DaVaun Sanders, author of She Who Hears All Whispers, resides in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and toddler twins. He’s a founding member and current Co-Executive Editor for FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. winner of the World Fantasy Award and Hugo nominee. DaVaun is also author of the indy-published World Breach series. His short fiction appears in FIYAH, Ride the Star Wind (Broken Eye Books), Dark Universe (MV Media), and Podcastle.
For those who have not read SWHAW yet, how would you describe it?
She Who Hears All Whispers is the near-tyrannical ruler of a city state situated near a massive bay. She’s what is known as a phagelord: an individual who can draw immense power from the disease carried by her vassals. Suraldisha is a refugee who blames the Matriarch for her daughter’s death and vows to wield the phage herself in order to tear her down—even if that means the rest of the city goes, too.
So a revenge story, plain and simple!
It was born when several writer friends made a pact to complete some bomb breakout novellas together. That first draft came out of me in winter of 2016, and I can tell you I lived in an absolute haze of despair and anger after the US election results. In retrospect I can definitely say that the germ for Suraldisha’s character found roots in fear for my twins and their future. For the larger story world, I found the idea of a magic system powered by the illness of others completely enthralling, and couldn’t stop imagining what control looks like in such a society, how people’s perception of illness would change, and so forth. For me the story grew into allegory for our own twisted relationship with Big Pharma and broken healthcare, how it preys upon people at the margins of society, and if we have what it takes to burn it all down.
I also set a personal challenge with this story to challenge my preconceived gender defaults. A group of my peers had a pretty deep online conversation about how rarely women characters appeared as anything more than talking wallpaper in too many SFF stories. Someone (I want to say it was Eden Royce) commented on what a sight it would be to see that dynamic reversed. So was born a matriarchal society that didn’t give a fuck about explaining how it evolved. I hope I did that aspect some measure of justice.
I love how integrated the ecology of the Bay is into life in Mataano Qahndo. You currently live in the middle of the desert. What was the research for that like?
One fascinating thing about Arizona is how all of these ecosystems crash into each other, especially when people influence the environment so heavily—but it pushes back. I know you can relate. Phoenix is hot—and probably gonna get hotter as the climate crisis sinks its claws into us. But on the weekends I take the twins to a riparian area that’s kind of tucked away just south of downtown. There’s herons, ducks and geese on their migration, frogs, turtles—there’s this one long nose turtle that’s like a submarine in the pond. The thing could fit in a laundry basket. People don’t associate the desert with that kind of stuff, but it’s here if you’re persistent about looking. But it’s still a little surreal to see scorpions and lizards in our backyard, versus say, squirrels or rabbits. But I appreciate how we can pile in the car and get to beach, forest, limestone caves, or Sedona. (Unpaid endorsement for anyone reading this: go to Sedona.)
I’ve always loved nerding out over nature; the twins already roll their eyes when I plop them down in front of a documentary and make em watch with me. I enjoy how SFF allows me to riff on how amazing nature and life is in general. SWHAW is heavy on riffing, light on research, and really interrogating how to make this secondary world feel different—especially given that the Great Bay itself is such an anomaly in the Revealed Lands. One direct inspiration I will share is the idea for six brick came from the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. I wondered what that would look like on a larger scale, how culture would develop in proximity to those materials; measurements, math. I’ll pull out of that rabbit hole for now, but that mineral formation is so fascinating to me, and I hope to visit one day.
Doing the best you can for your kids in a broken world comes up a few times in SWHAW. How has parenting (especially twins) affected your work as a writer?
Oh wow. So, so much. I remember when we were first expecting, how a cousin told me how parenthood transforms you; reminds you of your own mortality. And there’s a quote somewhere that says having kids is basically have your heart walking around outside your chest. All of that is facts. I worry about them every day with climate change, and how awful this world treats Black children.
So I have less time, but on some levels I write with more urgency. More focus. My stories are always intended to carve out a little more inclusive space in the collective imagination of our species, and I hope our children will find strength and community there, as I have. And I can’t utter another word about writing while Black parenting without kissing my wife’s feet. We’ve been very intentional about horse-trading work nights so we both have time to pursue our dreams, and be present in their lives. And I firmly believe they’ll be empowered to go after their dreams if they see us chasing ours.
I try to work twins into everything I create, not always characters, but just little Easter eggs. So if they decide to read my work one day, they’ll know how much their future and happiness and opportunity are on my mind. And I hope my stories bring them some joy, help them see things with a fresh lens, and imagine with all their might.
Do you have a favorite scene in the book?
You’re going to make me choose, whyyyyy! Okay. In as non-spoilery a way as possible, I’ll go with the first time we witness the Matriarch’s wrath. (I do enjoy writing my action scenes!) She’s such a terrifying figure, though. How do people behave in a society with that kind of overwhelming threat looming overhead? When does daily despair become normalized for a citizenry—part of the culture, even? Not relevant questions at all for our times.
What comes first for you, in the idea of a story? Characters? A world? Or plot?
It’s different for every story. My germs typically evolve around a plot point, a ‘what-if’ question. Then my brain goes into overdrive building worlds and societies with an answer of some sort woven into their fiber. Histories and magic systems and ecologies rise up in the process to challenge the question. Does it express a core truth that’s important to me? Is there a better way to ask it? Is it a gateway to an even better question? I go back and forth until it’s all simmering at the right temperature.
