NING CAI’S MAGICIENNE: WHAT IT TAKES TO TRULY WRITE A YA NOVEL FROM THE HEART

NOTE: Our guest is Ning Cai (above), who first became famous as Magic Babe Ning, the multi-award-winning Singaporean magician and entertainment personality. She co-authored the travelogue bestseller Adventures of 2 Girls (with Pamela Ho), and her memoir Who is Magic Babe Ning? was nominated for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016. She also has a book on creativity coming out, Game of Thoughts, with John Teo. But why she’s here is because her first young adult novel, Magicienne, which we wrote together, will be published later this year by Marshall Cavendish. It’s part thriller, part coming of age story. She’s the new voice of Singapore fiction. She’s bringing the magic. In her own words, below.

— D

MEET NING CAI

Clockwise from bottom right: Ning Cai, Don Bosco, Melvin Neo our wonderful editor at Marshall Cavendish

NING’S TEEANGE LOVE: WRITING FANFIC

Thanks so much for having me here today, Super Cool Books :) It’s truly super good to be here!

It’s a little ironic how fiction was something I always wrote as a teenager but the three books I have published so far — travel, biography, self-improvement — are all to be found in the non-fiction category when you walk into your favourite bookstore! This is my first foray into the land of fiction and I’m super proud to be doing this with Don Bosco! We work incredibly well together and it’s awesome how the two of us can bounce ideas off each other and run with it.

Frankly — and those who personally know me will attest to this — Magic Babe Ning has always been my greatest illusion. The decade-plus spent on stage playing that persona (Magic Babe has 2 X-Chromosomes and is not afraid to use it) has convinced the general public that I’m an aloof femme fatale magic superhero who kicks serious butt. But nothing can be further from the truth; there’s nothing better this geek girl would prefer to do than curl up with a good read on a stormy night, or scribble story ideas in her notebooks. This has been something I’ve done since forever! As a teenager I was that unapologetic nerd who always had her nose in a Neil Gaiman book, writing fan fiction in scraps of free time, and forever scribbling in journals on the bus, train, etc.

Good magic has a lot of heart in it. Likewise with writing, you need to give a lot of yourself especially with fiction! The ingredients are similar; likeable characters, the suspension of disbelief, the art of astonishment, realism in emotion and events, as well as that all important originality because no one cares for a blatant copycat or sad cliché!

THE MAKING OF MAGICIENNE

MAGICIENNE is about the beautiful metamorphosis of a young girl with a mysterious background who evolves into the amazing heroine she was meant to be after triumphing over her fears and struggles. It is also a book about love, friendship, and the evil greed of men.

Now, though it is a work of fiction, MAGICIENNE is very, very, very close to my heart. The protagonist is an amazing young girl and in some ways, she’s a younger version of ‘Magic Babe’. Girls looking for a strong Asian female character they can identify with may find that she may just remind them of aspects reflected in themselves. These are voracious readers who are smart, unafraid to ask the difficult questions, and know that they’re on the cusp of blossoming into confident young women! Inside every young woman is a smart and daring heroine waiting to break out.

I came from a mission school, where we didn’t have any boys, so we used that all-girls school setting for the same contextual environment in the book. Just like the heroine, I didn’t come from a privileged background and often felt ostracised like how she felt in the story; where there was a clear divide between the girls from wealthy families, where the principal and teachers gave special treatment …and students like us who didn’t. The complexities of close friendships between girls is also touched on. There is a big difference between the kind of friendships between girls from all-girls-schools and we address that between the two BFFs in the story because not addressing this real and unique aspect would not do the story justice!

Writing with Don for MAGICIENNE, there was a lot of fluidity and space for creativity. We have similar energies and would listen to what each other had to bring to the table. Taking away ego is extremely important for any writer or performer, and I think we really nailed that in our collaboration!

DON’T MESS WITH NING

This happened when I was a teenager but I need to thank the executive producer of a small production house here in Singapore for not believing in writers. That provided the necessary fuel which propagated the raging fire inside me to prove him wrong.

You see, our course lecturer in film school had recommended me for a production assistant job during the holidays as I was the top student that year and had even been given a scholarship. He arranged a phone interview with the EP, an industry contact of his, and I made the phone call at the appointed time. It all went very well, until I was asked this question: “What do you want to do when you graduate?”

Eighteen and idealistic, proudly wearing my heart on my sleeve, I declared with a swelling burst of passion: “I wish to write!”

The role of the writer after all is to breathe fresh life into original characters people truly love and care about; and watch their beautiful growth and evolution, slowly building up that mystery with an evolving world of challenges, with scenes eventually unfolding until they slowly but surely reveal all vulnerabilities and secrets. A promising project could easily be marred by a substandard script. Everybody knows that, right?

“Anybody can write,” the executive producer scoffed on the other end of the phone, and I could hear his slow jaded exhale as he smoked his cigarette. “Girl, I’m telling you. For your own good, you should have a REAL goal; get a real skill like being a DOP.”

I agree that a good Director of Photography is important. But so is the writing. However, this bossman didn’t believe strong writing was a skill and a good manuscript was key. I had called, hoping to land a job during the holidays so I could learn from an industry veteran. In the end, I declined the position and had zero regrets. You don’t need to be a mindreader like Derren Brown to guess that this company does not exist today.

Ning sharing stories with her new friends when she travelled to Ban Baat village in Thailand

NING WRITES LIKE THE WIND

While it is true that anyone literate can pick up a pen or poke a keyboard, true writing is an art. Readers understand that, and that is why billions of people escape into another world whenever they enjoy a new book. After my disappointing phone interview, I turned my energy towards writing fanfic online, keeping ideas in notebooks I always carried with me… and quickly I discovered, the more you do something, the easier it gets. Inspiration hits you so easily! For me, it has always been about people. People you meet when you commute, when you travel, strangers that become friends.

So keep these notebooks with you. You never know, one day you could get approached by a good publishing house to share your story; like in my case — my nine month long backpacking adventure around the world to places like Madagascar where I bathed in waterfalls, camped by the Tsiribihina River, climbed the Tsingy de Bemaraha; and the Sahara dessert where I rode camels by moonlight, spent a night hiding away from a frightening sandstorm, and slept under the stars in the Erg Chebbi Dunes with my desert guide from the Berber tribe.

Don’t try this at home, okay?

NING’S MAGICIENNE BOOK TOUR CONCEPT (DON’T MESS WITH NING PART 2)

I’d gladly stuff Don into two straitjackets and hoist him upside-down, hanging from a length of burning rope 75 feet in the air via a crane… while I urge people to read our book, but I’m not sure if my co-author would like that very much. *wink*

(Hmmmmm. — Don)

MAGICIENNE by Ning Cai & Don Bosco is published by Marshall Cavendish. The paperback will be available in mid-November 2016. Look out for details soon at the Super Cool Books website. Ning’s website is here.