Liselle Sambury Interview - Blood Like Magic
Photo Credit: Stuart Weir
Liselle Sambury is a Trinidadian-Canadian author who grew up in Toronto, and her brand of writing can be described as “messy Black girls in fantasy situations.” In her free time, she shares helpful tips for upcoming writers and details of her publishing journey through a YouTube channel dedicated to helping demystify the sometimes complicated business of being an author. She is represented by Kristy Hunter at The Knight Agency.
Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
What’s been the most rewarding for me has honestly been people telling me how excited they are for the book—that they’ve pre-ordered or requested it from their library, or they’re reading it right now. I have so much appreciation for everyone who has supported and gotten hyped up for Blood Like Magic.
What inspired you to pen your first novel?
I started to write my first novel shortly after I had read Twilight. I was part of that generation when it first came out and YA was starting to boom, and I was so inspired by how her werewolves were described. I loved that idea of a giant wolf. And so, I basically stole it (do not recommend haha), and wrote a story about a girl who encounters a werewolf prince in hiding. It was not very good, but it was a good exercise in writing and finishing a novel for the first time.
Tell us your latest news.
I announced my next book deal, with the first being Butcherbirds, another young adult title, coming out in 2023. It’s about a girl who must grapple with the literal and figurative ghosts of her mother’s past when they inherit a mysterious mansion in northern Ontario. An untitled novel will follow in 2024.
Can you tell us when you started BLOOD LIKE MAGIC, how that came about?
I started Blood Like Magic in 2017 during NaNoWriMo which is National Novel Writing Month. I had originally started with a different idea but had lost steam with it. I was living away from my hometown of Toronto and really missing it, so I decided to pivot and work on a story set there instead. I went into it with the idea that I wanted to write about a family of Black witches and set it in the future because that seemed fun. I was really aiming to create something where Black teens could see themselves as the hero---something I wished I had read as a teen.
What do you hope for readers to be thinking when they read your novel?
I hope for them to be thinking that it’s good! But honestly, I hope that it helps people think about the pressures they and others put on them to succeed, and to see the value in knowing where you came from. Both are prevalent themes in the book that I hope come out.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in creating Voya?
I think the most surprising thing was realizing that while I had created a character who didn’t think very much of herself, through her actions, she still came across as strong on the page. That’s how her cousins see her, and it’s very difficult for her to see that for herself. Even when initially writing her, I was creating a quieter and more unsure sort of character, but I came to see her hidden strengths and was able to bring them out in edits.
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
I would love to introduce Voya to Bree from Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. I feel like Bree is the sort of girl who says what she wants to say and does what she wants to do. She’s very willing to speak up for herself where Voya won’t, and I think that would be a good influence on her. But I also think Bree has a great sense of loyalty and vulnerability, which is very much Voya’s lane, and I think she could help bring that out more. I think they would be good complements to each other.
What was the single worst distraction that kept you from writing this book?
Drafting during a short time period like NaNoWriMo actually helped me a lot with avoiding distractions that would stop me from writing. I think my issue is when I write over a long period of time, I’m more likely to burn out and drop off. But definitely during the editing process, what distracts me the most from getting to work is that initial push to start because I can get so intimidated by the idea of how much work I have to do. I’ll waste time on YouTube, or read, or watch movies, literally do anything to avoid that initial start of work.
What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
Make something for yourself! Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a sort of crafty person, but I think there is a special fulfillment in creating something on your own that you can use. I’ve sewn dresses and little pouches, or painted things to hang up, etc.
Best date you've ever had?
The first one with my current partner. We went to a board game café and played a bunch of games. It was just casual and fun, and of course since I liked him it was a lot more enjoyable.
If you could go back in time to one point in your life, where would you go?
I would love to go back to the first time I travelled to London in the UK. Not to change anything, just to experience it again. Growing up, my family didn’t really have the means to travel, and that continued for most of my life. It was only a few years ago that I was finally able to achieve my childhood dream of visiting, and it was also my first time travelling that far alone to a place where I wasn’t going to stay with family. I was really proud of myself for just going solo because I wanted to go, and I had such a great visit, I would love to experience that for the first time again.
Choose a unique item from your wallet and explain why you carry it around.
I have a bunch of guava candies in my purse at all times, does that count? A lot of Chinese takeout places I went to would have them and I was so in love. So, the next time I went to an Asian market, I bought giant bags and I just stash them in my purse in case I ever want any.
In high school, I remember I had such a hardcore crush on this one boy for so long. I made my friend do a pact with me, we would both confess to our crushes on the last day of school, so if we got rejected, at least we would only have to see them at prom. So, we both did and we both got rejected. I had the unfortunate pleasure of confessing to my crush while his mom waited for him in the car. But he was very nice about it.
