Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Xan is giving away an eBook copy of the book By the Blood of Rowans with this post. Comment below for a chance to win.
Today: Xan van Rooyen is a non-binary storyteller from South Africa, currently living in Finland where the heavy metal is soothing and the cold, dark forests inspiring. Xan has a Master’s degree in music, and–when not teaching–enjoys conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. You can find their short stories in the likes of Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Daily Science Fiction, Apparition Lit, and Cast of Wonders. Xan hangs out on instagram, twitter, and facebook so feel free to say hi over there.
Thanks so much, Xan, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: Have you ever taken a trip to research a story? Tell me about it.
Xan van Rooyen: I have traveled a lot and while I’ve never taken a trip specifically for a book, every time I go somewhere new I try to document as much as I can about the place. The colors, the textures, the smells, the sounds, the food, the customs—I make a mental note or, these days, I take actual notes about sensory experiences or about interesting features of a place. For example, this summer I went to Malta for the first time. This is an incredibly fascinating place steeped in history, but one of the most interesting aspects of the island to me is the fact that there are no sources of fresh water on the islands. Consequently, all drinking water has to be desalinated sea water so every time you turn on a tap or flush a toilet, it smells like the sea. And this, of course, gives the water quite a distinct taste that most locals don’t like. This is something that will definitely stick with me and that I plan to use as an aspect of world-building at some point.
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
XvR: My books always feature multiple queer characters. In more recent books, I’ve made a point of including trans and non-binary characters in my stories to show the diversity of identities even when under the same umbrella. I’ve got non-binary characters who use they/them pronouns, she or he pronouns, and neo-pronouns for example. I’ve got non-binary characters who are androgynous and others whose gender expression aligns more traditionally with their assigned sex at birth. I want to show that the queer experience is highly individual and that there should not be any gatekeeping when it comes to gender identity.
JSC: Do your books spring to life from a character first or an idea?
XvR: This really really depends on what I’m writing. My short stories often develop from a particular image in my mind (like the idea of a piano having survived the apocalypse in my story Sonata Apocalyptica) or even from a single sentence. More often my novel ideas are sparked by a what if: what if the person who carried dead souls across the veil ended up the prime suspect for murder? (By the Blood of Rowans) or, what if there was a kid at a school for the magically gifted who didn’t have any magic at all? (My Name is Magic). From there I usually develop the main character first because for me, plot revolves around the character and grows out of who they are, what makes them tick, their fears and desires.
JSC: How did you choose the topic for My Name is Magic?
XvR: My Name is Magic developed from my own experiences as a teacher at an international school as well as my deep love and fascination with Finnish mythology. I tend to write about the underdog, to center my stories around characters the world underestimates and so that’s why Taika, despite being the descendant of an incredibly powerful mage family, has no magic of their own. They end up fighting for justice and equality from both a personal and more global perspective as they struggle to save their friends from nefarious chaos mages. But, and this is very much a theme in my books, there is no clear good or evil and Taika needs to navigate that gray zone. Living in a real world that feels very divided, I wanted to write a more nuanced story where sometimes good people do bad things for the right reasons and vice versa.
JSC: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
XvR: My goal was to write the sort of book I wished I’d had as a young teenager, a book that has a non-binary lead and which discusses both gender identity and sexuality in an open way while also showing how messy it can be figuring out who you are. I wanted to write a book that shows it’s okay if the process of figuring it out who you are is complicated and sometimes heart-breaking but also joyous and celebratory. I think I achieved this because Taika overcomes so much in the story and finds their own path to self-love and self-acceptance.
JSC: Who did your cover, and what was the design process like?
XvR: The cover is absolutely stunning and totally fits the whole cuteangry vibe of the book. It was designed by Alex Copeman (@alexcopeman) an artist my publisher found on instagram. We both really liked Alex’s style and we were pretty adamant we wanted someone from within the LGBT+ community to design the cover, so Alex got the gig. I sent him some descriptions of the characters and Josh, my publisher, coordinated the type of imagery we wanted to give the book an eye-catching, spooky, dynamic cover. Alex did an incredible job and I think the cover is perfect!
