interview

Krystle Matar - "I think this is where my influences begin to show the most. David Gemmell writes the most incredible heroes, men and women that battle their own inner demons just as fiercely as they battle external forces.

The Rigante Series is foundational for me, the yardstick against which I measure my ability to tell a story and build a world—and all the main characters in that series are similar in that they are trying their best to be good people, and sometimes fail."

Hello, and welcome to Before We Go! First, please tell us a bit about yourself.

Thanks for having me! I’m a writing, cussing, farming, parenting, whisky-drinking Canadian. I’ve been writing for more than 20 years now, and I’m so thrilled to be here talking about this book baby of mine.

Tashué Blackwood is a character with a lot of facets to him. In your description it says he leapt off the page—how much of his character came immediately? What gaps did you fill out as time went on?

Oh man, that takes me way back. I think some of his earliest traits are his confidence and his stubbornness. And his temper. He’s mellowed considerably with age.

I think some of the most notable changes are his compassion, and the deep well of love he has now. I was a much angrier person when I first started writing about him, and so he was too. As I grew as a person, I noticed Tashué’s centre began to shift. He became less self-absorbed, less obnoxious.

Tashué’s a father and Stella’s a mother. That’s really not common in epic fantasy. Please tell us a bit more about why you chose parents as your protagonists.

Good question! I can’t say that I can pinpoint a moment when I decided that I would write about parents. Tashué became a father years and years ago, before I become a mother—I’m not really sure why I made that decision for him. (That implies I have some over his choices, ha.) 

Stella, I had more control over. I created her as Tashué and I were stepping out of our angry, hopeless selves and becoming people that were more loving. I wanted a romance arc for him, I wanted him to lean into being vulnerable, and I wanted for him to experience the very special magic of someone reaching out to you and putting some of your broken pieces back together. At this point, he was still in our contemporary world—not yet a fantasy character. Even back in those days, his relationship with Jason was contentious, and I think I knew that it would take another parent to see him for the parent he was trying to be, rather than measuring him by the sum total of his failures.

I think what I’m trying to say is that being a parent is complicated, and messy, and challenging, but it can also be a source of strength and growth. And when I write—no matter which genre—I want to write about people that are complicated and messy, people with different kinds of strength. Parenting is about making hard choices, and I think all of Brightwash became about making hard choices, so the theme runs through the characters as well as the setting as a whole.

I’ve heard there are plans to write books with other protagonists in this setting. How important are they going to be to the overall plot? Which main characters are we going to see?

So, the arc that Tashué sets off by finding the girl needs to be his. He needs to see this through, and I know what that process is going to look like. He’ll be the MC for the three books it will take for things to be… let’s say “resolved” in Yaelsmuir. However, to get there, he’s going to need to lean on people a bit more. Ishmael and General Wolfe begin to show their hands a bit more. Illea Winter’s meddling comes into focus. But in Legacy of Brick & Bone, the arcs have begun to splinter apart a bit—Lorne and Jason have some hard choices to make about who to trust. Stella’s history becomes more important, too. She’s running from her past in Brightwash, but in Brick & Bone it’s starting to catch up with her. I’m excited for people to meet Ozra, Aelwyd, and Davik. They have a big part to play.

Outside the main arc, I have all kinds of ideas to flesh out the world. Rhodri Glyndwr is a healer in the diplomatic division, and he has some pieces of Ishmael’s backstory. He’ll come into play later, after the conflict has moved out of Yaelsmuir and into the national eye.

And then of course, Ishmael demands the opportunity to speak for himself. He’s had a colourful life and I’m enjoying building the history of it, trying to figure him out.

Jason & Lorne are getting a prequel story, too. I was aiming for a short story, but I expect it’s going to be full novel length. Tashué says in Brightwash that Jason spent six weeks in the Bay and that’s where he met Lorne—and that concept really stuck in my head. Why did he go down there, when it’s so dangerous? Why did he stay as long as he did, what made him come back? I’ve learnt the best way to answer questions like that is to just go write it and see what these people have to say for themselves, so I started on the idea while I was waiting for edits to come back on Brightwash. And I’ve learnt that what Jason experienced in those six weeks is MASSIVELY important to the big picture.

 

Tashué’s flawed, but he’s fundamentally trying to be a good person. The Dominion’s a pretty awful place, even if much of that is out of sight. What’s the appeal, in your mind, to that light-in-the-darkness character?

