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Author interview: Cat Hellisen

Cat Hellisen is no stranger to this blog. They are known for their haunting, atmospheric fantasy novels, including Charm, When the Sea is Rising RedHouse of Sand and Secrets, and Beastkeeper.

Their latest novel, Thief Mage, Beggar Mage, comes out on 13 September. We caught up with them about the book, their writing journey and advice for new writers.

Please tell us a bit about Thief Mage, Beggar Mage?

Thief Mage, Beggar Mage is my big, lush novel about a priest-mage, cursed by his gods to retrieve the Stolen Eyes of Nanak, or slowly lose the use of his legs. He has suffered for over a decade, changing his identity and living in pain as he tried to get closer to the man who has them — the tyrant ruler known as the White Prince. Finally, unable to take more, he decides to hire a southern sorcerer to hide him from his gods, only to discover afterwards that he has lost his soul in the process. To retrieve his souls and his magic, he teams up with a mercurial thief-prince, and becomes involved in a plot to destroy the White Prince. It’s a story about identity, the strangeness of love, and the cost of sacrifice. Also features scheming dragons, spectral dogs, clockwork beasts, and names of power.

What inspired this book?

When I was a child I was obsessed with the Hans Christian Andersen story, The Tinderbox, with its three dogs with their eyes as big as saucers and plates and wagon wheels. I like using fairy tales as story seeds and grafting them with my own weird brain vines until I end up with a thing that is recognisably mine, but has the heart of a far older story. So yes, if you squint, you can see the motifs from The Tinderbox — a soldier down on his luck, a magical treasure, a ‘tinderbox’, a rise and fall from grace, three magical dogs, a princess who dreams of the soldier…but twisted and reshaped to be something completely Other.

What type of story are you generally drawn to? Do you have authors you’d recommend who capture that special something?

I love books that weave between a dreamlike reality and a nightmarish otherworld (and the other way around), and have beautiful writing. You can throw in tropes and cliches as much as you like as long as you do interesting things with them, and my favourite writers will always give me something beguiling and surprising. Writers guaranteed to hit the spot for me are Clive Barker, Ursula le Guin, and Tanith Lee. For more recent examples, I’d recommend Yoon Ha Lee, especially their SF Ninefox Gambit, Lorraine Wilson’s speculative novel This is Our Undoing, Neil Williamson’s fantastical The Moon King, and Carole Johnstone’s eerie Mirrorland. For fantasy, look at work by Sofia Samatar, Cathrynne Valente, and Katherine Addison.

What are some themes you love to explore in your writing?

I’m always subtly or unsubtly exploring the human body and how we present ourselves to the world vs how the world sees us. I’m interested in a more trans-inclusionary view of humanity, whether that’s genderfluid or form-fluid. I’ll often have characters who don’t ‘fit’ that standard of human form. I love stories about stories, and how telling stories is the core of our humanity. In Thief Mage, Beggar Mage, I’d say the main themes are about acceptance (both of the self and the other), and the willingness to let yourself get hurt for the things you want.

Any advice you’d give your younger author self?

Calm down? Breathe? 😀 I mean, there’s always so much to learn and I think I was just ramming ahead like a bulldozer when I should have taken more time to build delicate, careful stories. Also, that there’s nothing wrong or evil about being proud of your work, (as long as you’re willing to keep growing and developing) and it’s actually okay to blow your own horn sometimes. And to accept praise at face value and not assume there must be an ulterior motive.

What do you find the most challenging part of finishing writing a book?

Climaxes. They bore me in other stories, and I get bored writing them, and naturally, they are one of my weakest spots. I’ve become better at fleshing them out, but they’re still a trial. I find I enjoy revising more than writing, because it’s easier having something to work with, but I can also get sick of reading my own words over and over, so sometimes long breaks are necessary while I go write something new and leave the old work to compost.

You’re also an artist, are there any lessons from art you find you apply to writing?

First drafts and under-sketches are shitty and that’s okay. You make them better with every layer/revision. Never compare your initial sketch or first draft with one of your finished works, because that way lies despair.

Do you have anything else in the works at the moment that we can look forward to?

My agent has my secondary world fantasy novel about a guy who accidentally summons and binds a demonic monster to himself in a bizarre magical marriage, and the ensuing sibling rivalry and magical war that it sparks. It’s my Big Nonbinary Love Story, and I’m just waiting on their editorial notes before I get stuck into revisions. Meanwhile, I’m revising an old, very weird novel about being dead and kidnapping a living human Muse. I’d really like to do some art panels for it, which is a big step for me, because illustrating my own work is a scary prospect!

Anything else you’d like to discuss?

If I have any advice for other writers, especially new ones, it’s that you should go out, meet other writers, make friends, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun while you write, because this is not a get-rich-quick scheme, so you shouldn’t allow the industry to break you.

Extract from Thief Mage, Beggar Mage

A healthy man could live a lunar cycle and another half, without food. Tet was not a healthy man. He was a man with a leg that was twisted; naked in a freezing room, wretched of earth.

The guards came for him once every three to four days. It was the only way he had of counting. If Tet’s calculations were right, then he had been there almost a full cycle. Seven times he’d been blinded by the lights, and for a moment glimpsed the entirety of despair. Seven times he’d been handed a page on which to write down his name. Seven times he’d wished that he could. The White Prince had not put him in a cage to die or set him to fight one of his toymaker’s beasts. Seven times Tet had wished he would.

