And now Sarwat is back, with the sequel to Devil’s Kiss, DARK GODDESS. Devil’s Kiss was a page-turning read but DARK GODDESS! Wow! I think Sarwat has surpassed himself in terms of both style and story. His writing oozes with confidence and atmosphere. If you like your stories dark, action-packed and a real page-turning read you’ll love this book.
BILLI SANGREAL is a Knight Templar and has thrown herself utterly into their brutal regime, shutting herself off from everyone and everything.
But when Billi finds herself at the heart of a savage werewolf attack, she knows their target – a young girl – must be rescued at all costs.
For this is no ordinary girl. Vasalisa is an avatar with an uncontrollable force within – and it’s not just the werewolves who want her.The Dark Goddess wants to sacrifice Vasalisa and use her powers to unleash unimaginable catastrophes and devastation.
Can Billi protect Vasalisa from the ancient goddess – and at the same time stop her from destroying the world?
Hi Sarwat and welcome back to tall tales & short stories.
Wow – what a year it’s been for you since we first met. Could you tell us about the journey you’ve been on since the publication of Devil’s Kiss? What have been the high-points for you? Have there been any low-points?
The biggest high –point was one of my school visits to the US when a kid came up and said he’d never finished a book and hated reading but he loved Devil’s Kiss. One non-reader had been converted into a reader. That’s a big result.
The low point was around Christmas when I was doing another re-write on the sequel, Dark Goddess. Devil’s Kiss took four years to write but the sequel needed to be turned around in six months. The scope of DG is far greater than DK, the theme’s about the essence of our humanity and how monstrous we can be. There was a lot going on and there were periods where I was well and truly lost and thought I’d never get it to work. Fortunately I have two great editors who managed to guide me through.
* DARK GODDESS carries on the story of Billi SanGreal and The Templars and their fight with the Unholy. What inspired you in the writing of DARK GODDESS?
The theme of DG is the Beast Within. The Templars use it when they’re describing werewolves, but there’s a greater issue here, what about our own monstrous nature?
Everyone is the hero in their own story. The villain of the book wants to wipe out mankind, but does it for the best of reasons. I wanted to present Billi with the challenge, for her to fulfil her duty may actually require her to do evil, to allow the Beast Within to win. Billi’s life is made up of impossible decisions and she inhabits a very morally grey world.
Devil’s Kiss was easier, Michael’s clearly deluded and consumed by hate, he has to be stopped. But in Dark Goddess I wanted you to feel true sympathy for the enemy and Billi’s sorely tempted to join them.
Plus there are three things I love: tragic romance, supernatural horror and swordfights. The Devil’s Kiss was just the beginning.
* Why did you decide to base your story around the myth of Baba Yaga?
Years ago I read a book called ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves’ by Clarrisa Pinkola Estes. She writes about feminine mythology and how so many of our fairytales are about girls transforming into women. Acquiring power, knowledge and wisdom. But these things are not easily gained, they are the most powerful gifts anyone can possess so are not learnt without immense hardship. Growing up is not easy.
Baba Yaga by Viktor Vasnetsov.
Baba Yaga is a version of the Great Mother, her story goes back many thousands of years. She is the Old Crone and guardian of deep knowledge. She is the first thing you see, she is the wise mid-wife who delivers you into the world, but she is also the one who wraps your body in its shroud when life is done and you must return to the earth.
Both Devil’s Kiss and Dark Goddess draw on ancient myths and I wanted Billi’s world to inhabit that ‘larger than life’ scope. Baba Yaga is an ancient and powerful witch, but witch means wise woman. Billi faces the darkness in herself and through Baba Yaga must make decisions that will profoundly affect her and the world. She faces the Beast Within. This is the passion, the savagery and strength that comes with acknowledging the darkness within you. It cannot be defeated because it’s part of you. But you cannot let it rule you and you cannot ignore it.
Baba Yaga is the dark goddess, but then so is Billi. Baba Yaga teaches her to face and integrate that darkness. Billi grows up in Dark Goddess.
* You went to Russia as part of your research, how much research did you do for DARK GODDESS?
Devil’s Kiss was set in London, my home town. It was easy to get the atmosphere of the narrow streets and ancient alleys, because I’d walked them in the day, in the night, the summertime and dead of winter. That set the standard. When I did the first draft of Dark Goddess I hadn’t been to Russia, and the editors complained it read like I’d taken my notes out of a guidebook, which was true. I couldn’t fake the setting. You might be able to do that if the place isn’t real, but I’d chosen to use only real locations in this series, so needed to play by those rules as well as I could.