I think this is where my influences begin to show the most. David Gemmell writes the most incredible heroes, men and women that battle their own inner demons just as fiercely as they battle external forces. The Rigante Series is foundational for me, the yardstick against which I measure my ability to tell a story and build a world—and all the main characters in that series are similar in that they are trying their best to be good people, and sometimes fail.

Dennis Lehane writes masterful mysteries and thrillers and historical fiction. The worlds he builds are hard to look at too closely, and sometimes the conclusions his stories come to are uncomfortable and painful but so utterly right for the world.

And in film, I love the way Martin Scorsese balances things that are borderline obscene with humour and hope.

I like fiction that makes you think, makes you wince, makes you measure yourself. Ultimately, aren’t we all just trying our best to survive, and to figure out where we stand—and trying to figure out what we’re capable of when we see something we think is wrong?



There’s no grand villain whose defeat would solve all the setting’s problems. Rather, it’s a systemic issue—more intriguing, and more true to life, but harder to solve. Fundamentally, it’s eugenics, even if the word is never used, and a society that’s fine turning a blind eye to it. How do you tackle something so vast as your main plot point?

This one is tricky to answer without spoilers! What it’s going to take is for Tashué & Co. to bring the issues into sharp focus, so that no one can look away anymore. This is going to require help from people up in the social ladder, but I won’t say who. And—the ‘fix’ by the end of this arc is going to be temporary, I’m afraid. Because this fix is largely dependant on the good will of Leony, Queen of the Common Man, and the thing about the Crowne is that they don’t really want the status quo to start shifting…

One of the things I really liked about Legacy of the Brightwash are the intricate relationships people have with each other. They’re very well thought-out and it makes the setting come alive. So: how much of that was re-writing, how much was planned out? Were there relationships you’d not really seen coming that ended up working out really well?

Ha, this is another one that’s tricky to really answer without spoilers. So, the beginning of this answer is just the amount of time I’ve spent with these people. I first wrote about Tashué 18 years ago. Ishmael stepped onto the scene 10 years ago. I can’t recall exactly when Jason and Lorne came into the picture, but it was before Ishmael. General Wolfe was before Ishmael, too. That core chemistry doesn’t go away just because I change the story on them, or jump them into a new genre.

The next part of this answer is revision, revision, revision. The first draft was messy and disconnected. I was very much figuring things out as I went, and I didn’t know yet who was going to be most important and how they all related to Tashué. How much of past versions of themselves they were going to bring to Brightwash. Getting feedback from other people on who was memorable and who wasn’t helped me figure out what I wanted from this book. It became a very personal piece of fiction, with my history as a writer being reflected in those relationships—the past (Tashué, Jason, Lorne, Ishmael and those relationships) meeting the present (Kazrani, Stella, Illea, Ceridwen) to become more than the sum of their parts.

I decided very late in the game to make Tashué and Ishmael’s history a very real and present part of this series. It was scary, making Tashué bisexual in “canon” rather than just leaving it as something that people could imagine if they were so inclined. I worried what people would think. I worried if their one moment was “enough”. I worried if it would alienate readers for a bunch of different reasons. But ultimately, I decided that if I flinched and didn’t put it in Brightwash, I would have come to regret it in the future. Holding Tashué back from being fully himself would have only hampered us both in the long run—and I think their history has a lot to add to the story now that I know more about the shape of it, so I’m glad some beloved friends pushed me when they did. 

As for the pleasant surprises—Lorne and Ishmael’s massively contentious relationship was a surprise, and I love how it turned out. They’re in for a lot of ups and downs, I think. I worked on Kazrani’s relationship with Tashué for a long time. She was very much a periphery character at first, but Tashué needed the balance of a best friend in the midst of his chaotic life, even if they don’t see eye to eye sometimes. I’m glad she became as important as she did. Illea Winter was a big surprise. I hadn’t planned for her at all, but she walked into that very first draft and informed me she had PLANS and the second half that draft is just me and Tashué scrambling to keep our heads above water against the force of her will. And Davik Kaine. Oh, he had some surprises for me… But I guess I don’t get to talk about those just yet.

The relationship between Jason and Tashué was, I felt, the heart of the book, even more than the romance. How would you describe that dynamic?

I love that you feel that way, because I think you’re absolutely right. Tashué wouldn’t be able to be the man Stella needs if he wasn’t a father struggling to come to terms with his choices and what they’ve cost him.

I think Tashué and Jason’s greatest challenge is that they are so much alike. They’re both stubborn and they’re both desperate to be right. Unfortunately, the stakes on their particular disagreement are really fucking high. Everything Tashué chose to do was because he desperately wanted to protect his son from the hard, sharp edges of the world they live in. But I think their relationship would have been served if he had spent less time trying to protect Jason, and more time listening to him.

