An Interview with Alicia Wanstall-Burke

Last Updated on July 9, 2024

G’day Grimmies! I’m here today with one of my favorite Aussies—Alicia Wanstall-Burke.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with Alicia’s work—it’s ok.  She is still fairly new to the scene; however, she has been stirring more than a little buzz with her book Blood of Heirs which is a current SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog Off) finalist. Book two (which until recently I thought was called Legacy of Goats, I kid, I kid—oops, did it again. OK, I’m done) Legacy of Ghosts was just recently released and has been well reviewed.

[TS] Alicia, thanks for stopping by!

[AWB] Hey mate! No worries!

[TS] First off, congrats on making the finals of the SPFBO.  I think the last few years the Aussie women have been really making their mark on the fantasy scene.  I’ve been a big fan of Lian Hearn (Across the Nightingale Floor) since like forever, but I’ve enjoyed watching the likes of you, Sam Hawke, and Devin Madson lighting up the scene.

Do you think that living in the unique environment that Australia offers lends itself to the kind of thinking necessary to write darker fantasy, and why or why not?

[AWB] Short answer—yes, absolutely! Australia is inherently terrifying, even to people who live there. We also get a bit of a kick out of scaring the pants off our foreign friends, but that’s how you know we love you! I’d say the worst thing about the place is the isolation. No one can hear you scream out there. Then there’s the landscape, the animals, the weather—all completely uncontrollable and untamable. They almost become a character of their own in the narrative of home. The other thing is, there isn’t a great deal of fantasy in the mainstream (that I know of) that uses Australia as the foundation for its worldbuilding, so it tends to stand out as strange and otherworldly, which again can be scary in and of itself. I haven’t even mentioned the spider and the drop bears and the snakes yet…

[TS] As you recently moved to the UK, I have to ask:  How does the writing scene differ from Australia to England? And what is the craziest thing that you have encountered that you are having trouble wrapping your head around?

[AWB] Writers in Australia are horribly isolated 90% of the time, which is probably a good thing. Large concentrations of Australian writers tend to cause damage to the fabric of space-time. I lived in Central Queensland, in a town about two hours drive from the nearest coast, 12 hours drive from the nearest capital city, and that’s not even that isolated compared to where some people live. What it means is that we hang out with other Aussie authors on social media, then end up meeting in, I don’t know, Dublin at a WorldCon (hey, Sam and Devin!). Industry contacts tend to be based in the US and the UK too, and for self-publishers there are all sorts of bullshit restrictions within Amazon that we have to navigate.

As for completely mental things in the UK, I’ve almost mastered driving here (these people are deadly behind the wheel), but the fucking seagulls here are HUGE! And vicious! I’ve met sharks that are more polite than these pale, hook-beaked Pteranodons.

[TS] What would you say is the most influential fantasy book written in the last 10 years, and why?

[AWB] Depends if you’re looking at global impact or just within our little genre pocket. I’m going to go with a cliché and say that A Song of Ice and Fire is my pick, but let me try and explain. The books are one thing (some of them falling outside the ten-year time frame), but the show was something else entirely. Say what you will about the creative choices made there and the long release periods between books, but the series as a whole took our genre and shoved it all the way down the mainstream’s throat.

For the longest time, I could only describe my books as being ‘like’ The Lord of the Rings—it was the only fantasy most people I knew could relate to and it wasn’t a very accurate comparison. Every now and then I would meet someone who had read an author I knew, but in my world that was rare. Meeting someone who read for fun was rare! But now we’ve got fantasy and sci-fi stepping out of the dungeon and into the light; comic book heroes, dragon riding queens and sword-wielding witchers are now part and parcel of the everyday. I could go to work and talk about the latest ep of The Expanse or Altered Carbon. Ten or twenty years ago, that just wasn’t a thing, and for me, the real ground swell began when Game of Thrones broke down the door, and that meant SFF books became something a wider audience was interested in.

[TS] Everyone has different reasons for writing, and the writers’ goals vary just as much. What writing goals have you set for yourself?

[AWB] I’d like to get this trilogy done and dusted by the end of 2020! I’m really excited about the projects I have lined up after that, starting with The Smuggler’s Daughter. I love stepping out and doing something I haven’t tried before, but I have to finish one project before I can start another! My brain will collapse into a steaming pile of goop otherwise.

[TS] In Blood of Heirs, you have established some pretty young protagonists—12 year old Lidan and mid-teens Ran. Was your intent all along to write a coming of age type of story or did it just work out that way?

Do you feel that the use of child-age characters taps into the reader’s own perceived vulnerabilities? 

