Books Features

Countdown Interview with Matthew Cook

By Jason Sanford Oct 8, 2007, 11:37 GMT


Matthew Cook is the author of Blood Magic, a debut fantasy novel about a young necromancer named Kirin who battles to save her world against invading monsters even as her own people revile her for the use of black magic. For a review of Blood Magic, go here.

10) The other day someone asked me to define the difference between the fantasy and horror genres. I fell back on quoting Nancy Lebovitz, who said fantasy is where the unknown is to be loved for its strangeness, while in horror the unknown is to be feared. Does either definition apply to your book? Also, how would you define these two genres?

MC: Interesting definition, but I'm not sure that I agree with it. Maybe it's because I've always been fascinated with the concept of duality, whether it be in the Chinese concept of positive and negative furies or the tension between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of the fae, or maybe it's my Catholic upbringing with it's baggage of the eternal struggle between capital-E Evil and big-G Good, but I think that the unknown can contain elements that are both wondrous and frightening all in the same moment. 

If you read the old fairy tales--not the sanitized versions that we've demoted to children's bedtime stories, but rather the older, cautionary stories that they were based on--you'll find them chock full of characters that are all at once good and bad, helpful and mischievous, light and dark. In those stories, honor is an imperative while at the same time any bargain made with the Fair Folk can (and generally must be) read with a careful eye towards trickery. 

I also am a little concerned that many people seem to want to shoehorn me into the horror category simply because the main character in my story can raise the dead. I mean, yes, zombies and necromancers and all of that are indeed often-used character types in certain kinds of "horrific fantasy" (if that's even a term--if not, now it is), but usually the person doing the reanimating is the bad guy, not the protagonist. Not to get too deeply into it and spoil the plot for any potential readers out there, but none of the aspects of Kirin's dark powers are ever presented for
simple shock value and there is very little "splatter factor" anywhere in the story, so I worry that someone finding my book and thinking that it's a "horror" book may be disappointed.

I guess that in the end, I see very little difference between "horror" and "fantasy", and I actually think that for a fantasy to be successful (for me, anyway), it must contain both the "lovely strangeness" you mentioned, but also the darker flip-side of that bright, shining coin. I know that in my own fiction that duality appears quite often, to the point that it really is a theme that underlies everything I do.
9) As you mentioned, Blood Magic is not a horror story. However, your novel does wonderfully combine horror and fantasy elements, particularly in your extremely personal view of the main character's descent through pain and loss. Despite this, Kirin never becomes a victim of circumstances. What makes some characters--and, indeed, some real people--emerge even stronger from horrific events when other people around them are broken and destroyed?

MC: First of all, thanks very much for saying so. As to what makes a person able to endure that sort of loss, I honestly can't say, because I think it's different for every person. I mean, I've had to endure the loss of people special to me, we all have, and when that happens you just have to keep going forward. Some find the strength to do so in their friends or family. Others in some sort of higher calling or power. Some even throw themselves into work or other distractions--the list is as varied as people themselves.

If, however, you mean what makes Kirin keep going, that's another story, because that's one person whose head I can get inside of. In her case, Kirin is a twin, the shy one who keeps to herself while her more vivacious sibling is the one that's always in the limelight. Kirin marries a man not because she loves him, but because her sister has fallen in love with a scoundrel named Marcus Allaire, and refuses to be wed alone.

Marcus turns out to be really bad news and when Kirin finds that he's killed her sister in a drunken argument, she takes revenge on Marcus before fleeing her town and her old life. She hides in the home of Edena, her mentor, who is a wise woman, healer and (we learn later), a necromancer. Since Kirin believes that she cannot have children of her own, she uses her powers to call back the spirits of the dead to create zombie-like "sweetlings," which she looks on as her own beloved offspring. She also learns the power of blood magic from the old woman, a vampire-like control of a victim's blood that even Edena seems afraid of. Kirin tries to make a new life for herself, but her past and an invasion by an inhuman, subterranean race called the Mor play havoc with her plans. Kirin is forced to use her dark power in defense of others, something that will have serious repercussions down the line.

