The wonderful cover you see in this picture is actually a very recent release!
Imago: A Dystopian Gothic was released just a week ago and it looks utterly thrilling. And I am lucky enough to have the author, Matthew Zakharuk, on my blog today as part of Sapphic Fiction February! Make sure to go and check out Imago as soon as you’ve finished reading this amazing in-depth interview.
Hey, Matthew! Tell us a little bit about yourself - who are you and what do you do?
I'm an author of dark fantasy, science fiction, and horror, with a particular focus on the monstrous and the transhumanist; the alteration, exaltation, and horror of the body. As is perhaps predictable for a transgender writer, but it's what I love. My work centres transmasculine and lesbian/sapphic experiences and identities. It's also heavily informed by my background, with me coming from western Ukraine and living most of my adult life in Kyiv. Themes of migration, war, and social periphery are inextricable from my work.
My latest work is a gothic horror and dark fantasy novel "Imago: A Dystopian Gothic," [released] in January, and I have a science fiction short story out called "All Orbits Decay Homeward."
I also have a small business selling cover design commissions to fellow indie authors.
How did you become an author?
I've stumbled through many jobs with various degrees of success. Software engineering, theatre acting, trans activism, English tutoring--my resume only looks reasonable because I know what to omit. I've wanted to be an author since my pre-teens--for what I specific reason, I no longer recall--but life's been quick to show me I'm just not rich enough to do that. Like most people, really, especially those outside the Anglosphere. I write anyway, out of spite, and if I write anyway, I may as well publish anyway.
Who’s your favourite character that you’ve ever written?
Oh, it feels like a cop-out to name the protagonist of my [new] book, but it's true.
It's definitely Ada, the main character of "Imago," because of how much she surprised me and pushed me to improve as a writer. You see, when I was planning "Imago," I was very much focused on its bones as a gothic horror story, and I intended to have Ada be the archetypal naive ingenue that is thrust into a situation she doesn't understand. (In retrospect I'm not sure why I wanted to do that, since I don't like these kinds of characters very much.)
That's not how Ada turned out. From the very first draft, her shrewdness, her stubbornness, and her determination formed the backbone of her character. She was mistrustful, hard to fool, and there was no wall she wouldn't break to get what she wants. Basically, I could never use character foolishness or naiveté as a crutch. Not for anything that mattered. And nor could I genuinely give Ada a leg up in the story. A horror protagonist doesn't get to be ahead of the curve until the very end, if at all, and Ada fought against that all the way through. And that was really, really fun to work with.
Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Kind of. At this stage of my writing, I think I understand my process better than to call it a "block"--I know for a fact it's either me getting overwhelmed or indecisive or both. When I don't know what to write, it's because I feel like there are a lot of options and I'm worried I'll choose the "wrong" one. What usually helps me is just taking a break. When I'm not in the thick of it, it's easier to get the blinders off and realise which option I'd prefer. Or maybe that there's yet another, better choice--for instance, if I didn't know how to write a scene, I might realise it wasn't necessary in the first place--and just go with that.
What do you consider to be the hardest part of writing?
Those moments before you truly get a hold on the story, after you've started collecting disparate piece--"I want this moment, and that moment, and ooohh maybe that kind of plot, that character"--but before you've firmly decided what the story will be really about. When you've got all the spaghetti on the wall but yet no picture.
It's not that it's mentally strenuous for me--kind of the opposite. It's not very healthy, I guess, but I need to feel like I'm working, like I'm accomplishing something, and when I stare at a document full of word vomit and vague references to made-up things only I understand--well, I don't feel very accomplished.
Besides that, not a massive fan of revisions. I write first drafts kind of cyclically--write a few chapters, do a cursory pass, check for problems in construction so that I don't build a plot on a fault line, then move on to more drafting--so I produce pretty clean first drafts. In some sense, they're not "true" first drafts at all. Subsequent drafts, then, feel kind of like a chore.
And how about the most rewarding?
The simplest answer is, when I translate what I see in my head to the page. When I read back a scene where a car passes by, and that makes me hear its engine rumble and feel the splash from its tires spatter my jeans. When it seems like the colours around me have changed to monochrome because that scene was written like a shot from an old movie that never existed.
The other thing is dialogue scenes. I don't consider myself an exceptional dialogue writer--the actual words the characters say to each other in my work, I'd describe as serviceable--but I love everything that surrounds the words. What isn't said, what hangs in the air, what's spoken through body language. The mental push-and-pull, the frictions between characters. It's the theatrics of it for me. I may not embarrass myself on stage anymore, but by god do I love to write the shit out of "two characters talk in a room." No one's counted, but I'd be willing to bet that's at least a third of the scenes in "Imago," if not more.
