Kat Howard on convoluted roads, writing in layers, and the cost of magic

Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, was one of NPR’s best books of 2014, and her debut novel, Roses and Rot was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians was named a best book of 2017 by NPR, and won a 2018 Alex Award. Her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, collects work that has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed as part of Selected Shorts, and anthologised in year’s best and best of volumes, as well as new pieces original to the collection. She was the writer for the first 18 issues of The Books of Magic, part of DC Comics’ Sandman Universe. The sequel to An Unkindness of Magicians, A Sleight of Shadows, was published in April 2023.

She can be found at her website, kathowardbooks.com, as well as on Twitter and Instagram.

Kat, you’re a fantasy writer from the United States. You live in Minnesota, I believe?

Yes, I live in the Saint Paul area of the Twin Cities.

Could you tell me a little about your background?

I never know quite where to start because I wasn’t one of those people who knew they wanted to be a writer of their entire life. I went through a couple of different careers on the way here. I have a law degree and taught law for a little bit, at the University of Minnesota, and then I went back and got a Ph.D. in English literature. I’m a medievalist or a late medieval- early early modernist, to phrase it in the most unappealing and awkward way possible.

 Basically my time period is Chaucer through Shakespeare. I loved that so much and I taught for a bit, and while I was finishing that, it was one of those things where, you know, your life changes in a lot of different ways and you think “maybe I’ll try this thing that I’ve sort of always wanted to try.”

I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always been interested in stories and storytelling. I just had this idea that if you were going to write professionally for publication, you had to be able to write perfectly from “Once upon a time” to  “And they all lived happily ever after”, and that your story came out in one beautiful, polished, maybe-needed-a-couple-of-commas-changed sort of draft. The revision process just did not exist in my head. It also did not exist that maybe you would need to start over – things like that. And so, because shock! I could not write a beautiful complete book in one sitting, I was like, “oh well, I guess I’m just not a writer”. I love working with literature. But I don’t know where I got that idea from!

Nobody came down from above and told me, “yes, this is how it happens”. It was just so built up in my head. I was a full-blown adult before I realized it was different. This was not a realization in childhood – this was an extended wrong idea.

But like I said, I had gotten to a point where I was making a lot of changes in my life, both for desired and not desired reasons. And there was a writing workshop, the Clarion Writers Workshop, which is a specialty workshop for people who want to write fantasy and science fiction. And some of the writers that I really loved were on the faculty that year, and I was just like, “Well, I have this one summer, I might be able to do this if I got in, I’m just gonna try it”. And so I applied and got in, and while I was there, I realized a lot of things, including how vigorous a revision process could be. I started to have an inkling of that before then, thankfully, but also that this was something that I really loved and that I might be able to be good at.

And so while I was finishing my academic work and finishing my dissertation, I also started writing seriously with an eye toward publication. And so that was sort of the very long and convoluted background as to, as to how I got to, to what I do now.

Ironically enough, now you’re a fantastic professional editor. So it seems that the lesson caught.

 A lot of it honestly was being in graduate school, for English and the start of the dissertation process and the research process and the realization of, you know, when what it took to actually write a solid academic paper and how different that was from, you know, the five page essays that we wrote in undergrad and stuff like that, where you could sort of get away with writing one draft, possibly at the very last minute – not that I ever did that! (laughs) – and still have things come out well. You know, realising that, even if you had a good idea before, that revision could also help you go having a good idea, to having a great idea, to having a polished idea and things like that. So just really understanding what that meant was a huge boost for me, both in terms of academic and research work, and then eventually into writing and editing.

We’ve all been there – I think everyone’s road is convoluted one way or another.

I think, honestly, that’s one of the great things about writing as a career, that there are so many different ways to get there. There are, of course, the people who knew from the very beginning and worked from the very beginning and that’s wonderful. But it’s a thing where you can come in as a second career or late in life. You don’t have to have a specific degree or a specific set of qualifications – just a love of it and an understanding of story and the ability to share that.

