Author of the fantastic Heartsnare (reviewed here), author Steven B Williams dropped in for a chat to discuss fantasy, Yorkshire, magic and future plans.
Firstly – please tell us a little about yourself. Who is Steven B. Williams?
I’m a thirty year-old Bradford-born queer lad. I like tea and cats and books. When I’m not concocting dark fantasy stories I tend to be writing poetry or scripts. I also play the flute and draw a little. I’m a massive TV addict, and Orphan Black is my drug. Seriously, I think I’m thinking of suing Netflix. They’re ruining my life.
Heartsnare could be described as a Dark Urban Fantasy – it blends the mundane with the mystical in a fantastic fashion. What influenced you to write “Heartsnare”?
I’ve always loved supernatural horror and fantasy. During my early years I was obsessed with Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, as well as YA fiction like the Night World series, and more close to home the Hound of the Baskervilles. I also have a deep and abiding passion for anime. I often say Heartsnare is soap opera meets anime without the ridiculous boobs (sorry Hollyoaks). I’m talking of things like Mushishi and Full Metal Alchemist.
In terms of the mundane aspects to the book, people going about their jobs and day-to-day lives, that really comes from a desire to see people like me in fantastical fiction. It also posed an interesting question: How would people from the North deal with monsters and supernatural powers? Well, they’d probably start by putting the kettle on and having a good old natter about it. That really gave the book a kick-start and I built it from there.
The town of “Willingsley” is brought to life in fairly vivid fashion – I know it felt very, very familiar to me having grown up near a similar town full of straight-shooting gobby northern folk! Did you have anywhere in mind when you created it or was it an amalgam of places?
I grew up just within Bradford’s bounds (in a place called Oakenshaw) and now live a little further out in Wakefield. Willingsley is supposed to be a kind of amalgam of that Leeds/Bradford area where you have a strong contingent of younger educated working class, as well as older generations who still have coal dust and steel in their veins, and a strong immigrant community who add an abundance of riches in terms of language, food and culture. Yorkshire is a heady mix of different people and I really sought to capture that with Willingsley.
The main characters are refreshingly real – Eric, Tim, and Jhardine in particular. As normal people thrust into bizarre circumstances, it was very easy for me as a reader to relate to them and feel huge amounts of empathy towards them, and I think one aspect of this was that, visually, they’re all pretty regular people – not the bizarrely good looking folk that you often find in Fantasy stories. Was this something you thought a lot about?
As someone with big ears, horse teeth and no chin to speak of, I can honestly say I am not among the beautiful people. Very few people I know are. But there’s good looking and then there’s interesting looking, and I find the latter much more appealing. Beauty fades, but a craggy forehead only deepens. More seriously though, a main goal in writing Heartsnare was to avoid rose-tinting the place I grew up in and instead give something that is authentic to the reader. There are a lot of good looking folk in Yorkshire, but to fill the place with models would have been untruthful. It would also be frightfully dull.
The secondary characters in “Heartsnare” were a particular highlight for me – I always find it satisfying to read a book where secondary characters are built up enough that you can fully imagine them leaving the pages and going about their lives independently. Did you have any favourites out of these (jobcentre Dee was mine, I think!)
I also love Dee, and I will say that we’re definitely not done with her yet as she faced a terrible fate toward the end of the novel and that will have repercussions for her and for Eric through to the next book.
Jhardine’s work-colleague Tania is also a quiet favourite of mine. Everyone has one friend who is always eating something.
Sexuality plays a part in the book – Eric is gay, and his experiences of growing up gay in a Northern town really struck a chord with me – some aspects uncannily mirrored my experiences. His story, combined with that of his mother as a middle aged Woman still interested in sex (something that seems regularly forgotten about in the media) made for a refreshing change. Was this planned?
All of that was intensely deliberate. I didn’t want to write a coming out story for Eric because I rather liked the idea that his general demeanour simply announced the fact very early on in life and his mum Jhardine would have ensured that anyone who did have a problem with it was dealt with swiftly and with appropriate volume.You also see the characters making little jokes about Eric’s sexuality in a way that isn’t mean-spirited but is in fact showing affection–they all rib each other about lots of things, and this is a way of ensuring Eric’s queer identity isn’t a defining trait but it isn’t erased either.
Writing Jhardine as being a woman who remains sexually active into her mid-life was important for me, too. Often, and as you said, women in their 40s aren’t even seen on television and in books, and if they are it is usually as an accessory to younger people and family life. Jhardine’s relationship is about giving herself permission to be vulnerable when she has had to be strong for so long, particularly after Eric’s dad left them. I knew that, given the trajectory of Jhardine’s story she would need a community around her, so her being open sexually as well as emotionally was a key part of that. It is something that will continue to be explored in future books as well.
The system of powers in “Heartsnare” is a complex and fascinating one – there are clear limits and boundaries to powers, and various groups and factions are mentioned. Was this a complex thing to draw up?
Hi, my name’s Steve and I have a planning addiction. Seriously. The power system went through rigorous flowcharts and diagrams and extensive note making. I’d originally planned an entirely different system that involved the umbras or monsters in the book being used in a way where they would bond with a shadow heart and their powers would manifest through a form of possession. I went away from that by about draft four because I realised that the hearts as devices themselves were quite interesting, so I began mapping out all the different hearts that there might be and the powers they might exhibit. In terms of the levels of powers, I knew that there would be have to be some hearts that were more devastating than others, but as Marishka makes clear in the book a lot of times it is down to the bearer of the heart and if they have ingenuity enough to use their powers well.
I’m currently working on a little project to bring more information about the hearts and a few surprises with that too, but we’ll definitely explore the hearts in more detail in future books, and in particular the nature of Eric’s heart which may not be all that it seems.
It’s clear from the end of the book that there could be plenty more to come for the characters. How much do more do you have planned in “The Umbraverse” and how are you progressing with it?
Interestingly enough I drafted this book many times, and the first few attempts saw me trying to resolve most of the stories that begin in Heartsnare. I don’t know what I was thinking; that book would have been huge. So, I had to split it up, tidy it up, and give a sense of completion while leaving room for more. As such, I actually know what happens for the complete shape of Eric’s storyline and many of the characters in Heartsnare.
More immediately, I have the next book completely mapped out and well on its way. I will be writing a draft for NaNoWriMo in November and documenting the journey on my social media. People are welcome to follow along.
In terms of the broader Umbraverse, there’s still so much to explore. I have a series of other stories planned relating to the history of the shadow hearts and where they were first discovered, and I’ll be revealing more about that shortly. There will also be some side-stories about the ensemble cast, because Marishka in particular is too good to leave alone.
Lastly, the characters in “Heartsnare” felt very vivid to me – the descriptions in the book led me to easily imagine them in my minds eye. If there was ever an adaption of your work into film or TV, who would be your ideal casting for the lead characters?
As Eric has some of my own peculiarities I’m going to refrain from naming an actor for him. Maybe Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany–she can play all those clones, I don’t imagine this would be much of a stretch
Ruth Negga, I think, would make a wonderful Jhardine. She’s slightly too young for the book version of the character but I imagine she’d capture Jhardine’s warmth but steeliness marvelously on screen, so artistic license is hereby granted.
For Alistair, Luke Macfarlane of Brother’s and Sisters and, more recently, Killjoys. That’s horribly miscast, but I’d put Macfarlane in anything. [Insert joke here.]
Also, if Laverne Cox would like to come on board I would certainly love for her to play Marishka. She’s a powerhouse.
Many thanks to Steve for taking the time to drop in for a chat - Heartsnare is out now, and reviewed here: