Saturday, May 1, 2021

An Interview With Lee Murray – Talking Magic & the Supernatural In Her Short Fiction & "Taine McKenna" Series



Today I’m delighted to welcome fellow New Zealand author, Lee Murray, to the Supernatural Underground today, to share her insight into the magical and supernatural elements of her writing.

Lee has carved out a significant name for herself in the Horror genre, both with her Taine McKenna novel series and the recent short fiction collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories, as well as a considerable number of journal and ’zine publications.

On first reading Into The Mist (Taine McKenna #1) I enjoyed how Lee wove the New Zealand landscape and Māori myth into a fast-paced, military action-based, “creature horror” tale – a tradition continued in the subsequent (also standalone) novels. I am also impressed by the way Lee’s short fiction blends the traditions of her Chinese-New Zealand heritage with Maori mythology and mainstream NZ settings, all in a compelling and (as is only fitting when writing horror) unsettling way.

So I am delighted to welcome Lee to the Supernatural Underground today, to talk the magical elements and supernatural influences in her work.

Lee: Thank you for having me, Helen. Delighted to chat with you.

Welcoming Lee Murray: In Conversation on "Fear Beyond Boundaries" – Magic & the Supernatural In Her Writing

Helen: So what is the place of magic in the Horror genre, in your view, Lee? And what makes the magic of horror unique?

Lee: What’s interesting about horror, unlike fantasy and certain other speculative subgenres, is that it doesn’t have to incorporate magical elements at all. Horror, by definition, describes work that instills feelings of fear, the intensity of which appears on a spectrum that extends from vague unease all the way to bone-rattling, white-knuckle terror. But the elements that make up our horror stories, the things that contribute to those feelings of fear, can either be anchored in reality or imbued with supernatural elements according to the needs of the story and the preferences of the author. For me, magic and the supernatural are a natural way to approach horror, partly because in New Zealand myth and monsters hover just beyond us in the shadows.

The Māori term “tipua”, for example, relates to ‘uncanny’ and inexplicable things, like a log which refuses to sink, or the mists of Te Urewera National Park which obscure the mischievous patu-paiarehe (fairies)—these aspects of our landscape are imbued with their own unique power. The fauna isn’t exempt; I’ll admit to getting goose bumps when a little morepork owl, a harbinger of death, hoots from the shadows, or to feeling a connection with the pīwakawaka-fantail as it flits back and forth on a forest trail, carrying its messages from the gods. And, of course, we have our legendary monsters. There are the ferocious taniwha-serpents, which reside in our rivers and inlets, and the maero-ogres which dwell in a caves in the Waikato region, for example.

For New Zealanders, these magical places, objects, and creatures are afforded a place in our everyday. NZ’s Māori people, when they introduce themselves, do so by invoking their ancestors, which are the very mountains and rivers which surround us. And it isn’t just the Māori who feel this way. Consider this passage from The Woman at the Store (1912), a short story by iconic New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield:

“There is no twilight in our New Zealand, but a curious half hour when everything appears grotesque—it frightens—as though the savage spirit of the country walked abroad and sneered at what it saw. Sitting alone in the hideous room I grew afraid.”

The other reason I turn to magic and the supernatural in my horror is because fantastical elements offer a way of addressing some of the hardest themes through metaphor and allegory. For example, the theme of sexual abuse of a teen in my Bram Stoker Award®-nominated story, Dead End Town.

In another example, The Good Wife, a Chinese-New Zealand fairy tale which appears in Weird Tales 364, a neglected Chinese woman must save her miner husband who has been captured by a fierce taniwha-serpent. Set in New Zealand’s Arrowtown in the 1800s goldrush, as well as revealing the quiet power of Asian women in the face of systemic oppression and abuse, the story juxtaposes New Zealand and Asian notions of the dragon to highlight the character’s feelings of otherness and isolation.

Helen: How do you see the magic elements of the Horror genre evolving currently?

Lee:  Putting the supernatural aside for just a moment, 2020-2021 has been an apocalypse bingo card of real-life possibilities for horror writers. In the past 14 months, we’ve dealt with forest fires, a global pandemic, floods, storms, economic collapse, even Asian murder hornets. And the themes on offer have covered issues like racism, isolation, poverty, and loss—complex subjects that lend themselves to magical approaches if only to create some distance from the enormity of the challenges we’re facing.