JSC: What secondary character would you like to explore more? Tell me about them.
XvR: Without a doubt, Morgan. He’s a budding rock star who plays drums and does backing vocals for his punk band. He’s an anarchic skate-boarder who rebels against his family’s expectation all while being one of the most powerful elemental mages the school has ever seen with a rare and unique magical ability. His magic also has a dark side to it though and he has the potential to be an antagonist. I would love to write a book from his POV, perhaps set ten years after My Name is Magic where he’s teetering between becoming a hero or villain.
JSC: We know what you like to write, but what do you like to read in your free time, and why?
XvR: I mostly read science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural horror. I love the escapism these genres provide, but I do try to read broadly and outside of these genres as well. I’m a lot more open to different genres when listening to audiobooks so that’s where I might pick up a cozy mystery, ‘literary’ fiction, or even non-fiction on a topic of interest. I also adore graphic novels and generally read those in between longer works, again mostly in the SFFH genres.
JSC: What fictional speculative fiction character would you like to spend an evening with, and why?
XvR: I feel like my answer to this one is always going to be Dream from The Sandman Chronicles (I cannot wait for the Netflix series, OMG!!!) but I just think he would be a fascinating entity to talk to, someone who has literally seen people’s most intimate, inner thoughts and yet has this massive cosmic perspective that transcends humanity—yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever get tired of talking to Dream.
JSC: What are you working on now, and what’s coming out next? Tell us about it!
XvR: I have several things going on right now. I’ve got an arcano-punk novel out on submission with my agent and have just finished up a hopepunk story set in that same universe for an upcoming anthology. It’ll be released in October. Then, I’ve been working with an African SF/F cohort through the Syllble platform to create an African-inspired universe. We’ve now all written stories set in our Sauutiverse and are just waiting on our editor, Wole Talabi, to confirm publication information. It has been such an amazing experience working with other African writers to bring this world to life and I cannot wait for readers to get their hands on our anthology. I’m also working on a folk-horror story for Sentinel Creatives again inspired by Finnish folklore—this time based on the legend of a 17th Century witch known as Prättäkitti. And, finally, I’m finishing up final edits on My Name is Magic which will be out September 27!
And now for Xan’s new book: My Name is Magic:
Taika Turunen has no magic.
Despite coming from a long line of powerful Finnish mages, and their name literally meaning magic, Taika can’t perform the simplest of spells.
Forced to attend Myrskyjärvi International School for the Magically Gifted on account of their mom being principal, Taika has a hard time fitting in. Sometimes, they wonder if not having magic has something to do with the fact they’re neither a girl nor a boy and if they’re fated to be Taika the Talentless forever.
Life goes from bad to worse when Taika sees a liekkiö and recognizes the spirit’s voice begging for help as that of their former BFF and major crush, Natalie Khumalo, whose recent absence from class hadn’t gone unnoticed. When more students go missing, Taika must take the lead in a race against time to save friends old and new before a powerful group of chaos mages can unleash the legendary Sampo, an artifact capable of either renewing the world’s waning magic or destroying everything Taika holds dear.
To rescue Natalie, Taika will have to journey to the liminal space between worlds where they’ll be forced to battle mythical monsters and their own flagging self-esteem. In doing so, Taika might just discover that magic—and love—comes in many different forms.
For fans of witchcraft and wizardry looking for a new, inclusive story, My Name Is Magic, is a story about finding strength from within and potential where you least expected it.
I’ll never fit in at this school. I don’t know why I keep trying. It doesn’t matter that I know the Intermediate Spell-Weaving textbook by heart, that I know all the house runes and how to combine them into sigils better than most of the tenth graders studying Runelore, or that I can recite almost all of the spells Emmi teaches in Advanced Thaumaturgy to twelfth graders. What does knowing any of that matter when I’ll never be able to do anything?
And, no matter how many textbooks I study, no matter the many hours I spend poring over the tomes in the library, I’ll never find the answer to the only question that matters.
Why the hell don’t I have magic?
