I’m the last stop of the Hungry Ghost Blog Tour and because I have previously reviewed The Hungry Ghost, I thought I’d take you behind the scenes and interview H.S. Norup about her inspiration, research, editing and the folklore/mythology behind the book. I hope you enjoy this candid interview…
NLK: What inspired you to write The Hungry Ghost?
HN: From the first time I saw offerings on the pavement, I was intrigued by the Hungry Ghost Festival. During this month—the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar—the hungry ghosts are said to be on holiday from the realm of the dead and they roam the streets seeking nourishment. Offerings of food and joss paper for ancestors and forgotten or restless spirits litter the pavements.
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 their past?”
From there, the story, which explores themes of families under stress, grief and acceptance, evolved.
NLK: How much of your own life goes into your stories? Can you please tell us more about this?
HN: Like most writers, I feed my experiences into my stories at different levels. Both of my books are set in the real world with fantasy elements, and I use my memories of sensory details to create a strong sense of place. Vivid descriptions have to go beyond what the character can see to engage the reader. So, on this surface level, I add remembered smells and sounds and other sensations.
Memories from childhood are also very useful. Like Freja in The Hungry Ghost, I was a scout and loved many of the skills I learnt as a scout. Morse code messaging, orienteering, tying knots and using a penknife all feature in this story and are crucial tools for Freja.
On the deepest level, I use my own experience of particular feelings like sadness, grief, anger and hope, and try to capture them in my stories.
NLK: Your protagonist, Freja feels isolated when she arrives in Singapore. I know you’ve lived in several countries, what’s your number one tip for connecting with other writers when you arrive in your new home?
HN: If you’re a children’s writer, join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators)! Both here in Switzerland and in Singapore, I was involved with the local SCBWI writers within a month of arriving.
NLK: I’m a great admirer of your methodical approach to editing, can you please share your ‘must do’ editing tip?
HN: My top tip is to read your work aloud!
A more ‘methodical’ tip, specifically for structural edits, is to write a pitch and a synopsis based on your draft. This will give you an overview of the story and can be used to analyse where the gaps are between the draft you have written and the story you want to tell.
NLK: Can you please give us some background to Bukit Brown (the old cemetery where much of the story’s action takes place)? In your research, what was the most fascinating thing you discovered about Bukit Brown?
HN: Bukit Brown Cemetery is an old Chinese cemetery in Singapore with around 100,000 graves (the biggest outside China). It was first opened in 1922 (the year is a clue in the book), but it has not been in use the last 50 years. Therefore, the rainforest has completely taken over big parts of the cemetery, turning it into a magical wilderness.
There is so much history to discover in old graveyards, and I uncovered some of Bukit Brown’s stories through the volunteers that give guided tours of the cemetery. So, the most fascinating discoveries were not about the cemetery itself, but rather the backstories of some of the people that are buried there.
NLK: Can you please tell us more about the folklore and mythology which are woven throughout The Hungry Ghost?
HN: Although The Hungry Ghost mainly takes place in contemporary Singapore with historical elements, it’s also a portal story where Freja enters a fantasy world based on Chinese mythology and South East Asian folklore. That part of the book was the most difficult to develop, and I kept searching the real cemetery for traces of useful myths, without success. When I read an article about how feng shui and the four ancient Chinese mythological creatures (the azure dragon, the vermillion bird, the white tiger, and the black tortoise) have been used in Singapore’s city planning, I found the framework I needed. In the book, Freja’s stepmother advocates for feng shui in interior design and discusses the mythical creatures, creating a link between the real and the fantasy world. As feng shui was also used when assigning plots in the graveyard, e.g. the paupers were buried in the low-level areas of Bukit Brown where the feng shui was poor, this connected the historical aspects.
Many of the superstitions surrounding ghosts are mentioned in the book, and I absolutely had to include the scariest character in South East Asian folklore—the pontianak. This female vampire ghost, said to have died while pregnant or during childbirth, fascinated me from the first Malay story I heard about her several years before I began writing the book.
NLK: Is there a deleted scene or character from The Hungry Ghost which you would like to share?
HN: I love the street food in Singapore, (me too, deep fried bananas, nom nom – NLK) and I really miss the hawker centres and ALL the food. There used to be a whole chapter of food and dishes and Freja trying everything, which was basically just me indulging, so that was cut to a much shorter scene. In one version of the story, Freja’s imaginary friend had a much bigger role (now she’s only mentioned in passing a few times). She distracted from the main story and made the reader doubt whether Ling was an imaginary friend, so she had to go.
NLK: What do you most hope readers remember about The Hungry Ghost?
HN: In addition, to the adventure and mystery, I hope they will remember that you can find nature and friendship in unlikely places and that sometimes you need to look below the surface to understand other people.
Most of all, I would love if the hopeful ending shows them that it is possible to heal after loss and grief, and that this might give them hope if they are going through difficult times.
About 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.
Connect with H. S. Norup
Want to find out more about The Hungry Ghost? Read my review here 🙂