Author: Kelly Grant
Publisher: Self-published, October 2012
Cover Illustration: Kelly Grant
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Evil at the Heart centers around an unlikely band of travelers who become trapped in an ancient abbey where a powerful (you guessed it) evil lurks.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been introduced to the author and her novel by a mutual friend, so for this review, I get to exchange a few words with Kelly as she shares her process, her choices and her experience at self-publishing.
Ran: I was smitten right from the first page, where 15-year-old Caterina is forcibly prepared to wed a man many years her senior and under whose watch his last two wives met their end. Caterina is not only headstrong and gifted, she proves a tireless student of battle and an unlikely heroine. Call me predictable, but that’s a set-up I cannot resist even though it’s a very familiar trope.
Caterina narrowly escapes her wedding to be trained as an inquisitor at the Abbey of the Blessed Heart to be the only one to see beyond the deceit of a seemingly enchanting guest.
Fast-forward fifty years, there has been no word from the abbey. Mercenary Captain Septimus Rovero is dispatched to accompany Matteo, a novice monk, to find out what happened. Unbeknownst to either of them, their mission becomes much more than a quest for answers.
I have to say Kelly, you managed something I find very challenging as a writer. The band of fellows (calling them friends might be a bit of a stretch) is well-balanced as a crew. There is the weathered, gruff warrior; the quiet giant; the optimistic and steadfast young monk; and finally, the lazy, superstitious and slightly greedy mercenary soldier. How did you choose these archetypes? Were there other characters left behind while these guys came along for the ride?
Kelly: I did toy with taking along a certain special “friend” that Rovero has in Pavia, or having the action switch between the Abbey and events in the town. In the end I decided that added complexity and extra layers to a story aren’t always a good thing. One of my proof readers said to me “Oh, you’ve got two warriors, the rogue and a cleric/magic user,” which made me groan, because that wasn’t how I intended the grouping to be read.I think it’s quite difficult to create a character that isn’t a fantasy archetype, and kudos to authors who manage that. Robin Hobb springs to mind. Hopefully, the way my characters speak and react forms them as distinct individuals for the reader.
Ran: I don’t think I’m giving away too much by saying that both Caterina and the book’s nemesis are female, while the band of travelers is all-male. I find it an interesting choice in a time when gender balance and portrayal is so often under a microscope now. How and why did you make that choice?
Kelly: I love female characters. Caterina is the strongest willed and most important character in the book, with the hardest choices and terrible opposition. I know a lot more about Caterina in my head than made it into the book. I made the decision to tell it only in interludes from the past that relate directly to what’s happening to Rovero, Matteo, Wulfdan and Rico.
The book’s nemesis uses the moral flaws of others to her work her evil and disguises her nature with feminine weakness. This works for her because of the all-male environment in a way that I don’t think it would have worked for a male villain.
Ran: The world you created is governed by the balance of opposing forces of good and evil, and your writing achieves exactly the same – a balance between substance and simplicity, humour and tension. Bravo for that.
Speaking of polarities and balance, there are also some interesting choices you make also in terms of innocence and evil – namely, characters who struggle to act according to their better values, but are at first “seduced”, then convinced and finally trapped by their baser temptations of greed, power or lust. It very much had the feel of medieval paradigm that evil is constantly trying to trick you, and that humans are very much peon pieces in a divine game of chess.
This is, by the way, a good time to tell our readers that you hold a PhD in roman and medieval art history. Did you play with that kind of worldview?
Kelly: I’m glad that you picked up on the idea of the characters struggling, and failing, against their nature. That’s true for the characters in the present, as well as the past. People are made up of parts, and I think characters in a book should be, too, so there are situations when the gruff soldier feels terror and the lazy and cowardly character is motivated to spit certain death in the eye. As I’m writing I ask myself, “How does this situation press each of my character’s buttons?” and then give myself a couple of options for how they might react. And once one character does something, their action bounces off all the characters around them and that can be interesting.
