An Interview with Liselle Sambury: Author of Blood Like Magic

Picture of Author Liselle Sambury, she wears a white shirt with purple and orange floral designs, a black hat and carries dried flowers.

If you haven’t had the chance to read Blood Like Magic, by newcomer Liselle Sambury you are missing out. It’s got everything you need for a summer read: intrique, romance, family, science fiction and witches! Centered around the calling of Voya Thomas, Blood Like Magic is at turns thought provoking, funny and gut wrenching. Aprille’ had the opportunity to sit down with Ms. Sambury for a conversation about her inspiration and ideas for the book, her characters and their future. Read on below to learn more.

Aprille Morris-Butler: All right, so I love this book, I’m just going to go ahead and start right there. I am a big fan of fantasy. I’m a big fan of science fiction. I’m a big fan of black witches. It was all in this book, which was great, because it’s an overlooked part of fantasy, a black voice. So first of all, thanks for making a book like this. From that perspective, the first thing that I noticed was the content or trigger warnings. What made you think to do so? And did you receive any pushback about your choice to use them?

Liselle Sambury. There was a lot of discourse at the time about publishers not wanting them, and it’d be difficult to put them in. I was kind of like I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Then, Ashley Shuttleworth, who’s the author of A Dark and Hollow Star, said “I sent in my content warnings as an author’s note”. And I was like, oh, OK. So you’ve done it. Clearly, I can do that.

And I just messaged my editor and I said, hey, I would love to put content warnings in the book. Is that cool? She sent me an e-mail back and said, we can do it with an author’s note, send it over. No pushback of any kind, it was completely accepted. But yeah, it was really completely smooth. I had all this, like, buildup anxiety and it was not even an issue at all. My editor was completely on board, completely fine with that. So that was really a positive experience for me.

AMB: That’s so good. I hope more authors start to use them. Voya has become one of my favorite heroines really quickly, really easily, because her journey is super realistic. In YA books, the heroine starts off unsure but towards the midway point, she’s mastered everything. You know because she’s the chosen one, right? And boy, she doesn’t really fit into that mold. Her indecisiveness kind of sticks with her basically up until the last page of the book. So how was it for you to show that particular aspect of her?

LS. With Voya, the thing that I love most about her is that she is a strong female character in a different way. It’s not about her like knowing everything that she wants to do and like kicking down doors and taking names. She is extremely indecisive and cries constantly. She finds it very difficult to see the strength in herself that others can see a lot more readily. Even when people tell her. For example her cousin Alex says, “I think you’re kind of like the strongest person in this family. It’s a shame that no one in this family is able to make you feel that way.” That was something that was really important to me because I feel like there’s so many different types of strength.

There’s not only one way to be a strong woman character. It was also important to me that she struggled a lot because you might struggle for a very long time. Especially when I’m thinking of teen readers that are 18, it’s like. “OK, now decide what you want to do with the rest of your life.” It’s not that easy. To me, it was important that she continually grapple with that and change her mind. Figure different things out because it’s just kind of the human part of her character. Like she can’t just suddenly have everything click into place. She struggles for a long time. And that doesn’t change the fact that she’s a strong main character. It’s just she’s coming into that strength in a very different way.

AMB: Exactly. I liked the conversation around how Voya’s ancestors moved the ancestral home as a means to kind of escape slavery. How things were good, but not necessarily better especially because the story is set in Canada, Toronto specifically. I’m from Detroit. So right up the river. I know that a lot of times people, especially in the US, will see Canada as this utopia of sorts. With things coming out in terms of the indigenous schools and similar things. How important was it for you to show the micro aggressions that existed around the protagonist throughout her journey?

LS Yeah, I think it’s the thing, right? We’ve branded Canada in a very specific way. We are nice. We’re wholesome. We let you know, we saved enslaved people by letting them come over to our land. And we were helpful and everything was great. That was also how I was brought up in schools. When they talked about residential schools, they said they were like this great boarding school. Where they helped to teach them English and like things like that. During Black History Month, it was like this giant pat on the back of like. “Aren’t we so much better than the Americans?”

It was really when I was deep into things and learning, like Canada had chattel slavery for two hundred years. On the same boats that they were bringing over freed people. There were also enslavers coming over with people they had enslaved. They were existing together. And the black people that came over didn’t necessarily have great experiences. They did experience a lot of racism. And that still happens today.

