I had the privilege of speaking with acclaimed Black author L.L. McKinney about her work and what it means to create inclusive, real and tangible characters to help give more of a voice in the fantasy genre to Black writers and writers of color. We talked about her series A Blade So Black, her writing journey and career so far and she gave me just a little a bit of info on the third book in the series, A Crown So Cursed, coming out in 2021.
Today, is Nov, 26, the original publishing date of the classic novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and since McKinney’s famed series uses from the works of Carroll as a stepping stone of sorts for her own, this was perfect day to celebrate both authors.
Every writer has had that moment when they realized that they wanted to write; that they had to tell a story or stories.
1. When did you start writing and what was your ‘A-Ha’ moment when you found out that you wanted to be a writer? And who inspired you to put pen to paper?
I started telling stories and writing when I was real little. I’m talking, like, kindergarten. I wanted to be a writer early on, but I had an English teacher in high school who told my parents that writing was a distraction for me, and I should stop. My parents didn’t really believe her, but my teacher had a problem with me being smart and finishing my work early? Can’t have the fastest kid in class being a Black girl. Anyway, I didn’t write again until college. I tried to read Twilight, couldn’t get into it. Saw the movie at a friend’s house and was like “well, if she can do it, so can I.” Then I started writing seriously.
As a Black writer myself and a lover of all things fantasy, it gets exhausting constantly seeing black people and brown people excluded. So, I’ve done my due diligence to find more authors like yourself who can give me what I need but there is still a disparity in the genre.
2. For you, how important is diversity? And even though things have gotten somewhat better what do you think can be done to bring Black fantasy to the forefront and get it the recognition it deserves?
Diversity is everything. I mean, I like being around and seeing people like me and having examples to follow and heroes to root for and watching people who look like me and my friends and family fall in love and go on adventures. Run on sentence, there. But it’s really important. A BLADE SO BLACK is my first published book, but not the first one I wrote. The first four I wrote were about white boys, because that’s all I read in the genre growing up, so I thought that’s what you had to write to get published. Like, a lack of diversity meant I didn’t give myself permission to be the hero of my own story, one I control, until five books in. That’s messed up. I think in order for Black fantasy to get the recognition it deserves—and this answer is gonna make some people made—publishing needs to make those stories a priority.
Not just say they will, and not take on a couple books here and there to assuage the masses. I mean a for real push like “we’ve got two Black authors, great. Let’s get four more by the end of quarter.” And also hiring Black people within the industry so those books have people who understand them, who will fight to get them support. And THEN, because there are levels, giving MONEY AND RESOURCES to those Black people within the industry to provide said support. It’s a lot, but it can be done.
The Nightmare-Verse series in a way, is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland but it’s so much more than that. We are introduced to Wonderland, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Mad Hatta, the Queens but they are vastly different from the source material.
3. Why did you decide to use those books as an influence for your own? Where they influential in any way?
There was no real reason. I just really liked Alice in Wonderland overall, and when I thought of how it could be a real place and someone could go there to fight monsters, I wanted it to be about a Black girl doing the slaying. The original tale is somewhat influential, I mean I name characters after them and have a few similar themes in setting and whatnot, but I really just sorta used it as a baseline and built on top of the. I mean, most of the foundation is mine in this one.
Your Alice is such a dynamic character. She is pulled between her daily life, going to school and being relatively normal to having to literally fight for her life in Wonderland but all the while she stays grounded. She’s not outlandish or over the top, she feels like someone I could know. That goes for her mom as well. Sometimes I swear, she’s my mother.
4. What do you attribute the authenticity of your characters to?
Writing about the type of character I wanted to read about when I was young, the type of character I wanted to be. I kinda still wanna be. And I used bits and pieces of people I’ve known over the years to add to characters. Friends, family, enemies. I throw some of them in there, too. It’s usually not all that flattering for them, though. By adding in pieces of real people, I think that makes the characters more real. And avoids getting into trouble if someone thinks you based a whole character on them, because you gotta put those characters through some stuff, and folk be getting in they feelings about it, lol.
