#SPFBO7 Interview – A.K.M. Beach

Ash and Matt, welcome to Lavender Lass Books. Thank you for agreeing to this interview and best of luck in the competition!

Lady Vago’s Malediction is the first book in The Banshee’s Curse Duology Series. Here’s the blurb:

In the blackened heart of a cursed forest, a banshee haunts her crumbling castle with lethal screams.

Lady Vago is trapped in this place. She cannot fulfill her purpose as a banshee: to warn her loved ones of their deaths and watch over them while they pass. To solve the mystery of her imprisonment, she must sift through the rubble and ruin that surrounds her. By communing with old paintings, broken furniture, and even the stones themselves, she rediscovers who she was in life.

Before she was Lady Vago, she was Rovena Stoddard, a sharp-witted horse merchant’s daughter that caught the eye of a charming baron. Lord Kalsten Vago’s life as a wandering knight was over, but it inspired visions of a better life for his most vulnerable subjects. Rovena was far less afraid of bold change than his staunch and loyal steward, who saw her presence as a threat to Lord Kalsten’s success. Love and shared dreams alone wouldn’t overcome the controversy of the couple’s hasty and unequal union, as well as the trials of governing a fledgling barony—Rovena knew that. What she failed to recognize was the deeper darkness taking root in Vago lands and hearts…

Every memory of what Rovena loved is a reminder of what she lost, but she cannot let grief halt her search. Devoted spectres of ash are begging their lady for an end to their torment, and she will not let their agony–or her own–go unanswered anymore.

An intensely atmospheric and emotional story of corrupt magic and lost love, Lady Vago’s Malediction is a dark fantasy with gothic flair.

“Poignant, shocking and horrifying…Part love story and part gothic horror, the novel explores what happens when traditions are challenged, and the bloody consequences of a woman’s fight to build a fairer society. Despite its relatively short length, this is a rich story full of atmosphere and solid characterisation. Reminiscent of the works of such writers as Angela Carter, Frances Hardinge and Shirley Jackson, this is a rewarding novel.” – Jonathan Oliver, British Fantasy Award-winning editor and author of The Language of Beasts

And now to the interview:

1. Is this your first time entering #SPFBO? Why did you decide to enter this book?
ASH: Yep! Long time listener, first time caller. I’ve been following the contest as a reader since about 2016. Through it I find exciting new voices in under-served niches, and people who put a fresh spin on the more established stuff. But it’s so much more than a competition, too! It’s a way to meet other writers who are both doing what you’re doing and doing something completely different. You get to hear their insights, strategies, and struggles. It’s a great learning opportunity, and connecting with people who are navigating the same monster-filled ocean can be a godsend when the waters get rough.

Lady Vago’s Malediction in its final form did come as a bit of a surprise to both of us. No matter what kind of story we ended up telling together though, I wasn’t going to miss out on the chance to not only get us more potential exposure but also learn from the best and hopefully make new friends too.

MATT: Honestly, I knew of the contest but not much about it prior to this year. As it often happens in our marriage though, my wife made it sound like a good idea and was very excited about it, so here we are. 

2. Why do you write in the fantasy genre? What make this genre particularly appealing to you?
ASH: The genre was very formative to me, and rather than growing out of it as I get older I find myself plumbing deeper depths with it. C.S. Lewis and Gail Carson Levine were my earliest comforts growing up, and at the same time games like the Diablo franchise and Dark Age of Camelot were challenging me actively fill that heroic role in a relentlessly bleak and hostile world. Fantasy is like my Rivendell, a place to rest, reflect, and gather my strength for a long, battle-filled journey.   

MATT: I came to fantasy through video games and Dungeons and Dragons, and I mostly stay there through those mediums too. I started playing Master of Magic when I was 8, then watching Braveheart got me interested in the medieval period in general.  This sadly meant that I kept playing cavalry in Master of Magic for a while, which wasn’t the best unit in that game. Of course my tastes have broadened significantly beyond both now, but it’s still overwhelmingly fantasy in one form or another. I write fantasy because it’s what I know best.

3. Why did you decide to self-publish?
MATT: It was all supposed to be a big experiment for me. I left a well-paying job in sales management that was killing me in every way you could think of. I’d always found a lot of fulfillment in creating stories with my wife and our friends through tabletop games, and wanted to see if there was a wider audience for the plots and characters I spent so much time thinking about. Rather than spend potentially years waiting for an answer, self-publishing seemed like the “easiest”, fastest way to find out.

ASH: I had chased the agent and publishing house route with my first novel, but kept wondering if self-pub would be a better market for it. Once I accepted that that book wasn’t ready for prime time no matter which route I took, I offered to take a look at what he was working on. I’d always loved Matt’s stories, but somehow I didn’t expect to fall as hard as I did. It became a team effort from then on. 

