#SPFBO7 Interview – Val Neil

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

Dark Apprentice is the first book in the Fall of Magic series. Here’s the blurb:

A psychopathic wizard. An immortal mage. An epic battle of wills.

Nikolai doesn’t want much out of life: sex, immortality, and the power to disembowel anyone who crosses him. But with dark magic forbidden, his only option is Medea–a mage so deadly even the Enforcers give her a wide berth. Despite dire warnings that her apprentices don’t survive, Nikolai won’t stop until she agrees to train him. After all, he’s a killer himself.

Barbaric and brutal, the training is a far cry from what Nikolai expects. When a mysterious illness strikes Nikolai down, he suspects he’s found the secret to Medea’s longevity. He resolves to find out what happened to her previous apprentices. If he can locate the source of her power, he can turn it against her.

Medea swore off training dark wizards–none of them take the craft seriously and the ungrateful bastards always try to kill her. This one definitely seems the backstabbing type, but magic is dying out and she hasn’t felt such magical strength in centuries. If she can control the boy, show him that magic is more than curses and necromancy, he might obtain the power he desires. If not, well…

What’s one more dead apprentice?

If you enjoy dark fantasy with quirky, morally grey characters and humorous banter (but no romance), this is the book for you!

And now to the interview:

1. Is this your first time entering #SPFBO? Why did you decide to enter this book?
I’ve been watching the contest for a few years now, but this is the first time I’ve had my own book to enter. As a debut author, this is a really exciting milestone for me!

I’m curious to see how Dark Apprentice does, given the divisive nature of my protagonist. He’s written to be an accurate portrayal of a psychopath. People either love him/love to hate him, or straight up hate him. There’s no in-between. Probably not the best pick for a contest like this where so much depends on appealing to broader tastes, but I’ve gotten generally positive reviews regardless of how people feel about him, which I hope says something about the quality of my writing. At the very least it may start some decent conversations.

2. Why do you write in the fantasy genre? What make this genre particularly appealing to you?
I’m autistic, so the real world has always felt foreign and constricting. Social constructs are so arbitrary and bizarre. Anything is possible in fantasy, and that really appealed to me. When I was little, I latched onto characters like Peter Pan and insisted people call me by that name. The Last Unicorn and The Sword in the Stone were also big favorites of mine. When I got a little older it was old sword and sorcery movies with Harryhausen stop motion monsters.

I spent most of my childhood making up stories with fantastical elements. I actually looked forward to being put in time out because it was uninterrupted movie-in-my-head-time. In third grade, I started making my own picture books and I really enjoyed it, but I never saw writing as a viable career. Even at that age, I’d somehow internalized the idea of the starving artist. I had another false start in college before my latest foray, but there comes a point where you just can’t hold that stuff inside any longer, so I returned to writing fantasy. If you’re going to make up stories, why not make them larger than life?

3. Why did you decide to self-publish?
I looked into both traditional and self-pub and concluded there was really no benefit to going traditional. Yes, they have an advantage getting into brick-and-mortar stores, and they take care of editing and the cover, but in exchange they own your intellectual property. That’s no small thing. The royalties are terrible, and they don’t do much marketing for smaller or midlist authors. You can’t even market effectively on your own because they control the prices. Self-publishing isn’t without costs, but the benefits are potentially much greater, and you have more control over the outcome.

4. Are there advantages to self-publishing? What about the challenges?
Self-publishing gives you freedom. I don’t have to worry about fitting into a box and can afford to experiment. I can write the stories I want with the characters I want and not have to worry about gatekeepers. That’s especially important to me because I grew up not seeing myself represented.

The challenge is that you’re starting your own business, and there are costs associated with that. Editing will probably be your biggest expense. I don’t recommend skimping there, or on your cover. The workload is also greater. You have to be able to swap from creative to business mindset and back, and not everyone is capable of doing that.

5. As a reader, and now author, how has the fantasy genre changed over the last several years? How has it stayed the same?
It’s definitely gotten more diverse, but we still have such a long way to go. Some people will say they don’t care who the author is so long as the book is good, yet they’ll only choose books that have been spotlighted again and again, then complain that every book seems to have the same tired tropes like The Chosen One or Coming of Age. Diverse authors put a new spin on things because they’re coming from a different place. There’s a rich tapestry of human experience you’ll miss if you don’t specifically go looking for it.

Self-publishing has really opened the floodgates for authors who would otherwise be rejected by traditional publishing. It’s not without problems, though. Not everyone knows self-publishing is a thing, or how to go about it, or has the money for the initial costs. The good thing is that the community is very welcoming, and indie authors are good at lifting each other up—just look at SPFBO.

6. Do you write (or plan to write) in any other genres?
I’d like to do children’s books at some point, but they’ll probably be fantasy too. That said, I’m not the kind of person to restrict myself if a good idea hits.

7. What do you look for in a story? Especially in the fantasy genre? (Original ideas, plot lines, character development, world building, etc.?)
Voice and character are the best ways for a book to stand out right away. I want to be immersed in the story, or laugh, or be entertained. Plot obviously matters, but not when I’m choosing a book. I usually don’t read blurbs because I like going into a story completely blind. World building has to feel real, whether it’s secondary fantasy or primary. But character and a unique perspective are what does it for me. I like the oddballs and the neurodiverse.

8. Are you working on a new book? Can you share any details?
I’m working on Dark Mind, the sequel to Dark Apprentice. The series takes place in the real world, where magic exists but has been dying out. In Dark Mind, the characters are trying to figure out why. Their path takes them to a mental hospital where Magi have been imprisoned. This is in 1957, when care for the mentally ill was pretty abysmal and certain conditions were pathologized. I don’t write historical fiction, but I do try to get things as accurate as possible in my books. The research was so distressing that I had to take a break before I was able to write the sequence. That’s not to say that Dark Mind is bleak—most of it is light and humorous—but it definitely forces you to look darker elements of our not-so-distant past. That’s kind of my shtick—weaving history and science and larger philosophical questions into what is generally a fun ride between conflicting personalities.

9. Do you have any advice you would offer to writers who plan to self-publish in the fantasy genre?
The indie community is very welcoming and there is a wealth of information available—so much that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Focus on your book first. A lot of people have aspirations of writing a book, but many never finish. YOU MUST FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT. After that, find critique partners. You will learn so much—not just from their feedback, but from critiquing others.

You can find Val Neil’s book on Amazon! https://www.amazon.com/Dark-Apprentice-Fall-Magic-Book-ebook/dp/B08YDCNZN1