You know, police violence exists in Toronto. It’s not only a US thing. We are not exempt. We’re not better. We are not nicer. And in fact, sometimes I find the racism here can be very insidious. You know, it’s a lot more micro aggressions than things that are overt. I’m happy with my country. I love my country. I also think it’s unfair to act like they’ve never done anything wrong. That everything is like hunky dory and perfect. So in this book, I wanted to show people that, sure, it was better, they were free here. But that didn’t mean it was good.

That didn’t mean that they suddenly everything was perfect. And for me, I think that’s important as a Canadian, because that’s. A history that is very concealed from us, at least when I grew up and went to school. Those sorts of things were very much shoved under the rug. They were not talked about. And I think that’s a problem. That’s something that people should know. That should be part of our history. There’s a lot of concealment in Canadian history, especially with, as you’re talking about. With the residential schools and the bodies that are being found. Like all of that is concealment and pretending like colonization wasn’t a thing here when it was the thing. So, yeah, that’s something that definitely in the book I wanted to talk about for sure.

AMB: I love it. Now for book specifics. A Thomas hasn’t failed their calling in one hundred years at the time of Voya’s calling. I’m sure that there were other indecisive witches in her family line before Voya. So why did you choose to be, for lack of a better word, her conduit? Why did why did she resonate so?

LS: I think Voya is one of those characters where other characters experience and see her strength so much farther than she does. Even when she’s a little girl and her dad leaves the family and puts this difficult decision on her of. “Hey, would you like to come with me or no.” She gets struck with that first hint of indecision because an adult has put a very difficult choice on a child. During that time, she still finds time to help her cousins, to support her family. She’s always been the sort of person that has worked so hard to help other people, but struggles so deeply with helping herself. And so it’s like everyone can see that strength that she has.

It’s just like you just need to figure out how to make this work for you. I think each of us sees that sort of kindred spirit in her. It’s difficult because Voya is also struggling with this ancestor who has this really terrible and fraught past. Trying to be like. “I’ve picked you for a reason, look at these similarities in our situation.” And how can you ever try and compare those or teach me something from those? And to me, I think that’s what makes you stand out. She clearly has this drive to help her community and help her family. Her struggle is in helping herself and understanding how to take care of your community by taking care of yourself.

AMB: Beautiful. There are lots of queer identified characters in the book. We have Luc, we have Alex, we have Keisha. Who are very firmly identified as queer in some way or another. Was there particular research that you did to make sure that you were faithful to what their experiences might be like. Even though they live in a different, more evolved time in terms of accepting different identities

LS: Yeah, absolutely, so it’s kind of a twofold thing, so in one way, a lot of it was listening to people in that community. Who are posting on social media platforms, who are writing articles. Who are talking about their experiences and what things are like for them. Listening to those and having those wrapped up in like an authentic experience. And then the second part, of course, was sensitivity readers. I had readers for all three of those characters to really cover my bases. Not just to make sure that I wasn’t promoting things that might be harmful. Sensitivity readers do this great thing in which they present opportunities.

They talk about places in which you could discuss something more, in which you could talk about this. This is a thing that would be relevant to me in this situation. And so you have an opportunity to discuss this more as well. Things like in the book, Alex and Luc have a discussion about misgendering with their IDs. And that was a question that came up. So how does how does this ID system work for them? So that was a discussion that happened. Then I also used my knowledge from the community. Listening to people to put in things like, OK, for Voya, her character is not going to insert herself in this conversation. They’re having their own conversation and she doesn’t need to hop in there.

She thinks about what if Luc is uncomfortable with this conversation and she doesn’t need to hop in because he can say if he’s not comfortable with the situation. That she knows that from him and his personality as well. Of course, those were also things that my readers were then able to read over and make note of as well. So it was definitely two-fold. Paying attention to what people in those communities are saying, but also getting the help of sensitivity readers, which can be so invaluable. Not just for pointing out things that are harmful. But for all those opportunities that you may miss from not being a part of that community.

AMB:  Sensitivity readers are often overlooked. I’m not sure how many people even know that that is a thing.  It’s good to acknowledge them for what they do. There were conversation in the book around pure and impure. For example, if you know your lineage versus if don’t know your lineage. If you are a black person who lives in the United States versus being a black person who lives in Africa. Sometimes inside of the community, there are these built-in divisions that exist.

