IN CONVERSATION: Shayne Leighton On Her Latest Book, Of Blood and Magic (Of Light and Darkness, #2)
This Wednesday I had the distinct pleasure of sitting down to have a chat with Shayne Leighton, author of the Of Light and Darkness Series, on what is apparently our new normal—the Google Meeting. While we drank our coffees and interspersed our conversation with laughter about life, the plight of being ginger-headed, and spouses flitting across video conferences in the background, we also dove into the details of being both author and publisher.
Aesthetic in Of Light and Darkness and Of Blood and Magic by Shayne Leighton
MALORIE NILSON: Your novel, Of Blood and Magic—the second in your Of Light and Darkness series—was just released on December 8th. Congratulations! I want to start by just asking how are you holding up? Life, in general, feels so crazy at present! How has this impacted your writing process? What is your experience of launching a book during a pandemic?
SHAYNE LEIGHTON: (laughs) It's funny; I think every release is different, of course. I remember when I first released Of Light and Darkness (OLAD) back in the day, in 2011, I was actually in Czech [The Czech Republic] for the first time. It was like the day after we had arrived in Europe. I was 21, published by another small press at the time, and I didn't really realize the kind of effort—the kind of elbow grease—that goes into a release day. The author is expected to be present, even in 2011! Social media was still a thing! But the marketplace was completely different. It was less saturated back then, so there wasn't as much competition in that publishing space. I remember getting on my partner Frank's dad's old computers—one of those giant cubes that is old and heavy—and I logged onto Amazon to look at the sales ranking. OLAD was ranking in the overall Kindle store in the top 10,000. Today that would be a huge deal. That's amazing! Not even in a category, in the overall Kindle store. I was excited about it, but I didn't understand the meaning behind that. So I was very whimsical and laissez-faire about the whole thing. I thought, "I don't really know what this means!" Then I just went on about my day. I really miss that—I miss that casual aspect of having written a book for myself, putting it out into the universe, and letting it be just "whoever reads it, reads it." It was much more peaceful.
Now that I have made this such a huge part of my life—a huge part of my career—and now that I know so much more about publishing itself, it is a lot more stressful. There's a lot more on my mind, a lot of moving variables, and I am paying attention a lot more. You know, I tell authors, "Don't refresh the page, don't look at your numbers. Don't be so obsessed. Look at it in the morning and in the evening, but then leave it alone. Create boundaries."
I am so good at giving that advice, but I am so bad at taking it! There are moments where I am really chill, and I can tell myself that I don't care, that this is just day one, that things do not hinge on release day. Sometimes a book can find success six years later—I didn't hit my stride with OLAD until 2016. I found a great readership, but it did take time. So, it is just reminding myself that everything I tell other authors is true, and when I say publishing is "playing the long game," it really is. Be kinder to yourself, and be patient—stop looking at the numbers, Shayne! I need to enjoy the fact that I completed another book and completed it to the point where I think the story is where it needs to be. I am satisfied with the craft of it alone. And I really am! I am satisfied with how the story turned out and the direction it is taking because it really organically flows with where I want to take the rest of this series.
That being said, all of that is exacerbated in a pandemic. We were discussing this earlier, but this is a really weird year. I have many colleagues and friends that were traditionally published this year. They face many of the same problems that my colleagues face in the independent publishing space—what we are facing. Not only are we competing with other forms of entertainment, we are competing with the anxiety that is 2020 and the problems we are all entrenched in. You go into things with the best intentions, and sometimes that is enough. That has to be enough. We just have to hope that we all get through it. And if Of Blood and Magic (OBAM) reaches a couple of people and gives them a break from 2020, that is really cool for me.
MN: I love that you touched upon that feeling—that success right now is defined by touching a few people in the darkness. I think that is so important, and the job that literature is meant for, especially right now. Focusing on that readership is critical to focus on, even as we move into 2021.
SL: Oh, yes. Completely.