What were you doing the last time you really had a good laugh?
I was on Twitter looking at a funny tweet someone had posted, and I don’t know why, but it was just hilarious. I laughed so loud and for so long that my partner who was working in the basement asked if I was okay.
Which would you choose, true love with a guarantee of a heart break or have never loved before?
I would say true love with a guarantee of heartbreak. Of course, there are people like my partner who I love, but also there are so many family members like my mom and little sister who I wouldn’t want to miss out on loving.
TEN REASONS TO READ BLOOD LIKE MAGIC
- 1. I feel like Black witches is a valid reason
- 2. Family drama that’s funny and sweet but also juicy and tragic
- 3. Copious descriptions of delicious Trinidadian food
- 4. LGBTQIA+ rep, there are trans, gay, lesbian, and demiromantic characters
- 5. Explore the setting of the city of Toronto and many Canadianisms
- 6. Slow burn enemies-to-lovers romance
- 7. A near future setting where you can enjoy checking out the new technology
- 8. A main character with a lot of heart very messily figuring things out
- 9. High stakes and a ticking clock
- 10. Morally grey characters and choices
The next day, I wake up knowing that my Calling will be that evening. I would have stayed in bed until then, but Keis insisted on dragging me to school under the pretense of grabbing lunch and maybe taking a couple extra classes. I know she needs me to come for the other reason we never talk about. When she focuses on my thoughts, everyone else’s dull, and she can concentrate in class. We don’t even need to be in the same tutorials and seminars. I just have to be a hallway or two away. If I’m not there, it’s like trying to learn with a hundred voices mumbling in her ears.
If I’m honest, the distraction of school is more soothing to my Calling worries than I expected. Maybe that was the real reason Keis pulled me out of bed?
I spear a piece of octopus-shaped Andouille sausage on my fork and shove it in my mouth. Cutting it into a fun shape helps distract me from the cheap modded taste of it.
The noise of the break hall is like a buzzing in my ear piece. Sun ripples through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that give you a perfect view out onto the entrance grounds of the Academy. It’s summer break, but it’s still busy with kids trying to get ahead on their credits so they can go on long trips before starting university or internships. People move outside along the newly installed electric sidewalks—metal sliding through the high school campus to make us feel like we’re at a school in the middle of the city instead of just outside it.
I like our school. I’ve seen feed videos of the downtown ones. They’re cramped buildings spread over several subway lines where getting from one tutorial to the next might mean fifteen minutes of travel. No green space left. Only chrome and concrete.
We have plots of grass where students can lounge between classes, and the oak tree planted in the middle of the break hall is like a green badge of honor.
I tuck my knees up on the plastic chair and watch Keis waiting at the smoothie bar. She bounces on the tips of her toes and writes on a tablet as she waits. She’s all business when it comes to school. Most kids will come in two or three times a week for a couple tutorials and do everything else self-study at home. She comes in five days a week, spends her entire morning in tutorials, goes to seminars in the afternoon, participates in clubs after school, and does self-study at home later and on weekends. That’s during the school year and summer break. I don’t even know what she wants to do with all that knowledge. Become prime minister, probably.
I stuff another piece of sausage in my mouth and try to swallow it down, but it won’t go. Coughing to bring it back up doesn’t work either. My stomach clenches as I hunch over and cough harder. Tears are pricking at my eyes when a hard thwack on my back makes the sausage piece fly from my throat with an innocent pop and land back in my lunch container.
Keis shakes her head and sinks into the seat beside me. “There it is. Proof that you would literally die without me here.”
“Hype.” I look down at my half-eaten sausage piece.
“Do not eat that.”
I would say that I wasn’t going to, but you can’t lie to someone who can read your thoughts. And that’s not hype. That’s the real. I eye Keis’s green smoothie. “What’s in that?”
“Pineapple, spinach, frozen Nu-Gurt, and some of that new mental protein Olzy put out.”
I wrinkle my nose. Nu-Gurt tastes weird. NuGene says that it’s the perfect modded dairy-free substitute, but I swear that it tastes off. “How’s the protein? Do you feel like your mood has evened out?”
Keis takes a big sip and tilts her head to the side. “No. But I wasn’t off balance to begin with.” She slips out her phone and swipes through her feeds.
An alert about a missing girl with short lilac hair and hazel eyes scrolls past. I’ve been seeing the alerts for weeks. Lauren. “They still haven’t found anything on her?”
I bite my lip. We were at a party to celebrate her successful Coming-of-Age a couple months ago. It was a big deal since she’s set to be her family’s next Matriarch. She was glowing with pride. Her gift had something to do with finding people, ironically.
Keis pokes me with her nail. “She’ll show up soon.”