And it’s something that you can work through on your own and teach yourself and work through, on yourself, with yourself, to get better at. There’s so many ways in, and I think that’s really wonderful.

Absolutely. And of course your training as a medievalist and an early modernist has fed into your own work. In one of your books, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, which is a collection of short stories, you have a wonderful story, “Once, Future”, which is about King Arthur and Arthurian literature. I love it so much, and I can see your background seeping into that.

Oh,  that’s so pleasing to hear. Actually one of my favourite things that I’ve ever written was that novella. It was such a delight, because it was a way to bring that background in. But also one of the first stories that I ever fell in love with was the story of King Arthur. And there’s so many versions of it, there’s so many different pieces and it comes to us from so many different places and cultures and languages. This story that fascinates so many people from different places and times and across geographic areas –  I love it and I feel like it’s a story that I’m not done with too.

There’s bits and pieces of Arthuriana that are still very much in my head and I haven’t quite figured out how to tell the story that I want to write with them. It’s an ongoing love and fascination for me.

Which is very good news for us as readers! You have just published A Sleight of Shadows, a sequel to An Unkindness of Magicians, which are both fantasy novels set in a version of the present day where there is an elite class of magicians who are the status quo that the main character Sydney, is trying to demolish. A Sleight of Shadows has come out after five years, I believe?

Six years. It was a much longer gap in between than I had hoped it would be.

We are delighted to know more about Sydney’s story, obviously, but An Unkindness of Magicians was a relatively self-contained story in itself. What made you decide to write a sequel?

It really was reader response. An Unkindness of Magicians was written as a standalone. I did not in any time in the writing process of that book think that there was going to be a sequel. It was nothing that we had talked about, and I had gotten to the end of it. And I really loved Sydney. I loved writing her. She’s one of my favourite characters that I’ve ever written. And I felt very badly about how I left her at the end of An Unkindness of Magicians. So, even though there was no plan at that point to write anything else, I sort of cracked open a door a little bit to, you know, if I could ever go back to this story, this is how I would go back.

And when we started sending out early copies of the book to readers and reviewers, some of the responses that we got were things like “When is the sequel coming out?” “Is there going to be more to this story?” Including Adrienne Celt, who’s a terrific writer and someone whose work I really respect – she was one of those people who said, “You know, I would really love to read more of this story.” And her phrasing of it was finally one of the things that got stuck in my head – okay, maybe I could actually do this.

When I was talking with my editor about possible next books and next contracts and things like that, we had been talking about a different book and I just threw it in as an aside –  if I had a sequel, would you be interested in buying it? And yes, he was. In, he would rather have that be the next book. And so I thought, “oh okay, well you know, I guess I’m doing this”. And it was great because it was wonderful to have the sort of feeling that “there is more of this, people like this story, I can be back in this world with these characters.”

And there was also the, “oh no, I didn’t plan for this at all, what am I going to do?” (Laughs).

Because if I had been specifically imagining it as a duology from the beginning, I would have seeded things in the earlier volume that could have carried. For example, the Turning was very much an event with an end. It was meant to be closed off. So I had to figure out, okay, what do I start with, what’s going to happen now? And that was a little bit more complicated than I was expecting it to be.

Yes, you didn’t make things easy for yourself with that, did you?

No, I really didn’t! (Laughs)

Your worldbuilding is so wonderful, so complex and at the same time so vivid. You set the whole story in New York City – you have lived there, I imagine?

I actually have not. The closest I ever got to living there was when I lived out on Long Island, which is like a two-hour train ride away. It was close enough that I got into the city, and I visited New York City multiple times, and I love it. Every time I’ve been there, I love it and I find new things to love. And so basically I took that love and read a tonne of books on the history of New York City and the way the city was built and developed. 99% of that did not ever come close to making it in the book but I needed it in my head when I was writing. Then there were things like Google Maps and Internet pictures and figuring ways around things like that as research tools made it possible to make a vivid New York.