Things you can’t really control. Was that something that played into the discussions that were had in the books? Especially because you see that the Thomases are willing to mix with some of the impure witches, but not all of them. They go to school, which is led by an impure witch but then they don’t want to associate with others from Lauren’s family especially. That was really sad for me because she was missing. Was there an inspiration for that in terms of like the Intra-community conversations that already exist for black people?

LS: I wasn’t thinking about any existing community discussions in that way, but I was thinking generally that there are divisions within the community sometimes. You can still kind of have this coming together for certain things and divisions in other ways. There’s a lot of nuance to that. It’s not as simple or as black and white as saying. “Oh, this person’s bad and this person’s good because there’s so much more gray area in that.” Especially the pure and impure debate.

To me, there’s also the historical component in that, you know, impurity came about because people were trying to protect themselves from white supremacist systems. They were trying to take care of each other. It’s not as easy as throwing them off and saying. “Well, you just shouldn’t do that anymore.” When it’s part of their history and it’s part of trauma and still being afraid, even if you’re living in a system which is doing better. I think there are certain definitely like parallels you can create in that as well. Even the discussions around the elections. I know there were older black people who were wary or like maybe didn’t want to vote Biden. People that were like, well, why wouldn’t you just do that? They’re working off a different personal history. That just felt natural in the story.

You have these two people that have these very opposing views. And sure, one seems very extreme, but they’re working off of their history and how things have been for them and they’re trying to protect themselves in a different way. And it’s not as simple as saying, you know, you have to adapt to the way we’re doing things. Also, Voya has this choice to decide how she wants to proceed in her life and how she wants to, even if she wants to be pure, how she wants to be pure. And to me, that seemed like an important discussion because I feel like there are so many instances in which you can kind of within a community say, well, this is just like, terrible. There’s usually a reasoning behind why people are doing that. It’s a harder, complicated process to take that out of the community.

AMB: All right. Thank you. So the main antagonist is pretty prominent in society and has a prominent attachment to Voya’s family, which we discover as the book unfolds. I’m not going to name the antagonist, because people who read this interview might not know what the book is about going in. This person brought up a lot of feelings for me because they did do good things, taking in certain characters and helping them to achieve things that maybe they would not have had access to based on where they came from for example. A lot of it was motivated by greed and grief. So was there a model for them or did you just start writing and the character kind of blossomed that way?

LS. When I think of my antagonists, I do really try and think of someone who is multilayered. Who even if you’re like I really disagree with what you’re doing, you can kind of understand how they got there. I like an antagonist, really, because it creates difficulty. It makes it difficult for the character to kind of. Write them off wholesale or to just be morally OK with and I guess I’ll kill you. There’s absolutely nothing upsetting about that for me because you’re so terrible. I really like to create an antagonist where the protagonist has to grapple with how they’re going to be defeating them. In the case of Voya, it’s not like she particularly cares for this antagonist. But there is someone in her life who cares very much for them.

That’s what makes it difficult for her and it makes it difficult for that character too and creates a lot of conflict between them because of that. That’s an antagonist that I really enjoy,  someone who it’s not as simple as just defeating them because they have this wide bubble and all these different things that they affect. And in the case of this antagonist, it’s true. Like you said, they are doing things that are kind of good, but then maybe they’re not great. They have this morality in a lot of what they’re doing, even though what they’re doing.   in the grand scheme of it, a lot of it is positive and good and helpful. That’s definitely what I was thinking of that section. How that character is connected to Voya’s past and her family came out in a later draft.

Essentially, I just like I always try to mold an antagonist that’s going to be multidimensional. that’s going to feel great in some ways. That can be doing a lot of good even while they’re doing a lot of harm. I really don’t like antagonists that you can just be like, yeah, I can’t wait till kill them because then it’s so easy. Right. I think that’s it makes me think of like the Disney villain where they, like, kick them off a cliff and they die and all the children cheer. I prefer an antagonist that the children are kind of like, oh, even if they don’t feel bad for them, they feel bad for the character that was so attached to them. And that was definitely what I was working for, working toward.

AMB:  In line with that, the ending was shocking, but in a good way because there were blows coming from every direction for Voya. She spent most of her life not making the hard decisions and trying to  toe the line. This one night, she has to make all the decisions and the results of her decisions hurt three of the most important people in her life. For one of those people the damage is irreparable. Then the other two relationships, there could still be the potential for repair maybe in the future at some point. You chose not to write the traditional happily ever after where everything works out, the antagonist is defeated and the protagonist gets everything you want. Why? Why did you want to leave us with the feeling of longing or incompletion?