There are readers who are very vocal about not liking sex scenes. Your book definitely doesn’t shy away from it. What’s your counter-argument?

This was a complex decision for me, and again it was the mixing of my past as a writer and the future that I wanted. I started out writing fanfiction, which was over the top and sexy. And probably super inaccurate because boy was I young when I started writing those stories. But then, somewhere along the way, I decided I wanted to write my own stories, and I wanted to see them published one day, so my style split. Some books I read had sex in them (*cough* I was reading Anne Rice from a pretty young age) but most of the things I read didn’t, so I reasoned that that’s just not how you write if you want to be published. 

Not too much romance, fade to black if/when characters come together. But… I really liked the outlet of writing smutty fanfiction. So, I started writing my own characters in two different sets of stories—my “for serious” books that I hoped would catch the attention of a publisher, and my “for fun/for me” stories that were over the top and sexual and characters got to be outrageous in their behaviour.

This attitude continued into the drafting and early revision process of Brightwash. I argued with myself constantly about what I “could” include, and the sex scenes were vague and short.

The decision to turn up the intensity was directly tied to my decision to go straight to self-publishing. I was polishing those early drafts and making friends in the self-published community, and I was kind of wondering if I wanted to try to get an agent and a traditional publishing deal. (I’ve queried before, with mixed success, but none of those early projects had been as developed and polished as Brightwash.) And then, a friend told me to figure out my vision/mission statement. What was I writing toward? What did I want from it?

Some time helped me figure out that what I wanted most was to build my career on the foundation of this one idea. I’m in this for the long haul. So, what I wanted was to build a world and a series that I would still be happy to write about 5, 10, 15 years from now. I wanted to have a book that contained my past and my future, a book that I was proud of, and a setup for a series that I would love to continue writing, instead of something that was “for serious” while I wrote “for fun” projects on the side. I wanted it to be both. I didn’t want to split them apart anymore.

And, in all honesty, that was scary too. I thought a lot about all those people that so vocally don’t like it. But I decided ultimately, that if I was going to build this career, it had to be my career, written my way. I have to read these books about a million times to get them out into the world anyway, so I might as well write a book that I want to read! Something that I’ve really come to terms with is the mantra “not my audience”. People who don’t like sex or romance in fantasy? Not my audience. Fortunately for me, there are plenty of readers who do like that, so I can write those things freely and know that there’s an audience out there for the kind of book I want to write.

What are you reading right now?

My TBR pile is laughing at me.

One of the perks of having so many writer friends is I get to participate in beta reading their projects! I just finished reading Angela Boord’s next novel, a fantastic portal fantasy called Through Dreams So Dark. I’m really excited to see this one grow and evolve and I can’t wait to see what amazing things Angela does with it.

I also had the opportunity to read the amazing collaboration between Clayton Snyder and Michael Fletcher called Norlyska Groans and oh boy you guys are in for a ride when that bad boy drops. Snyder & Fletcher are a match made in your wildest nightmares (in the very VERY best ways).

I officially have my bookmark in a litfic title called The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, a story of a girl growing up in the midst and fallout of the Vietnam War, and her grandmother, who came into womanhood during the Second World War. It’s an amazing, beautiful, heartbreaking book.

 

Finally, what are you working on now?

I’m working on Legacy of Brick & Bone, which of course picks up right where Brightwash left off.

I also have a short story called Coyote on my docket. It’s headed for an anthology, the theme of which is “grief & healing”. The main character, Ozra Sgèin, is dealing with some baggage inflicted on his life by the Breeding Program in Cruinnich. Coyote takes place before Legacy of the Brightwash and it feeds into Ozra’s entry into Legacy of Brick & Bone. I’m really excited for people to meet Ozra. But his story isn’t an easy one.

What else, hmmm. I still have Heart of Bone open in the background, waiting for my attention. That’s Jason’s six weeks in Cattle Bone Bay. That one… okay that one is heavy too. I think I’m building a brand? Loveable people, shit lives.

Of course, The Watchmaker’s Son. I’m not sure when that one is going to be ready, but I enjoy working on it one piece at a time. Ishmael’s 1st person voice is fantastic to write, but he’s got a lot of history so it’s been a matter of picking and choosing the best parts. (He’ll tell you they’re all the best parts if you ask him, which is why you’re not allowed to ask him.)

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