MN: You had mentioned that a lot of time has passed and that you also experienced so much growth since publishing Of Light and Darkness. Many years have gone by; the publishing landscape is much different than it was in 2011. Can you go into a little bit about what has your writing and publishing journey been like for Of Blood and Magic? How has your process changed since then?
SL: I think that I am in a unique position with this because I am wearing both the author hat and the publishing hat. That has really helped me gain a perspective that I think I had lost because it has been such a long time since I have published a book. It is important for a publisher to be connected to and in touch with how things are running within the company and how that experience translates to the author. I think, for us on the publisher's side of the desk, it feels one way. We do market research, find things that seem to be working, create our formulas, and it is a very kind of black and white business. We definitely are emotionally invested, and that is a huge part of it. But the mechanics are very black and white. That can almost take you out of the emotional experience of writing a book, editing a book, everything that goes into it—your blood, sweat, and tears. And when you hit that release day, it is just a completely different experience as an author.
I think that indirectly there has been some criticism about small publishers putting out their own work. Not everybody agrees that it is okay. I tried to go into this with a very objective frame of mind that my book would not be treated any differently from our other authors. And I have to say 100% with sincerity that is true. I don't think OBAM got any special treatment whatsoever, which is good. That gives a really interesting perspective because now I can look at it from both sides. I can see where there are things that we could have done better as a publisher, and I can see where, as an author, I could have done things better myself.
Like I said before, in 2011, I was whimsically unaware. I was just floating through the process. It didn't have the same weight that it does now. When I queried and got that first acceptance, that was very exciting. And the editing process was so educational because I had never worked with an editor before. My editors from Decadent Publishing were phenomenal. I grew a lot from that process alone. Post-editing, I was just so thrilled to have it out there. I was just a kid! But now, I think I am just more analytical. I am more analytical about my process as a writer. For this book, I was overthinking every step of the process, which I think was good for me. I think it made me a stronger writer. I think that overthinking has helped me to be more realistic about my writing prowess and where things could be better.
MN: What I hear here is that your experience in the publishing industry has enabled you to see things from both perspectives, influencing how you approach things as an author. And your experience as an author changed how you approach publishing as well.
SL: Yes, absolutely. It allows me to see how the pieces all fall together. And there are a lot of pieces!
MN: You mentioned that the difference between your publishing journey in 2011 and now had impacted your writing. Your writing has changed in some ways from OLAD to OBAM, and I think that those changes have been reflective of maturation as a writer—
SL: I think just being an adult now also! (laugh)
MN: (laugh) Definitely! There is some truth to the adage with age comes wisdom. I must say, it has been delightful to see as I have been going along with your buddy read leading into your release. Were there things that you noticed or skills that you worked on to grow as a writer? How did you tackle becoming that more analytical writer?
SL: The simplest answer to that question is reading. You cannot be a writer if you are not a reader. You have to read, and you have to differentiate your portfolio. You have to broaden the scope of what you are reading. I have branched out from just YA or Fantasy and Paranormal novels. I have been reading more mature books and authors. I have been a fan of Anne Rice since I was 15, but I kept saying that to people when I had only read Interview with the Vampire. So, I gave myself that opportunity to read her other works, which are also so brilliant. I started reading Donna Tartt and Erin Morgenstern—all of those authors are not YA authors. So deviating from my starting point of Stephanie Meyers, not that there is anything wrong with Stephanie Meyers, has helped a lot.
Also, over the past several years, I have not been publishing any of my work. I have started projects and have worked on many great ideas. Some of them are sitting at 10 thousand, 20 thousand, even 60 thousand words. I have found that experimentation is essential. Through reading and writing, I have learned what I don't like, what resonates with me, what hits me emotionally, and what I think works.