LS. One big reason is I knew I had the sequel (laugh). So you can do a lot in the first book when, you know, you have the sequel coming to go forward with things that you kind of left a certain way. So that definitely helped. Also, that’s to anyone who thought it was a standalone do not fear! But also things were really adjusted over time. There was a point where I had an ending that was different and my agent said this kind of feels easy. Like one character I really, really let off the hook. And she was like, this scene was really easy. Like things work out super easily in this case. So I made a decision. I made things much more difficult for that character.

 While I was making things difficult for that character, I thought of another character. Maybe things should be harder for you also. And so things ended up being more difficult all around. For me, it’s not even I don’t even know if it’s necessarily realism. It feels like those things were natural progressions for those characters, given everything that was going on. And to me, it’s kind of a culmination of consequences of not only Voya’s choices, but everyone’s choices. The choices that all of those characters towards the end have made. Except for one character, who didn’t really do anything bad.

But the other two had made certain choices as well leading up to that moment. Even if, you know, the intention was good. And so it felt like kind of a natural progression in that case. In some cases, it’s sequel set up. I was already working on the sequel and working on plotting everything and planning everything out.

There are certain things that need to happen at that point. Story structure wise, I do find that the break between the two books tends to be kind of a dip for the character. I know it’s so hard to talk about the ending. In some ways, it’s kind of grim. To me, this ending made the most sense for her and her struggles with decision making. All of her choices haven’t really gone the way that she wanted and there might be some that she’s regretting, she’s learned to make them and that matters. That says something larger about,even if your decisions don’t turn out the way that you wanted them to. You sat down,  you decided and you made the best choice that you could in the circumstances. And the sequel is essentially going forward from there.

AMB: Which is a good segue into my next question. A big part of Voya’s journey is getting rid of or learning to move past her indecisiveness. We see later on that when she does start to make decisions, part of the problem with her indecisiveness might also have been rooted in a lack of trust. There are a few places where if she had simply trusted in the people around her. The whole scope of the situation would have been just completely different. How much of Voya’s indecisiveness is related to lack of trust. How does that tie into creating self-fulfilling prophecies?

LS It definitely is. That first moment of being struck with this indecision is her dad saying. “Do you want to come live with me as I leave your mom or do you want to stay with your mom, the rest of your family?” There is also a line in the book where she talks about how that shattered her vision of him because she trusted him. This is her father who loved her. Then suddenly he puts this very difficult decision on her at a young age. It started this, you know, current trend of not knowing what to do in those situations. I think that also comes out as she is doing this task and learning more about her family. There were a lot of family members that she trusted very implicitly.

Then things come out and she realizes. “Oh, sometimes the adults lie to us and they hide things. They talk to me one way, but they’re saying another thing behind my back. “She loses a lot of trust that way. It’s also on their part as well,they don’t have trust in her. They make certain decisions based on that as well. It’s a fracturing of a family system that she thought was strong and perfect. It’s been fracturing for a while. She’s kind of just coming to notice what happened to this community connection I used to have. 

It does make it very difficult for her to trust in the people around her who previously she trusted the most. Especially because she’s always kind of lived her life for her family and only for her family and done very little for herself. It becomes really difficult for her on top of that decision to deal with. “How am I supposed to trust these people? How can I tell them these things when these are the ways that they’ve reacted in the past?”

I feel like it’s kind of difficult to say. How she goes forward is very much a combination of her and her family. Even though this task is for her, there are also some ways in which it’s very much for her family as well. If there are certain family members who can affect it, even though they’re not supposed to, that also becomes tied up in everything. So to me, the final consequences of the book. Part of it is for Voya, but there’s also a big part of it that’s also her family. How they reacted to this situation and that sort of breach of trust between all of them in these circumstances. That’s how I think about Voya’s trajectory in that book and her trajectory going forward as well.

AMB:  This book is really about familial love. Voya’s big journey is working through what it means to experience her calling. What it means to find her place in her family. Then obviously there are other pieces that attach to this being a family centric book that we’re not talking about for spoiler related reasons. What was it like and how important was it for you to create this, family centric focus? A matriarchal family centered focus?