[AWB] I knew this was going to be a story about young people who are on one path only to find themselves crashing down to another, but the question was where to start telling it. I could have kicked off where Legacy of Ghosts starts, but I would have spent half the book in backstory, explaining things that happened four years before, and that wasn’t what I wanted to do. So, we ended up with Blood of Heirs telling the story from the beginning, with two reasonably young characters in some rather adult situations.

I’ve had people tell me Lidan and Ran seem too old for their numerical age, but I could easily point to examples of young protagonists in more well-known books who seem older than their age. Expectations and ideas of childhood have changed vastly in the past century or so, and what a medieval teenager would have dealt with is vastly different to what we expect of teens now. The very concept of the ‘teenager’ didn’t even come into existence until the first half of the 20th century—before that you were a child, then you were an adult, and history is littered with examples of young people doing extraordinary things. Fantasy straddles this divide between what was and what is, and we need to accept that this will make us question what we are comfortable with, especially for those of us with kids ourselves!

[TS] In Blood of Heirs, you use separate storylines for the two main characters and maintain separation between the two for pretty much the whole story. How do you feel that adds to the story, and do you think it takes anything away from it, whether intentionally or unintentionally?

[AWB] Ah see this is tricky, because it shows where my planning went in the bin and the story took over! The ending of Blood of Heirs was supposed to be its halfway point, but the story needed more time. So, I set fire to the plan (mostly) and I let it be what it needed to be. Some people have baulked at the parallel POV story lines, but it gives the characters time to grow before they are drawn together by time and circumstances in Legacy of Ghosts.

[TS] What direction do you see the fantasy scene going to in the near future? Which way would you like to see it go?

[AWB] I’m really enjoying the move away from Euro-centric, northern hemisphere settings and the growth of character diversity. I grew up reading stories where female characters were either non-existent, a love interest holding a male character back from his destiny, or a seductress the male hero had to escape. Female-centered fantasy was usually overly romantic, which I lost interest in during my twenties. Now I get to read fantasy with a diverse array of genders, backgrounds, relationships and cultures in the cast, and this is a good thing!

I’m also loving the changes in the way traditional and indie publishing interact. Not so long ago, self-publishing meant you had signed your own professional death warrant. You were never going to be taken seriously, and your book would be forever consigned to the swamp reserved for vanity publications. These days readers, agents and publishers are paying attention to the indie scene more and more, accepting that indie titles aren’t merely the ‘leftovers’, but a place where some real gems lay hidden. If we can keep this up, continuing to bring the two sides of the industry together, then I think publishing has an exciting future!

[TS] What is your opinion on the grimdark sub-genre, and do you see the growing of a grimdark sub-genre as a positive or negative for fantasy as a whole?

[AWB] I love it! I know it’s not everyone’s bag, and it’s not easily defined, but that’s ok. And it frustrates some people that it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what grimdark is. One person’s grim and dark might be vanilla ice cream to someone else, and it’s about the same with horror. I can get creeped out watching an episode of Doctor Who, while my friends will happily sit through hours of horror movies or books. On the flipside I’ve seen reviews for grimdark books that warn off people who may have a delicate constitution, while I’m left wondering if we’re reading the same thing! At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you ‘get’ what grimdark is or not. If you like it, read it. If you don’t, go find your jam. We don’t need to understand something or have defined boundaries on it to enjoy it.

[TS] Have you written a character that you would consider the most like you as a person?  Also, if you lived in that world what do you think you would be doing there?

[AWB] Each of my characters has a part of me in them—sometimes the parts I dislike the most, and other times parts of me I wish were stronger or more present. Lidan’s mother comes from a very dark part of my soul, a place of desperation and rage. Lidan and Ran’s anxieties and insecurities are born of my own, but they also show resilience and strength in ways I wish I could. For one thing, both of their bodies work properly! Mine is in need of a full refit, a new hardware install and the software is getting well out of date.

[TS] What can we expect in the future from you?

[AWB] I mentioned before that after the release of Empire of Shadows I’ll be working on the first book of Salt and Stone, The Smuggler’s Daughter, and I’m really looking forward to where that story will go. It’s anyone’s guess when pirates, spies, single mums, war-mongering empresses, and criminal kingpins are at each other’s throats for control of the Syod Archipelago and the future of the Free Nations of Coraidin.

[TS] Alicia, thanks so much for taking the time to talk!

[AWB] Thanks for having me around and letting me ramble!

Check out GdM’s review of Blood of Heirs here.

Read Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke

Buy this book on Amazon

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Tom Smith

Tom Smith

Tom has been with Grimdark Magazine almost from day one. He's responsible for all of the awesome interviews you see in GdM's pages. Outside of the SFF scene, Tom is a mad keen UFC watcher and trainee.

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