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Interview: Holly Messinger on “Byzantine”

Tell us a bit about “Byzantine.”

I call it a gay demon romance set during the Siege of Constantinople. I wanted to play with the “deal-with-the-devil” trope, to figure out why a demon might enter into a bargain with a human in the first place, and who might come out ahead in such a deal? For self-indulgent writerly reasons I set that story against the historical backdrop of the Conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

“Byzantine” is the origin story of a villain, and I’d been composting it for a while—I had the characters in mind, I just needed to find them a setting with the appropriate grandiose background. This isn’t a Bond-type villain who has grand plans for taking over the world; he’s a pure sociopath, but clever enough to keep the world from noticing how much destructive potential he has. I wanted to explore the motivations of such a villain, and I needed to set that against the stage of major world events, to illustrate how the struggles of kings, especially in the name of faith, can outshine the predatory or indifferent acts of evil that take place in the shadows.


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “Byzantine?”

I initially chose the Conquest of Constantinople somewhat at random, because I needed the backdrop of a long siege with plenty of carnage, but once I started doing research I became fascinated by the military history, the politics of the world stage at the time, and the character of Mehmet II, who was a bleeding genius and probably a sociopath himself (this was a guy who had his baby brother drowned in the bath while his father’s body was still warm). He ended up being a magnificent foil for the antihero of my story, because both of them are dudes whose inner lives will never be known, only inferred from their actions and the myths they create of themselves. And maybe when a guy succeeds in conquering the world, the myth he writes of why he did it is probably not that inaccurate.


Was there any aspect of this story you found difficult to write?

Honestly, this one came together so easily I kept second-guessing myself, thinking it wasn’t going to work: that it was a cheat to use actual history for the backbone of the plot and I was just writing my own fanfic. And both those things may be true but it doesn’t mean the story can’t work on its own machinery. I wasn’t sure until the next-to-last scene whether it would come together, but a writer’s subconscious is a marvelous thing. Once I got to that “Aha!” moment—or as I prefer to call it, the “Oh, shit!” moment—I could see the whole architecture of the thing and it was solid.


Can you tell us anything about your writing process for this story?

I’ve been deep in the historical fantasy trench for a while now and I’ve kind of developed a pattern. I write the beginning of the story, get the setting, characters, and hook in place. Then I step back for a bit, do some research, make sure I have a feel for the setting and the worldbuilding. Often then I will write the ending, or what I think will be the ending, just to stake out the emotional arcs and/or the plot backbone. After that it’s advance, survey, research; lather, rinse, repeat until I get to the climax. “Byzantine” was so dependent on actual events, and the events themselves were so jaw-droppingly cool, it was more a matter of deciding what I was going to leave out. At the two-thirds mark in the story there was a turning point I knew needed to happen in my character arc, and I had to find an event during the siege that I could turn to my purpose. And that’s sort of my process in a nutshell—finding those parts of history I can exploit to serve my story.


Why do you write?

I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t invent stories. I remember being 7 or 8 years old, watching Wonderful World of Disney and suddenly understanding how plot worked. I wanted to write a sequel to The Apple Dumpling Gang. I went to first grade the following Monday and stapled together a little booklet in which to write my opus, and the teacher took it away from me because I wasn’t doing my seatwork. That set the pattern for my school and work life to date.


What are you working on now?

I just wrapped up the rewrites for my second Jacob Tracy novel, Curious Weather. Hopefully the pandemic won’t delay its release too badly. Ironically a major subplot of that novel has to do with creating a vaccine for a deadly magical contagion. Next up is a novel about Trace’s pal Boz and his adventures. Werewolves, Chinese coal miners, and worship of money-demons feature heavily in that one.


“Byzantine” appears in the May/June 2020 issue of F&SF.

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