Hence I needed to get out to Moscow. I contacted a travel agency who did tailor-made tours. The owner, Alan Steel, proved to be invaluable. He told me a lot about the city before I went, so I made sure I visited not just the places I knew about, but also some I didn’t, and I got a real, gritty flavour of Moscow, away from the tourist traps.
The scene on Sparrow Hills was one, it’s not a place tourists tend to go but it gave Billi one hell of an introduction to Moscow.
View over Moscow from Sparrow Hills
* For anyone amassing loads of research for their novel, what’s the best bit of advice you could give for using the research to its full potential?
Do it until you can recall the research without having to look it up. That means you’ve absorbed it and then can play around with it. The risk is you want to put everything in, fight that temptation. The setting and research adds flavour, but the bones of the story is character and emotion.
* Having read both Devil’s Kiss and DARK GODDESS, I can see links between the two in terms of how specific incidents or characters relate to each book. How much of this was planned when writing Devil’s Kiss and how the two books would eventually relate to each other?
I wanted Dark Goddess to acknowledge what had happened in DK and move Billi’s story on. She’s changed and so has her relationship with the other Templars. She’s one of them, there is no question of that now. Even Gwaine has a grudging respect for her. But the key change is Billi and her dad, Arthur. We know why he’d been so hard on her in DK and now he can be more honest. But they’ve gone too far and there will never be that sort openness and demonstration of love. It’s sad but both have been damaged by the choices they’ve made and one of the issues Billi faces is becoming too much like Arthur, cold, ruthless and thinking of the job and nothing else.
* What I love about your work is that you’re not afraid to make brave choices. A powerful theme runs through both books – how far to take duty and sacrifice. How far can one person go? Devil’s Kiss had some fraught, highly-charged moments and the ending required Billi to make a decision about Kay that no one should ever have to make. In DARK GODDESS she faces a similar dilemma with Vasilisa. How far were you able to go in writing the book, or did you have to rein yourself in with regards to some of the choices you made? As a YA writer how far do you think it’s possible to push these boundaries, to really ask the question, what would anyone do in this situation?
High stakes stories should push the boundaries and the highest stakes are both personal and public. I’m interested in the price of victory. I’m not really convinced by stories where you know that no harm will really be done to any of the key characters, no matter what. I want to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and deeply anxious. Remember I am writing horror, but the horror isn’t just monsters, but the choices the characters must make. If the reader feels Billi’s pain deep in their guts, then I’ve done my job.
Isn’t the essence of heroism the willingness to make impossible choices? And then pay the price?
What’s been so great about the feedback regarding DK is how people felt about the choice Billi made. Most were incredibly sad about what she did, but pretty much everyone agreed she did the right thing.
* I find it fascinating that, as a male writer, you chose to write a book that not only has a 15 year-old girl as your main protagonist, but, in the case of the DARK GODDESS, also seems to be firmly rooted in female-centric mythology and is full of strong female characters, good and bad. Was this a conscious choice or did it develop as you wrote the book?
Dark Goddess is my feminist manifesto! In the ancient myths the goddesses and heroines were all powerful and respected. They were second to no man. Look at Athene, the goddess of war and wisdom who rightly kicks Ares’s ass and is the guide to Achilles and Odysseus. Kali, the blood-soaked Indian goddess who protects mankind from demons when all the other gods have fled and dances on the body of her husband, Shiva.
I think the power has been drained out of a lot of female heroes. Sleeping Beauty for example. Totally, and literally, passive. She does NOTHING. Snow White again, after all the warnings she STILL eats the apple and has to be saved by the prince. Cinderella is another. Her only real ability is to look good in a dress. Good grief! Those are not the sort of heroines I’m interested in.
Then look at Vasilisa out of the Russian fairy tales. She goes alone into the forest, sent by her evil step-mother and her daughters, to fetch fire and light from Baba Yaga. She passes all the tests and returns with a blazing skull that burns her step-mother and step-sisters to ashes. Hell, yes!
I wanted to write a story where the female characters are as powerful and, more importantly, respected by their male companions. Billi’s a skilful warrior and the Templars know that. By Dark Goddess she’s part of the Order and there are no questions asked. Then we have the Amazonian Polenitsy, my tribe of female werewolves. Their leader, Old Grey, is like Arthur, wise, dedicated and deadly. But she’s a grandmother who feels love for her wayward grand-daughter but will let nothing stand in her way.
