Interview: Matthew MacDevette, author of Blacker than White

 

Matt and I met online just over a year ago when he hired me to edit his apocalyptic fantasy novel, Blacker than White, in which a female Lucifer goes to war with Heaven when Jehovah decides it’s time for Judgement Day and the angels descend to slaughter humanity. She takes a hapless but brave Oxford post-grad along with her to help circumvent the inconvenient pact she made not to spill too much angelic blood.

The project was an incredible piece  of luck: here I was at the beginning of a career shift, assuming it’d be a long time before I built enough of a reputation to get the kind of book I wanted to edit, when the kind of book I wanted to edit fell into my lap. And it was good – well-written, funny, full of action, packed with quirky worldbuilding, and driven by tenacious but damaged characters. I got to discuss some of my favourite topics with Matt: gender in fantasy fiction, the mythology of heaven and hell (and his unique take on it), and the creation of fantasy societies.

Now that the novel has gone out into the world, I asked for an interview. Welcome to Violin in a Void Matt:)

 


Matthew-MacDevette-2So, why write a story about the Devil?

When I first heard about The Fall as a child, my main thought was, “yay God for winning”, but as I got older it changed to, “hang on, I kind of get where Lucifer is coming from”. The Devil embodies much of what we despise, yes, but also much of what we’ve come to value, like independent thought, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds and defiance of unyielding authority. She – I’m just going with ‘she’ – is also much more relatable than the Bible’s heroes. Bundle all of that with what she went through – getting violently cast from her home into a barren wasteland for all eternity – and you get a deeply interesting character. Dangerous? Yes. Scary? At times. Funny? Perhaps. A little twisted? Absolutely. But interesting. So I wanted to write her, but not like she’s usually portrayed: as the ‘ultimate evil’, a slick dealmaker, a farcical fool or, more recently, a trying-to-make-it-in-the-world regular(ish) guy. I wanted to write her as a person that, like any of us, has complex feelings and thoughts shaped by her own particular history. That, I figured, would make for one hell of a story.

Why represent Lucifer as a woman? What differs from the way we usually see the character portrayed?

Two main reasons. First, novelty. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Lucifer portrayed seriously as a woman. If you’ve just thought, “but what about Elizabeth Hurley in Bedazzled?”, slap yourself across the face. Second, misogyny. Our heroes tell us a lot about who we want to be. So much of what is idolised in monotheistic religion is male. Men men men, everywhere you bloody look, doing all sorts of great things. The women? Never mind, they’re over there tempting the men or cleaning for the men or just waiting in the background supposedly yelling, “I’m your receptacle for childbirth … I sure hope it’s a BOY!” The whole idea of femininity in the Bible – and elsewhere – is muddied. Screw that. Most powerful characters are male, but half the world is not. By portraying this powerful character as a woman, the story can explore a lot of interesting issues related to that. Exactly how, you ask? No spoilers!

Alexei and Lucifer both have to deal with intense grief, and Lucifer has a history of psychological dysfunction that not only affects her personal life but entire worlds and societies. How did these themes find their way into the story? What was your approach to writing about trauma and mental illness?

I think that being a little messed up is part of living a full and beautiful life, not a step away from it. I wanted to honour that through the characters. With Lucifer, I tried to get to the heart of what it must have felt like to be cast from Heaven – from her home, from her family – and depict it as intimately as possible. I was intrigued by the idea of her experiences literally changing the landscape of her world, and her trying to navigate that to safer ground, because I think that’s often how it feels for us. As for my approach, well … a lot of it was inspired by what I was going through at the time. I wrote the bulk of the novel a few months after the end of a seven-year relationship. That, together with ideas informed by the loss of my father when I was 18, means that it’s probably not the sunniest book you’ll ever read. But hey, it’s not a book of mourning – quite the opposite. While loss is a big theme, so is the reckless affirmation of life despite all the misery it throws at you. So I guess my approach is to do the trauma justice without giving it the whole courtroom.

Blacker-than-WhiteThe story gets pretty brutal at times, but there’s a fair bit of humour in there too. What kind of role would you say humour plays in horror and dark fantasy? How do you balance the two?