My poor characters are dumped on one edge of this call-and-response genesis (the most difficult circumstances I can find, naturally) and somehow, define themselves and their truth along the way.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Depends on the project, but lately I usually fall somewhere in between. My first novel involved a lot of pantsing, as I was basically transcribing images from an extremely vivid dream, and cobbling it together in some semblance of a plot. Through the process I’ve learned that, for me, plotting keeps events flowing where they are designed for the reader. It keeps me efficient, too, so I don’t spin out on a non-essential story thread that will require massive edits in later passes.
But the exciting thing about writing is watching your craft approach evolve. I don’t plot as strictly now as I did in past projects. I’ve learned that I must allow space for spontaneous inspiration, the magic that just pours out when I’m in the story flow. Every writer knows what that feels like, when it hits you and everything else stops until you capture that fresh idea. I can always go back and update an outline or move some scene beats around. But I strive to make room for those organic moments. Even if it means blowing up a previously flawless outline because my story is speaking to more chakras.
How did you get into the fantasy genre?
I envisioned myself as a science fiction writer early on, but fantasy story ideas kept pulling me in! I still have a space opera series floating around in my head that I need to get off the ground one day. I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek and X-Files, I’ve never seen a genre I didn’t like, so long as there’s some SFF in the mix.
You mentioned N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy as an inspiration during the editing process. What other authors and books have had a significant influence on you?
Absolutely too many to list here! Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. The Acacia series by David Anthony Durham. Anything by P. Djèlí Clark. I’m also a Wheel of Time stan, and hoping Amazon knocks the adaptation out of the park. One book I think more people should read is Playing in the Dark by Toni Morrison. I always find it grounding and try to revisit it every few years.
Do you have any writing rituals? Listen to music, work in a dedicated space, or at a dedicated time?
I’m privileged to have an office in our home, so that’s my current default. But there’s a coffee shop in Tempe with late hours and great chai that I’ll head out to when I need time away. Music is essential—I’ve got a general playlist of movie trailers and instrumental music, but sometimes there’s a certain track or specific list of songs that will propel me through scenes, keep the atmosphere where I need it or bring a character that much closer.
Every once in awhile I come up with a writing ritual, but they usually fade out because I appreciate being married. Once I vowed not to shave my beard until whatever draft of a project was done; let me tell you it was getting James Harden-level serious. I could get away with stuff like that when I was freelancing, I can’t afford to scare anybody (more than I do now) at my nine to five. I own the most comfortable red dashiki, infused with good vibes after wearing it to the Black Panther opening. That became my writing gear, like a uniform. I vowed not to wash it until I hit a certain goal. (Don’t @ me if you just spit your drink.) Y’all know how long it’s been since Black Panther came out, so I don’t rock it too often these days. For the sake of the marriage. I’m going to wear it tonight and see what everyone says.
What is the best compliment you have ever received on your writing?
I get consistently good feedback on my worldbuilding which I appreciate as I enjoy that aspect of writing so much. I will say the most unique compliment I ever received from a critique partner was that I write chaos well, which I’d never considered and made me smile. Now I’ll probably go overanalyze what that says about me as a person. (Pauses interview to stare out window and brood.)
Can you tell us anything about stories you are working on now?
Sure! I’m tweaking two major projects this summer. One is a middle grade alien invasion story where kids are getting snapped up like Pokémon to fight in an intergalactic tournament. The other swings way in the opposite direction: an adult story about a black woman who finds out she is descended from seraphim and that her blood is the key to unlocking an ancient revenant curse. They’ve both been a lot of fun and I can’t wait to share them with folks!
What are you doing when you aren’t writing?
Enjoying and surviving our twins’ shenanigans is the focus right now—before we know it, they’ll try to hide in their rooms all day hanging out on social media. I love exploring Arizona and hope to share the beauty out here with them. My wife and I both want to travel a lot more and get our money’s worth out of these passports. I’m in the beginning stages of doing research for a historical fantasy I want to write—it would be something special to visit west Africa when the time is right.
I’m also dabbling in animation, but that new skill set has a long tail.
How did you get involved in FIYAH? What’s been one of your favorite or proudest moments so far?
I started as a slush reader among FIYAH’s founding staff, as well as an OG member of NSS where the idea for the mag was first pitched and launched. This group of writers and friends mean the world to me, and it’s humbling to even occupy the same timeline. We’ve accomplished so much in such a short span of existence; choosing a single moment is difficult.
But I am immensely proud of our staff’s steady commitment to doing this work. And I’m floored by the range and depth of imagination that our community produces. Black voices have been and always will be contributors to cutting edge-SFF—whether mainstream publishing was accepting or not. I love that we are often our folks’ very first submission or publication. I love when people resubmit and seeing their craft improve.
Where did that soapbox come from? Anyway. One hand up to climb, the one down to lift up. That’s how we do.
What advice would you have for writers submitting to FIYAH?
Find yourself a circle of writers and build with them. It’s so critical to have family who sustain you through this marathon, knows your work and what you stand for. I don’t have a single piece of writing that hasn’t been made better through feedback with my peers. And submit!!! Please submit. Get your work out there—not just to us, but every market that fits. Relentlessly. Your voice is needed and we can’t wait to read your stories. I’ll look forward to seeing your work in the slush!
If you don’t already have your own copy of She Who Hears All Whispers, you can get it here! If you’ve read it and loved it, please remember to rate and review it on goodreads, Amazon, or wherever fine books are sold! Follow DaVaun on Instagram or Twitter @davaunwrites, or Facebook. You can also sign up for his newsletter and catch up with him at his website.