A lot of authors are so focused on productivity and trying to complete these work in progress plot bunnies that they have, you know, things that they want to see turn into real novels. And they think that by experimenting or leaving things unfinished is a waste of time. I don't think that's true. I think the experimentation, that proverbial writing it down and balling it up and throwing it over your shoulder THING is totally necessary. Not every idea is meant to become a novel. I think that some of it just supposed to be stretching your muscles.
MN: Yes, you are absolutely right about that experimentation piece. With commercialization, over saturation of the book market, competing for attention and visual space on social media, it is a challenging prospect for an author to exist within that space and find a niche. There is that pressure always to be producing.
MN: So just that ability to write and explore ideas and putting them away, something that is not necessarily meant to be commodified or put into a workable piece right now, but that there is inherent value in the act of writing itself.
SL: Completely. I have colleagues in both traditional and independent markets that struggle with this. I also want to speak to the commodification and a saturation standpoint. As you said, people try to utilize the space as a cash cow. A perfect example of this is a TikTok that I saw recently that was how to make $100 per day by publishing a children's book. I was actually livid. Some people brought up valid points about how this can be really negative, and then the adverse side shouting about gatekeeping. But there is a valid conversation to be had about gatekeeping and what it means to hone a craft versus monopolizing space with projects geared toward making easy money. People do this in the romance market now as well because Romance is such a huge industry. People are putting out an erotic novel every month to take advantage of that cash flow.
To be clear, I am not mad about people being successful in these spaces, but I do get frustrated with this over-saturation.
MN: I think an important aspect here is that Romance and Children's literature are very formulaic. I do not mean to say this is a bad thing, just that there are set expectations that serve these genres very well. There are many examples of people that will approach Romance, for instance, with disdain, but will take advantage of the fact that there is a set formula. I love romance novels, and for many years—and it continues still—the genre was hammered with dismissive criticism, as a lot of women-centered literature is. So, it becomes a matter of not taking a genre seriously but approaching publishing as a form of manipulation as a mode of making money off of people's genuine interest. It takes a labor of love and reduces it to a capitalistic, money-making scheme.
SL: Exactly. This is part of the reason OBAM took six years to publish. I kept writing it, hating it, rewriting it, hating it. The characters were telling me that the story was not right. That is an accurate representation of my process. I have to ask myself, "Did it really happen this way?" If the answer is no, then I have to rewrite. Is this word choice or language used perfect? No? Then I have to rewrite. That kind of angst, that kind of emotional vigor, is a part of writing novels. People that take advantage of that really do frustrate me. I had to get on my soapbox about that for a minute. (Laugh)
MN: Soapboxes are allowed; we are here for your thoughts specifically! I want to shift focus slightly from the publishing industry piece and focus a little bit more on your books specifically. You have described your work as having a gothic ambiance and baroque aesthetic, but also have referenced the works of Guillermo del Toro—particularly Pan's Labyrinth—to convey this sense of pervasive dark whimsy. I would like to get into this a bit—how you incorporated this into your series—and get a perspective on what scenes or elements in OLAD and OBAM are your favorites. What things pop out to you as being emblematic of what you hope to achieve with your overall aesthetic and storytelling.
SL: I love that question. As a Libra, I am all about what something is supposed to look like! When I was writing OLAD, I was really concerned with how readers would perceive the aesthetic. It is not that I don't like it when it gets compared to a Time Burton movie, but that is definitely not what it is in my mind. I have gotten that from several people before, and I am always a bit taken aback. It is not quite as whimsically gothic. I do kind of worship del Toro. He has achieved exactly what I hope for in this story in Pan's Labyrinth and, to some extent, The Shape of Water. I wanted there to be about 70% realism—the heavy reality is very present in Pan's Labyrinth—and maybe 30% that whimsy. But it adds that hopefulness.
MN: Definitely. And it accentuates the realistic aspects by contrasting them with unreality.
