Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Interview with Claire Humphrey, author of Spells of Blood and Kin

Please welcome Claire Humphrey to The Qwillery as part of the 2016 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Spells of Blood and Kin is published on June 14th by Thomas Dunne Books. Please join The Qwillery in wishing Claire a Happy Publication Day!

TQWelcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

Claire:  Thanks so much for having me! I feel like I was always writing. When I was tiny, before I knew the alphabet, I’d dictate stories to my mom. By the time I was in school I was making little books of folded paper stapled together; a whole bunch of them were about shipwrecks.

TQAre you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?

Claire:  Mostly a pantser—there’s something I find really compelling about feeling my way through a novel along with the protagonist. But in an effort to write faster now that I have deadlines to meet, I’ve started doing more outlining: nothing too detailed, but a quick three-act plan.

TQWhat is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

Claire:  Balancing my time. I have a busy day job, I travel a lot and I function best when I work out regularly. There are also a lot of tasks associated with professional writing, like edit notes, social media, interviews, planning events, which all take time. Sometimes if I prioritize all the most time-sensitive things I end up with no time left for the most creative, first-draft part of the work. I’m fighting that by scheduling in some retreats and binge-writing days into my year.

TQWhat has influenced / influences your writing?

Claire:  Growing up in a house full of books, with an English teacher for a father, a mother who worked in publishing, and some other writers on both sides of the family, I had so much access to literature and so much encouragement to write. I was allowed to read almost anything I wanted, and of course the few things I wasn’t allowed to read, I got my hands on anyway. So I absorbed all kinds of things, from Ursula Le Guin to Gwendolyn MacEwen to Virginia Woolf to Susan Musgrave. One thing that I remember helping to crystallize my aspirations as a writer was the Black Water anthology, edited by Alberto Manguel: a wonderful collection of dark, fantastical, literary, surreal short fiction which my dad gave me for my birthday when I was a teenager.

TQDescribe Spells of Blood and Kin in 140 characters or less.

Claire:  Lissa inherits her grandmother’s magic and has to use it to keep immortal Maksim from killing himself or anyone else.

TQTell us something about Spells of Blood and Kin that is not found in the book description.

Claire:  Gus Hillyard doesn’t appear in the book description because she’s a secondary character—Maksim’s family, basically. But she has an important role to play, and she has lot of stories of her own; the first was one of my earliest published pieces, “Who In Mortal Chains”, which appeared in Strange Horizons. Gus has the same immortal nature as Maksim, and the same drive to violence, but she isn’t the same person; her coping strategies are different (and mainly consist of alcohol); she has more optimism, more love for the world, even though she rarely admits it. Gus is so much fun to write. You’ll see her again.

TQWhat inspired you to write Spells of Blood and Kin? What appeals to you about writing Dark Fantasy? What is "Dark" Fantasy?

Claire:  When I started writing Spells of Blood and Kin I was having a bad year and I wanted to write a light-hearted escapist urban fantasy, the kind where a woman meets a sexy supernatural guy and they fight crime together. But within the first few scenes it was clear to me that something sadder and darker was going on here and I wasn’t going to be able to escape it. I think what appeals to me about writing fantasy—and by default, dark fantasy, since mine is probably never going to turn out funny or light—is that fantasy elements make amazing mirrors for the real. You can see in the reflection things you missed in the original.

I don’t focus a lot on the distinctions people make around genres—dark fantasy vs urban fantasy vs paranormal, I don’t care. Readers can use those labels to help each other find great books. They can tell each other where my book fits—that part isn’t my job. I’m going to write the book I’m going to write; I wouldn’t be surprised if my next book is called horror and the one after that called CanLit.

TQWhat sort of research did you do for Spells of Blood and Kin?

Claire:  The meat of this book is the relationships between the characters. Being part of a family, of a community, negotiating your way toward your needs and failing sometimes, that’s something we have to do in life no matter what, and trying to observe it while it happens is pretty important for me as a writer. The historical scenes required more literal research; I loved one book called The Soviet-Afghan War which was hugely detailed and informative and I read much more than I needed for those short scenes. I spent a lot of time with Russian folk tales, of course; I have a couple of books that I’ve had since childhood, with Ivan Bilibin illustrations, which helped me underpin the atmosphere and themes.