What is one piece of advice you wish you had listened to, either in life or with regards to being an author?
I can do both at the same time! To speak up. About myself, about what I do, about the things that trouble and concern me. For a variety of reasons, I'm very much the stoic type, never-give-an-inch-of-weakness type, and it's served me well for surviving but not so much for thriving.
Moreover, when you're novelist, you can't expect anyone to speak about you instead of you. Not even in traditional publishing, not anymore. You're a creative freelancer now; no one's hiring you, no one's head-hunting you. You kind of need to always prove you're worth the notice you're asking for, otherwise people won't give you the time of day, and the structures behind social media, Amazon, etc., are stacked against you getting noticed, not the other way around. In some ways, you might say you're socially punished for doing a job you love as opposed to the one that just makes a boss money.
On a slightly lighter note, your audience tends to like when you're a person. People say sometimes about popular authors, "Oh isn't it great how they never tweet? How I never know what they think about, never hear about their dumb takes?" But that's only true because those authors are household names--they've become brand-like. For a nobody-author, that's not really true; you can't just post promotions and leave. Not that you need to insert yourself into controversies or say stupid things on issues you don't understand (please don't, in fact), but you do need to be a person. Someone with feelings and opinions. People need to see you, some expression of you. And, to take this back to me, my first instinct is to show nothing. Not because I have nothing to say--I do, and I do so at length in private--but because it's safe for me. But maybe it's not good for me.
Is there anyone you’d like to highlight, while you’re here?
Probably the two people I owe my whole writing career to, John Adamus and Benjanun Sriduangkaew. The former is an editor with a career literally as old as me, who regularly and at length talks about the craft of writing and the business of being a writer. When most writing advice online only goes so far--here's a top ten list of tropes, show-don't-tell, etc.--he'll break things down and talk to you like he's talking to you, not like he's SEOing for clicks. Not just in posts or videos, but in private, too, without turning his nose up at new people or unagented and self-published people. That's rare in professional writing circles, unfortunately. Everything worth knowing is behind a smokescreen, to be only revealed to the privileged, but you're supposed to know the business in the first place to get that privilege.
Benjanun is a fellow author, and likewise a person with industry knowledge willing to proactively help the less experienced in a field that otherwise offers nothing more than a pat on the back and "I'm sure someday you'll figure it out." She in particular champions and supports trans authors, with no benefit to herself and without reservation. That is also, unfortunately, rare. For all the great strides the industry has made, I find that trans creators are still only celebrated either in the abstract--everyone loves and supports trans stories, but only really for pride month, and if it's by a trans woman, almost never--or so long as they're acceptable enough. Sometimes there's a runaway success like "Manhunt," but to the cis majority, that's only more evidence that they've given us quite enough limelight already.
In that vein, I'd like to highlight a few of my transfeminine peers that also write trans sapphic fiction. Talia Bhatt is a fellow author that's got a Bollywood-inspired lesbian romance coming out this spring, so if my cup of depresso isn't for you, maybe her joyful book will be. Similarly, Vyria Durav writes about trans lesbian joy and self-discovery, whereas S.J. Klapecki writes sci-fi more similar to mine in tone. In general, I'd encourage anyone interested in sapphic literature to check out the transfem sapphic indies--tradpub in this niche is rare--for fresh and frequently overlooked stories.
How can people connect with you?
My website matthewzakharuk.com lists all my links, but I can be found in a pinch @zakharukmatt on Instagram and Twitter, being most active on the latter. I'm also on Bluesky but I don't really use it at all.
Finally a light-hearted one. What ice cream flavours and toppings would you put together in your ultimate sundae?
I'm a sucker for salt and bitterness with my sweets, so I love dark chocolate and salted caramel flavours. Crumbled pistachios on top, and just for good measure, throw a whole Snickers bar in there. I once had a type-A diabetic tell me that Snickers is actually decent in terms of glucose release because of all the peanuts. I'm not diabetic, but I'm absolutely using that as an excuse to eat way too much Snickers.
Be right back, just preparing the epi-pens...
If you enjoyed this interview, then make sure you’re following my social media accounts (@kblakemanwriter on Twitter and @katherineblakemanwriter on Instagram) to get all the latest updates! And if you want to support my own Sapphic Fiction journey while you’re here, The Summer We’ve Had is available now, and Love You However is coming on March 22nd!