My debut horror collection, Grotesque: Monster Stories, for example, features a monster theme—the perfect metaphor for our fears, as Literary Hub contributor Erica Swyla writes in an article released last year: “Monsters are stand-ins…for all the things we cannot control. I’ll never outgrow them the way one can never outgrow the outside world.”

I agree with her entirely: “…comfort arises from the power of capturing those monsters on the page,” I told the Gingernuts of Horror in a piece titled
In Defence of Monster Stories. “When we set our fears down on paper, we introduce an element of distance, of safety. And it’s from that place of safety that we can reflect, analyse, evaluate, perhaps even devise some viable solutions to the things that haunt us. In an increasingly dark and ominous world, monster stories gird us with hope.”

In fact, given recent world events, there is so much scope for fresh horror that the genre has experienced a renaissance of sorts, with writers taking advantage of the isolation to knock off that dusty writing project. The demand by consumers has also exploded as noted in the opening comments of a Library Journal article by my colleague Becky Spratford:

“Horror surrounds us this year, both on the page and, in so many gut-wrenching ways, in the real world. While life amid a pandemic has wreaked havoc, it has also been a boon for the genre. … As David Pomerico, editorial director for Harper Voyager U.S., notes, ‘The biggest trend in horror is that horror is trending. … What we’re seeing is that there’s desire for more stories, and room on the shelves for them, too.’”

That said, the literary horror community has been affected by the pandemic downturn much like everyone else, with several small presses folding, and others being forced to push back projects until there is more economic certainty.

As for my own horror writing, it is also evolving, with my work on Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women (currently Bram Stoker Award®- and Aurealis Award-nominated and listed on the Locus Recommended List) resulting in a deep desire to investigate the monsters of my Asian heritage further, particularly on the themes of otherness, tradition, and expectation. 

The Black Cranes anthology includes two of my stories, both of which tease at the magical traditions of my mixed heritage. In the first, Phoenix Claws, I draw on the name and the mythology underpinning the famous dish, which is made from steamed chicken’s feet. In the story, the perpetual resurrection of chicken feet is a metaphor for the ever-present prejudices which arise on both sides of mixed-race partnerships, and how, if left unaddressed, those same small things that might have seemed charming can become overwhelming.

In the second, Frangipani Wishes, a story plucked from my own family diaspora, I examine the hungry ghost mythology, the voracious monsters typically portrayed as greedy women with extended necks and bloated distended bellies.

Later this year, I’ll be taking up residency in Auckland as the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021, where I’ll be working on a prose-poetry collection with the working title Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud. The work will explore the Asian diaspora in New Zealand as it applies to women through the various interactions of a shape-shifting fox spirit. I’m also working on a non-fiction title called Unquiet Spirits with my fellow Black Crane, Space and Time publisher Angela Yuriko Smith. We expect this work, an exploration of Asian monsters through a series of essays and responses, will be released in late 2022.

Helen: Your work draws on Māori myth and legend, the magical themes of your Chinese heritage, and also the Western European tradition. Do you find it easy weaving all three magic traditions together? Or have there been challenges, unexpected or otherwise?

Lee:  Do I find weaving magical traditions from various cultures easy? Sometimes. Like all authors, occasionally I am blessed with a story that spools onto the page, lazily, like the curls of steam from a teacup. But that’s rare. Mostly, I smack my head repeatedly against my desk and over several days the story might seep through the cracks in my skull.

As I noted earlier though, given the blending and confrontation of ideas that occurs at the intersection of culture, myth, and magic, there is so much to explore here in New Zealand that I don’t want for homegrown ideas. Perhaps that’s why I tend to think of myself as a New Zealand storyteller ahead of a horror writer, speculative writer, poet, or any other classification.

Of course, it’s always important to remember that one person’s mythology is another person’s faith, so as writers we need to ensure that, when it comes to the supernatural, our work is as authentic as possible. This means reading widely, consulting actively, researching deeply, and approaching the writing with sensitivity and compassion. It means being prepared to revise our work when our privilege and our biases are exposed. In some ways, poking at the intersection of supernatural beliefs held by people of different cultures contributes to the essential growth that authors experience even as their characters evolve. All creativity is discovery after all. Just as there is no story without conflict.

