Your first stories came out in 2006—“Mirror Life” in Deep Magic and “King of Sand and Stormy Seas” in Shimmer. Your debut novel was Signal to Noise in 2015, with Solaris. Looking back on those first stories and that first book, has your writing changed in specific or important ways?
I moved from writing short stories to writing novels, so that was learning to work at a different length, and then I’ve always favored multi-point-of-view narratives in novels but ended up doing single point of views for Untamed Shore and Mexican Gothic. It’s learning to work in a different medium, like going from watercolors to oils.
You’ve done a lot of work on the editing/publishing side, going back as far as Innsmouth Magazine beginning in 2009 and anthologies beginning in 2011; and including guest editing People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror! in 2016 and co-editing The Dark. How do you like editing—what do you enjoy about it?
I enjoyed the talent finding portion of it. I think I have a good nose for sniffing talent and several people who first published with me (Daniel José Older, Suyi Davies Okungbowa, Premee Mohamed) have gone on to bigger and better things.
In your Authorlink interview last year you said that your new fantasy book, The Return of the Sorceress, came out of a “failed short story.” What wasn’t working in the original version?
I simply couldn’t sell it, that was the failure. Part of the problem was the length. There are few markets for longer fiction and this was sitting at a longer length (6,000 versus 3,000 words). I put it away and then dusted it up because I still liked the original idea of a revenge plot and nurtured it into its current form.
What are your favorite things about Yalxi and her nahual?
The banter. I like writing dialogue.
There are a lot of cool worldbuilding elements in this story. Did you do a lot of research for it, and if so, what were your favorite discoveries?
It’s a secondary world fantasy so I’m not replicating a culture. Nahual is a double term: it refers to creatures of Mexican folklore that are essentially shape-shifting warlocks and witches, and also to the Prehispanic concept of the animal double or guardian spirit. However, the way I deploy it, it doesn’t map neatly onto either definition. There is also a lot of talk about blood and sorcery. In Aztec and Maya mythology, blood is the engine of the universe and the function of humans is to offer their blood to the gods. There’s some of that in the magic the sorcerers use, but, again, there is no simple cut and paste of one culture into a fictional space. The city itself is inspired by Tenochtitlán, with all its canals, but in a pseudo post-conquest scenario where local and European cultures clashed but eventually came to a sort of peace.
What was the hardest or most challenging thing about writing this novella?
Keeping it from bloating. I think the best stories keep you wanting more and allow you to glimpse something beyond the margins.
In your Pen Ten interview, you talked about your 70/30 rule for Mexican Gothic, for pacing and suspense. The Return of the Sorceress is fairly trim and nicely paced, and your upcoming novel, Velvet Was the Night, is a thriller. Did you have similar strategies for pacing and tension for these books? Or did you take a different approach?
They are completely different things. This novella needs to get you from point A to point B briskly. Velvet was the Night is a noir, and I believe good noirs are about character. I like the definition by Nino Frank which says noirs are “essentially psychological narratives with the action—however violent or fast-paced—less significant than faces, gestures, words—than the truth of the characters.” There’s a lot more psychological work in Velvet Was the Night. It’s moody, it simmers, and it also has to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of the historical time period because it’s set in 1971 during a period of political turmoil in Mexico.
What is the heart of The Return of the Sorceress? What is important about this story for you, or what would you like readers to know, beyond the blurbs and reviews?
I really miss novellas and short novels. I feel like there’s not much of a market for them anymore, but I loved the Ace doubles and the trim little noirs. Of course, some noirs were very long, but you also had pithy little stories like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Anyway, I was trying to harken back to an era in which shorter works were more common. Also, I really loved Clark Ashton Smith and his Hyperborea and this was an attempt at doing something vaguely like that.
Gary K. Wolfe, in his Locus review, says this book “has the feel of an episode from a much longer fantasy epic” and he seems to hope for more. Publisher’s Weekly said, “Yalxi’s rage and ambition are sure to entrance any fantasy reader fond of antiheroines.” Do you plan to return to this world and these characters? Is anything in the works? Or is this strictly a one-off?
I haven’t gone back to any of my works, mostly because I get tired just thinking about it. But writing 20,000 words sounds a lot more doable than trying to type 100,000 words, so it’s much more likely that I’d attempt another novella in the same world than a novel. I guess it depends what I’m up to and if people like it.
Velvet Was the Night brings readers to the Mexican theater of the Cold War. Thinking on your recent books—Mexican Gothic, Untamed Shore, and Gods of Jade and Shadow —what are the things that people who loved those titles can look forward to getting into again? And are there things about this book that may surprise them?
My books are very different, and I think for someone who has only read one type of story from me it can be a bit shocking to see how much things can change from one book to the other. Velvet Was the Night is absolutely a noir set in a time and place most people don’t know about. This is the era when the Mexican government is torturing, killing, and beating activists. The CIA is assisting the government because they want to fight communists in Latin America. It’s a grim, dingy setting, full of conflict.
What is important about this book for you? What do you want readers to know?
Mexico is normally represented in the media as a land of narcos and nothing else. But it has a history and a complexity that are seldom touched upon in American media.
Can you tell us anything about your other upcoming novel, The Daughter of Dr. Moreau?
That should be out in 2022. It’s a novel set in 19th-century Yucatan and is loosely inspired by The Island of Dr. Moreau. It also marks my return to speculative fiction after two crime novels (Untamed Shore and Velvet Was the Night).
What else do you have coming up, or what are you working on that you’d like folks to know about?
This has been a weirdly productive year. Aside from The Return of the Sorceress, which will be out in a limited edition and as an e-book from Subterranean Press, I have Velvet Was the Night coming out in August. But Tor has also reissued two novels of mine that had gone out of print: The Beautiful Ones (a novel of manners that came out in April) and Certain Dark Things (a vampire novel out in September).
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