Tet’s death stared him in the face, its white teeth dripping. Hazily, he wondered if he would still be able to call the dragon-ghosts down for himself with no voice. With no soul. They could eat his remains and leave the White Prince an annoying puzzle.

His hearing had grown better alone in the pit. From far away came the soft thud of feet. Only one guard this time. His steps were light, snowfalls on snow. Maybe he came to slit Tet’s throat and rid the prince of an annoying and embarrassing failure. He could only hope so.

The lock clicked, though Tet had heard no tell-tale jangle of keys. The bolts slid back, the rust catching rust, making its familiar gritty whine, and the door slowly opened, but there was no comforting glow of the guard’s grease-lamp.

It was dark as ever, and for a moment Tet wondered if he had gone completely blind. If worms had swallowed his eyes in this endless night.

‘Ohtet Maynim.’ A young man’s voice, husky-soft as a dove’s. ‘You will stand, and you will follow me, and you will make no sound. You may trust me; I am in the service of a mutual friend.’ He leaned forward and with a whispered word, the knots of Tet’s gag untied themselves.

Tet’s heart thudded as he spat out the revolting mush of hemp. His bound hands were freed as the man whispered softly. Ymat Shoom. It can only be – he’s sent his pet thief mage to rescue me. No. No, my contact was a youth, and this is a man, his shadow taller, voice deeper. Tet had to be mistaken. He was ill with hunger, with torture, and he was only dreaming that his rescuer was using magic to slip Tet’s bonds.

It was more likely that if Ymat Shoom sent anyone, it was an Underpalace assassin to kill Tet, or if he was lucky, to cut out his tongue before the prince could. After all, what good was Tet to Ymat now – a mage without magic? He crawled to his feet, using the freezing walls to help him stand. A wave of dizziness battered him, leaving him weaker, even more pathetic. He swallowed and swallowed, his tongue shrivelled and rotten in a mouth that felt suddenly cavernous. Tet’s teeth felt loose and rancid. ‘Kill me now,’ he managed, choked the words out like chewed leaves. ‘Get it over with.’

‘I’m not here to kill you, old man,’ his rescuer said. Old man, gently mocking. ‘But I will be paid only when you are free, so hold your rancid tongue and follow. Here.’ He shoved something towards Tet, and the mage smelled musky ox wool. He fumbled until his broken, aching fingers closed on a heavy length of material. A few moments and Tet had covered himself in what felt like a traveller’s long cloak. The relief from the cold was enough to make his heart fill. Such simple happiness.

Tet’s legs were weak from sitting, from pain, from infection, from lack of food, and although it seemed all he’d done these past weeks was cry or sleep, he’d never felt so weary. The chance of freedom spurred Tet to follow, clinging to the walls for balance, his rescuer’s whispers in the dark leading a path away from his incarceration.

They left behind Tet’s pit, his stone coffin, his dreams of death, and Tet staggered through a web of underground tunnels so vast that he was certain by the end of it they would come out in the mountains of the gods, where the three spires stood wreathed in perpetual storm, the statues of the Dogs looming over them.

When they were far from the wide passages of the castle and deep into the subterranean network of sneak’s tunnels the man seemed to know better than the map of his own hand, Tet ventured to speak again. ‘Who are you?’

‘A friend,’ the man said and laughed. ‘A paid friend.’

‘The best kind.’

They stopped, and the man handed Tet a leather skin of water, clean and cold as mountain springs, and Tet drank deeply. A distant rushing rumble made him think of waterfalls in the mountains, and the sound worsened his thirst. After Tet handed the water-leather back, slivers of dried and salted meat were pressed into his hands and it took all his strength of will to not just swallow them down and beg for more. Tet chewed slowly, forcing himself to squeeze the meat to mush, to grind and grind every last swallow of flavour from the dried meat. His teeth were loose, the gums soft and swollen with putrefaction. Tet pushed the lump of meat into the hollow of his cheek and sucked at it like a child.

The rescuer offered no more. ‘Dozha,’ he said.

Tet choked on the lump, coughed. ‘Your pardon.’

The man chuckled softly. ‘My name. The greatest name in all of Pal-em-Rasha.’

‘Ah.’ Tet swallowed, his stomach a tight ball of pain. ‘Can’t say I have heard it.’

‘And that’s why it is great.’

The man was an excellent thief to know the ways in and out of the White Prince’s palace as if it were nothing more to him than taking a stroll in the public gardens. Even Tet, with all his map-knowledge, gleaned from years of study, did not know a quarter of the under-tunnels, and certainly none that would lead him straight to the Pistil dungeons. And if his rescuer was not a master thief, then he was a petty thief with the right knowledge. It didn’t matter. Let the man believe in his own grandeur. What business is it of mine? ‘Ymat Shoom sent you?’

‘The fat man with his fingers in all the millet bowls, yes.’

If Ymat Shoom wanted Tet dead, he would have paid for a knife in the dark, not for this. Tet hoped. ‘I guess I will owe him,’ he said softly.

‘Your soul and more, I would say.’

Visit Thief Mage, Beggar Mage on Goodreads.



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