It is this tension between Kirin's desperate unhappiness, her inherent goodness in the face of her "evil" powers, and her iron will to live that provides the most interesting facets of the character's personality to me, and I was constantly surprised at the actions the character would take while writing out a scene and plotting the novel's course.
8) To me, Kirin is very much an anti-heroine through her embraces of forbidden forms of magic and her refusal to be bound by the wrong-headed morality of her world. Why do so many readers relate to anti-heroes? And in the end, can you really call someone an anti-hero when events dictate that her choices may be morally correct?

MC: Blood Magic arose from a simple question: What could possibly motivate someone to want to be a necromancer? I mean, it's one of the core taboos: "Thou shalt not fool about with dead bodies." Most normal people can't even look at a dead squirrel, let alone touch one, without shuddering, so what could possible motivate a person to actually want to work with death so intimately?

I was pondering this question one day and came up with the core of the character that would become Kirin. Kirin is a woman who sees the reanimation of the dead as her only chance to create something outside of herself, and looks at her "sweetlings" as her loving children. Of course, with a setup like that the obvious question follows: "What does a person like that do when they find that they can have children?" Disturbing, I know.

But does that make Kirin an "anti-hero?" Well, she not only breaks the death taboo, but she's also a murderess by any legal definition of the word, so that label could apply to her, I suppose. However, throughout the novel as well as the sequel, I try to stick close to the idea that Kirin is not a homicidal maniac, but rather a deeply confused and wounded woman who does what she feels is right, even when that action is savage and, yes, brutal. Her powers of necromancy and blood magic dehumanize her every time she has to draw on them, a fact she's painfully aware of.

I was talking to someone at a convention recently who had just read the book, and they said (and I'm paraphrasing here, so if I mangle the exact wording, please forgive me) that what appealed to them about Kirin was that she's a woman who accepted magic powers not to fight for 'good' but in order to escape from evil. In order to survive, she has to distort the normal; to warp the acceptable. That's very true, and because of this, I see her as being very different than a "traditional" anti-hero like, say Michael Moorcock's Elric, because what she does is never motivated by malice or cruelty. I'll leave it to the reader to decide if, in the end, Kirin is a sympathetic character or not, despite her many flaws.   
7) One reviewer said that Blood Magic is reminiscent of Lois McMaster Bujold's award-winning Chalion series. Did that series influence your novel? What other works influenced your novel?

MC: As much as it shames me to admit it, I've never read the Chalion series, but it's extremely flattering to be compared to such an excellent and well-respected author. 

As a reader, I love the work of Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as Neil Gaiman and Simon Green (the author of the excellent Nightside series). Nobody writes better dialogue for my money than Brian Michael Bendis. And I'm a huge fan of urban fantasy authors like Emma Bull, Terri Windling, Charles de Lint and Holly Black. I also like detective stories, particularly the 'hard boiled' variety. Recently, I've been reading quite a few of James Swain's Tony Valentine novels. They're certainly not for everyone, and they're sometimes almost overwhelmingly grim, but I love the
way that Swain as a writer deals with back-story and exposition. Plus the world of casino gambling and cheating is simply fascinating--before reading Swain's books I had no idea how rampant it is, and how clever the crooks can be. I like smart bad guys and tarnished heroes, what can I say?
6) It sometimes seems that every other fantasy novel on today's market involves a Lord of the Rings style epic quest or Harry Potter-esque characters inhabiting a hidden world. Do you think there is a glut of generic fantasies on the market? If so, where do you see this trend going?

MC: I think that the "hidden world" element that you mention is popular because we, as modern human beings, have a yearning for a bit more mystery in our lives.

Think about it: we inhabit an ever-shrinking world where the answer to any question, no matter how esoteric or obscure, is no more than a Wikipedia article or Google search away. No wonder people are drawn to the fantasy of a world where things are a bit more mysterious and grand than the everyday reality they inhabit. The sad part is that people have taken so much of the wonder of our everyday situation for granted. For example: when I was a kid, the idea of a phone that would let you access a global information network, or the ability to have parts of your body repaired with artificial replacements, was pretty much the stuff of Sci-Fi. Now, you can buy a disposable web-enabled cell phone at a gas station for $25 or get your joints repaired with surgical steel and plastic replacements.