“Feel free to move about,” Emmi says. “Just don’t go beyond the parking lot or MacCrone’s cottage.”
The groups spread out, fingers sparking magic as they search the forest for energy.
If you know how to look, magical energy can be found almost everywhere in Finland. Even in urban areas, pockets of the stuff exist and might even be coaxed from cracks in concrete, if you’re strong enough. Out here in the countryside it’s much easier.
The forest around Myrskyjärvi is old, like ancient, and still resonates with power. Apparently. Not that I can feel even the faintest thrum of magic the way the others can.
The school was originally an old manor house, built some 250 years ago for the legendary Gustafsson family. Hard-core mages—very famous back in the day—who detected and then called dibs on the thick artery of power running right beneath our feet. When Old Man Gustafsson kicked the bucket, he left his estate to the National Board of Mages (his descendants are still ticked off about that), specifically to be used for educational purposes, and so here we are. Now kids come from all over the world to Myrskyjärvi to “develop and hone their craft,” or so goes the sales pitch.
An oak towers over me and I gaze up into its branches hoping to catch a glimpse of…something. All I get is an eyeful of the crows Mom spelled to watch over me. That’s right, I’ve got a murder of babysitters even though I turned fifteen last month. Musti has a smudge of white, Rekku has the ragged tail, and Kamu is basically a football with feathers.
Warily, I pull off my mitten and place my bare hand on the tree.
Rough bark, damp wood, cold air. Not sure why I expected anything else.
Emmi settles on the log beside me. A large tabby with four white socks drops from the branches and curls into Emmi’s lap. Kalma, Emmi’s familiar, regards me with yellow, unblinking eyes.
“Are you all right?” Emmi’s kind face is pinched with concern as she strokes the vibrating feline.
How am I supposed to answer that? Would she even want the truth?
“I know these classes are hard for you,” Emmi continues, gently, like she’s handling me. “I know the other students give you a tough time about all this. Would you prefer a—”
A fist of energy erupts from the oak, blasting into my shoulder in a shower of bark. Kalma yowls and shoots off into the woods. The crows shriek and flap in the branches. I brush leaves out of my hair and check for damage. There’s a bubbly sear on the tree and a scorch mark across my jacket. Mom is not going to be pleased.
Was it Sini or Ekaterina? I search the woods, scanning the faces for a smirk. A second fist of energy rises out of the tree, but before it can reach me, it ignites into flame then shrivels into ash.
“Are you all right?” Natalie asks, tiwaz, a House Fajro rune, sparking in the air above her right hand.
My heart kicks double time as I try to nod and catch my breath. Natalie releases the rune and slips her hands back into her pockets as if what she did was no big deal. I still can’t breathe and it has nothing to do with being assaulted by magic.
“Who did that?” Emmi’s face turns an ominous purple.
Seventeen nervous, expectant faces peer out of the forest in tense silence.
“All of you, come here this minute.” Emmi turns every word into a sentence and we all obey.
“This is unacceptable,” Emmi begins. “If that was anything more than an accident, the culprit will face serious consequences. And do I need to remind you how precious elemental energy is?”
A few students roll their eyes as our teacher launches into yet another tirade on the importance of conserving magic and not wasting it on what she calls frivolities. I’m not convinced attempting to beat up a classmate with magic should count as mere silliness, though.
Greater Disciplinary Action Required for the Misuse of Magic
I start composing the article in my mind as I scowl at Ekaterina. It must’ve been her!
“Who has successfully imbued their amulet?” Emmi asks. No one raises their hand. “I see. You can’t find enough magic to charm a necklace but you’ll waste it on nasty spells.” Her voice is steely and calm and terrifying. We all look down.
“Everybody, put your hand on a tree.”
“Do you feel that?” Emmi’s own hand rests close to mine on the injured oak.
Most of the others nod, a few frown or even grimace.
“A faint thrum, a gentle crackle, very little even at this time of year,” Emmi continues.
Rough bark, damp wood, cold air, and an itchy tingle in my palm. Great. Seems I’m developing an allergy to lichen.
I wish I could feel you, I think at the trees. I wish I had magic.