Liselle Sambury

This Side of West Interviews Liselle Sambury

Interviewed by TSOW 2022-2023 Editor-in-Chief, Rachel Lachmansingh.

Liselle Sambury is the Trinidadian-Canadian author of the Governor General’s Literary Awards Finalist, Blood Like Magic. Her work spans multiple genres, from fantasy to sci-fi, horror, and more. In her free time, she shares helpful tips for upcoming writers and details of her publishing journey through a YouTube channel dedicated to demystifying the sometimes complicated business of being an author.

BLOOD LIKE MAGIC – 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.

Rachel Lachmansingh: Your debut novel, “Blood Like Magic,” a 2021 Governor General’s Award finalist, was published last year with a sequel (Blood Like Fate) coming out soon. How did the idea for Blood Like Magic come about?

Liselle Sambury: Blood Like Magic came about from a combination of things. For one, I was living far away from my hometown of Toronto and feeling homesick, and for another, I’d had this loose idea about writing about a family of Black witches. I ended up combining the two in that I would set the book in the city and get to explore everything I was feeling nostalgic for while exploring a Black witch family and culture. Deciding to set it in the future was something I ended up tacking on at the end because it seemed fun.

Up until that point, I’d written two novels, the last of which was ultimately problematic and felt that my writing would benefit from exploring a narrative closer to something I know and feel I have expertise in. As a result, I created a main character who was also Trinidadian-Canadian who grew up in a large multi-generational home in the GTA. From there, those loose building blocks came together in an organic way to create the first iteration of what would become Blood Like Magic.

RL: BLM takes place in Toronto. What was your experience incorporating the city into your book?

LS: It was an exciting process for me to incorporate Toronto into Blood Like Magic because I essentially thought of a number of places that I loved and worked them into the narrative. I would have a thought like, “I want them to go to Dixie Mall,” and would figure out what sort of scene would work there and how it could get a technological and magical update. The same treatment was given to neighbourhoods like Grange Park where I spent a lot of my time in high school when I volunteered with the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Long Branch area where I grew up. As a setting, Toronto was wonderful because there was so much about the city that I wanted to celebrate.

But at the same time, I also didn’t want to shy away from some things about Toronto that I don’t care for as much. There’s some discussion, for example, about gentrification which remains an important issue in the city. Alongside the issues of things like the police presence at Caribana, Toronto’s annual Caribbean festival, and police brutality in general. Those things affect many people who call Toronto home and to me, are as important a part of the setting as everything else I included.

And lastly, due to the near future setting, I was also given a chance to reimagine what the city might look like in the next 30 years or so. That was something that was its own unique challenge in deciding what might last in a place that is constantly building up, breaking down, and moving around, and also what might materialize.

RL: Food is an important part of BLM. Do you have a favourite part of the book that incorporates food into a scene? And as a fellow Caribbean, I wanted to ask what your favourite Caribbean snack/dish is?

LS: Food is a huge part of the book for sure. I love the first scene where the reader experiences Voya making a meal for her family to celebrate her Bleeding (the first stage in a witch’s coming of age) and there’s this moment of describing the entire meal, then Voya mentally calls herself a culinary queen. As a character, she’s not confident in a lot of her abilities, but cooking is that one thing she knows she’s good at. Personally, I am a pholourie fiend. I cannot get enough of it. Absolute perfection when paired with a good tamarind sauce. And it’s painful because it’s the one thing I’ve totally failed at making at home. I do not have even half of Voya’s cooking skills, though I try. I also never say no to fried plantain which I actually can make on my own.

RL: What advice would you give to writers looking to start their careers?

LS: Advice that I really didn’t think of as much in the beginning of my career, but I now see as much more important in hindsight, is the benefit of thoroughly researching the field. There are so many different avenues for getting involved in publishing, and I do think it’s integral to understand which ones may or may not be for you. Now especially, there’s so much readily accessible information about traditional, hybrid, and self-publishing. I think writers should do their due diligence in exploring what sorts of paths they may be interested in career-wise. They don’t have to know 100% where they want to land but having an awareness of how publishing works can really help save a lot of time and/or heartache. 

When I was in university taking writing courses, I felt very much that I wouldn’t ever get published if I couldn’t get into an adult literary magazine, despite the fact that I was interested in writing young adult commercial fiction. I was also devasted that I couldn’t afford to attend an MFA program because it felt like yet another obstacle to publication. And so, while both publishing in magazines and attending MFA programs are wonderful and legitimate means for developing your career, I’d trapped myself in a bubble of thinking that was the only viable path simply because I wasn’t aware of anything otherwise.

I started to feel like my dream of being an author just wasn’t possible for me at my level—I wasn’t talented enough nor did I have the right resources. I decided to focus on what I saw as more achievable career prospects and put writing on the back burner. But after having taken a break for a bit, I dipped my toe back in and became involved in the online writing community for the first time. I followed people who wanted to write what I did or worked in that part of the industry. I realized that I didn’t need to be in literary magazines or have an MFA to become a young adult author. I learned how to query agents properly, how to keep on top of the YA market, and how to find things like critique partners and beta readers online. I had more success in those 3-4 years than I ever had before because I’d finally taken the time to learn about the industry I was trying to get into and ultimately ended up with both an agent and a book deal.

I strongly believe there’s a lot of merit in taking that time to educate yourself, exploring multiple paths of publication, and doing a lot of research into what you’re interested in publishing. I would also recommend seeking multiple sources of information for multiple perspectives.

What’s next for you in terms of writing/publishing?

The sequel to Blood Like Magic, Blood Like Fate will be coming out on August 9th. I also have a YA standalone about a girl and her mother who inherit a mysterious mansion and the budding investigative journalist examining their story called Delicious Monsters, which will be out on February 28, 2023. I’ll also be in an anthology called All These Sunken Souls showcasing horror stories by Black authors in 2023 as well.

Rachel Lachmansingh