But the city itself kind of made it easy for me with the worldbuilding because It’s a fairly well-known city – it’s the kind of well-known where, even if you’ve never lived there, you’ve probably heard of it, you’ve probably seen it in film or on television, you’ve probably read about it. So it has this almost fictionalised character anyway, people are used to seeing it as a place in story, as a place where things could happen. So that was a resonance that was already in the book, and it was easy to build that. I feel like I didn’t do so much worldbuilding as just kind of pushing things aside and putting magic in what already existed.

The world in An Unkindness of Magicians and A Sleight of Shadows is – among other things – a metaphor for capitalism. There’s the haves and the have-nots. Because in your books magic comes at a price. There’s a scarcity of it, it’s a limited resource that requires pain and suffering, and there is an elite which thrives at the expense of certain people. How did you get there?

There were two things that came together and turned into the first book. One of which was finding a word. I’m a word nerd clearly, and so I get like all the Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day,  everything like that. One of the words that I came across was the word excantation, the opposite of an incantation – instead of beginning a spell, it’s the ending of a spell or a piece of magic. And I was like, “oh, that’s great, why have I never heard it?” It’s archaic, it’s fallen out of use, no one has it anymore. But I thought it was wonderful. And for most of the writing process of An Unkindness of Magicians, the draft was actually called Excantation, because I just loved that idea so much. So it was that.

But there was also marvellous book by Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn. If you like fantasy, you’ve probably at least heard of it, if not read it. There’s a bit in there where they’re talking about how magic works. The idea there is that if you want magic, real, true magic, you can’t just cut someone else’s liver out and expect it to work. You have to be prepared to cut out your own liver and for it not to grow back. And I was like, “Oh, oh, but what if you could?” So that came together in this because, the idea was, if it was possible, of course people would rather do that – cut someone else’s liver out rather than their own.

Unfortunately, most of would rather have someone else suffer than do our own suffering. I felt that if there was this society, if magic was possible, if people had this and they could figure out ways to pass on the less appealing parts of it, the more difficult consequences, of course they would try to do that. What would happen when they did?

Your book strikes me as being very intensely moral. You’re exploring essentially what is a very strong moral dilemma. There is something deeply wrong that is taken for granted in this society, and Sydney, your main character, is a seeker for justice. She wants to make things right. But the book is also about the cost involved in that, because it’s not easy and it’s not free.

In some of my graduate work I worked on medieval holy women and the stories of saints and visionaries – people like Joan of Arc, who was clearly a seeker for what she saw as justice and righteousness and who paid an enormous price for that. I grew up Catholic, I was raised Catholic. So the stories of the saints and things like that have always been very much a part of my life.

When you’re growing up, it sounds great to be a saint. You know, you’re one of God’s favourite people. Isn’t this wonderful? And after you’re dead, you can do magic, you can intercede on people’s behalf. That is so great! That’s a very simplistic way of looking at it, but it sort of is the little grade school idea of what saints and holiness are.

And then you get older and you realise that God deciding you’re one of his favourite people is really hard. You are going to have a hard, difficult life. Horrible things are going to happen to you. It’s not a good job to have.

So that’s the idea that you could be a very righteous person, a very justice-seeking person, and that would be a very difficult job. That would be hard, and there would be consequences for magic, there would be consequences for being that kind of chosen person. I think that in fantasy literature we play with the idea of the Chosen One all the time. We don’t often look at the more difficult side of being the Chosen One. What that can do to you. So I really wanted to look at that idea of what actually happens when you make that choice.

You’d already been exploring this theme in Roses and Rot, your first book, from a slightly different point. It’s also about personal sacrifice, personal cost, but related to art.  Do you see art in that way – as something requiring a personal sacrifice in that way?

Perhaps not as extreme as I depicted it there! Fiction involves a certain level of exaggeration, but I do think that when you choose one kind of life you’re often saying no to other kinds of lives. When you choose to focus on one thing, for example being an artist of any sort – a writer, a painter, a dancer, an actor, anything like that – you’re going to close things off in your life. You’re going to say,  instead of going out with my friends at night, I’m going to be in my studio working. You watch the people who really push themselves forward to achieve true levels of ability, talent, success, whatever we want to call it – they have to give up a lot.