In terms of craft, I think selecting the right perspective can be a helpful tool in overcoming the challenge of blending magical systems from different cultures. First person and second person narratives, while they have their limitations in terms of breadth of view, offer readers an intimate exploration of a character’s core belief structures, magical or otherwise. Third person limited perspectives, coupled with skillful use of close internal thought, can offer similar insights to various characters’ beliefs.

With the Taine McKenna series, where the novels typically include a cast of thousands, I’ve found the mosaic, or ensemble, method of telling a story via various perspectives to be especially helpful, since any prejudices, superstitions, and beliefs can be revealed for what they are, from the characters’ perspectives, and, ultimately, it’s up to the reader to make up their own minds. Of course, whether we employ dual or multiple perspectives, or any other technique for that matter, authors have a certain responsibility to guide their readers towards inclusivity, understanding and tolerance, but we can only go so far. The reader will bring their own experience, their own prejudices, and we can only hope that, through reading, they’ll be moved to greater understanding and respect.

I’ve also been fortunate to co-write the Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series with Wellington writer Dan Rabarts (Ngāti Porou), in a he-said she-said brother-sister narrative. In that series, we each brought the magical underpinnings of our personal heritage to the narrative: my Chinese upbringing and Dan’s Māori background. The skies are bright with the fires of ancient Polynesian explorers who made it to the southern ice, and the ground rumbles the discontent of Rūamoko, the god of volcanoes. We layered in Egyptian notions of the supernatural too, drawing on the parallels with the Māori sun god Rā and his famous Egyptian equivalent.

The series of is a smorgasbord of supernatural, the collaborative nature of the series giving us confidence to explore and blend the myth and magic in ways which, I believe, hadn’t been seen before in New Zealand fiction.

Helen: Given the diverse traditions that inform your work, Lee, and your international engagement in the genre, do you feel there is a unique, Antipodean flavor to Horror writing – or is it a case of books and writing not having or requiring passports?

Lee:  What an excellent question. I do feel my work represents a very Antipodean response to horror. For example, down here in the Shaky Isles there’s an underlying anxiety that at any moment the country will be torn apart by a pending earthquake. Just look at
the tragedy that took place on New Zealand’s Whakaari (White Island) only two years ago, as well—proof that the danger is simmering ominously beneath our feet.

Perhaps, that’s why my Taine McKenna novel Into the Ashes appealed to local readers in the same way Jane Harper’s The Dry, with its ever-present threat of drought and forest fire, resonated for our Australian neighbours. However, whereas Harper’s work is based firmly in the real world, the Taine McKenna series draws heavily on local supernatural lore. My hero, Taine McKenna, a New Zealand Defence Force sergeant who is also a Māori matakite or seer, speaks to the spirit of his mentor, Temera, through various means, but most often through the resonance of a pūrerehua-bullroarer. The main conflict of the story involves the eruption of Lake Taupo’s super-crater prompted by the legendary love triangle between ancestor mountains of the central plateau, with McKenna and his section caught in the crossfire.

That’s not to say traditional gothic horror—the stuff of graveyards and haunted houses—doesn’t feature in antipodean horror texts, but our unique geography offers different terrors. For anyone interested in reading Lovecraft works from Antipodean authors, I recommend IFWG’s Cthulhu Deep Down Under series (Volumes 1-3), and, in particular, Cthulhu: Land of the Long White Cloud.

Interestingly US colleagues Carina Bissett and Hillary Dodge are currently curating an exciting anthology called Shadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas, based on the geography and folklore of the Americas. I’m expecting the work to reflect a different set of fears derived and inspired from that unique landscape. (I lived for four years in the American midwest, so I’m hoping to draw on my experiences during that time). Nevertheless, your comment about writing not requiring passports is insightful. There are some things which engender terror no matter the place or the people. Universal fears, like dark places, uncertainty, otherness. Persecution. Suffering. Death. Those kinds of fears don’t respect boundaries.

Helen: Thank you so much, Lee, for sharing your fascinating insight into the Horror genre and the unique “Kiwi” (New Zealand) perspective your writing brings to it, including that of your Chinese-New Zealand family heritage – all of which I’m sure readers appreciate greatly. The best of luck, too, for the outcome of the Bram Stoker Award® nomination, your forthcoming Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship, and Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud.