As for trilogies and epic quests, I can't slam them because the book I took a break from to write Blood Magic was (and is) an urban fantasy trilogy set in Chicago. Well, ok, to be honest, the book, much like the Lord of the Rings, began as a massive single volume, and somewhere around 200,000 words or so, I realized that no publisher in their right mind was going to even glance at such a huge manuscript from an untried author. So I began to chop it into three pieces, planning to make it into a trilogy. I took a break from that manuscript, and started the story that would become Blood Magic to "clear my mental palette" before that edit, and Kirin's story ended up selling first. Go figure.

5) Let's talk about that unfinished novel. According to your biography, you began it four years ago during a "bout of desperate optimism." Any sign that your desperate optimism will return and the series completed? Has the publication of Blood Magic caused any interest from publishers in your earlier series?

MC: So far no, but I've not shown it to anyone yet, so that's not surprising. One of the things you hear over and over as a first-time novelist is "never show your manuscript to an editor unless it's complete," just in case they get excited about it and want to see the entire thing. In the case of my urban fantasy, I knew I was a long way from being finished even when I decided that I needed to turn it into a trilogy, and from there, I got derailed by the Blood Magic story, so no editor has ever seen it.

But I do plan to return to it very soon. I have a great "alpha reader" named Jen whom I send all my stuff to before anyone else sees it. She has read the entire manuscript and threatened me with severe bodily injury if I don't get back to that project soon, so . . . 

I plan to attend the World Fantasy convention in November and hopefully pitch the project to some editors there. Many working pros I've been talking to lately are also telling me that I've reached the point where I really should be actively seeking a good literary agent as well. Know any? If so, send them my way . . .  
4) Kirin pays an awful price for using her magic to save herself and others. Why is literature full of examples of the high price people must pay to gain power? Is this truly an accurate view of what happens when one attains power--the old saw that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"--or has this view of power become dated in our decentralized, interconnected world? 

MC: I don't know if it's accurate, but it's certainly more dramatic, so I suspect that's why lots of stories are about "defeating the Ultimate Evil" and whatnot. Drama is good, no doubt about it, but too much can get a bit predictable after a while. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example . . . every season ends in some apocalypse or another being averted. Hell, that girl can't even die right. 

In Kirin's case, however, I think the phenomenon you describe doesn't completely apply. When Kirin first manifests her blood magic and kills Marcus, that's a conscious decision on her part, not some arbitrary price that the power itself requires her to pay. She actually screams at herself that what she is about to do is wrong, wrong, wrong, and that taking a life, even one as wretched as Marcus's, will lead to something fundamental dying inside of her. In the end, she decides that avenging her sister's death is the more important thing, and it's only then that her own choices allow the blood magic to manifest, turning the whites of her eyes black and forever branding her. 

So I suppose that she does pay quite a price for her power, but she doesn't realize it until it's too late. The most terrible price that she ends up paying comes at the book's climax, of course, but again I'll not spoil that for anyone.

3) The Mor, a six-legged armored race who dwell underground, are the constant danger in Kirin's world. Their claws can crush armor; their superheated swords can boil blood. Do you think humans will ever lose their fear of creatures which emerge from dark places, or is this a fear that's too deeply rooted in human culture to ever disappear?

MC: Well, not to immasculate my own monsters, but I think that we as humans are capable of such cruelty that it makes any "boogey man" pale by comparison. We should always fear that which can corrupt and destroy us, and I'd argue that we have a biological imperative to do so. After all, fear sharpens the senses and keeps you alive in high-stress situations. 

That said, my biggest fear when writing the Mor was that by showing the monster right up front, rather than keep them lurking in the shadows for half the book, would fail to live up to my readers' mental image of what such a creature would be like. The worst thing that could happen is that they end up being stereotypical or, worse, boring. Of course, the Mor's true motives and drives are largely unknown, even to those that spend a great deal of time and effort to understand them, so I guess I do play some games with the reader where the Mor are concerned, but, trust me, all
will eventually be revealed in the end. Not in Book 1, I'm afraid, but . . . eventually.
2) When describing the process of creating a novel, you've been very frank about how novels aren't written in a vacuum--how most authors rely on others to both critique their writings and help their stories reach publication. If this is true, why do you believe the myth of the lone writer, creating his or her masterpiece in blessed isolation, is so ingrained in the popular imagination? 

