An Interview with Salinee Goldenberg

Salinee Goldenberg has countless merits to her name: author, artist, video producer, editor and mother of two fabulously judgmental cats (scroll down to see!). In this interview, we got to discuss her debut dark fantasy The Last Phi Hunter, Thai and South East Asian folklore, and how her multiple professions bleed into one another to create her engrossing grimdark debut. For the full review of The Last Phi Hunter, click here.

The Last Phi Hunter[GdM] Please tell us about your book in a sentence or two.

[SG] The Last Phi Hunter is a mythic dark fantasy inspired by Thai culture and folklore, where Ex, an ambitious young Phi hunter is on his way to slay a legendary demon when he meets Arinya, a pregnant runaway, who hires him for escort through the spirit-filled forest. But she has dangerous secrets, and now he’s fighting not only monsters, but assassins, necromancers and even worse, falling in love.

[GdM] Your book is written in multiple perspectives, namely flitting between Ex the Hunter and Narissa the demon krasue. How did it feel writing characters on opposite ends of the spectrum and switching back and forth – from hunter to hunted?

[SG] Narissa took me by surprise, she popped into my head fully formed and I ran with it. I thought it would be cool to see things from a phi’s perspective, someone who should be the polar opposite of a guy like Ex. But as the story unfolded, I noticed how similar they were. Their self-image is in conflict with how the rest of society wants to categorize them. Both are striving to achieve something everyone else thinks is unlikely, if not impossible. I think they learn a lot from one another. Being able to emphasize with someone you are conditioned to believe is your enemy is an important step in learning to think for yourself.

[GdM] I read online that you’re an artist! It’s insanely cool that you indulge in two forms of art: traditional and writing.  Do you think your experience as an artist has at all shaped your experience as an author? Are there factors that are similar?

[SG] Being an artist has definitely shaped me as a writer, and a human in general. When I sit down to make traditional art like painting or drawing, it becomes a meditative process. I really enjoy getting lost in what I find, making a mess and being unable to CTRL-Z my way out of it. I like seeing the remnants of my mistakes and coming up with solutions, and I think there’s a certain attribute to the tangible that gets lost once it goes digital, or has only existed digitally. Maybe it’s some weird energy manifestation on a quantum level, but it’s something I feel more connected to.

It bleeds into the way I write on a practical level—I write a lot of my first drafts by hand before typing them. I feel freer on paper and it’s easier for me to explore and diverge and not worry so much about the end result. Sure, I try to outline beats like a Responsible Writer, but more often than not it ends up going off the rails. On the other hand, I’m also a video producer and editor, so I’m seeing a lot of the action and setpieces in a cinematic light. It’s useful in revision, where I’ll cut and dice mercilessly. You need to do a lot of revision when you’re a recovering discovery writer prone to relapse.

[GdM] Ex has a great bond with his animal companions. As a cat mum myself, I have to ask if you have any pets and if having a pet made it easier to write companionship between Ex and the Hound, Ramble etc?

[SG] Growing up, I always wanted a dog but my mom said they were “too smelly.” She has a thing about smells, she will let you know if you stink. But I’ve known and loved many dogs, and I wanted to make sure the Hound was his own person, with a history and persona befitting of a magnificent beast and all around guddest boi.

I think I’ve ridden three horses my entire life, but a veterinarian friend told me they had strong personalities, so I made sure they had their own opinions of Ex. Even though Ex sees them as equals, never calling them “his” horses but “the” horses, I imagine Ramble has his own pet names for the heavy human making him carry all his crap and bossing him around.

As a cat lord myself, I know it’s entirely possible your animal friend thinks you’re an idiot. Just look at the way Tzarina Bigface and Yung Lilface are staring at me right now. So full of judgment…

[GdM] Your demons are inspired/originate from Thai mythology, so I wonder if you found inspiration for your protagonist in any Thai folklore too? Were there any particular heroes that you fashioned Ex after? What was the process of building Ex as your protagonist?

[SG] I always let my characters tell me who they are. I’ll frame them up, get an image in my head and sense of their voice, then let their personalities grow from there. I didn’t consciously fashion Ex after another hero, but he does have a playfulness about him which brings to mind Hanuman from the Ramakien (Thai version of the Ramayana.) The khon masks from that traditional play is also what the Phi Hunters masks are inspired by.