About Lee Murray
Lee Murray

Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning author-editor from Aotearoa-New Zealand (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a five-time Bram Stoker Award®-nominee. A third generation Chinese New Zealander, her work includes military thrillers, the Taine McKenna Adventures, supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts), and debut collection Grotesque: Monster Stories

Lee is proud to have edited sixteen volumes of speculative fiction, including several international award-winning titles. She is co-founder of Young NZ Writers and of the Wright-Murray Residency for Speculative Fiction Writers, HWA Mentor of the Year for 2019, NZSA Honorary Literary Fellow, and Grimshaw Sargeson Fellow for 2021 for her poetry collection Fox Spirit on a Distant Cloud

To find out more, please visit Lee at or on the following sites:


Previous Posts: 

January 1: Happy New Year – Ushering In A Year of Friends, Fellow Authors, & Magic Systems

January 5: 
An Interview with AK Wilder – Talking Magic In Her New-Out Crown Of Bones (AMASSIA #1) 

February 1: An Interview with T Frohock 
– Talking Magic In A Song With Teeth & The LOS NEFILIM Series

March 1:  An Interview with Courtney Schafer – Talking Magic In The "Shattered Sigil" Series

April 1:  An Interview with Kristin Cashore –Talking Magic In Winterkeep & The "Graceling Realm" Series


About The Interviewer:

Helen Lowe's first  novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. The second,The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012, and the sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood (Book Three), was published in 2016 and Helen is currently completing the final novel in the series. She posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and tweets @helenl0we

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Adapting to Survive


Cursed - the legend of King Arthur is reenvisioned on Netflix.

Adapting a book to the screen has many names - remake, reboot, revision... But they all have one thing in common: the story is, in part or whole, rewritten to survive.

From the point of view of the book, this isn't always good, where 'good' equals accurate or in the spirit of.... As I mentioned once in The Down Side of Adaptation, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides reminds us that the book's story radically changes once it becomes visual. 

"It's no longer a book, and to try to insist on it being a book will usually make it a poorer film." - Jeffrey Eugenides

In the world of storytelling, adaptation is about the book withstanding a translation to 'motion pictures' and in the wild kingdom, adaptation means exactly the same thing

The okapi
The okapi has survived 16 million years through adaptations.

For today's post, I thought it would be fun to compare three evolutionary adaptations -- structural, physiological and behavioral -- in nature with those found in storytelling. For example, the okapi demonstrates structural and physiological adaptations that have allowed it to survive. 

    1) they have scent glands on their feet to mark their territory
    2) they use infrasonic calls to communicate with their calves so predators can't hear
    3) their tongues are 14-18 inch-long tongues used for browsing and washing their ears and eyes

Shadow and Bone | Six of Crows Macmillian 

A book adaptation with just as surprising structural and physiological changes as the Okapi is the new Netflix series adaptation of Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. In this revision, characters and environments are combined to survive as something new.

Instead of solely adapting its namesake book, the show combines it with characters and geography from Bardugo’s duology Six of Crows. - Nerdist

Another interesting form of adaptation in nature is based on behavoral changes. 

When it comes to this kind of adaptations in nature, squirrels take the cake. Did you know they can hibernate for up to 12 months? 

Photography: Alamy - Grey Squirrel Study at UE

A new series, also to Netflix, took the behavioral route when it adapted the time-honoured story of King Arthur. You might notice right away that Merlin doesn't quite behave the way we expect given a Disney upbringing. If you haven't seen it, you'll want to prepare yourself!

(the old) Merlin is a figure of great power and wisdom. His magical abilities are substantial and he’s generally depicted as a sort of all-seeing sage, who engineers the birth of Arthur and the rise of Camelot before falling victim to an ill-timed romance.

 Gustav Skarsgard’s performance brings this very different kind of Merlin to life.

In Cursed, Merlin is, to be blunt, a world-weary mess. Stripped of his magic and overly fond of alcohol, this character seems the furthest thing possible from an all-knowing, all-powerful wizard. And that’s not just an intentional choice on the part of Wheeler – it’s one that places this Merlin closer to his Welsh beginnings than many versions of the character that came afterward. - Den of Geeks

Love them or not, the revisions films tell of our beloved books are different, including sometimes shocking and unexpected takes. But, just like in nature, they have been adapted to survive new challenges in the environment, for better or worse.

