We're thrilled to bring you a brand new interview packed full with writerly insight, this time with queer speculative fiction author, Matthew Zakharuk! Discover their debut novel, Imago, and dive into the inspirations and processes behind this fascinating, multi-layered story of a lesbian student living in a dystopian gothic world.
Hi Matthew! First of all, please introduce yourself!
Hi! I’m Matt, author of trans and sapphic speculative fiction based in Dublin, Ireland. I write a lot about sympathetic monsters, trans bodies, violent women, and unforgiving worlds. Besides that, I also do graphic and in particular book cover design.
Tell us about your upcoming novel, Imago, and what inspired you to write it.
Imago is a dystopian gothic horror fantasy about a young lesbian student that tries to climb out of social periphery by studying the language of magic, and in doing so uncovers a bloody conspiracy that threatens to eat her alive. It’s a story of queer rage, displaced families, all-consuming empire, inane authoritarianism, and the promise of freedom.
The main inspirations behind this story were my own experiences growing up surrounded by vestigial Soviet bureaucracy, the various histories of oppression and empire in Eastern Europe, and the Victorian moral panics about sexuality, women’s liberation, masculinity and lesbianism. To wit, the story is set in a pseudo-late-Victorian/Edwardian secondary world, in a bureaucratic empire that spans a continent and shields its citizens both from the outside world and its own history.
Your story is set in a dystopian town named Heilung, in which an institute lies. What was the process behind building this strong setting and were there any challenges? Is this place inspired by any other dystopian/gothic worlds or stories?
I always build settings story-first; that is, I decide what I wish to convey with the story and flesh out the setting as the narrative demands. So naturally, this approach tends to produce pretty utilitarian and sparsely-magicked worlds–neither good nor bad in itself, it’s just a thing. But that does mean I study how writers from non-speculative genres make their settings interesting. The method that works for me is viewing the world through the characters first and foremost, rather than its own thing existing independently. Heilung only exists, as far as I’m concerned, in the way that the main characters of Imago experience it.
The inspiration for Heilung’s geographical location came from listening to the The White Vault podcast–a horror series whose first season is set on a research station in Svalbard. To an extent I used Svalbard and Longyearbyen as reference, but only for the natural environment. Heilung itself is inspired by the feeling of periphery and displacement. A labour-camp-turned-town placed somewhere free people might’ve or might not have lived–not that anyone recalls–but whose current tenants are all immigrant and impostor, to each other and to the ground beneath their feet. A place so thoroughly yet so recently colonised it can no longer conceive of itself in any other terms.
And so Heilung carries this sense of doomed isolation. Even if you’re born in it, it can’t be home; its very existence will always carry a seed of violence and neglect. It’s a place that can’t be loved and will never love you back.
The challenge with writing settings like that is, well, mainly that they suck. You need not only balance the tone of the story from veering into abject despair, but also balance the world itself so that something keeps it moving. That there’s some kind of reward or place of comfort that makes life worth living. The bureaucratic machine of Imago’s setting reinforces this–do this, study that, and you’ll get a nice place; the town still sucks, yes, but you have a nicer house than your neighbour, and isn’t that something?
On the topic of setting, you have lived in various European cities, including Chernivtsi, Kyiv, and Dublin. Have these experiences influenced your fictional settings in any way?
I like observing a city’s architecture and what it conveys–something that’s probably easily noticeable to anyone that read Imago. All cities flaunt the histories they’re proud of and cannibalise the parts they don’t like or feel apathetic towards. This is central to Imago’s world, story, and mystery, so I’ll leave it at that.
Other than that, I just enjoy portraying parts of the cities I experienced. I rarely transcribe real places exactly, but rather I carry the impressions they made in my memory and turn them into something setting- and context-appropriate. For Chernivtsi, it’s a lot of elaborate Hapsburg-era architecture; for Kyiv, layers upon layers of constant urban development on top of gently coloured Ukrainian baroque on top of bombastic brutalist behemoths; for Dublin, narrow streets and decaying Georgian houses fighting against the cold and the damp.
Can you tell us a little bit about your characters? How will readers connect with Ada throughout the story? Are there other characters you would also like readers to identify with, and are they different from the ones you feel most connected to?