SL: Completely. So that is what I am hoping for with this. I am not sure that I achieved that with this series because there is just so much fantasy in it. You've got elves, and you've got wizards, and you've got shapeshifters. There is the reader who reads it and assumes that this takes place in a different reality or is like a portal fantasy. And I wanted this to be more like Harry Potter; Harry Potter exists in our reality, but he goes to this location hidden from average human beings, but it is still a part of the world. So, it is very important that the aesthetic is believable because it exists in this reality, which is why I sort of cringe when someone makes the comparison to Time Burton.
Speaking to aesthetics outside of Pan's Labyrinth—this is really nerdy, by the way—there was a game on bigfish.com called Drawn: The Painted Tower. It was so beautiful and very similar in aesthetic to what I am drawn to. It is all jewel tones, all darkness, and it was very evocative. And so I pulled from that game as well. I pulled from Pan's Labyrinth; I pulled from Spirited Away. They have that lush aesthetic, and it is very evocative; it is almost lurid. On the face of it, Spirited Away is for kids, but when you explore the themes, it becomes apparent that it is very mature.
MN: Studio Ghibli, specifically Hayao Miyazaki, is a great example. A lot of Miyazaki's films deal with that specifically—blending the fantastical with the real. That is also inherent in much of Japanese culture and art, but as you said—our fantasy doesn't always have to be alternate realities or different worlds. Those elements can be utilized to explore and reveal our own world in an exciting and significant way.
SL: Yeah, this is one reason I never got on board with The Lord of the Rings. There is something about alternate reality fantasy that is frustrating to me because I think that the best fantasy is the fantasy that is the most believable. So, that's why, particular to my brand, I will always write that kind of fantasy. As far as my favorite scene, I think that the aesthetic of this series will kind of morph from that dark, jewel-tone lushness that I was talking about into something that is more baroque. My favorite scene that illustrates that is in OBAM is toward the end. The characters wind up in this basilica in the Bohemian countryside. It is a place that I have been myself, so it was easy for me to write because I was pulling from those memories. The murals are so intricate; the architecture is so intricate. They have tours that take you down into the catacombs of this basilica, and they tell you all of these stories. Some of the corpses are visible in glass cases—it was wild! And that is really what I want to continue with in book three. It is maybe even a bit darker.
MN: Well, that leads into my next question nicely because I wanted to touch upon the psychological aspect of your work. I think that there is a psychological piece, especially with that darkness that comes into your storytelling and how your characters interact with it. Did your aesthetic choices help direct that psychological element? Was it something you already wanted to explore and then utilized aesthetic to craft and explore real-world themes and questions?
SL: I think it is very obvious that Charlotte was a reflection of me when I was her age—18 or 19. When I was that age, I was going through a lot of dark shit. When you are faced with these real-life, heavy things, the world looks darker to you. It just does! Especially when you are remembering those things and transposing them later and into fiction where you don't have any boundaries, that is how it looks to you. And I think it is just natural, at least it is natural to me.
So yes, when I am consuming these other pieces of fiction or movies, I take strands and point to things—this feeling looked like that or this moment looked like that. It's all obviously a metaphor—even though this is very personal, some things really are just fiction! I don't want anyone to worry about me (laughs). But I think that it all is a metaphor for that feeling of trying to figure out how to get out of a really dark hole. I am surrounded by all of these things that are not familiar to me or that I feel powerless against, and how am I going to measure up against these things? What does that look like in a fantasy world? You paint that picture based on the tools you have as an author.
MN: You touched on powerlessness there. I just want to dive into that a little more because it seems that it was an important theme—power, in general, is a significant theme in these books. As part of the psychological element that we already mentioned, there were fascinating portrayals of power dynamics. For instance, there is a pretty clear inherent power dynamic between Charlotte and Valek. But in contrast, there is some exploration of how Charlotte subverts that dynamic. But there is a dynamic of powerlessness that is explored through all of your characters. Your protagonists all seem to be outsiders in their ways, and all of them are seeking inclusion. Indeed, there is a big found family dynamic happening within the story. I would just like you to speak on that a bit.