How about you? What are your favorite adaptations? Most appalling? We'd love to hear your thoughts.

* * *

Crown of Bones audio sample
Try the Audio Sample

Kim Falconer, currently writing as A K Wilder, has just released Crown of Bones, a YA Epic Fantasy.

Kim can be found on  AKWilder TwitterFacebook and Instagram

Throw the bones, read your horoscopes or Raise Your Phantom on the site or have a listen to the audio version on the right.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

An Interview With Kristin Cashore – Talking Magic In "Winterkeep" & The GRACELING REALM Series



Over the past few years, I’ve nominated an annual blogging theme for my Supernatural Underground posts – and this year’s theme is Magic Systems in Fantasy.

My secondary theme is “Fun With Friends”, with the aim being to talk with fellow authors about the magic in their writing.

As with most authors, I’m a reader as well as a writer – and like many others readers I was swept up in the magic of Kristin Cashore’s first novel, Graceling.


In 2012, I was delighted to interview Kristin about her third Graceling novel, Bitterblue – which I thought might just be my favorite. Until, that is, I read Kristin’s recently published Winterkeep and immediately had a strong new contender in the favorite stakes.

So it feels very right to bring you another interview with Kristin today, which although it highlights Winterkeep, also focuses on the magic of Kristin’s Graceling Realm world.

UK Cover

Welcoming Kristin Cashore: In Conversation On Magic Systems in Winterkeep & the GRACELING REALM Series

HL: Welcome to the Supernatural Underground, Kristin. I'm so pleased you're able to be with us today, to talk magic in Winterkeep and your Graceling Realm world.

The Graceling Realm series involves several realms, from the Seven Kingdoms, the Dells and Pikkia, and now the Torla continent that includes Winterkeep. How important is the associated magic in making each realm distinct, but also connected?

Kristin: It’s true that as I’ve expanded my world to include new realms, I’ve given each part of the world a distinct kind of magic — and you’re absolutely right, I’ve tried to make the different kinds of magic feel connected, or all-of-a-piece. I’ve created thematic links between them, in the hopes that my readers will be more willing to come along for the ride.


With the first book, Graceling, I established a world where occasionally, a person is born with an extreme skill of some kind, and that person is marked by having unmatching eyes. Sometimes those eyes are quite ordinary eye colors like brown, black, gray, hazel, or blue, but other times, a Graceling might have an eye of a bright and unusual color, like red, silver, gold, purple, copper. And the skills, called Graces, can be a variety of things, from something creative, like baking or drawing, to something physical, like swimming or fighting — to something mental, like mind-reading or mind control.


Then, when I wrote Fire, I established a world full of “monsters” — animals shaped like the regular animals we know (mountain lions, horses, insects, raptors), but vibrantly, unusually colored, and with the power to control minds. My main character, Fire, is a human-shaped monster with vibrantly-colored hair and the power to control minds. I suppose I felt that such a world could believably exist side-by-side with a world where some people have dramatically-colored eyes and have a range of magical abilities, including mind control.

Most recently, with Winterkeep, I’ve established a world that contains telepathic sea creatures called silbercows (who happen to be bluish-purple) and telepathic “blue foxes” (though only the kits are pure blue; the adults turn gray). So, I’m continuing the theme of significant colors, of telepathy, and of powerful animals in the natural world. Humans, of course, are animals in the natural world, so it’s made sense to me that some of these powers rest in humans, while some rest in non-human animals.


I suppose I chose these particular magics because I’m drawn to them for one reason or another. But I also wanted to create a sense of consistency, so that the world has a sort of familiar internal logic. I’m not sure if it would work, for example, to establish a new setting where people can teleport, or time travel, or step through a painting into another part of the multiverse (as happens in my unrelated novel, Jane, Unlimited). That would be too much of departure from the kinds of magic I’ve established.


As I continue to write in the Graceling Realm (which is my intention), it’ll be interesting to see the dramas and conflicts that arise between characters as the magics of different parts of the world begin to mix more. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I’m excited to find out.

