Indian-American author explores multiracialism and visiting the dead in her new YA novel

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Book jacket for YA novel ‘Mercury Boys’. Photo provided by author Chandra Prasad

Author Chandra Prasad’s latest young adult thriller novel, Mercury Boys follows a secret society of present-day high school girls who discover that when they handle liquid mercury, they are able to visit long-dead people who appear in daguerreotypes.

Published by Penguin Random House’s Soho Teen, the novel is set to release on August 3, 2021.

The protagonist, sixteen-year-old Saskia Brown has just relocated from Arizona to Connecticut with her father as her parents go through a bitter divorce.

As the new kid in a new town, she’s feeling incredibly shy and vulnerable. Compounding her outsider status, Saskia is biracial in a mostly white town. When she tells her friends her new found secret of visiting dead boys, it set into motion a series of terrifying events.

The book explores female desire, jealousy, and the shifting lines between friendship and rivalry.

Prasad is the author of the critically acclaimed novels On Borrowed Wings, Death of a Circus, Breathe the Sky, and Damselfly. She is also the editor of and a contributor to Mixed, the first ever anthology of short stories on the multiracial experience. Her shorter works have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Week, New Haven Noir and Teen Voices, among others.

In an email interview, Prasad tells News India Times a little bit more about her novel and herself.

Mercury Boys Author Chandra Prasad
Photo: chandraprasad.com

You received much praise for your first YA novel Damselfly. This is your second YA novel. Why this genre and what prompted you to venture into it? 

Mercury Boys felt a little bit like coming home because I was able to do a lot of historical research again.  Three of my previous novels—On Borrowed Wings, Death of a Circus, and Breathe the Sky—were all set in the early to mid-1900s and required extensive research on everything from airplanes, to fashion, to American slang at that time.

YA is a good fit for me because my earlier work already included a lot of teen characters; moving from adult fiction to YA felt like a natural progression. Honestly, it’s an honor for me to be a part of the YA cadre of writers.  In the last fifteen years, the YA genre has grown incredibly strong.  I frequently read YA novels that are every bit as memorable, nuanced, and perceptive as the best general fiction/adult novels.  It’s an exciting time to be a YA author.

How do you feel being an Indian-American author sets you apart in the industry? 

I’m so proud to be Indian-American. It has influenced every aspect of my life, from how I’m perceived and how I perceive others, to my dreams and ambitions, to my values and worldview. But I’m not just Indian.  I’m also multiracial: my father is from India and my mother is of Swedish, English, and Italian descent. So I understand what it’s like to not quite fit into one category or another.

Unfortunately, multiracial characters and multiracial authors are drastically underrepresented in children’s and YA literature. For this reason, I make a point of including multiracial characters in my work. The protagonists in both Mercury Boys and Damselfly are multiracial. I feel strongly that all kids should get a chance to see themselves in the books they read. Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn in publishing as more editors realize that diversity is not a choice, but a societal necessity, and that all kinds of voices need to heard—including authors who are half-Indian.

Can you please tell me about the title and what it relates to in the book?

Mercury relates to the plot and characters in multiple ways. First, liquid mercury is necessary to the action of the novel, as the girls use it as a way to time-travel. Second, the history of liquid mercury is surprisingly fascinating and that comes into play. Historically, people used mercury for depression, alchemy, and fertility, among other things; but we know today that mercury is incredibly toxic.  The dual role of mercury as helpful and dangerous is a focus of the novel. Finally, the Roman god Mercury represented luck, boundaries, travel, and tricksters, which all pertain to the story.

The book is called Mercury Boys because the teen girls in the story tend to visit boys when they travel back in time—but not always.

People are not familiar with daguerreotypes. Can you tell me what they are…

Named after their inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, daguerreotypes were an early form of photography They originated in France in 1839, and spread swiftly in popularity across the world.  When daguerreotype studios began popping up in America, thousands of people paid for daguerreotypes of themselves and their loved ones.

But making daguerreotypes is not a simple process. Daguerreotype-makers had to have a working knowledge of chemistry, as mercury, bromine, and other chemicals were used. Also, the exposure time for daguerreotypes is long—patrons needed to sit perfectly still for up to 15 minutes to have their portraits taken.

Because making daguerreotypes was complicated, difficult, time-consuming, and even dangerous—considering the toxins involved, daguerreotypes fell out of favor around 1860, when ambrotypes and tintypes grew more popular.  But many daguerreotypes still exist, and they give us tantalizing glimpses of life in the mid-19th century.

…and how do you use them in the book?

In Mercury Boys, a modern-day group of high school girls discover a way to access the people in the daguerreotypes.  To guard their shocking secret, they create a secret society.  But it’s not long before the past disrupts the present, and the girls realize their lives will never be the same.

Prasad lives and works in Connecticut. A graduate of Yale, she is a fellow at Morse, one of Yale’s residential colleges. Currently, she is working on more young adult novels, among other projects.

 

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