The idea of the divine game is truer than you know, Miranda. The wider story behind events in the book fits that description very well. I have to say that I really struggled with the Trinity. It’s not intended to be a thin veil drawn over a representation of the medieval Church. Christianity has this idea of absolute good and absolute evil.
The Gods in Evil at the Heart are not meant to be one dimensional: Chaos has destruction at its core, but sometimes that’s a creative, regenerative force. Similarly, Law can become stifling and restrictive. In a dictatorship, one-man’s law is absolute. But it was very difficult to articulate the religion, because Evil at the Heart takes place in a single, isolated location.
Ran: Given that constraint I think you did very well. I particularly liked the conversation over cards between Rovero and Zarafael. I know that most readers will not know what we are talking about (psst! Go get the book!), but there is a nice depth to the supernatural beings in the world you created. There is more happening behind the scenes which I hope we will glimpse in your next book.
Kelly: The world is definitely set in the Medieval/Renaissance time period, though its an alternate reality where divine magic exists and is accepted, so long as its controlled within the structure of the Church. As in the Medieval time period, the Church of the Trinity is pervasive and an important part of most people’s lives.
Caterina and the female villain fit the archetypes of the Virtuous and the Corrupting woman. Rovero is modelled upon Condottieri, professional soldiers who sold their services to the highest bidder but could be notorious for switching sides or taking up banditry between contracts. He’s perhaps a bit too nice but the reader has to like him enough to make them want to find out what happens to him.
Ran: He’s gruff enough, I think. Given that he’s the most seasoned warriors with them, we really care if only because we rely on him to keep them alive! Tell me about the cover art.
Kelly: The cover art is taken from a photograph of St Michael’s Abbey, in Italy, that had just the right desolate feel to it. I spent way too much time in Photoshop messing about with it to give it a more painterly feel, adding in crows and other small details but was really happy with it when I was done. It went through several iterations as I passed it around friends for their comments, particularly over the text size and font type. I read some online discussions about the design of e-book covers and one of the biggest draws for your book is the cover, so getting the image and the text just right is very important.
Ran: You chose to self-publish. What was your process?
Kelly: I did indeed self publish. I was inspired to go back to earlier drafts of the unfinished book by the success of the e-reader, particularly the Amazon Kindle. I was downloading four or five books a day and started to come across books that were independently written and better than the ones being put out by well-known publishing houses.
Kindle Direct Publishing has a very straightforward guide to formatting your text for their reader and Smashwords.com has a great guide to formatting for all the other readers, like Kobo and Apple and an online program to do the conversion. I used a free program called Calibre to check my formatting was looking good for the Kindle, and it will create files for the other e-book platforms as well.
Ran: Why did you opt for self-publishing?
Kelly: I opted for self publishing after reading over a dozen author blogs where the authors told of their struggle to get representation and get published by the regular press and how frequently they were then screwed over by their publishers. These were people whose books have been massively successful since moving to e-book format, selling many thousands of copies. It’s not that I expect by self-publishing and going online with Evil at the Heart that I’m going to make a fortune. The book was finished, there was a way to make it available to a huge audience that wasn’t going to take months or even years, it doesn’t cost me anything but my time, and I receive direct feedback from my readers.
Ran: Did you use any professional services? Did have an editor or a proofreader?
Kelly: I had the book proofread three times when it was completed to draft. I’m fortunate to have academic friends who are incredibly picky about spelling and grammar and I passed it to a couple of these and they checked the draft for me. Spelling mistakes, poor layout and bad grammar get in the way of your reader enjoying the story you want to tell.
I’m sure there are still small glitches in the text and the beauty of an e-book is I can go back to the manuscript, fix those and republish. I didn’t have a professional editor for Evil at the Heart, but my husband and two friends read each chapter and came back to me with criticisms and suggestions.
Ran: I have to say, Kelly, I’m really impressed with what you all did then. It’s very tight.
