With her new novel “A Spark of White Fire,” author Sangu Mandanna is reimagining what the Mahabharata, an Indian epic, would look like in a futuristic setting.
The novel — which will be released next week — tells the story of Esmae, a talented teen who was separated from her family at a young age. She yearns to return to her birth family and finally sees a chance to do so when a royal offers to gift a warship to anyone who wins a complex skills competition. Things quickly fall apart and she soon realizes that she has to fight her family in order to triumph over evil.
We had the chance to chat with Mandanna about her new novel, why she is drawn to the young adult audience, and the lasting appeal of ancient epics.
The Teal Mango: On your website, you mention that you wrote your first story when you were four years old. Can you tell us what it was about and what drew you to stories?
Sangu Mandanna: I can tell you exactly what that first story was about because I still remember it so clearly! My dad has a coffee estate about five hours away from Bangalore, in Southern India, next to the forest national parks, and we were driving through the forest when an elephant charged out of the trees and chased our car. So the first thing I did when we got back to the house was get out a pencil and a piece of paper and write a short story about how my nameless narrator was chased by an “elefit” and she was very “sked.” And honestly, I haven’t stopped writing since! Most of my stories have been less autobiographical since then, though. I love, love, love the magic and escapism of fiction.
TTM: Tell us about your new book “A Spark of White Fire.” The official description says the book was inspired in part by the Mahabharata. How did you get the idea to create a young adult fantasy novel about the Hindu epics?
SM: I had wanted to write a story inspired by the Mahabharata and by Hindu mythology in general for years, but I had never settled on a setting or story that felt right. Then, shortly before my oldest son’s third birthday, he became obsessed with the solar system and space, which of course meant I had to become at least partly obsessed with it to cater to his endless curiosity. It was during this time that the two ideas somehow became one and as weird as it sounded, I couldn’t resist the idea of writing about Indian mythology in space.
TTM: Did you grow up reading the Mahabharata? Was there a particular section or person in the stories that resonated with you?
SM: I didn’t actually read the Mahabharata in its entirety until I started writing “A Spark of White Fire,” but I already knew it in that deep, intimate, jigsaw way you know the stories of your childhood. I grew up listening to the epics, told to me in bits and pieces, over and over again, by my grandfather and my parents. And I remember that I always found the stories of the women incredibly compelling because they found extraordinary ways to reclaim power in a world that didn’t give them any. The other character who resonated with me was Karna, who I always feel is a true tragic hero.
TTM: Like in the Mahabharata, the central conflict in your book comes when your character Esmae realizes that she has to go against her family and the values she grew up with in order to fight for what is right. Can you tell us about developing that side of the story and what you want readers to take away from it?
SM: I think there are a lot of themes in the original epic and in my version that we can relate to even today. Like the question of what is family? Is it the people we were born to? Or the people who accept us no matter what? Is it better to be loyal? Or to fight for what you believe is right? These are questions that don’t have easy answers and I think that’s what I’d like readers to take away from the story, that Esmae doesn’t have all the right answers and that in real life we don’t either. And that’s okay.
TTM: You grew up in Bangalore and now live in the United Kingdom. What kinds of books were you reading growing up? Who were your favorite authors?
SM: I was a consummate bookworm so I was never not reading! I read a lot of different things as a child, from the Panchatantra stories to The Magic Faraway Tree to Harry Potter to Mills & Boon romances. Stories about magic and strangeness were always my particular favorites, so I loved authors like Mary Shelley, JK Rowling, Audrey Niffenegger, Enid Blyton and Arundhati Roy. As an adult, I recognize that several of my childhood favorites are problematic in many ways, but I also believe it’s possible to love something while still recognizing its flaws.
TTM: What do you particularly like about writing for the young adult audience?
SM: My favorite books tend to be stories for young adults, so it’s what I’m naturally drawn to writing. I love that children’s books can be just about anything we need them to be, from fun to dark to intensely political to fluffy to completely magical, but that ultimately they’re always, always hopeful. I think we could all use a little hope right now.
TTM: Finally, “A Spark of White Fire” is the first book in a trilogy. What can readers expect from the story and the main character Esmae as the story continues?
SM: Like the original epic, the rest of the trilogy will explore the impact of war on innocent lives and we’ll see Esmae on a journey for both revenge and redemption. There’s also going to be plenty of adventure, some amazing friendships, more complicated family dynamics, and romance.
You can order your copy of “A Spark of White Fire” here.