, and these books sparked my imagination. I started and abandoned several children’s novels, before I finally finished the first draft of manuscript in 2010. Over the next four years, I learnt the craft of writing, through books, workshops and writing groups, while I rewrote and edited my ‘apprenticeship’ novel. After a conference workshop in 2015, my dream editor—that’s you, Sarah!—read the manuscript and gave me useful feedback in a very encouraging rejection email. It motivated me to write a new story about strange bearded creatures in the snow. That story became The Missing Barbegazi, and, when it was published by Pushkin Children’s in 2018, my dream came true.

Q: As a reader do you get excited when you hear a new book by a favourite author is to be released?

Helle: Yes! I’m eagerly awaiting my preordered copies of Piranesi by Susanna Clarke and A Secret of Birds & Bone by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. I also can’t wait to read new books (next year, I hope) by Juliette Forrest and Sinéad O’Hart.

The Hungry Ghost by H.S. Norup is out now with Pushkin Children’s.

Head over to Helle’s social media accounts to win a signed copy of The Hungry Ghost just in time for Halloween! There will only be 3 lucky winners so make sure to get your entries in.