I knew he’d be ultracompetent in his trade, so the goal was to give him enough weaknesses and insecurities to make him relatable, rather than superhuman despite all his powers. He also has a very rigid belief system to start with, and is mostly uncynical. His naivety is one of my favorite things about him. I think the moment it clicked for me is in one of the first chapters, when he’s bragging about being a hunter and ends up getting punched in the face. As a proud young man, he desperately wants to fight back, but is resigned to get his ass beat due to his vows as a hunter and respect for his Order. Part of his story is to examine those beliefs—respecting authority because subservience will keep you safe, when that’s not often the case, no matter how justified you might be.

[GdM] Your book has been described as ‘The Witcher meets Princess Mononoke’. When reading it, the Phi reminded me of the ‘cursed spirits’ from Jujutsu Kaisen. Would you say any other fictional work inspired your world, characters, settings etc?

[SG] I haven’t seen that particular one, but the anime vibes did come to mind, especially in the magic system, the action, and vibrancy of the setting, as well as some of the lighthearted bits. I think a big reason I wrote this was because I haven’t seen anything like it yet, specifically Southeast Asian folklore monster-hunters. Southeast Asia is underrepresented in speculative fiction in general, we see a lot more from East and South Asia, and some people I talk to couldn’t point to SEA on a map.

When I discovered Rebecca Roanhoarse’s work, it finally clicked that if I wanted to see it, I’d have to write it. As for the setting, it mostly came from Ayuttuya-era Siam and the early Rattanakosin period, along with my understanding and experience of Thai culture, filtered through the lens of a farang.

[GdM] The characters in your book are brilliant and so multifaceted, but my favourite had to be The Hound! Who was your favourite character to write and why?

[SG] I enjoyed all of them, but Ex was so natural and fun, I really felt like I was riding shotgun on his journey, laughing maniacally while devising ways to make his life as difficult as possible. I wrote the first draft of this novel in two months, and a lot of that had to do with having a clear sense of the main character and his goals.

[GdM] Amongst the several types of Phi you wrote about, which kind was your favourite, and which one freaks you out the most? (The Pret made me both incredibly sad and super creeped out)

[SG] The krasue is the clear winner! Come on, a disembodied woman’s head that floats through the night, entrails dangling below, while her daytime body sleeps in an underground nest? The legend goes that people used to line their fences with sharpened sticks in order to deter the krasue from eating them in their sleep, as her exposed organs would get tangled in the traps.

The creepiest for me wasn’t actually one of the phi, but the kumon thong; which means “golden boy.” Nowadays it’s a cute little idol you can buy in the store, but back in the day it was a necromantic charm created from an unborn fetus, roasted ceremoniously in a cemetery and lacquered in gold. Pretty metal, if you ask me.

[GdM] Are you able to let us know if you are working on anything else? Can we expect more from this universe?

[SG] I’m always working on several projects in various stages, in different genres, but all in the realm of speculative fiction. I hope I’ll be able to announce something official soon! As for the Last Phi Hunter universe, I wrote it as a standalone, but I do have one more story to tell. We’ll see if that shakes out.

If anyone is interested in the BTS aspect of a struggling writer, I started a patreon at the end of 2018, when I quit my day job and went off on this mad quest to get something published. (Unsurprisingly, part of that quest was having to go back to a day job.) I talk very openly about my process and what I’m working on. Updates are sporadic, but hey, you get a sticker and a button.

[GdM] Finally, what are you reading/enjoying at the moment?

[SG] Of all the books I read last year, Chain Gang All-Stars really blew my mind—I loved that satirical, high concept, scathing take down of the prison industrial complex. I read the entire Expanse series by James SA Corey over the holidays and it’s still living rent free in my head. I then binge re-watched the whole TV series, still recovering from that. Right now I’m reading The Free People’s Village by Sim Kern, which is igniting some severe nostalgia for my punk house days. As for non-books, one of my former colleagues from Bethesda Softworks, Nate Purkeypile, went indie and let me playtest his upcoming game, the Axis Unseen. It’s a heavy metal horror survival game where you hunt creepy monsters, reminds me a little bit of Sons of the Forest. Fun fact, our mutual buddy Ilya Nazarov illustrated the cover art for the game, right before he did the cover for The Last Phi Hunter. Synchronicity.

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Saberin C

Saberin C

Saberin lives in London and works in publishing. More often than not, you can find her with her nose in a fantasy book or doing whatever it takes to get her cats attention! You can find her on @sabisreading on instagram, where she posts all about her current reads, reviews, fictional fixations and general ramblings on life (with the occasional picture of Kiara, the meanest cat to ever exist).