I bob my head in a nod. Maybe Mom could help them out. Her gift is reading objects. She can pull memories and emotions from vases, watches, clothes, etc.
“There’s no way Auntie will help,” Keis says. “The Carters aren’t a pure family anymore, it’ll look bad if we’re that involved with them.”
Right. I shift in my chair. It was a big enough fight to go to her party at all. But still. “What if she’s in trouble?”
“She must have run away with someone for a couple days. She’s done it before. The Carters are strict, after all.”
I take in Keis’s words without managing to shake the chill over my shoulders. I point at her phone screen. “Link me.”
She taps a couple buttons and the screen on her phone expands and spreads out in front of us. We’re the only ones that can see it. Hijacker tech is like that. The phone links to the chip right under the skin behind your ear and overrides your brain’s neural network into seeing what your phone wants it to see.
Keis and I worked overtime slapping labels on the Thomas Cocoa Secret Moisturizing Lotion and 100% Organic Thomas Family Body Balm Sticks, on top of putting in extra hours selling product at farmers’ markets so our moms could use the extra money to pay for our implants. I had done so much labelling that I was dreaming about it. But it was worth it. Most of us would rather work ourselves into the ground to have at least basic tech instead of saving some extra cash and going without.
Keis swipes through her feed. Keisha’s picture pops up. She’s posed in front of someone’s pod cruiser with a custom license plate that says ‘phat.’ I examine the slick mini e-bike, but I still don’t get it.
“You’re not supposed to get it,” Keis grumbles.
I don’t know why she follows Keisha if she hates her feed so much.
She doesn’t comment on that thought.
She stops on a video and flicks her finger to launch it full screen. There’s a crowd of reporters in front of the boxy looking observation deck that is the NuGene headquarters downtown. It used to be an art school in the ‘10s according to Mom. They closed it down after the STEM boom.
A man stands on a podium in front of the reporters. His hair is a glistening blond that’s pushed back from his forehead and his eyes swirl red with bionic lenses. Justin Bombardier, the CEO of NuGene.
He’s got a NuSap android at his side. She has hair even lighter than his, gelled flat against her scalp, Asian facial features, and the signature cornflower blue skin that marks her as Justin’s creation. The skin color is to make sure you don’t mix them up with real people.
I search for the red flasher that confirms this is a live feed and see it in the corner. “A new announcement?”
Keis slurps her smoothie. “Apparently. It better be cheaper gene therapy.”
Not likely. Gene therapy is what put NuGene on the map. A small daughter company of the enormous Bombardier empire suddenly had international attention because they promised to change the structure of existing genes in a safe way. People with life threatening genetic diseases like Huntington’s could get therapy to change their mutated genes to typical ones.
“Yeah,” Keis says. “For a small fortune.”
She’s not wrong. The procedures cost about one hundred thousand per chromosome altered. And that’s after the portion that the government pays as part of the free healthcare program.
The best us average folks can afford are the modded products they sell to the masses. Customized genetic alteration is a luxury not meant for us.
The press settles down and Justin claps his pale hands. The NuSap jerks a handful of papers towards him, but he brushes them away. “Thank you for coming here today. I’ll keep it short and sweet. We’re announcing a new branch of the NuGene company.”
The press stirs up at that. I tuck a piece of sausage in my mouth and chew with slow measured bites.
“You didn’t seriously eat the sausage you spat up, did you?”
I poke my hand at the screen. “He’s doing the announcement.”
Keis shakes her head at me and looks back at the projection.
“We’d like to announce ‘NuGene Connection,’ our Matching program. It will put an end to the frustration of online dating and replace it with a system that goes as deep as your genes. We’re talking about finding your ideal partner using a variety of factors and an algorithm based on your genetics.” Justin pauses, and the press oblige him by raising their hands for questions.
He points at a white man with gold leaf highlights and round glasses. “There’s so many online dating apps, why add yours to the mix?”
Keis snorts. “There’s no way it’s an app.”
“It’s not an app,” Justin confirms with a stretched smile. “It’s a comprehensive service that combines our years of genetic sequencing and interpretation with in-person interviews, and an on-going monitoring process.”
I’m always struck by how young Justin is. It’s not uncommon to be a millionaire by the time you’re thirty, but that’s for things like feed models and performers. Or people that create apps and gadgets. It’s strange to see the head of a multi-level, billion-dollar corporation who’s not much older than mom was when she had me, maybe thirty-two at most.
A South Asian woman with her hair pulled back into a loose ponytail raises her hand, and Justin points at her. “And what will be the price tag for this sort of service? Will it be accessible to people of all socio-economic statuses?”
“I bet you it costs a fortune,” Keis says.