Helen: I’ll put my hand up for being very excited to see what happens, too. I also love the connection between color and magic, which creates a bright thread through the Graceling Realm books. In Winterkeep you’ve not only introduced a realm that has unique powers associated with the natural world, but one that is geographically distinct. To what extent is this a ‘shift’ away from the earlier Graceling magic?

Kristin: It’s a shift in that this is the first Graceling Realm book I’ve written in which the magical power resides only in non-human animals. There are some Gracelings in the book — humans with magical powers — because they’ve traveled to Winterkeep from other parts of the world. But in Winterkeep, humans aren’t born with magic. The telepathic silbercows and blue foxes possess the only magic native to the Torlan continent. But again, humans are animals and part of the natural world — we (most of us anyway) merely like to imagine ourselves separate! — so while I’m not going to pretend there isn’t a distinction between a human with magical fighting abilities and a sea creature who can talk with her mind, I do see them existing on the same plane.


I suppose that in Winterkeep, I’ve created telepathic animals that are humanesque, in the sense that they have complex communications systems, societies, and interrelationships — but then again, a lot of animal species have those things. We just don’t understand them, and we have power over them (which includes the power to misinterpret them, and define them as we see fit). Humans do the same with all parts of the natural world, trees, rocks, water, the elements: We are the ones who decide what these things are, what they mean, what they need, and, too often, what they’re “worth,” and how they can be exploited by us. It’s possible that I’m drawn to create magic that resides in non-human animals and non-human spaces, in addition to magic that resides in humans, because I’m distressed that we humans in the real world fail so often at acknowledging that we’re part of a system, over which we have power we usually wield badly. I wonder if subconsciously, I’ve created a world in which I’ve tried to make the power a little bit more even? Or the humans — some of them, anyway — a little more conscious of their place in the system?

Whatever the reason, my silbercows and blue foxes — and to a limited extent, my monsters — have a one-up over humans, in the sense that they can communicate freely across species. They don’t actually need words and languages, just ideas. However, as in the real world, their fates are inextricably bound up with the decisions of humans.

Helen: Winterkeep is also a “winter world” (which I love!). To what extent was the world and its magical elements shaped or influenced by your Arctic Circle Residency in 2018?

Kristin: My Arctic Circle Residency was one of the absolute best experiences of my life. For two weeks in October, I lived on a tall ship with a bunch of other artists and a small, excellent crew, sailing around Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. Every day, once or twice, we climbed into zodiacs and visited the land. It snowed a lot. I saw glaciers, mountains, whales, walruses, fresh polar bear prints on a regular basis. I saw the northern lights; we sailed through sheets of ice; seals visited us while we were in the zodiacs. We learned to work the sails; I climbed the mast (which was terrifying!). Also, our ship, the Antigua, was easily the most beautiful home I’ve ever had.

Winterkeep: early planning

Winterkeep was already in revisions at that point, so while the experience certainly influenced my rewriting of parts of the book that take place on a ship or descriptions of some of the landscapes, it would be disingenuous to say that the trip strongly influenced the book. However! While I was on the trip, I was planning my next Graceling Realm book (in revisions now), which is from the point of view of Hava. That book was deeply influenced by my Arctic residency. I don’t think it would exist if it weren’t for my incredible two weeks in the Arctic.

Helen: I am so glad to learn there is another Graceling Realm novel coming soon! And I love the way Winterkeep ends with a question, “Are you ready for a little magic?” Yet sometimes magic, like other aspects of storytelling, can surprise the author. Where there any surprises for you in the magic of Winterkeep? Or the other Graceling Realm novels for that matter?

Kristin: Magic creates so many problems for authors! Or at least, it does for me. When you’re writing a book, you’re trying to create challenges that are difficult for characters to resolve. People are keeping secrets from each other, or they face difficult physical or mental challenges. But — if your book is full of characters who can read minds, then suddenly it becomes awfully easy for those characters to figure out the secrets. If it contains characters who can control minds — suddenly those characters have an enormous advantage over everyone else. If it contains characters who win every fight — how are those fights ever going to be interesting?