TQIn Spells of Blood and Kin who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

Claire:  Lissa was actually the hardest. She’s shy, shut-in, overly entwined with her family, inexperienced socially; none of these are traits I share. She’s also powerful and has been raised as the heir apparent to an important social position. Her reactions to other people went through some changes in early drafts as I tried to figure out how confident she would be in some of the situations she faces.

The easiest was Nick, because I’ve dated him about ten times. Kidding aside, our culture is full of nuanced representations of guys like Nick, because we’re biased toward finding young men’s coming of age stories particularly important; there are a lot of great memoirs and novels that probably informed my characterization, although I couldn’t call out any one in particular.

TQWhy have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Spells of Blood and Kin?

Claire:  I would say it isn’t really a choice—we’re always engaging with social issues. Trying not to engage is a choice that still has implications, often supporting the status quo. In writing Nick, especially, I wanted to face head-on the faultlines in his personality and the way he is tempted when he’s exposed to Maksim’s blood and its enhancement of strength, anger and violence. For Nick it’s like his quotient of toxic masculinity gets boosted. I tried to contrast him with Jonathan, who also has his share of problematic yet normalized young-dude behaviour, but Jonathan is growing up and trying to be a good man. Nick’s newfound power works as a metaphor for privilege in this scenario, I think—it makes it seductively easy for Nick to behave badly, but it doesn’t force him to. He chooses that on his own; he lets his worst self make the choice. We can’t choose what kind of power society confers on us, but we can choose to be careful with it, and to do our best to be kind.

TQWhich question about Spells of Blood and Kin do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

Claire:  It’s a spoiler question, which is probably why no one has asked it yet. Maybe I’ll answer it sometime in the future when everyone has read the book…

TQ:  Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Spells of Blood and Kin.

Claire:  Maksim: “Part of me is not human, koldun’ia. And the other part is not good.”

TQWhat's next?

Claire:  I’m working on a book featuring Gus. It’s still too early to share much. I can tell you it has ghosts in it.

TQThank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

Claire:  Thank you for inviting me, and for the great questions!

Spells of Blood and Kin
   A Dark Fantasy Novel
Thomas Dunne Books, June 14, 2016
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages

Where we love, we ruin…

Some families hand down wealth through generations; some hand down wisdom. Some families, whether they want to or not, hand down the secret burdens they carry and the dangerous debts they owe.

Lissa Nevsky's grandmother leaves her a big, empty house, and a legacy of magic: folk magic, old magic, brought with Baba when she fled the Gulag. In the wake of her passing, the Russian community of Toronto will depend on Lissa now, to give them their remedies and be their koldun'ia. But Lissa hasn't had time to learn everything Baba wanted to teach her—let alone the things Baba kept hidden.

Maksim Volkov's birth family is long dead, anything they bestowed on him long turned to dust. What Maksim carries now is a legacy of violence, and he does not have to die to pass it on. When Maksim feels his protective spell fail, he returns to the witch he rescued from the Gulag, only to find his spell has died along with the one who cast it. Without the spell, it is only a matter of time before Maksim's violent nature slips its leash and he infects someone else—if he hasn't done so already.

Nick Kaisaris is just a normal dude who likes to party. He doesn't worry about family drama. He doesn't have any secrets. All he wants is for things to stay like they are right now, tonight: Nick and his best buddy Jonathan, out on the town. Only Nick is on a collision course with Maksim Volkov, and what he takes away from this night is going to crack open Nick's nature until all of his worst self comes to light.

Lissa's legacy of magic might hold the key to Maksim's salvation, if she can unravel it in time. But it's a legacy that comes at a price. And Maksim might not want to be saved…

About Claire

Photo © Bevin Reith
CLAIRE HUMPHREY is a national buyer for Indigo Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Apex, Crossed Genres, Fantasy Magazine, and Podcastle. Her short story ''Bleaker Collegiate Presents an All-Female Production of Waiting for Godot'' appeared in the Lambda Award-nominated collection Beyond Binary, and her short story "The Witch Of Tarup" was published in the critically acclaimed anthology Long Hidden. Spells of Blood and Kin is her first novel.

Website ~ Blog ~ Facebook ~ Twitter @clairebmused


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