An important role! I struggle with stories that take themselves seriously ALL THE TIME. Just because you’re writing about suffering or death or loss doesn’t mean you have to portray your world or characters as only defined by those things. Because I don’t think the world is defined by those things. Humour reminds you that characters have internal lives separate from whatever terrible events are unfolding around them, and that even in tragic moments we can steal moments of joy. It’s an act of defiance in a world that wants you dead. Also, it’s a way to make your readers extra sad. By keeping them entertained and giving them an emotional reprieve from harsh things, they have energy to feel even more devastated when the next terrible event comes around. As for balance, I always appreciate it when authors: 1) aren’t so goofy that their story loses credibility; 2) stick to jokes their characters would actually make; and 3) use more than one kind of funny – it doesn’t ALWAYS have to be snark.

What does the title Blacker than White refer to exactly?

A few different versions of ‘it’s not as simple as we think it is’. In the most general sense, the play on the phrase ‘black and white’ is meant as a rejection of the idea that things are either one way or another – good or evil, hero or villain, virtue or sin. We are all different things at different times to different people. It’s dull and dangerous to pretend otherwise, and yet too many influential people do. It also refers specifically to the characters of God and the Devil – regardless of who you choose to cast as the hero, neither is truly innocent.

Heaven and Hell both conform to and subvert conventional ideas about them. Hell can be terrifying but it’s got a university. Heaven is beautiful, but its orderly splendour is disturbing. Can you tell us a bit about your worldbuilding for these settings?

The idea of Heaven has always bothered me – a place of eternal peace with no suffering, no death, no conflict, no disorder. It seems incredibly boring. It also seems like somewhere where it would be difficult to be truly human, since I’m not sure you can be human in a place where you’re leaving so much of your ‘earthly nature’ behind and being flattened into one kind of ‘good’. So I wanted to ask the question, ‘what would this paradise we claim to value really look like, and would we still want it if we found out?’. The idea with Hell was similar, in that the usual representations seemed boring – I’m burning and screaming and generally not having a good time for all eternity, sure, but what else? I was intrigued by the idea of Hell-as-a-state-of-being rather than Hell-as-a-place. I also wanted to explore the society of the Fallen angels. What would they be like? How would they have organised? How would they relate to a strange new world? How would they recover after the violence of the Fall?

Besides travelling to Heaven and Hell, the characters traverse multiple locations on Earth, and even make a stop in the little town of Paarl in the Western Cape winelands of South Africa. Why Paarl?

Ah, Paarl. I did my undergrad at the University of Stellenbosch, and I remember travelling with friends to places around there. Paarl was one of them. I have fond memories of those times and of some of the old farmhouses we visited and drank too much wine in. There is also something Afrikaans woven in. The friends I mentioned are Afrikaans, the Cape is very Afrikaans, and I’m partly Afrikaans. So for me the winelands are a mix of friendship, landscape and language that I call to mind when I think ‘South Africa’.

Apparently Blacker Than White took over four years from start to publication. Can you tell us a bit about that journey?

Well, I think I first had the beginnings of the idea in 2008 or 2009, but I didn’t write the first words until late 2011 when I moved to Oxford to do my master’s (hence the opening scenes). I wasn’t aaaallllll that diligent during 2012 – too busy waiting for the Rapture, as one does – but I did manage a first draft in March 2013. In April, I started work at the international development consultancy I remain at to this day, and it’s been pretty intense ever since. Fast forward to 2015, when I hired an editor who had the audacity to suggest actual changes to the story that were quite time consuming (Lauren Smith … heard of her?), and here we are.

Any thoughts on self-publishing?

It’s tricky! I tried a few agents in the UK and US before deciding that I’d rather spend the time building a kind of start-up out of it. At the time, I figured I could outsource the core functions of a publishing house, keep all the content I suspected some folks would find too controversial, and have some fun. I expected it to take a lot of work, but it’s turned out to be more than I anticipated – I didn’t expect to have to recreate the ebook approximately three billion times to get the formatting right, for example, and marketing continues to be a bit of a black box. I’d say if you want to do it, be prepared to be more business/project manager than writer for a long, long while. It’s true that you don’t need publishing houses to get your work into readers’ hands any more, but the value they add takes a lot of time, effort and problem-solving to replace. My internal jury’s out at the moment – I’ll update you in a few months!