4. Are there advantages to self-publishing? What about the challenges?
MATT: Authoring in general was never a career I pictured for myself until a couple of years ago. My business and tech management degree comes in handy when I need to think like a marketer, but in college they don’t teach you how to market books specifically, so…not as useful as I wanted it to be! I seriously don’t even know if I like being my own boss or not. And don’t get me started on my coworker. <glances at Ash>

ASH: <beaming> I love the DIY mindset, and I find anything and everything fascinating the more I learn about it. Even if selling to a publishing house was still my end goal, I’m really appreciating this chance to learn firsthand how every cog in the wheel works. Some days I do wish someone (a whole company of someones) would come along and make all the decisions so Matt and I could just focus on the writing, but there is a kind of wonderful, terrible power in having the control that a self-publisher does. It’s as pleasing as it is frustrating.  

5. As a reader, and now author, how has the fantasy genre changed over the last several years? How has it stayed the same? 
ASH: More than anything, I think modern fantasy is seeing a lot of much-needed challenges to certain conventions and implicit biases that got baked into the genre over time. It’s not that no one was ever questioning the rightness of colonialism, the “might makes right” mindset, or the patriarchy before now (to name just a few things). People from under-represented demographics have been doing the work on those fronts since the genre began. But slowly, as a wider array of voices are becoming more prominent, the whole readership is benefiting from these new worlds and perspectives and asking for more. We’re not there yet, but in what feels like the darkest timeline, SFF, fantasy  paints the brightest vision of the future for me. All the things I love about it are still there, too, and I love to watch them get further refined into more and sharper facets.

MATT: I definitely like the overall improved complexity of newer fantasy. Good and evil aren’t as clear-cut. The villains make more sense, and the heroes aren’t perfect. The themes in general are trending more mature, and not just in an R-rated way. Just meatier, more complicated takes in general. It’s good stuff.    

6. Do you write (or plan to write) in any other genres?
MATT: We’re fantasy writers for life, I think – or at least I am. We’ve got plans to develop stories in a few different subgenres, like sword and sorcery, political fantasy, epic quest-style fantasy, and even some fantasy romance.  

ASH: That’s the great thing about fantasy. Every other genre is packed in there too. Even gothic fantasy, our specialty, has a lot of room for different interpretations within that niche. There’s the domestic psychological horror route, the supernatural mystery, the high-octane monster hunt, and so on. We love it all.  

7. What do you look for in a story? Especially in the fantasy genre? (Original ideas, plot lines, character development, world building, etc.?) 
MATT: I’m all about the plot. Sometimes I do get attached to characters, and inventive worldbuilding is a nice touch, but I really want to see a compelling and cohesive narrative more than anything else. Bonus points if it goes in an unexpected direction, but the groundwork is so solid that the big reveal(s) makes perfect sense in retrospect.

ASH: Viiiiibes. I want a vivid atmosphere and compelling themes, where every character dilemma, scenery description, plot twist and worldbuilding element is working together toward the same goal: to get me to think about something. Not in a didactic way, but I love layers and chewing on big questions. And prose! All of my favorite writers have distinct prose styles, from dense and intricate to simple but very in-your-face insightful. The one thing they all have in common is they go for it and go hard.

MATT: I think these answers in particular show why we choose to work as a team.

ASH: So true! Our skillsets and obsessions complement each other really well.

8. Are you working on a new book? Can you share any details?
MATT: I’m close to done with what we call the “Matt Draft” of the second half of our duology, tentatively titled Lady Vago’s Absolution. There are a lot of notes in brackets. A looooot. Ash says she’s excited to see what I hand over to her, but we’ll see about that.

ASH: I’ve kept myself busy while Matt’s doing his thing by writing some side stories set in the same world. The first novella, The Haunting of Bardane Manor, will be available for purchase soon, but people can get it as a free sign-on bonus for our mailing list right now. It’s very Deed of Paksennarion meets Victorian ghost story, and I’ve got a couple more installments along the same lines in varying stages of development.

9. Do you have any advice you would offer to writers who plan to self-publish in the fantasy genre?
MATT: I think most people go into self-publishing knowing it’s going to be a lot of work, but unless you’re a multi-talented superstar and can actually do everything yourself, things have also evolved to be a lot more pay-to-play than it was 10 years, or even just 5 years ago. The production quality is better than ever, which is great for readers, but professional-level editing and cover art are both the most important and  the most expensive parts of the whole venture. Not knowing how viable this was going to be made me shy about putting a lot of money into it, and the uncertainty of COVID made our budget even tighter. This isn’t to discourage anyone from giving this business a shot! It’s just that the self-pub fantasy market is huge and you’ve got to pull out all the stops to get noticed. That means budgeting accordingly, and the overall price tag can be a shock if you aren’t prepared for it.

ASH: You see the advice to “write to market” a lot, and for the top-selling, super competitive genres, that’s definitely the way to go if making good money is Priority One. But even in those tiny, but hungry niches like ours, writing to market is so much more than knowing the tropes. There’s a lot to learn about the buying habits of your target audience, and where they tend to congregate. You have to understand and use the subtle clues in the cover artwork and blurb that make your story irresistible to the people who already love what you’re doing, if they only knew it existed. We’ve learned enough and earned enough that we’re now in the process of reworking our cover to be more in line with all of that. We hope both that and our time in SPFBO7 will help us reach more people.

You can find A.K.M. Beach’s book on Amazon! https://www.amazon.com/Lady-Vagos-Malediction-K-M-Beach-ebook/dp/B08GS694LW/