Finally, Baba Yaga. In the modern perception she’s an old, evil witch who lives in the forest. But she’s so, so much more. I wanted to give the reader the old, the original version.
* You’ve toured both the UK and the US with Devil’s Kiss and now DARK GODDESS. How have your readers reacted to your books? And how has it felt to be able to interact with them? How have male readers responded to reading a book with a girl as the main character?
The response has been great and recently I went back to a school to talk about Dark Goddess a year after having seen them talking about Devil’s Kiss. It was a boys’ school too. Out of the hundred kids there a fair portion were the same who’d been there last year. Even though it was a book event and there were other authors there, they came back to see me. I was incredibly chuffed!
Boys have no problem with a girl protagonist. You just need to give them the right girl. Look at Northern Lights, Mortal Engines, Skullduggery Pleasant, To Kill a Mocking Bird. All read by boys and starring girls. Look at Buffy and Lara Croft!
What boys love is action and adventure. Me too.
* There’s also an environmental message included in the novel and there were moments where I thought Baba Yaga raised a valid point. Did you deliberately want to include this message and does it reflect your views on how mankind treats the world it lives in?
Baba Yaga is RIGHT. If we have our homes infested with pests, we eliminate them. We cull other species because they ‘over-populate’ and ‘manage’ ancient forests by chopping them down.
Baba Yaga is merely applying our own logic to us. We’re the pests, the infestation that is destroying our home, the planet. The sad fact is we do more harm than good and, from the point of view of the other inhabitants on Earth, it would be better if we were gone.
The message is very deliberate. If we don’t stop ourselves, then something else will.
Chernobyl (BBC News pictures)
* What do you think you’ve learnt in the past year that you wish you’d known when you were first published? What was the biggest lesson you learnt about your writing and making it better?
Rewriting is the key. Have courage because what you’re selling is your passion. Don’t hedge your bets because you think this is what ‘they’ want, whoever ‘they’ are. Write what you believe in.
You may fail, but you’ll fail on your terms. Oh, and failure WILL come. So will rejection, so will disappointment. Get up and carry on anyway, in spite of them.
I write because I LOVE it. I love it endlessly. If that’s how you feel about writing, YOU WILL MAKE IT.
* Your typical writing day: have you developed a process for your writing day?
Get up. Breakfast with my family. Take the girls to school then write until it’s time to pick them up. When everyone’s gone to sleep I do the non-writing stuff, like this blog interview. Things spill into the weekends but I’m trying to get better at keeping the work limited to weekdays. Still, come Sunday evening, I feel the urge to start working. Not necessarily story-telling but I like to clear things out of the way so Monday kicks off with pure writing, not paperwork.
* I’ve asked this question before but I shall ask it again. Now that you have over a years worth of published book writing experience under your belt , what words of wisdom and advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Passion. There is nothing else that matters half as much. Writing seems to involve the near impossible balance between revealing raw emotion, tempered with clinical word-craft. The words are our means to get our emotions to the reader. Not easy.
Feel what you have to write as deeply as you dare, don’t hold back. The better you get at the craft the better you’ll get your story across, but that’s secondary to the passion.
* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?
Know when to STOP!
DARK GODDESS ~ a tall tales & short stories review
I think Sarwat has surpassed himself in terms of both style and story with this sequel to Devil's Kiss. His writing oozes with confidence and atmosphere and if you like your stories dark, action-packed and a real page-turning read you’ll love this book.
Billi has come into her own as a character, she's strong, feisty, determined yet also vulnerable. In other words, a fully-formed three-dimensional character, she accepts and understands that her actions have consequences and in this case the decisions she makes could have global consequences. No pressure there then! She has found her role within the Templars and has accepted it. That acceptance comes at a price and the relationship between her and her father is still fragile and distant but there is a greater understanding of how the lives they lead impacts on each other and those around them.
Amid the action-packed fight scenes with werewolves and ghuls, there is an underlying theme of sadness and loss running throughout the book, fittingly played out against a cold and icy backdrop of snowy England and Russia. There are swordfights, gun battles and hints of romance but also questions being asked. As discussed in Sarwat's interview, he combines Russion folklore and myth into a story of morality, just how far should one go with duty and sacrifice? As Sarwat said - 'horror isn’t just monsters, but the choices the characters must make.'
Dark Goddess can easily be read as a standalone novel but I urge anyone to first read Devil's Kiss then to move on to DARK GODDESS. You certainly won't be disappointed!