Ada is a young transmasculine lesbian chafing at the social constraints placed upon her, and she flees into that queer self-defensive arrogance that just as easily turns into a self-flagellating doom spiral. She’s clever and thinks that’s her only asset. Above all, she resents the things she has to put up with to be given the time of day.
Augusta and Nikola, her sister and love interest respectively, are both a kind of mirror. Augusta is an assimilationist and keeps her resentments to herself, thank you very much; she doesn’t think she can get her way in any other manner, and she dislikes those that suggest or pretend otherwise. She is successful, but not too successful; she has everything an average person would want, yet she’s constantly at threat of losing it. Nikola, conversely, is in many ways a culmination of what it means to exist visibly and constantly on the periphery: uninterpretable to most, barely perceived and met with confusion when they are, and made to exist in crevices and caverns but never in the open. Look away, walk down one more street, and it’s like they were never there to begin with.
I don’t really think I get to decide which characters the reader does or doesn’t identify with, but of course, Imago was written with queer and especially lesbian and nonbinary readers in mind. Or at least, readers that feel alone and invisible, and as if nothing they do ever assuages that feeling.
What initially drew you to the dystopian and gothic genres and what made you decide to combine the two?
The “gothic” part came first. I was at a point of fascination with the genre’s technical construction. I’m actually more comfortable with stories where the protagonist is directly driving the plot and knows they’re doing so, which is usually not the case in gothics. Plotting Imago was conceived as a challenge for me to write a compelling story that is not driven by the character. To the reader, of course, it will probably seem a very character-focused story because of all the introspective moments and the prominence of the character arc, but from the perspective of structural composition, that’s not the case at all. On a technical level, Imago gets a lot of mileage from keeping the character at a distance, for tone and plot and worldbuilding alike. I couldn’t rewrite Imago in first person; it would’ve made for a markedly different story.
The dystopian part I arrived at more organically. I needed to write a monster horror where–spoilers–the monster isn’t actually the monster, so what is? The trite answer is “the man,” but I wasn’t terribly interested in writing yet another story about a Bad Evil McBad Guy to just tell the reader that Humans Can Be Shitty Too. There’s plenty of shitty people in Imago, but it’s a story about the things and forces that nurture and enable that shittiness, and who gets to be shitty to whom without punishment.
Importantly–and that’s also why the character is kept at a distance in the narrative, both as an agent and as a point of view–the story of Imago could’ve happened to other people. Everyone in it could’ve been someone else. Not anyone else, but there’s also nothing truly special about any of these people. And that’s part of the point.
Did you find any other challenges while writing Imago? How did you overcome them?
Honestly, my biggest problem overall is that I never know if it’s going to resonate with people. With my writing, it’s always this personal thing plus a book I remember reading a decade ago plus a feeling I felt when looking at the sea once. I rarely write in direct dialogue with something quantifiable, and when I do, it’s only for this one element of the book, not the thing as a whole. So after I’ve manhandled this into a marketing copy that’s human-legible and actually appealing and topical, there’s still the question: is there anyone out there that sees the world the way I do? Is there anyone that cares to learn how I see it?
I don’t write solely–or even much at all–for personal catharsis, I want to make that clear. I don’t treat books as therapy; when I need therapy, I’m absolutely not up for writing books. But all the same, some combination of autism and social alienation and what have you, have lead me to this place where I feel like I’m unique when I’m actually not. So I just kind of hope I’m being too full of myself and publish it anyway. So far it’s worked fine.
You focus on writing trans sapphic stories. Why is this representation important to you, and what do you wish you saw more of both under the trans and/or sapphic umbrella and other underrepresented identities within the media?
I write the representation that resonates with me personally. I don’t subscribe to the only-own-voices-ever idea and I think the premise of own-voices has always been flawed, but when it comes to personal choices in writing, I give what I have. At least on a core level; of course my characters aren’t carbon copies of any real person.
That said, I’d really like to see more transfeminine sapphic representation–transfem representation in general, but you know, I’m biased. It’s a demographic so rare in fiction you’d be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t exist. Fortunately I made a lot of author friends that write precisely that–such Alyson Greaves, Talia Bhatt, Devi Lacroix, Vyria Durav, and Fae’rynn, among others–but outside of that, I rarely see books like that talked about even under the trans fiction umbrella. When it comes to sapphic fiction, I find it frankly odd to see an under-representation of characters and authors with that unique insight into being and loving women.