Most of them when they talk about it, they understand that they’re happy, they would make that choice again. I’m not trying to say, “oh, this is so sad, it’s hard to be an artist” or anything like that. Speaking for myself, I love being able to write, I love this career. I’m also aware that because of the choices that I’ve made to have it, I have chosen not to do other things. I’ve made sacrifices. They’re ones that I would do again, they’re ones that I don’t regret, but they are sacrifices. And so just sort of pinpointing that down into a more extreme level of it for fiction was what turned into that book. Just playing with the idea that even if it’s something you love, it can also be difficult, it can also break your heart.

It’s the opportunity cost, which, as you say, you’re going to come across in life regardless of what you do. You choose one path, you give up all the other paths.

I think we get a narrative a lot of the time of being able to have it all. And it’s almost an offensive narrative to me, because you can’t make every choice. You can make a lot of choices – you can choose to be 50% of two things adding up to 100, you can choose to be 90% of one and 10% of the other, and that’s great if that’s the choice that you’re making. But you can’t choose to be 100% of one and 100% of the other because there isn’t enough of you to do that that, you know that math doesn’t add, you have to stop at 100. Again, even if there are good choices, even if there are the choices that make you happy, you can’t say yes to every choice. So the narrative that you can bothers me a lot.

It’s a very adult point of view, and fantasy is usually a genre that tends to be associated, unfortunately, with a sort of teenage mentality. It’s magic, you can do anything, you can do what you like, no limits! Whereas, as writers know, creativity always comes from constraints.

So – talking about your editing and your love of literature informing your work, you have a wonderful newsletter, Epigraph to Epilogue, in which you often talk about your reading and how it affects your writing. I was particularly struck particularly by the fact that you are very much a poetry lover.

I am, and I very, very much always have been. Like I said, I’m a word nerd in a number of ways, and for me poetry is this marvellous distillation of language, because have such tiny spaces to say so much in – what you just mentioned about creativity coming from limits. I love formal poetry, sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, that sort of thing in particular. Part of the reason that I love them is because you do have these very specific rules. Of course poets break them all the time and do alternate versions of these things – and they work because we know what the rules are to begin with.  You have these rules that are very formal, very prescribed and constrained, and you can say anything inside of them. There’s freedom within those rules and I just love that so much.

If I’m having difficulty in my writing, if I’m feeling stuck, one of the easiest ways for me to get back to filling up that creative well is to read poetry is to refresh myself in the flexibility in language and the way language can be used – shades and nuance and cleverness and just everything that that that we can do with words.

Your writing style, it seems to me, is very economical in the sense that you do a lot with with limited means, as good poetry does – you know, do the most with the least. Do you find poetry helps you to achieve this?

I do. I think it’s again because you have those layers of meaning and how much you can put into small spaces. I love a word or a phrase that can be read two different ways. Metaphor and descriptive language, imaginative language, all those sorts of things. It’s a tool that I go back to again and again.

I think working in comics also focused that tendency even more because I felt one of the best, one of the most important parts of my job was to clear out words from the page as much as possible, to let the visual elements of the story be as present as possible, and just get out of the way of the artist. So I learned how to focus down even more and just cut as much as you can. Which is very interesting to me to hear that out loud actually, because when I draft, my first drafts tend to be very, very skeletal. There’s just a very small amount of information on the page. And then I tend to write in layers. I’ll go back and put in the detail that wasn’t there before or make things more focused and more precise. So every pass is a layer of adding more information. Even though what I’m trying to do is also trying to maintain that “do more with less” kind of idea.

Of course – as you say, you have written comics based on Neil Gaiman’s work – the Books of Magic series – and you have also collaborated with Maria Dahvana Headley in The End of the Sentence. Presumably, when you work with other authors, there’s that sort of layering going on, only taking into the other person’s input and style into account?

