Malus Domestica is a series about a queer YouTuber who hunts witches for the entertainment of her subscribers and for revenge. Join me today in celebrating the release of the second entry, I Come With Knives. Author S.A. Hunt talks about the inspiration behind the scenes, her writing process, and what her favorite reads are.
Crafting Malus Domestica
What came first: Robin, the plot, or this modern world where witches also exist?
The plot, actually. In my head, it started as a “cozy mystery,” one of those dialed-back thriller novels reminiscent of Murder, She Wrote where there’s this murder that happens in a homey little town somewhere and the local book club or bridge group or amateur detectives has to solve it.
It started with a pun, really—the word “coventry.” It sounded like “coven tree.” And I thought, why would a coven of witches have a tree? Did they grow it over someone’s grave for some reason? I thought of an acorn sprouting from a buried skull. Maybe the tree itself was the prison for the soul of the person the witches killed.
From that sprang the dryads of Malus Domestica, AKA the “nag shi,” the soul-sucking apple trees from which the series derive its name. That’s when I knew I had an adult horror on my hands, not a cozy mystery.
After that it pretty much snowballed. Robin was the first kind of protagonist I thought of—a strong-willed woman with a definite core of love and warmth and trauma, a kind of character I’d been wanting to write for a very long time but never thought I had the emotional intelligence or depth of experience for. And this book, I knew, I wanted to pass the Bechdel test. Moreso, I wanted it to focus on this woman and her fight against this coven of women—and to explore how even the borrowed power of a near-invincible goddess of death is nothing against the inner power of a determined young woman.
Everything else just sort of flowered from that. As I began Robin’s tale, I realized that I also wanted to explore this environment and conflict from a slower, younger, more thoughtful point of view, an angle that’s a little less jaded, and that’s where Wayne and his dad came in.
What kind of research did you do to bring this version of the world to life?
Aww, man. So much of my research is little things here and there as I go, as I elaborate later in this interview. It’s hard to say something like, “to get ready for this book, I studied indigenous coming-of-age rituals,” or whatever. It’s more like, I open an empty Scrivener file, and if I generate an idea that I feel deserves to be in the story, I’ll drop a breadcrumb and come back later to figure out how to wedge it into the book. Things come to me as I write, instead of the other way around.
If I could genuinely point to any one thing and say, “This is what I studied to get ready for writing this series,” I suppose it would have to be two things: ancient gods, occultism, and myths, chiefly Mesopotamian and Norse. Now that I think of it, I do this to establish a Why, and a How.
Since I chiefly write stories with a strong supernatural undercurrent, I have this habit of putting obscure pagan gods “behind the scenes,” so to speak, as a way to explain (or lampshade) why certain things are happening. So naturally whenever I write a book, I let the story grow a little so I can see where it’s going and what kind of flavor it has, then I do research on ancient pagan gods to find one who I can give a personality to and make a full-bodied character out of.
Then for the How, I research various forms of occultism and how different cultures view and handle magic. Often I’ll use these systems, scriptures, and rituals to inspire and inform my own interpretation, creating a new thing out of them. An example might be how Robin from Burn The Dark uses Norse runes to reshape and redirect magic, or how the witches derive their powers by making a ritual pact with the Mesopotamian goddess of death, Ereshkigal.
What was your favorite scene or moment to write?
Hmm. That’s probably a toss-up between the vineyard fight in I Come With Knives, or the pepper spray scene in The Hellion. I love writing fast-paced, dynamic scenes that really let me dig in my toes and explore rapid-fire sensations in a fluid, phantasmagoric way.
How did you decide which bits of backstory and world-building go into which book?
Honestly, I don’t plan that kind of thing out ahead of time. I write everything pants-style, discovery-style, and I add things in as I go, like I’m eyeballing spices in the middle of simmering gumbo at a cookout.
Almost all of my worldbuilding is done on the fly—I’ll be steaming along in the middle of a scene or a chapter, and clues will stack up as I write, until this clear picture of a new thing begins to come together, and I’ll be like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if . . . ? Hell yeah it would!” and then I drop a research reminder and keep rolling.
Later, after Writing Time, I’ll come back and do some deeper research into that idea and flesh it out a bit, making mental notes on how to integrate it into the rest of the story as I continue. I find that this approach is good for peppering worldbuilding throughout the story, as opposed to infodumps. It comes across a lot more organically, and I think that’s because these characters are making decisions in the moment that feel a lot more natural and authentic than it would from the clinical, detached height of an outline. And these decisions take the story in new, crazy directions, while maintaining a very human core.
That said, sometimes I’ll come up with something and I’ll realize that it effects the momentum of the story, or perhaps steals the focus of a certain scene, so I’ll put it in my back pocket for a later chapter or book. But that’s about the extent of the prepwork I do when it comes to planning worldbuilding, usually.
I actually tried to outline Malus Domestica when I first wrote it, and gave up at the vineyard battle at the beginning of I Come With Knives, because the narrative was straining so hard to get away from what I planned. So Burn The Dark was outlined. But honestly I think my best work is pantsed. As soon as I went off the rails and started pantsing, it all came a lot smoother, faster, and reads a lot less stiff and formulaic. Better, I think.
As for backstory, it really depends. I feel like it’s split between “Do I feel like giving the action a break to indulge in a little anecdote?” or “Does this memory warrant a full interlude chapter?” For example, the “Robin’s story” chapter of Burn The Dark, or the interstitial flashbacks to Robin’s training with Heinrich in The Hellion.
Was this the first book you have written? Do previous versions of this story exist?
This was not the first book I’ve written! My first was The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree, the first volume of the Outlaw King series, and you can tell it was my first completed chapter book just by reading it. Gosh sakes.
Burn The Dark and I Come With Knives were originally self-published as one volume, Malus Domestica, in 2015. But as we worked on editing it, my editor at Tor and I decided that with all the added content (roughly 30-35k new words, I think) it just made more sense to break the book in half and make two volumes out of it.
Is there anything else you’re working on while we eagerly await the arrival of Book 3, The Hellion, on September 15th?
I’m working on a crime thriller called Deadname, about a transgender private detective that chases a supernatural serial killer through a doorway in the fabric of time to 2005, where she has to team up with her pre-transition male self to take him down.
I’m also working on Malus 4, Outlaw 4, and a John Carpenter-inspired chase story set in a post-apocalyptic winter where the world was blown to hell in the Eighties.
What do you recommend we read to hold us over until then?
- Christopher Ruz’s The Ragged Blade and Rust
- The Adventure Zone graphic novels by Carey Pietsch and the McElroys
- Stay Sexy, Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark
- David Wong’s John Dies at The End, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Don’t Touch It, and Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits
- Josh Malerman’s Malorie
- P. Djeli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums
- The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe
- The Gunslinger by Stephen King
- Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, Blackbirds, and Atlanta Burns
- Ian Baker’s The Heart of the World: A Journey to Tibet’s Lost Paradise
- Cheryl Strayed’s Wild
S. A. Hunt is the author of the Malus Domestica horror-action series from Tor Books, beginning with BURN THE DARK (Jan 2020). In 2014, Samara won Reddit’s /r/Fantasy “Independent Novel of the Year” Stabby Award for her Outlaw King fantasy gunslinger series. She is an Afghanistan veteran (OEF 2010), a coffee enthusiast, a fervent bicyclist, and she currently lives in Petoskey, Michigan. You can find her online at sahuntbooks.com and on Twitter as @authorsahunt.