You have already published a short story named All Orbits Decay Homeward. Tell us a bit about that!
All Orbits Decay Homeward is a cyberpunk story about corporate-owned cyborg bodies, a barely-inhabitable Earth, and a Sun that recycles the souls of the dead into work bots. It’s scientifically ludicrous and a little melodramatic, and if you like the idea of a trans sapphic couple reconnecting through the algorithm that subsumed their souls and blowing up not-America-in-space, you’ll probably like it.
How do the processes differ and compare between writing short and long works, and what made you decide to write different lengths for each? Do you have a preference? Is one more challenging than the other?
Besides the time spent, short stories are fundamentally about one central idea, one big emotional punch. Novels fold several themes, ideas, and plots together into one cohesive experience that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I personally prefer the latter.
The lengths of my works are dictated purely by the scope of their concept. I gravitate towards novel-long ideas because I mainly read novels, and as such, they feel easier to conceive of. Though of course, short stories are much faster to finish and edit.
We’d love a hint about any of your current projects! Anything that might surprise your readers?
I’m working on two things at the moment and can’t yet be sure which will come out first. One is a return to science fiction, a heist novel set in the far future after the collapse of a massive interstellar hive mind, provisionally titled Last Node in Mausoleum City. The other is an urban fantasy thriller about a mutant hired gun, set in a city that shares a metaphysical border with Carcosa, provisionally titled Blood Moon Blues.
Have any shows, movies, books, or games influenced your own work at all?
Among writers, my two most influential ones are without contest China Miéville and Benjanun Sriduangkaew. I read them the most in my late teens and early twenties. The former taught me how to blend science fiction, fantasy, and horror; how to plant themes and elements from one into another seamlessly. The latter introduced me to seeing fiction through a non-patriarchal lens–whether the world of the story is patriarchal or not–which is something many aspire to but few, in practice, achieve. Both in their own ways are very leftist writers.
I’m also a massive FromSoftware fan–the studio behind the Dark Souls series and Elden Ring, for those not familiar. If you really, really wanted to, you could even interpret Imago as a kind of Bloodborne fanfiction. Someone should, I’d find it really entertaining. But on a more serious note, their themes of decay, authority, and the ills at the heart of society, all resonate with me.
If you could give any advice to indie authors set to make their debut, what would it be?
One: shill your book like it’s your favourite book, movie, fanfic, show, whatever. Pretend you weren’t the one to write it if it helps. Run it by others first if you’re nervous. You need to understand what you’re trying to appeal to–what needs of your readers’ you’re answering–and then come up with a hundred different ways of saying that and never shut up. That’s sort of the short version of how you market.
Two: network with other authors and publishing professionals. Short of badgering people with links and whatnot, you can always start conversations. Half of them won’t go anywhere, but those that will are invaluable. The two biggest obstacles for indie authors are (1) being closed off from marketing channels available to tradpub authors (some of these you can offset, others you can’t really do much about), and (2) not knowing what on earth they’re doing. Tradpub authors also don’t know what they’re doing, but their publisher does or at least should. You need to build your own circle of professional friends, and you should try to punch up, as it were, at least a little. Because it’s all good and well to talk with other aspiring authors, but five toddlers in a paddling pool won’t teach each other how to swim. There are actually professionals out there–authors, editors, artists, marketers–that will talk to nobodies. You should seek them out.
Our podcast focuses on media we’re currently loving. Are there any books, shows, movies, or games you’re enjoying at the moment? Any recommendations for our audience? Bonus points if it includes sapphics!
I’m months if not a year late to this but I just finished watching Andor with my partner. As a story of rebellion against a fascist regime, it’s excellent, and the Star Wars setting is quite beside the point; just keeps things visually interesting. There’s a sapphic couple in it but nothing I’d call standout representation.
I’ve also recently read Attack Dog by Talia Bhatt, a dystopian sapphic cyberpunk story, and Sixth Mass by Megan Shore, a sci-fi heist story. Both I highly recommend.
Matthew Zakharuk (they/he) writes trans sapphic fiction with a focus on the monstrous, the dreadful, and the thrilling. They’ve lived in Chernivtsi, Kyiv, and Dublin, and can be found @zakharukmatt on Twitter and Instagram. Visit their website: https://matthewzakharuk.com/.