What’s next? Will you return to any of the worlds or characters from Blacker than White?

I don’t plan to write a sequel. I wanted to write this as an open-and-closed story, and to do what I wanted to do with it I kind of had to. That being said, the world is still alive in my mind and I often find myself wondering and wandering around bits of it. So I may return to it, one day, but if I do it would be to tell a very different story that isn’t dependent on Blacker than White. In the meantime, ‘next’ for me is more stories! Always more stories. This is actually the second novel I’ve written; the idea of rewriting the other one – it needs some work – still tickles my fingers. I’m a bit of a split personality – I love economic/social development work but I’m also compelled to create stories in my head and write them down – and I’m still trying to find a way to balance the different parts of myself. But there will be more. A lot more.


Matthew was born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, but when he was two and a half decided that he needed a change from small(ish) town life. So he moved to George, which is even smaller. No one said he was a very clever toddler. He studied in Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Oxford before moving to Johannesburg in 2013, where he’s happily remained.

He works for a consultancy focused on international development, thinks that we all have more in common than what sets us apart, and is deeply passionate about Africa’s potential.

Blacker than White is his first novel.

Where to find Matthew:
Twitter: @mattmacdev
Email: matt@blackerthanwhite.net
Facebook: Blacker than White
Buy Blacker than White on Amazon

Crooks & Straights by Masha du Toit

Crooks-and-StraightsTitle: Crooks & Straights
Series: Special Branch #1
Author:
Masha du Toit
Publisher: 
self-published
Published:
 12 April 2014
Genre:
 YA, fantasy
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating:
 
8/10

Crooks & Straights is a lovely read. I say that without qualification, but I want to add that it’s particularly impressive because it’s self-published. I’m also really pleased that it’s South African, and it’s set in Walmer Estate and surrounds in Cape Town, close to where I lived and worked until recently.

The neighbourhood has a quirky, old-school feel similar to the real one, but is set in an alternate fantasy world where magical creatures and humans with magical abilities are a well-known fact. Some of them are familiar, such as werewolves and genies, but author Masha du Toit uses a wide variety of her own eccentric creatures indigenous to South Africa, like haarskeerders, snaartjies, vlêrremeisies, roos-dorinkies, streepies … Many of these are as unfamiliar to the characters as they would be to readers because, for centuries, magicals (or ‘crooks’, as opposed to non-magical ‘straights’) have been persecuted. In Du Toit’s world, they parallel other minorities: people of colour, women, LGBTQ groups, etc. Apartheid, therefore, was not only about the oppression of the black majority, but about the suppression of magic. Crooks and straights fought together in the liberation movements, and the historic neighbourhood of District Six was famed for its acceptance of magic in addition to its racial and cultural diversity.

So, when sixteen-year-old Gia moves to Walmer Estate, near to where District Six used to be, she’s struck by the remnants of that vibe: a strong community spirit characterised by diversity and a relaxed approach to magic. Her parents are fashion designers who fit right in with a neighbourhood known for its small businesses and artisans. There are signs of magic at their new house, such as the ward on the front door: a rustic bit of sorcery in plain sight. In her previous neighbourhood, magic was kept to a minimum and obscured the way pipes and electrical cables are hidden behind the walls of modern homes.

Sadly, this reflects a growing attitude towards magic in present-day South Africa: it’s taboo and used only with reluctance. Many people, like Gia’s friend Fatima, are disgusted by it and avoid speaking about it. When Gia’s liberal, socially conscious teacher gives classes on magic and magicals, she discreetly covers the intercom so that she can’t be monitored. There’s a growing sense of dystopia because a political group known as The Purists is gaining influence, especially with the president’s son backing them. The Purists believe that magicals – including human ones – are either dangerous or useful only for hunting other magicals. They have a Red List for those who should be terminated on sight and a White List for those who are tolerated for their skills. The Purists are also proposing a Grey List of individual magicals with their personal details, allowing the government to keep track of them.

