This year, I’m doing a new series: Fantasy Focus. Each month will have a week-long focus on a different fantasy subgenre- fantasy is as varied as its creators’ imaginations! If you’ve missed them, there have been fantasy focuses on comedic fantasy and romantic fantasy. This month, I’m taking a walk on the grittier, darker side of fantasy- grimdark!
Today I’m excited to be joined by Krystle Matar, author of the grimdark triumph, Legacy of the Brightwash!
Will you talk a little bit about your work?
Legacy of the Brightwash is romantic grimdark; it straddles the line between both worlds. The society the characters exist in is bleak and difficult (to say the least) but through bonds of love and family, they are able to stand against the oppression they face in their society. I’m not sure I set out with the intention to mash those two genres together, but maybe that’s just me. Dark, and struggling—but with a deep well of love for my family and community that sees me through it all. I suppose it was inevitable that those things would bleed into my writing.
What were some obstacles to writing Legacy of the Brightwash?
Life in general was definitely a big obstacle! We are a family of 6 and life is very busy; we also moved out into the country in the midst of my revisions, and our way of life shifted dramatically.
I’m still not entirely sure how we pulled it off, but here we are, and I’ve got this shiny new writing career on top of it!
Other than that, I think a big obstacle was deciding how much of myself I wanted to commit to the story. It’s scary, bearing your soul to a broad audience. It’s vulnerable and it’s counter-intuitive. But ultimately, I had to decide what I wanted to write about if indeed I made this into a career… and it turns out that I can’t write anything except my own honesty. I think I made the right choices.
What were some victories?
Community was the biggest victory. I stumbled into the indie community by accident, and my life has been forever enriched by the amazing, generous, supportive, kind-hearted people I’ve met. I can only imagine how many more fantastic people I’ll encounter on my journey, and I love this community with my whole heart and soul. Beyond that, Brightwash is a victory in and of itself; I’ve never written anything so bold, so big, so totally and utterly me. I used to pull a lot of punches when I was writing because I thought that’s how you got to sell and that’s how you got taken seriously, but I was so wrong. It turns out that you can throw down your whole, messy, complex self and people will engage with you and your story much deeper.
Legacy of the Brightwash is seen as grimdark. Would you agree with the classification and why?
You know, when I was getting ready to market Brightwash, I thought to myself “It isn’t that dark, is it?” I thought for sure the grimdark crowd would be disappointed. Earlier drafts were much darker before I added the core theme of love, and I thought I was straying too far away from what they like to see.
Fortunately, I have some wonderful friends in the grimdark genre, and through reading their work and conversing with them, I learned that grimdark is more of a spectrum than a hard line. The tone is bleakness and violence, sure, but the expressions of that tone can be varied from story to story in absolutely stunning ways. So, if a bleak society and setting is what it takes to be grimdark, I’m there for sure. Energy units, ya know? (If you don’t know, I won’t spoil it, but trust me.)
There are many misconceptions about grimdark out there, (I’ve heard the term “torture porn”, which irritates me to no end). Can you talk about what grimdark is?
Grimdark is a conversation with the fantasy genre, I think. Grimdark acknowledges that we as humans are deeply imperfect. Grimdark forces people to consider the weight of all those heroic battles. Grimdark builds a world where none of the choices are good and asks the reader how on earth they would choose if they were in the same situation. Grimdark examines lines that people shouldn’t cross, and then forces their characters across it, because none of us are impervious to temptation and mistakes.
Grimdark, paradoxically, is also a genre that is stubbornly hopeful. If victory is assured, if the hero is truly good and right and virtuous, was anything really risked? Was anything really in doubt, was their stand ever all that brave? That’s not to say that ALL of fantasy is about perfect shining heroes; it’s not, and I know it, and I’m not slinging shade at those hears. I don’t know… but I find, personally, I can’t relate to heroes who always make the right choices. That’s how I ended up here in grimdark, I think. Tashué has fucked up, and he knows it. And together with the people he loves most in the world, he can try to do something about it.