I especially had this problem in Fire and in Bitterblue, each of which contains a (different) powerful mindreader. At one point in Bitterblue, I had to go so far as to give my mindreader a serious illness, just to get him out of the way for a while! The illness fit the character and worked at that moment, so I think it ended up okay — but that’s the challenge. You have to find solutions for the problems you’ve created for yourself, solutions that fit the character and the world. Solutions that the reader will go along with.


I suppose I’ve written enough of these books at this point that I’m never exactly surprised when my magic creates tangles for me, but it is often hard to predict where it will happen. In Winterkeep, the telepathy of the blue foxes was complicated by the fact that blue foxes, by nature, often lie to humans and to each other. So, humans have particular ideas about how their telepathic power works — but that’s because the blue foxes have been lying to the humans. How their power actually works is a whole other story. Conveying that to the reader got very thorny while I was writing! With every revision, I tried to simplify and clarify the foxes’ magic more. It’s a lot of work to get the magic in your books to seem seamless to the reader. I’m never surprised that it’s a lot of work, but I’m often surprised by where the tangles arise!

Helen: One of Bitterblue’s defining characteristics, in a world shaped by magic, is that she doesn’t possess magical ability – abilities in which, conversely, heroines like Katsa and Fire excel. I have always enjoyed that contrast, which manifests again in Winterkeep. How central do you feel magical elements need to be in, in order to make fantasy storytelling rock?


Kristin: It’s funny, some of my favorite fantasy series don’t contain magic at all. I always think immediately of Cynthia Voigt’s Kingdom books, which, incidentally, have influenced every book I’ve ever written that takes place in a wintry landscape. I think it really, deeply depends on how the author chooses to use the magic in their world, and how careful they are as they weave it into the fabric of the story. There are many, many fantasy stories about a character who doesn’t know they have magic — or doesn’t understand some part of their magic — then gradually, over the course of the story, that character comes into their powers. Whether that book feels seamlessly magical, a natural sort of magical coming-of-age, or whether it feels like the growing magic is merely a plot device to keep things moving, depends entirely on the author’s choices. I think that a book can have as little or as much magic as the author wants, and that magic can be central or not, as long as the author has thought it through!


I will add that in the case of Bitterblue, like you, I’ve always enjoyed her contrast with so many of the other characters. Of course, Bitterblue is a queen, so she does possess a lot of power! But in terms of her physical abilities, she’s just a regular person — so I relate to her. And I relate to the feeling of being a regular person surrounded by extraordinary people, and trying to figure out my own role. I suppose fantasy is a great place to explore that kind of dynamic. Feeling incapable is part of the human condition.

Helen: Bitterblue is a favorite character of mine, for all the reasons you’ve just illuminated. Nonetheless, I do feel considerable anticipation that the next book will return to a character with Graceling powers. Thank you so much, Kristin, for visiting Supernatural Underground today and  sharing your insights into the magic of your Graceling Realm worlds. I feel quite sure readers will enjoy it as much as I have – and be equally delighted to learn that Graceling Realm #5 is on its way.


To find out more about Winterkeep and the GRACELING REALM series,

please visit Kristin on her website: 
This Is My Secret: The Blog and Website of Writer Kristin Cashore

You can also find Kristin on Twitter: @KristinCashore


Photo credit: Kevin Lin
About Kristin Cashore: 

American writer Kristin Cashore grew up in northeast Pennsylvania and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband. She earned her master’s degree from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College in Boston. 

Her epic fantasy novels set in the Graceling Realm (Graceling, Fire, Bitterblue, and Winterkeep) and her standalone novel Jane, Unlimited are all New York Times bestsellers and have won many awards.


Rocking 2021 with “Magic Systems in Fantasy” on Supernatural Underground: Previous Posts 

January 1: 
Happy New Year – Ushering In A Year of Friends, Fellow Authors, & Magic Systems

January 5: 
An Interview with AK Wilder – Talking Magic In Her New-Out Crown Of Bones (AMASSIA #1) 

February 1: An Interview with T Frohock 
– Talking Magic In A Song With Teeth & The LOS NEFILIM Series

March 1:  An Interview with Courtney Schafer–Talking Magic In The "Shattered Sigil" Series


About The Interviewer:

Helen Lowe's first  novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. The second,The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012, and the sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood (Book Three), was published in 2016 and Helen is currently completing the final novel in the series. She posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and tweets @helenl0we