The might of the Purists is enforced by Special Branch, a military operation that uses werewolves to sniff out magic, does a lot of classified experimental work, and administers torturous tests for magical ability (those who pass get a Certificate of Purity, which has disturbing social implications). Special Branch uses the rhetoric of freedom and safety, promising to fight the “nightmares” so citizens can sleep easy but what they offer is not peace but security for those deemed eligible.

It’s not a good idea to get messed up with the Purists or Special Branch, but Gia and her family end up wandering dangerously close. Firstly, her parents are hired to design the wedding dress for Kavitha Pillay, fiancée of Luxolo Langa, the leader of the Purists. When Gia accompanies her mother to a meeting to discuss the design, Kavitha warns her that Luxolo is cruel and ruthless. The wedding is set o be a high-profile celebrity event, and if they screw up in any way, he’ll ruin them.

Then Gia unwittingly brings her family under the scrutiny when Special Branch comes to her school for a presentation on magical children, explaining that conditions like autism may be caused by magical abilities. Gia immediately sees an opportunity to help her beloved brother Nico, whose cognitive and social limitations are putting increasing strain on their family and on his ability to live a full life. Unfortuantely she doesn’t have the political savvy to realise that Special Branch are part of a frightening authoritarian power structure, so her good intentions end up endangering that which matters to her most: her family. Which is not to say that Gia’s character has to drag the weight of blame around; in a world with the Purists and Special Branch, things like this are bound to happen, and Gia doesn’t do anything unethical or even stupid. Nevertheless, she takes responsibility for her mistake and determines to fix it.

One thing that might have bothered me about this book is if the author had written Gia as a Chosen One or a special, magical snowflake labouring under the assumption that she’s just an ordinary girl. She is ordinary, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that means she’s boring or weak.

On the contrary, Du Toit has made Gia a powerful protagonist without simply making her more empowered than everyone else (Chosen Ones and magical snowflakes can be great, but they can be a symptom of boring, lazy writing too). The story is driven by who Gia is as a person and the decisions she makes with the means at her disposal, and you can see the connections running through the novel like thread. She is, first and foremost, someone who cares about her family. She’s also a talented young woman who’s smart enough to appreciate moral complexity, and open-minded enough to embrace the reality of the world she lives in, rather than simply rejecting the unfamiliar or the unnerving.

Obviously, this makes her an ideal narrator for a fantasy world, but it also makes for a nuanced family dynamic, particularly in the relationship between Gia and her (adoptive) mother Saraswati. They have the kind of tension that naturally arises between a 16-year-old and her parents, exacerbated by Saraswati’s strictness and a mysteriously blank past that Gia is only just beginning to question. But although Gia avoids speaking openly to her mother most of the time, you see the love between them when, for example, Gia lovingly brushes her mother’s long, ink-black hair, or takes Saraswati’s hand as she falls asleep and pictures the bonds that link them and her father and brother. As a family they’re caring, antagonistic, imperfect, contradictory and blessed in a way that feels real and keeps you invested in the story.

There’s also something ineffable about Crooks & Straight that I find appealing compared to most other South African novels I’ve read. Our literary scene is not a happy place where reading is fun and that’s because it doesn’t have enough novels like this. I’m not sure how to articulate it, but if I can resort to a very casual description I’d say it’s chilled. It’s not fraught with anxiety about tackling big issues and great tragedies. It’s not a drama so determined to be true to life that it’s just as dreary. It’s not trying to be so serious that it’s just depressing.

It’s obviously an explicitly political book, as I’ve spent half of this review explaining, but its primarily a book with compelling story, driven by a character you can relate to, set in a fantastic world you want to believe in. After months of struggling to find time to read or not being able to finish books I’d started because I was so tired from working all the time, Crooks & Straights finally gave me what I needed to get lost in a good book. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Thursday: This is She

This-is-She-still

Thursdays are for short films recs, and I loved “This is She”, an inspiring bit of magical realism directed by Tarik Karam, written and produced by Grace Rex. It’s about a woman making a new, slow start in a small, unfurnished apartment after going through some personal difficulties with which she is clearly still struggling. Her issues manifest as a weird, furry lump on the wall. She can’t hide it, because it moves everyday, and she can’t just scrape it off and throw it out because it reappears. It’s a part of the decor, a part of her home, and thus a part of her.