“The pricing will be tiered, everyone will get the same matching potential and chance to find that special someone. It won’t be more expensive than your average feed subscription. But there will be additional options for pay.” Another reporter raises their hand, but Justin shuts them down. Any more than two to three questions on a live and you tend to lose people. “And we’re happy to announce that we’re open to taking applications for beta testers. They will have access to the entire process for free in exchange for their participation.”
Finding your ideal partner. I look at Keis. “Would you do it?”
I’m not surprised. I don’t know where she would get the time. Dating isn’t her focus right now anyway.
Who would I get paired with? Someone Industrial, probably.
Industrial. Boring. Plain. Serious.
I’ve heard people whisper that about me in my tutorials and seminars. As if not talking a mile a minute means you must be closed off.
The live feed ends and there’s a blinking button on the screen the declares, Submit your application!
Keis unlinks me and stands. “I have my Poli Sci seminar now.” She throws me a meaningful look. “You have a cooking tutorial?”
“Yeah. French patisserie skills. We’re making three different types of croissants.” I can already taste the buttery softness of that pillowy dough and picture the perfect flaky layers mine will have.
“Have you looked into those internship applications I sent you?”
I hunch my back and play with my phone. There’s no point trying to lie to her. I got her applications and deleted the message. What’s the point in applying? Mom used to want to be a hair stylist when she was young, then her gift came. Now, she sees five clients a day reading the objects of dead loved ones. Should I manage to get a gift, if it has nothing to do with cooking, those internships won’t matter.
Keis shakes her head. “What’s the point in taking a bunch of classes you aren’t going to use?”
“You finished when you were sixteen, now you’re seventeen, and you’re still here.” With all the classes that Keis takes, it was easy for her to blow through the standard requirements. She could be in university or interning at a company by now.
“I need to up my requirements beyond standard. Every class I take has a purpose. I have goals.”
I still don’t know what Keis’s goals even are. She’s privy to every single thought in my head, but it doesn’t go both ways.
She tucks her tablet against her chest. “You should be happy you don’t have the gift I have.”
“I probably won’t have a gift at all.”
“Stop it! I’m going to my seminar. I’m going to send you those internship options again.” Keis walks away from me and out of the break hall.
She doesn’t get it. To her, the Calling is an obstacle to her success like any other exam or test. It isn’t the same for me. Whether I pass or fail will determine my entire future.
My phone flashes a couple minutes later with her message listing a dozen internship positions all over the city. A spot at Symbol catches my eye. The pork buns they serve at the modern Chinese restaurant are silky smooth when you bite into them. I can picture myself in the back mixing spices and basking in the scents of ginger and garlic.
I delete the message and make my way to class.
WHY IT WAS DELETED
This was a scene from the version of Blood Like Magic that I sent to agents while querying. I ended up cutting this for a lot of reasons. The first was that I decided I didn’t want them to go to school in person. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of school settings, maybe because I didn’t like high school very much, so I created a new system where attending in person wasn’t as necessary. I also changed it so that Voya did her minimum credits and has already graduated by the time the novel opens. I also just thought this scene was boring in general. Something happens in that the genetic matching program is announced, but otherwise, not much is going on.
A lot of this chapter did end up just having its elements shifted around. So, the matching program is announced when Voya first meets the love interest Luc, which I thought was a lot more interesting of a scene than finding out in a school cafeteria. Also, I did make the matching system an app in the end! I used to have a very complicated system for how the program worked, but after discussing with my agent, she brought up the point that wouldn’t it be something easy for people to use? And so, an app actually made a lot more sense and was much simpler than the super complicated system that I started with.
A rich, dark urban fantasy debut following a teen witch who is given a horrifying task: sacrificing her first love to save her family’s magic. The problem is, she’s never been in love—she’ll have to find the perfect guy before she can kill him.
After years of waiting for her Calling—a trial every witch must pass in order to come into their powers—the one thing Voya Thomas didn’t expect was to fail. When Voya’s ancestor gives her an unprecedented second chance to complete her Calling, she agrees—and then is horrified when her task is to kill her first love. And this time, failure means every Thomas witch will be stripped of their magic.
Voya is determined to save her family’s magic no matter the cost. The problem is, Voya has never been in love, so for her to succeed, she’ll first have to find the perfect guy—and fast. Fortunately, a genetic matchmaking program has just hit the market. Her plan is to join the program, fall in love, and complete her task before the deadline. What she doesn’t count on is being paired with the infuriating Luc—how can she fall in love with a guy who seemingly wants nothing to do with her?
With mounting pressure from her family, Voya is caught between her morality and her duty to her bloodline. If she wants to save their heritage and Luc, she’ll have to find something her ancestor wants more than blood. And in witchcraft, blood is everything.