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
So, 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.
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.