MC: Honestly, I have no idea because nobody I know works this way outside of Hollywood screenplays. Of course, in Hollywood, "regular people" working at Wal-Mart are portrayed by the likes of Jennifer Anniston and Jessica Simpson, so you might have part of your answer right there.

Maybe there are true geniuses out there in the field that can write a complete novel, edit it, re-write it, re-edit it, etc., etc., all on their own, but I'm certainly not one of them. I've heard it said (I think in Stephen King's book On Writing, but I might be mistaken) that the author himself/herself is often the book's worst enemy--when the little voice kicks in with stuff like "Is anyone going to care about this story? Do I care? Should I just stop kidding myself and give this up?" then having a group to back you up, one that is honest and up-front in their criticisms and praise (when it's
appropriate) can really save the day. 

But to make a crit group work, I think you really do have to already be working and writing every day. I hate to say it, but I've never seen it work when an author joins a group just to try and guilt trip themselves into writing. Critique groups should come after the writer has established good work habits. Writing every day is really, really hard, believe me, I know. In my case, I didn't start working regularly until the pain of not writing grew intolerably worse than the pain of getting up an hour and a half early every morning before work to sit at my keyboard. After I'd been doing that for
about six months, and I knew I had established a good work ethic, I then went looking for a group.

The writer's group that I participate in, Writeshop, is made up of about six other authors, some published, others still struggling to break in with a publisher, and every month we submit a chapter or two of our current project for critiquing. The process can get a little heated, I'm not going to lie, and I certainly wouldn't recommend taking such a step to any author that's not ready to hear frank and direct criticism of their work, but for a writer that has reached that point, feedback of this nature is, I believe, absolutely priceless. I can honestly say that I wouldn't be a tenth as good a writer as I am now without the help of my Writeshop peers. I still have a long way to go, and I hope to continue to lean on them and offer up my own critiques for many years to come. 
1) Blood Magic is the first part of a three book trilogy, with book two's publication planned for mid 2008. Can you give us a hint on what Kirin's up to in the next book?

MC: First off, let me say up front that Juno Books (my publisher) has already agreed to purchase Book 2, but have not set anything in stone for Book 3 yet. So, hopefully both books will sell well enough and generate enough buzz that it will leave them no other choice than to make me an offer for the concluding chapter. I think I've been extremely fortunate to partner with Juno and my editor, Paula Guran, at this crucial phase in my proto-author's career. 

Moving on to a quick overview of Book 2: After the events in Blood Magic, Kirin and Lia travel to the Imperial City. Lia wants to join her father in the defense of the Armitage, the miles-long shield wall that protects the City and the lowlands to the south from the Mor. Kirin, however, wants nothing more than to come to grips with her enemy. She has sworn that she will never use her powers of blood magic or necromancy ever again, and all she has left is Lia's companionship and her desire to extract revenge from the Mor.

While traveling to the Imperial City, Kirin accidentally discovers a facet of the blood magic that she didn't know it possessed: she can use it, with great concentration and effort, to actually heal rather than harm. Of course, she still loathes the magic (for the reasons why, you'll just have to read Book 1, sorry), but this does open up the possibility for her that she might be able to somehow harness that power one day, should she ever change her mind about it.

Lia is in her element in the Imperial City and returns to her privileged life while Kirin becomes a soldier, helping to defend the Armitage from the Mor. The City that shelters behind the huge wall seems blissfully unaware of the peril they are in, and celebrate nightly with lavish revels while men and women die to defend them.

As Lia settles deeper into her old life, a gulf begins to open up between the two women. Kirin does not want to be in the City and has only traveled there to fight, while Lia is happy to be home where she feels that she belongs. This conflict is made worse when Kirin is out walking one evening and spies what looks like a sweetling--one not of her making. Naturally, she's curious, and seeks out the other necromancer. This event begins to draw her back into the darkness that she had sworn she would never use again.

Readers can expect plenty of action with the Mor and the sweetlings as the story progresses. I feel very proud of the book's climax, which I'm working on even as we speak, and I'm looking forward to getting the completed manuscript to my editor in November. If all goes well, the book should be out in July of 2008, and I hope people enjoy reading the story as much as I've enjoyed writing it.



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