Claire Humphrey was kind enough to drop by to talk about her debut novel, Spells of Blood and Kin, among other things. To get things started, I will stick with tradition and shamelessly steal her author bio by way of introduction…
Claire Humphrey’s 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.
ACW: Welcome! Congratulations on Spells of Blood and Kin. I adored this novel, and I feel pretty darn lucky to have gotten a sneak peek at it. For those who haven’t read it, could you give readers a hint of what’s in store for them?
CH: Thank you so much! Spells of Blood and Kin is what happened when I tried to write a light urban fantasy to distract myself during a tough time in my life. I failed at the distraction, and I failed even more at making it light. (I think I did okay with the urban fantasy part.)
Spells of Blood and Kin is about what families hand down through generations, both the good and the bad. One of the families is related by blood in the usual way. One of the families is related by blood in a supernatural way. Both families are kind of dysfunctional.
ACW: One of the things I found particularly brilliant about the novel is that it’s essentially a werewolf novel that never once uses the word werewolf. It also resists the tropes of moody/tortured/misunderstood-but-ultimately-awesome-person-turned-into-a-wolf and portrays a genuinely pained and terrible condition. Where did the roots of the story come from for you? Did you set out to write an ‘anti werewolf’ novel? If not, what inspired it?
CH: Actually when I first set out I wanted to write a fun paranormal romance. But that wasn’t in me. I initially imagined Nick as a charming lightweight who develops emotional depth through being turned into something new, and Lissa as a responsible girl who learns to let loose a little. And I was going to have them get together! But as I began writing, those tropes felt so false to me: not that others shouldn’t use them, but I couldn’t write them. I started to understand Nick as someone who takes his own power way too lightly, and hurts others as a result, and Lissa as someone weighed down by her duty, by a heritage that can’t easily be cast aside. And those are just the mostly-human.
I had been writing stories about Gus Hillyard–Maksim’s family member, for lack of a better word–for a while. None of those stories were fun. They were mostly about coping strategies, about surviving instead of thriving, about the high price we pay for being born and staying alive–and the price we exact on others. Gus and Maksim have learned that when they let themselves get close to anyone, they have the power to cause immense damage. They each deal with that power in different ways: Gus by becoming an alcoholic drifter, Maksim by walling up part of his nature with magic.
We all have that power in reality, of course. The bond of blood–literal or metaphoric–is what keeps us close even when we’re hurting, or being hurt, or both.
ACW: The novel also draws heavily on Russian fairy tales, mythology, and history. What kind of research did you do for Spells of Blood and Kin?
CH: I started with a pair of books my parents gave me so long ago that I feel like I’ve had them always. They’re reproductions of Russian folk tales from 1899 with gorgeous illustrations by Ivan Bilibin. One is about Vasilissa going into the forest to get magical fire from the witch Baba Yaga: this one’s described in my book. The other is about Vasilissa’s later life as a powerful witch turned into a frog by the sorcerer Koschei the Deathless; she convinces a prince to marry her and hunt down the sorcerer to break his spell. Both are full of rich images of skulls, animals, eggs, trickery and bargaining. Those stories formed the thematic heart of the book.
As I wrote, I had to dig into some practical, factual stuff too, of course. One of my favourites was a book called The Soviet-Afghan War, by the Russian General Staff, which contained intense detail of troop movements and composition, and analysis of engagements which the Russians felt they had lost. I ended up using almost nothing from this book but it was fascinating to read.
I’m a pantser generally when it comes to research: I’ll be halfway through a scene, trying to describe a vehicle or a house or a piece of clothing, and then I’ll realize I don’t know enough about it, and start Googling. I have a lot of books in my house, too, on topics like historical weaponry, homes and costumes, so I usually have something helpful I can consult.
ACW: Shifting gears a bit, there’s a question I like to ask my fellow Canadians. In your mind, are there particular tones, themes, or subjects that make a piece of literature quintessentially Canadian? If so, do you ever consciously draw on them in your own work, or deliberately avoid them?
CH: There’s a lot of Canadian fiction dealing with families and inheritance, with the idea of baggage carried across the ocean and bestowed on a new generation. A whole lot of us in this country came from somewhere else, or our parents did, and we didn’t always get to choose what we brought with us. This book takes that trope and makes it magical.
ACW: On a related note, since you live in the Toronto area and quite a few other excellent speculative fiction writers have settled there, is there anything about the neighborhood that makes it especially speculative in your mind? Having recently visited, I feel there are certain areas ripe for inclusion in SFF stories. Do you have any favorite spots that inspire your stories? If not, are there generally things about the city that inspire you – bookstores, parks, museums, restaurants, must-see places you’d recommend to first time visitors?
CH: I struggled with how to answer this question, because I don’t find Toronto magical at all. After some thought I realized that I don’t find any places magical. I’m not that writer. I actually want exactly the opposite from a place: I love places that have a strong and particular sense of themselves, an air and a look that can’t be found anywhere else. I lean on these places to ground my work. To me, stories with speculative elements need a strong counterbalance.
Toronto is an easy one for me because I’ve lived here for almost two decades, and even before that, I always yearned toward it. My Toronto is a gorgeously messy place: graffiti murals in the alleys off Queen West, fruit smashed on the streetcar tracks of Spadina. Every bar with a raunchy basement bathroom painted some garish colour. Kensington Market, Parkdale, Little Italy, Little Portugal, all thronged with people, usually celebrating something: religious parades, soccer wins, zombie walks, all-night art festivals. It’s a city that rewards you for just walking out the door and joining the rush.
ACW: In addition to your novel, you’re also the author of some stunningly brilliant short fiction. On a purely selfish note, might you ever set additional stories – or a longer work – in the world of ‘Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines’? (Because boxing and magic are an awesome combination as far as I’m concerned.) On a more general level, how does your process differ in writing short fiction versus a novel?
CH: Oh, thank you! The world of “Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines” is actually a world I built for my first novel… a novel that won’t see the light of day unless I am prepared to substantially rework it, as it’s more than a quarter of a million words long and still not nearly finished (!) Never say never, though, right? I love the world and I’m sure I will set more stories there, even if that novel stays in the trunk.
In general I guess I start novels with a character, while I start stories with a feeling. Stories are easier to feel your way through without much of a plan, and I do. I wrote the first draft of Spells of Blood and Kin without a formal plan, also, and was delighted to discover I’d given it an intricate structure anyway (kind of a repeating chiastic structure–although I’m not sure all of this survived through the multiple drafts). The next book I wrote turned out to naturally follow a three-act structure, without my conscious intervention. For the one I’m now working on, I actually made a three-act plan before I began writing, although I’ve departed from it a little as I go. It’s helping me write faster.
ACW: Now that Spells of Blood and Kin is out in the world, what’s next for you?
CH: The novel I’m currently working on in set in the same world, this time with Gus Hillyard as the protagonist–she’s my favourite character to write, and I’m loving spending time with her, although so far this book is pretty emotionally difficult.
I’ve also got some new stories in the pipeline–I haven’t been writing as much short fiction lately and it feels good to have some things lined up. The most recently published is a story called “Crew 255″ in Dominik Parisien’s Clockwork Canada anthology. The anthology consists of steampunk alternate histories of Canada, and my story is about Portuguese workers coming to rebuild downtown Toronto after an airship explosion.
ACW: Thanks for stopping by! Now that I know about your plans for the next novel, I’m very much looking forward to reading Gus’ story.
CH: Thanks so much for having me, and for the great questions!