That was pretty explicit when Maria I were writing The End of the Sentence. She started off, she wrote a chunk and then sent it to me and then I would write the next bit and get to the point of wherever I could get and then send it back to her. Usually at that point we’d start sending each other questions – like, I think this might be happening or I think this might be important, what do you think? Once we had a draft, we went back and each of us layered over – wrote not over the other person, but just made sure it meshed, made sure that you couldn’t tell one voice from the other. We didn’t want it to read like we were writing an alternating chapters or alternating scenes or anything like that. We wanted it to read like one voice in the book. So there was that going back over and polishing each other’s things.

Comics were a little bit different because again the visual component in that is so, so strong. It wasn’t so much a layering as it was figuring out how to tell. I worked with a terrific artist, Tom Fowler, who knew so much and was such a gift for me to work with in this series. I don’t see things very well in my head when I’m writing. He of course does. Even from the very beginning, there was an early scene that I had and he was like, “okay, well, we could do this, but also what if we pulled the perspective up?” We were able to get everything into one page – it was very, very effective, it worked out amazingly. Learning that was a lot of learning how to get out of my own way and learning the other person’s capabilities so that I could write my scripts and my story towards that: “Okay, let me give him something really cool to do.”

Has this visual education which you got found its way into your work, do you think?

I hope so! (Laughs) You know, there’s always those things that go around on the Internet where people say, “picture an apple”, and some people will picture almost a photographic image of an apple and basically there’s no image in my head. Which sounds weird because of course I know what an apple looks like, I’m not going to come up with the idea of an orange. But I just don’t see visually in my head the way some people do. So anything that helps me understand the way visuals or visual space works better is a useful thing for me that I hope I’m able to put into my writing more, because obviously that’s a key part of description.

I tend to lean on other things – I lean on sound, I lean on scent, I lean on emotion. For me, one of the best pieces of writing advice that I ever got was from an early instructor, Nalo Hopkinson, who talked about writing from the body. If you’re not sure what a character is doing or feeling, or if they want to hide their feelings from themselves because they’re a very closed off sort of character, but you want your reader to know what they’re feeling, talk about what they’re doing on the page, how does it feel to sit in their body in that scene. And I can do that. I don’t know what she looks like sitting at her desk, but I know that her shoulders feel tight, and her stomach feels upset, and there’s tension in her hands, and her handwriting is messy. That I can put on the page.

That’s wonderful. Could you tell me a little about your writing practice? How you get it done, more or less?

I work for myself and I’m freelance, so I’m pretty lucky that I’m not forced into specific hours a week. I don’t have a day of time of day that I prefer writing, although I usually need to let my brain warm up a little bit. I can’t write first thing in the morning.

Presumably some monster out there can?

(Laughs) Yeah, I don’t know them. I’m sure they’re very nice, but I don’t know them. I write everything by hand. I cannot draft on a screen. I write in a notebook, I always have, and when I edit, I print out my draft and then edit on paper again. For me there’s something almost terrifying about a blank screen, but a blank page is really friendly. I like to have different colours of ink and things like that – it helps me feel the mood or organise things or whatever I need.

As I said, I tend to be a really skeletal drafter, which is sometimes a fight with myself because I know I’m very good at revising because my day job is editing, working with other writers. I’m always aware as I write: “You’re gonna need to fix this”. Drafts are horrible for me, but once I get to revising, I’m fine.

I also tend to be somebody who needs to have pretty constant contact with the story that I’m working on.

I hate saying “write every day”, because that doesn’t work for everyone for any number of reasons.

Some people can’t because of jobs and life and things like that, and some people’s creativity just doesn’t work like that. But for me, I do much better if I’m able to do something. My minimum is writing three sentences. Because even on the worst, most busy day, I can almost always sit down and write three sentences and that’s enough to feel like, okay, I’ve touched the manuscript, it’s fresh in my head. On most days it turns into more work and becomes more significant than that. But I do much better if I am able to have constant small contact rather than writing in large chunks.

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