Courtesy of Coco Ma

Coco Ma ’25 MUS ’21 is set to release her third young adult novel, “Nightbreaker,” later this month. 

Balancing a Bichon Frise puppy who often rests in her handbag, Ma spoke with the News about how she balances school with her blossoming literary career. Launching at The Yale Bookstore at 2 p.m. on Sept. 23, the novel follows Rei Reynolds, a Chinese American teenager who attends an elite New York preparatory school and faces off against ferocious “Deathlings.” 

“Nightbreaker” is set to be Ma’s third published novel and her first published by Penguin Random House. The fantasy novel is the first in a duology, both of which are inspired by Manhattan, Ma said.

“[It is] an aged-up Percy Jackson with a New York-based mythology rather than a Greek one,” Ma said. “I moved to Manhattan when I was in grade 11 to do piano at the Juilliard School, and during that time, I was given a lot more independence and freedom by my parents. I went on a lot of misadventures, so that definitely inspired ‘Nightbreaker.’”

While Ma’s adventures were limited to the laws of the natural world, her protagonist fights “Deathlings” — monsters that torment New Yorkers after sundown. 

Ma told the News that she is drawn to the fantasy genre because of its escapist qualities and proximity to the real world.

“I think it’s really a boiling down of the struggles and griefs of everyday life,” Ma said. “Elevating them to a fantastical level kind of makes us put things in perspective and makes our own problems seem a little more manageable.”

A prospective cognitive science major, Ma has a busy schedule, but she noted that her professors have been very understanding. She credited her professor Derek Green and his class, “The Art and Craft of Television Drama,” with helping make her book a reality. 

Ma said that Green spent at least an hour with her after almost every single class, flushing out the plot, letting her bounce off ideas and challenging her constantly. Ma said that the second half of her book would not have been possible if not for Green’s continued encouragement.

Green said the combination of Ma’s work ethic and her willingness to accept criticism truly made her story come alive. 

“Coco’s really good at creating suspense on the page,” Green told the News. “She knows how to inhabit a place. The location of the book is kind of like its own character.” 

Ma’s process has evolved over the years. She started writing in middle school when she was inspired by a classmate who crafted fanfiction about fellow students. Ma joked that her peer’s popularity sparked a competitive desire to become her rival. 

A few years later, Ma wrote her first book, “Shadow Frost,” after receiving a short-story prompt in her tenth-grade English class. The story centered on a princess fighting demons, which she continued working on beyond the class assignment. 

“It kept growing longer and longer,” Ma said. “It was like 50,000 words, and I was like, hold on a second, this isn’t a short story anymore. So I decided to turn it into a book and keep going at it.”

That book became part of a trilogy, of which the first two books have been published. Since partnering with Penguin Random House, Ma has adopted a more stringent writing process and now tries to write at least 1,000 words a day. 

The major publishing house has alleviated many of the stresses that come with independent publishing, Ma said. She added that Penguin has helped her find the perfect voice actor to portray her cynical protagonist in an audiobook in addition to managing publishing and promotion for the novel.

Ma said that the producer Penguin assigned to the audiobook was “understanding” when Ma expressed her request that the protagonist’s audio actor be Chinese due to the inclusion of Mandarin words in the novel. Carolyn Kang, a New Yorker and Asian American actress and advocate, was someone Ma felt embodied her protagonist the best. 

Before publishing, beta readers — literature-enthusiasts Ma has connected with throughout her career — read over the story. Later in the process, sensitivity readers also scoured the pages, ensuring the contextual information was factual. Ma lauded her agent, Holly Root, for the publishing arrangement, calling her “a literal superhero.” 

“A duology felt like a comfortable balance for me,” Ma said. “As a writer, I never want to drag the story on to milk it.” 

In the unfinished sequel, the “stakes” are higher, as the protagonists belief system from the first book were “irrevocably shattered,” Ma added. 

Beta reader Sophie Licostie ’23 SPH ’24 said she felt “Nightbreaker” was refreshingly distinct, highlighting the unique way Ma portrayed a dystopian Manhattan.

Ma reached out to Licostie, who was adopted, to gain insight about portraying adopted characters authentically. 

“I had a couple of suggestions that were pulled from my personal experience,” Licostie said. “She was more than happy to integrate them and also make them her own.”

Both Licostie and Green praised Ma’s ability to connect her story to broader societal themes.

Green said he felt the story “captured the anxiety and isolation of the pandemic,” during which Ma first wrote the bulk of the novel. 

Additionally, Licostie thought Ma’s incorporation of her protagonist’s cultural background “actually fit with the story.”

“That’s what good writing does,” Green said. “It tells its own story but it also relates to something bigger in the culture, and I think Coco’s firing on all those cylinders.”

Ma’s book is currently available for preorder, with an official release date of Sept. 19.

Correction, Sept. 13: A previous version of this article stated that “Nightbreaker” is Ma’s third book — it is actually her third published book. The previous article version also did not include the time of the book launch or capitalize “Deathlings.” It also said that Deathlings tormented subway-goers when, in fact, the subways have been shut down in Ma’s dystopia. The article has been updated to reflect these changes

Kamini Purushothaman covers Arts and New Haven. A first-year student in Trumbull College, she is majoring in History.