Please welcome Kerstin Hall to The Qwillery as part of the 2019 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Border Keeper is published on July 16, 2019 by Tor.com.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece you remember writing?
Kerstin: In second grade, the teacher told us to write an original short story. I wanted to play outside instead. So I plagiarised Swan Lake, but ended it with everyone dying at the end of the first act. Miss Woods noticed and asked whether that was really how the story concluded.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Kerstin: I think I aspire to be planner. I always start projects with the best of intentions — namely that I will create a neat outline, follow it, and reach my destination in an orderly fashion. In practise, I tend to get bored and jump into the writing too early. I guess that makes me a hybrid.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Kerstin: I’m a perfectionist, so I struggle not to go back and endlessly revise the same sentences over and over. I also find killing major characters very difficult; I get far too emotionally invested in them. Oh, and structural revisions. Do not like those at all.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Kerstin: A large influence on my writing has been working for Beneath Ceaseless Skies magazine. The editorial tastes of the publication have rubbed off on me, especially with regards to worldbuilding. In terms of specific writers, I greatly admire Ann Leckie and China Miéville. And I’m significantly influenced by my environment, although I wouldn’t say my work is recognisably South African.
TQ: Describe The Border Keeper using only 5 words.
Kerstin: Man inadvisably manipulates grumpy psychopomp.
TQ: Tell us something about The Border Keeper that is not found in the book description.
Kerstin: I think the book might be funnier than the blurb implies. There’s also a very slow-burn romance. And dangerous fish.
TQ: What inspired you to write The Border Keeper? What appeals to you about writing Fantasy?
Kerstin: A lot of the scenery of The Border Keeper is abstracted from places in southern Namibia. The desert and Eris’ house bear resemblance to the abandoned stations along the railway line between Aus and Lüderitz. There’s a creepy cottage that draws on the buildings in the ghost town of Kolmanskop. And the shadowline -- or border between worlds -- might owe a certain degree of unconscious credit to the Sperrgebiet. The Sperrgebiet is a vast swath of the Namibian desert owned by diamond mining companies. It’s inaccessible to ordinary people, and to enter the region requires a permit and a guide.
I love writing fantasy because I get to set all the rules, which is very convenient. I also love that I can create completely outlandish settings and characters, and readers usually just nod along. Faceless monsters playing violins? Cool. Holes in the ocean? Carry on. Evil demon cats? Maybe not even that implausible. The playfulness inherent to the genre appeals to me.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for The Border Keeper?
Kerstin: This is an interesting question for me, because the honest answer is: ‘not much’. There’s the obvious small detail stuff —what trees could grow in this climate, crab anatomy, first aid 101 — but I was very deliberate and careful in not drawing heavily on existing mythologies or cultures in shaping the broader world of the narrative.
The reasons for this are quite personal, and I won’t go into too much detail. In brief, The Border Keeper was submitted during Tor.com Publishing’s open window for non-European fantasy, and I wasn’t sure the degree to which my authorial standpoint ‘counted’ as non-European. With that in mind, I felt that the most ethical thing to do would be to try and generate a narrative world that stood mostly separate from existing belief systems and communities. Basically, to invent everything I could.
Tor.com Publishing apparently liked it, but my grand effort was rendered a little redundant when I realised that I had accidentally named my female protagonist after a Greek goddess. I only realised the mistake six months after I’d submitted it!
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for The Border Keeper.
Kerstin: The cover is the work of Kathleen Jennings (illustration) and Christine Foltzer (design). It’s actually very intricate cut-paper silhouettes, not digitally rendered art! Jennings hid a lot of lovely little story references in the trees; so you can see a compass, a teapot, an egret, a crab, etc. The split figure is Eris, as she passes between realms.
TQ: In The Border Keeper who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Kerstin: Both Vasethe and Eris were easy to write, especially when they were interacting with one another. A lot of tension existed between them, which lent those scenes a fun dynamic.
The hardest character to write was probably the antagonist. I have a terrible tendency to write full-blown cackling evil villains at any given opportunity, and my editor had to gently rein that in.
TQ: Does The Border Keeper touch on any social issues?
Kerstin: Yes, although I tried to approach the topics obliquely. It explores the tensions between violence, forgiveness and justice, and the way I wrote my characters was with the intention of subverting a particular gendered trope — I can’t say which one without spoilers though.
TQ: Which question about The Border Keeper do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Kerstin: This is quite specific, but: “What happened to Yett’s realm after his murder?”
Answer: Eris should have inherited it, but she couldn’t bring herself to claim it. She has, however, cared for it ever since his death and serves as its de facto ruler.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from The Border Keeper.
Kerstin: Here’s one from quite early in the story:
“Here.” Eris tossed Vasethe a black bundle of velvet. He caught it.
“You are familiar with them?” She raised an eyebrow.
He chose not to reply, running a finger along the edge of the musty ribbon.
And here’s another from the middle:
Vasethe rowed evenly. The water scattered light as he cut through the surface, and shoals of pale blue fish swam in their wake. A flock of waterfowl watched them from the shallows before melting into the reeds, and a lone kite hovered far above, her wingtips fluttering in the cool breeze.
TQ: What’s next?
Kerstin: I can’t be too specific, but there should be announcements soon. I’m very excited about a certain project I just handed in, and I’m furiously revising another for a deadline in November.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Kerstin: Thanks for having me!
The Border Keeper
Tor.com, July 16, 2019
Trade Paperback and eBook, 240 pages
"Beautifully and vividly imagined. Eerie, lovely, and surreal"—Ann Leckie
She lived where the railway tracks met the saltpan, on the Ahri side of the shadowline. In the old days, when people still talked about her, she was known as the end-of-the-line woman.
In The Border Keeper, debut author Kerstin Hall unfolds a lyrical underworld narrative about loss and renewal.
Vasethe, a man with a troubled past, comes to seek a favor from a woman who is not what she seems, and must enter the nine hundred and ninety-nine realms of Mkalis, the world of spirits, where gods and demons wage endless war.
The Border Keeper spins wonders both epic—the Byzantine bureaucracy of hundreds of demon realms, impossible oceans, hidden fortresses—and devastatingly personal—a spear flung straight, the profound terror and power of motherhood. What Vasethe discovers in Mkalis threatens to bring his own secrets into light and throw both worlds into chaos.
KERSTIN HALL is a writer and editor based in Cape Town, South Africa. She completed her undergraduate studies in journalism at Rhodes University and, as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, continued with a Masters degree at the University of Cape Town. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, and she is a first reader for Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She also enjoys photography and is inspired by the landscapes of South Africa and Namibia.