LS:  I always had a strong family focus going into this book. When I sat down to write this book, it was about a family of black witches first and foremost. I grew up in a blended household with a lot of family members. That was an important part of my childhood and my adulthood. Having that connection to all those family members so writing it like that was always the core of the story. The rest of it is the thing with the first love, but that’s a part of it. And even that is incorporated into her family and family structure. That’s just how I was raised. Family was so paramount that it was really natural for me to write it that way. In their family, the dynamics of having all these different people with different goals and motivations interacting with each other, I love that. 

Then that ancestral connection was something that I wrote in without thinking too much about it. It became so important to me and became really the thrust of even me looking into my own personal family history and trying to learn more about where I came from. Because it’s true. It’s that connection thing. A lot of us don’t have connections to our ancestors, don’t have records, don’t have things to look back on. We don’t have those things because of colonialism and enslavement. Those sorts of things are really taken from us. I really liked imagining characters in a family who did have that connection and what that would be like. There are so many moments that Voya talks about being so happy to have this connection to our ancestors and to know things about them. 

 What could be the complicated nature of people from your past having influence over your future and your present? What it would be like to have those interactions and that sort of communication? In my mind, just because you have the ability to communicate with your ancestors doesn’t mean it’s going to go smoothly. I love the relationship between Mama Jova and Voya, who are technically the same age but had very different experiences. Having an ancestor with all that wisdom, trying to share that with you and how that would go over and how difficult that would be. Voya really struggles with understanding how her life in the present, in the near future can ever relate to what her ancestor has gone through in the past.

 And how could she? She was flabbergasted. She’s like, why would you pick me? Why would you think that anything that I’m going through is anywhere near what you have experienced in your life? Why would you think that I can do all these things? I love exploring that. If I had a connection to my ancestors they would want the best for me. They would simply communicate in the vein of how they were raised. How things were communicated to them. Mama Jova and even Granny have a very specific way that they’re communicating and trying to teach things to Voya.

 To them, they’re being extremely kind, they’re like, I’m giving you everything, why don’t you get this? I’m making this so simple for you. It’s very much not a good experience for Voya. And that’s its own sort of disconnect even in that connection. And I see that coming out in other black authors where, you know, Tracy Deonn with Legendborn and J. Elle with Wings of Ebony and I see that same connection of ancestors in us. That’s such a strong theme within the black community, especially for us that do not have those connections to wonder at what that would be like. It ended up becoming so important to me in the book. I was really happy to be able to express that in the novel.

AMB:  Last question, I do have more questions, but these are questions that can’t necessarily be asked at this moment. After the sequel, we can have another conversation and I can ask the questions I couldn’t ask for this. The last question to wrap it all up is what can you tell us, if anything, about Voya’s journey moving forward? What, if anything, can you share in terms of tidbits or teasers? What we can expect from her story moving forward and then even the story of the other people that she impacted with her decisions?

LS. In the sequel, there is a big theme of Voya now grappling with the consequences of the decisions she’s made. Struggling with Tthe outcome of them. If she’s happy with that or not. She’s learned to make decisions. There’s a teeter totter balance for her to go through in the second book. With what to do going forward with this new decisiveness. At the end of book one, her role in the family has shifted very dramatically. So there is a lot of the fallout of that. There’s a lot of the difficulty of her grappling with this new role and also the losses of her choices in the past. It’s a difficult time. I’m so mean to her in the first book! I wish I could go, “Oh, things are alright for her,” but she continues to have a very difficult time

Now she has more responsibilities that she’s trying to juggle. But I  think there are high moments for her and for the other characters to work with, too. Another thing in the sequel that I’m excited about is this expansion of Voya’s community. We’ve really only explored the Thomas’ and the Davis’, two of the five major Black Watch families. In this book, we’re getting to see all five of those families. How they converge. Voya is now juggling that larger community that she really wanted. We’ll see how that’s working out for her. Luc will also have his own challenges that he’s working through. I’m really excited. Some characters that were not as explored as much in the first book have larger roles in the second one, which I’m excited about. I think that it’s a very satisfying series conclusion. 

AMB:  It sounds very exciting and I can’t wait to get my hands on it when it releases. It was so great talking to you. Thank you for making the time. I really appreciate it.

If you haven’t already, please check out our review of Blood Like Magic.

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