Which brings me to my next point; if the hero is deeply flawed, and the act of standing shreds their lives to pieces, if they are pushed so hard that they almost break… or they do break and they continue on in spite of it, it feels like they’ve truly, deeply overcome something. Grimdark can be about standing for something even if there’s no hope. About slogging through the shit that the world dumps on us, and finding something worth fighting for. And maybe the choices our heroes make aren’t good exactly, but who among us can relate to that? A lot of us, I think.
The side effect of that does often mean that grimdark is a genre where protagonists are tested, and fail. They collapse beneath the pressure, they cave, they slide so deep into the darkness that they might be irredeemable. And that’s the beauty of the genre. There is so much room for examining the depths of the human condition in ways that are messy and uncomfortable… and also honest.
Why do you think there are so many misconceptions?
You know, I’m really not sure. Certainly there is some wild stuff out there in the grimdark playground, but the same can be said about any genre. I think grimdark tends to make people uncomfortable, and thus it gets a bad rap. But for whatever it’s worth, romance also tends to make people uncomfortable, and also gets a bad rap. There seems to be a pushback against genres that ask for self-reflection, you know? Grimdark and romance both ask people to face the taboos of their society head-on, and they both ask people to see themselves in situations that might be uncomfortable. So maybe it’s no wonder that they both get a lot of flak.
So then I combined them both, lol. I guess I like a challenge.
What draws you to grimdark as a writer?
Legacy of the Brightwash started out as a thought experiment about how we value convenience and the stability of our economy, and asked a question about what it would take to shock an entire society out of status quo to really change things. My hero is a man who is trapped in the very system that is oppressing him and people like him. He’s made mistakes, and he’s going to have to make difficult choices in order to make any change.
I don’t know that Tashué’s story could have fit in any other subgenre, really.
Do you find writing to be cathartic? If so, would you say that fantasy (and grimdark in particular) is particularly well suited to examining some of the harder things in life?
I do find writing cathartic; it’s a safe space to examine my own personal baggage, as well as the broad emotions that come with living in this world on a day-to-day basis. Fantasy is doubly a safe space. I have the room to adjust society so that I can filter out things I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to deal with, but then I can also put human nature under a microscope and process those feelings in a way that connects me to other people (ie, the readers who come to my world and understand the questions I’m trying to examine.) Grimdark is a place where we can be uncomfortably honest about flaws. And in being honest about them, hopefully we can find ways to hold ourselves accountable for them.
Which authors are on your must-read list?
Clayton Snyder is absolutely pushing the limits of grimdark, and his stories are incredible. Michael Fletcher, of course. A grimdark list isn’t complete without him. Does Brian Staveley count as grimdark? I suspect he does, and his first trilogy is absolutely incredible. I haven’t yet read his new novel, but I’m salivating over it.
I recently read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Neither of them are fantasy; both authors are Vietnam veterans who wrote about their experiences in war, though Matterhorn is a fictionalized story. I’m not sure if Tim O’Brien wrote his experiences, or if he filtered them through some fictionalization, but either way, the work is absolutely stunning. I highly, highly recommend them both for readers and writers of grimdark. We touch on war a lot in the genre of fantasy; we should engage with the veterans who lived through it.
Do you have anything on the horizon that you would like to mention?
I’ve been working diligently on Brightwash’s sequel, LEGACY OF BRICK & BONE. But I’m also very, very proud of the anthology that I’ve been a part of, titled THE ALCHEMY OF SORROW. The theme of the anthology has been grief, and it’s been absolutely moving to watch so many writers come together and address the heaviest of emotions in that safe space that fantasy is. The support for the anthology has been incredible, proving that fantasy has the space, and the NEED, to get real about emotion.
About the author:
“Krystle Matar has been writing for a long time, but things got serious when Tashué Blackwood walked into her life, an amber-eyed whirlwind.
When she isn’t arguing with him or any of his friends, she parents and farms. She has a lot of children and even more animals and one very excellent husband.
She is currently working on lots of stories set in the Dominion. She expects to exist in this universe for a while.”
I have my website https://www.krystlematar.com