SL: In this genre, authors and readers lust for this idea of the power that they wish they had. You'll see a lot of main characters start as normal people that find these supernatural powers later. They were latent powers, and the characters didn't know that they had them their whole life. That is cool! We all like to imagine what our lives would be like if we were more powerful or more in control of things. I respect that, but that is not the direction that I wanted to go, particularly with Charlotte. Because, again, that wasn't something that I could believe. That wasn't something that was realistic. Charlotte is just Charlotte. She has to rely on her real-world traits—her wit, personality, her inner fire—because that is what we all have to do. I would rather look toward a character that figures out how to do that in a realistic way in an unrealistic setting. It is a lot more fun, and it is a lot scarier not to be able to contend with these magical things in a magical way.
And as far as the rest of the characters go, yes. Power means something different to everyone. With Francis, he appears to be very superficial, very about luxury—into appearances. His power lies with the material or the things that he has. But really, this is a reflection of his powerlessness in that he has no love—he can't be vulnerable. And that is really where he bases a lot of the importance in his life. Valek is very similar in that regard, but it also comes down to his basic survival.
This is why they all need each other so badly. They are all relatively powerless in their own ways. Though maybe this character has something magical that they can do, or something magical they can achieve, it doesn't necessarily mean that they can win the day. That is just not realistic. The real power lies with togetherness and finding each other. I have never felt as powerful as when I have a team surrounding me, as I do now.
MN: I love that concrete reality that everyone needs their team behind them and that you examine that in your work. As you explore the monstrous, everyone is haunted by their own monsters, whether they be internal or the literal monsters in the world that you have created.
MN: In fiction, we often use monsters to explore monstrous aspects of humanity or human nature, so they are literal representations of the figurative. Did you find that was something you were interested in doing with these books?
SL: I have always taken an interest in monstrous things and monsters. I just think they are so interesting because, as you said, they explore the things within us that are not perfect. Recently there has been a trend of romanticizing these monstrous characters, vampires specifically, as wish fulfillment. This person is perfect; they have all of this money, they are never going to get old, they are super strong and super fast, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. But again, this goes back to the fact that this is just not realistic to me. I like exploring characters that are really damaged. I like people who are really damaged because I think that they have a more interesting story to tell. That might sound weird, but it makes for more dynamic characters. The people in my life are all very real people with wonderful qualities, but they also have their cracks. In the past, you and I have spoken about filling in our cracks with gold [kintsugi]. That is something that I think about a lot. I think when I am writing these characters, I think about filling in those cracks with something fantastical and magical, and making life a little bit more whimsical, is just a lovely way to explore human nature.
MN: Were there any aspects of human nature that you wanted to focus on specifically? With the example of Charlotte, you mentioned it was an exploration of the darkness that you were experiencing at a specific time in your life. If this isn't true, that is also fine! I was just curious if these other characters explored other aspects of human nature as well.
SL: I had a lot of fun playing with the dynamic between Valek and Charlotte—power dynamics with age difference, navigating relationship dynamics. There is a lot of nuance in how we explore relationships in our own lives. Also, an exploration of cultural differences through the fact that Charlotte is a human and Valek is a vampire. How do these cultural differences in our world impact how we relate to people and form relationships?
To refer again to Francis, he is actually based on a friend of mine who has many the same struggles. My friend is completely aware of this for the record. Both Francis and this friend just want to find the right person. Instead, he wears this armor of what he has accomplished, or the talents that he has, or the material things that he is. That is the armor he goes into battle with. But at the end of the day, he just wants to find that real thing.
MN: And that desire is powerful; it becomes the thing that prevents him from opening himself up to that element.
MN: I think this brings us to the end of our time together. Thank you so much for joining me today, and doing this interview, and sharing these aspects of your book with me. I am so looking forward to more people engaging with and exploring this world that you have created. I wish you all of the best going forward.
SL: Thank you so much! I loved these questions and being here today.