 

The blank space left by the “She” in the title emphasises, I think, the broad appeal that this film is meant to have. It’s easy to connect with if you’ve been through similarly hard times and found your way through them or want to. After my experiences last year and general tendency to be an awkward mess, I certainly found it light and comforting:)

Wednesday: Finnegan’s Field by Angela Slatter

Wednesdays are short-story days. My recommendation this afternoon is ‘Finnegan’s Field’ by Angela Slatter, a dark fantasy published on Tor.com in January. I love posting about Tor’s stories simply because they each have their own cover art, and I like this quaintly eerie piece:

finnegansfield_storyfull2

The girl in the picture is Madrigal Barker, who somehow reappears, without explanation, three years after she disappeared from her tiny hometown. The town is in Australia but the population is of Irish heritage, and they know that “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again”. Except Madrigal. Everyone’s happy about it and quietly ignores the fact that she hasn’t changed at all in three years, but Madrigal’s mother, Anne, doesn’t think that the daughter who’s come back is the same one who was lost. And of course she’s dead right.

What follows is partly the horror story you’d expect, but it eschews tired convention by turning into more of an investigation as Anne tries to figure out what exactly it is that’s different about Madrigal and track down the person who took her. Even though she has, in fact, spent the past three years in the other world of fae mythology and there’s nothing Anne can do about that, Maddie only ended up there because a human led her to the doorway in the hill. And Anne is determined to find the culprit.

Besides being a quick, satisfying mystery, I also like Finnegan’s Field because it’s a touching story with relatable characters and some tough, haunting choices. Angela Slatter knows how to pack an emotional punch and I find her horror thoughtful and elegant.

Thursdays … The Pride of Strathmoor

Aaand I’m home alone, late at night, watching horror to find something for today’s short film post. As with yesterday’s short story recommendation, I found what I was looking for in the American gothic genre. The Pride of Strathmoor is creepy as fuck, not so much because of the story, but because of the deeply unsettling animation and the whispered narration. That voice sounds so very … close.

Please note that this short film may cause seizures if you’re sensitive to flashing/flickering content.

Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

Thursdays… Ayamé

Thursdays, I’ve decided are going to be for sharing short film and videos (It was going to be Mondays, then Tuesdays, then Wednesdays, but I procrastinate.) Today it’s Ayamé, a proof of concept for a sci fi film that I hope will get made largely because of the gory organic-industrial suit and the massive sniper rifle you see here. It gives me warm, fuzzy memories of playing Lilith and Maya in Borderlands, where I spent A LOT of time patiently splattering skulls into blood and bone with similarly oversized sniper rifles. I’m just whimsical like that.

Ayame-poster

Irish film-maker Conor Maloney couldn’t afford to make a feature-length film, so he instead he cashed in his life-insurance policy to make this rather slick piece that he hopes will give the project a future.

Visually, I find it thoroughly satisfying, although that dramatic pose gets dragged out for just a tad too long, a bit like The Force Awakens. Narratively, it’s a cool little story seed. A seed for something I’ve seen/read plenty of times before, perhaps, but something I enjoy nevertheless. The John Hurt voiceover feels slightly incongruous, partly because it reminds me of a nature documentary, and partly because I feel that it jars with the closing image of a beautiful assassin with a colossal gun. The idea of life persisting despite all the things that threaten to snuff it out presumably refers to her survival, and the survival of whatever damaged world she comes from, but one look at her and I want her to start killing, asap, preferably in hi-def, thank you.

I’m not sure if there’s been an progress on Ayamé, but if you want to know more, you can watch the making-of video, or check out the Ayamé Facebook page, where there are links to several articles and Conor will presumably post any updates.