Kat Howard at kathowardbooks is a celebrated fantasy writer and editor best known for her Locus Award-nominated novel, “Rose and Rot.” This week, we spotlight the release of “A Sleight of Shadows,” book two in her Unseen World series.
We sat down and chatted with her about her writing, influences, and the advice she gives to her clients.
Be sure to pick up both books today!
About Kat Howard
Kat Howard is a writer of fantasy, science fiction, and horror who lives and writes in Minnesota.
Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, was one of NPR’s best books of 2014, and her debut novel, Roses and Rot was a finalist for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians was named a best book of 2017 by NPR, and won a 2018 Alex Award.
Her short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, collects work that has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, performed as part of Selected Shorts, and anthologized in year’s best and best of volumes, as well as new pieces original to the collection. She was the writer for the first 18 issues of The Books of Magic, part of DC Comics’ Sandman Universe.
Kat Howard’s new novel, A Sleight of Shadows, the sequel to An Unkindness of Magicians, came out on April 25, 2023. In the past, she’s been a competitive fencer and a college professor.
Thanks for chatting with us, Kat!
I Focus on the Magic
LitStack: There is a decidedly symbolic aspect of wealth and privilege in your Unseen World series. Those in the Unseen world have a hierarchy they will kill to protect. How many elements from our world inform your fiction?
When I was writing the Unseen World books, I wasn’t specifically trying to write a one-to-one analogy between our world and that one. My focus was really on the magic—how it worked and the ramifications of that. At the same time, I live in this world, and I try to be aware of what’s going on. So I think it’s completely logical for what I observe and think about to make its way into my fiction, and I think that the presence of those preoccupations is likely to look more obvious when I’m writing something that takes place in a world that is so close to our own.
What Influences Your Work?
LitStack: There have been varying influences in your previous work—from the folk and fairy tale hints of Roses and Rot and the more contemporary elements in your Unseen World series. What prompts your choices in deciding what to write and how those influences will appear in your work?
With Roses and Rot, the fairy tale and folklore elements were ones I chose to directly engage with. It’s a Tam Lin retelling, and that was part of what I knew I wanted to do when I began writing the novel. Some of my short stories are direct retellings as well, and in those cases, again, those influences are there on purpose and from the beginning. But in other cases, the influences come in while I’m writing—either because I make the connection in my head and decide to play it out on the page (or drop it in like an Easter egg) or as a result of the sort of background of life and story and interests that comes out in writing organically.
Strong, Interesting, Powerful Women
LitStack: What I enjoyed most about your series (aside from the gorgeous language and wonderful world-building) was how powerful the women in your stories are. This, I’ve noticed, has been the case in much of your work, but in the Unseen World series, it is the women who make the biggest impact, magically speaking, and seek and find revenge, and ultimately, sacrifice the most. What draws you to bringing such empowerment and strength to these characters?
Thank you so much! I enjoy writing strong, interesting, powerful women because I know many strong, interesting, powerful women. And that’s not to say, of course, that people of other genders can’t embody some or all of those qualities as well, because of course they can and do, both in fiction and in life. But in my own fiction, I enjoy turning my focus and spotlight on women.
Tools, Not Requirements
LitStack: I’ve read that you took some time from your dissertation to attend Clarion and at the conclusion of that workshop, you knew you wanted to take a serious approach to writing. Where do you think you’d be if you hadn’t attended Clarion? Would you still have found your way to writing professionally? Would you recommend these types of workshops to new writers?
I had never written seriously before I applied to Clarion—my application portfolio included a couple of the first short stories I ever wrote. So it’s quite likely that if I hadn’t applied, I wouldn’t be writing at all. I wasn’t someone who always knew I was a writer; I was someone who never thought I could be. After Clarion, I finished my dissertation and taught as I was beginning my writing career, and so I imagine I would still be in academia.
But it’s hard to know whether to recommend the workshop environment without knowing the writer in question. Clarion was wonderful for me, but I was in a very fortunate position to be able to attend, and not everyone is. Workshops, or an MFA, or any formal study at all are tools—they aren’t requirements. Use what helps, but don’t feel like you need to have anything more than a story to tell.
All the Characters Want Something
LitStack: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve received and what do you tell your clients to avoid when you edit for them?
This is another one that I think is really dependent on the writer—I don’t think there’s anything that I would tell all of my editing clients to universally avoid (or do, for that matter.) As an example, when I was first starting out, I saw a lot of advice about how finished drafts should always be shorter than rough drafts, sometimes even giving percentages to cut. I draft very skeletally, and if I aimed to cut from a first draft, I’d have nothing left!
One piece of advice that I have found to be very useful comes from Neil Gaiman, at Clarion, who said that when you’re stuck, it can help to consider what your characters want at that point in the story. All of them want something, even if it’s just to get out of the scene alive. So if you consider what they want, and what they would (or wouldn’t) do to get that, and what other characters’ wants might be in opposition, that can help a great deal in getting unstuck.
Kat Howard Talks About Books of Magic
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