Kelly: Between the three of them they really tightened it up. I think a good editor needs to be a bit adversarial, a bit confrontational, cruel to be kind. My writing is better for the suggestions that they made. For the second book, which I’m working on now, I’ve joined an online writing workshop, where there are a lot of professional editors as part of the membership.
Ran: So what inspired this particular story? How did Caterina and Captain Rovero come about?
Kelly: The inspiration was a game area that I wrote when I was running an online text-game, back in the 1990′s. These were the forerunner of MMORPG’s, like World of Warcraft. In 1995 I went on my first trip to Europe, and went through dozens of abbeys and castles. I saw St Michael’s in Italy and Mont-Saint-Michel in France, and the remoteness of both was really striking. I also absolutely love the historic feel of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, and Glen Cook’s Black Company series. I love the scheming and intrigues of the early and middle Italian Renaissance. When I threw all those things together and let them stew, out came Matteo and Captain Rovero, Caterina and Arland d’Baude.
Ran: I was hoping you’d bring that up! I’m very new in the gaming world – I fell in love with the Myst series and what drew me to it was the actual storyline. Evil at the Heart did feel like it could translate into a game. Then when I read your bio and found that you’ve been writing for games for a very long time, I was thrilled. Tell me more about how writing for games influenced EaH or maybe just developed your style. How are the two disciplines different or the same?
Kelly: To me, RPG’s have always been about the story driving the game. I am simply dreadful at applying game mechanics and rules. That’s probably why I love RPG’s like the horror game Call of Cthulhu with it’s simple rules, where the story is King and sanity is soon scarce. Writing for an RPG is, in my opinion, fantastic training for writing a story that will be character driven. You create your setting and plot, and drop carefully crafted characters into it then watch them run about, head butting problems. Like players in an RPG, the characters that you create have the potential to respond to the situations you set up in multiple ways and that creates the interest for the reader. What will the characters bring to the story, what will be unique about them, in terms of personality and skills, that will impact the story you want to tell?
Ran: Right. That’s exactly what Evil at the Heart felt like to me. The setting was so supreme, it was arguably a character in and of itself. And I want to say for readers, that that is to your credit as a writer. I know blessed nothing about medieval abbeys and yet you drew vivid descriptions that felt very real: the crunching of snow on stone under Caterina’s feet, the winding stairs, windows, dining halls and gardens, and most of all, the towering height of these structures, built up steep mountain tops – all felt very real and accessible.
Kelly: Matteo has a special gift, and I struggled with that because its such a BIG gift, such an extraordinary talent, that it seems like he should be able to do anything and solve any problem using it. I had to impose limitations and make those understandable and believable to the reader.
Ran: The reasoning you devised was very imaginative by the way. We can’t say too much more, for fear of spoiling – but I felt on edge the whole time wondering – as Matteo must have – whether the risk outweighed the consequence. The conundrum is similar to that brought about by the ring in LoTR, you struggle with the temptation throughout, even when you know the consequences could be devastating.
Kelly: Caterina knows something is going badly wrong, but can’t get anyone to listen to her, and that has the potential to be incredibly frustrating for the reader. Those were the kind of problems that I found myself nutting out because of the way the characters were written. Another thing that running RPG’s teaches you about writing is that your players will always look for holes in the plot and drive a truck through them if they can. They look for world and story integrity, suspension of disbelief. Once I create the world and its rules, then if I bend the rules or the way the world works to accommodate the plot, then the integrity of my world and my characters is broken.
In an RPG, the player disengages from the scenario as a waste of time, and you can lose your reader in the same way. For example, I recently read a fantasy series featuring vampires. The writer stressed, over and over, that a vampire was loyal to their Sire and found them almost impossible to disobey, while the Sire felt incredible protectiveness towards the created Child. The writer broke this rule for her two main characters whenever it happened to get in the way of her story, rather than using this interesting aspect of her world as something to challenge her characters. That’s lazy writing.
Ran: There is nothing lazy about Evil at the Heart. Thank you for writing it, sharing it with the world and thanks for taking the time to speak with us.
Kelly: Thanks very much for the interview, it was fun!