I think we can all agree that a book’s cover is rather important. A cover of the book can help set the tone for what I am going to expect and gives me a glimpse of what our main character/characters may look like. The covers of your books just happen to be some of my favorites. I love how unapologetically Black, Alice is. She’s dark skin with her natural hair looking fabulous but she also looks incredibly fierce.
5. Were you heavily involved in the creation of you cover art? And was there any push back to change it to something else, to maybe make more “marketable” to more demographics?
I was fortunate enough to be involved in my covers at every step. There was a list of about 16 models, and my editor told me to pick my top four who I thought embodied Alice. Luckily, they were able to get my girl. Then a friend paid for me to fly to New York for the photo shoot! That was a time and a half and I really enjoyed myself. After that, I got a couple fo cover comps, mockups to see how the design was going. I told them what I liked about both covers, and they were able to mesh them together into the first cover of the series.
After that, they pretty much nailed it on each following one, but I gave opinions on weapons and colors and stuff here and there. They really listened to my suggestions. There was no pushback at all. My editor was a woman of color, and she knew having this dark-skinned Black girl with her natural hair front and center on the cover was important to me from jump, so she made it happen.
The anniversary of A Blade So Black has passed. And your baby is couple of years old now!
6. Can you enlighten us on what the journey was like? Going from writing it, to having someone pick it up, to publishing it and having a growing a fan base of The Nightmare-verse series?
It had been more than ten years of trying by that point. As I said, I’d written about four books before that. Maybe closer to 3.75, sometimes you don’t reach THE END, and that’s okay. I was on my second agent at the time, the one who sold A BLADE SO BLACK. See, she wasn’t even an agent when I started writing or querying in the beginning. She was fairly new when I signed with her. And I had stopped counting query rejections a long time before then. I stopped at 250, to give you an idea. Then, after signing with her, we were on submission for two years before it sold.
So, this has been a long, long road, and not the easiest trying to get a story about a Black girl fighting monsters out there without some sort of pain narrative, you know how people love the trauma porn. Now? It’s kinda of surreal. People ask to take pictures with me and want me to sign things and sometimes when I talk to folks, they get really excited about it, and I’m happy, really, but I’m also at the same time like “y’all have no idea how much of a dork I am!” I’m not used to it. I don’t think I’ll ever be used to it, but I’m glad something I’m doing brings people joy. And I’m grateful too be so blessed. I got the best readers in the world. Thank you Jesus for them.
The third Nightmare-Verse book, A Crown So Cursed is coming out in the spring of 2021. When I finished A Dream So Dark, I was expecting a little preview like at the end of A Blade So Black. The book seemed to end on good terms, but I was surprised that it went right to acknowledgements.
7. Do you think you can spare even the tiniest detail of the next book?
IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII guess I can spare a few. I know book two ended on good terms, but don’t get comfortable. There’s lots more cosplay, more fighting, further dipping into Wonderland’s history, love, curses, betrayal, shenanigans, MORE NANA-K!, and hopefully all the answers everyone is looking for. Well, maybe most of them. The Nightmare-Verse is a pretty big place. Or, at least it will be, if I have anything to say about it.
If you haven’t checked out L.L. McKinney yet, I highly suggest that you do. She’s an incredible writer who has personally influenced me and people like me who are fans of fantasy, young adult fiction, diverse literature and just amazing novels all together. This series and her other works are just a few of the novels across genres that are overlooked because the cover art is of a black person or a person of color and the potential reader doesn’t think they can relate.
You might not be able to at first but give a novel you would have passed by a chance. You’ll hear from new voices who come from different places, who have lived different lives than you. But as you read through, you will find things you can relate to on a human level. The themes of growing up, anxiety, pressure, fear and loss are always relatable, no matter where they come from.