Author: Kalynn Bayron
"Kalynn Bayron is the bestselling author of CINDERELLA IS DEAD. She is a classically trained vocalist and when she’s not writing you can find her listening to Ella Fitzgerald on loop, attending the theater, watching scary movies, and spending time with her kids. She currently lives in Ithaca, NY with her family."
Interview by: Andrea Marks-Joseph
1. I love how queer This Poison Heart is, and how lovingly and comfortably Briseis’ adoption has been incorporated into her family’s story. Was Bri having two supportive moms and being adopted central to the book from when you first pitched it?
Absolutely. I wanted Briseis to have this solid family structure and I wanted, specifically, to highlight queer Black families. We don’t often get to see this kind of family centered. It really was the heart of the story (pun intended) from the very beginning. Briseis’s relationship with her moms is my favorite part of this story.
2. Briseis’ queerness is casually referenced throughout the book, through her dating history, and her moms’ enthusiastic support of her seeing Marie. Was there a conscious decision to introduce Briseis’ character as queer at a time way past any ‘coming out’ moment happening in her life?
Yes! I love and adore coming out narratives. They are needed and important to young readers. Equally important is seeing what the world looks like after that initial coming out. Coming out is not a singular event. We come out again and again to different groups of people; friends, family, co-workers, etc.
I wanted to show what that looks like when your parents say, “Cool. We love you. We support you.” Queer normative stories are such a treat for me to write. It feels incredibly empowering to have queer identities centered in this kind of contemporary fantasy.
3. This Poison Heart features allll kinds of plants —poisonous, medicinal, carnivorous, and mythological. Have you always been interested in plants and the study and cultivation of them?
I’ve always been into plants but I’m terrible at growing them! I don’t have a green thumb at all. I’m kind of living vicariously through Briseis. I have a strong pull to the usage of plants in medicine. It’s a fascinating subject for me.
4. What was your botanical research process like, and how did it fit into the storytelling writing process?
I did a ton of research and added probably twenty books on botany, gardening, herbal medicine, and plant- based magical practices to my collection. And like Briseis, I had a grandmother who used plants in her everyday life to cure everything from stomach pain to headaches, PMS to cuts and scrapes. Part of my research involved delving deeper into the folk magic practices of my own family.
5. Let’s talk the actual poison heart —as spoiler-free and considerately as possible. How did you come up with the idea? It’s giving... horcruxes?
It’s a combination of the Audrey II plant from Little Shop of Horrors and several plants that I researched that are actually carnivorous. Nature can be equal parts beautiful and terrifying. I wanted the plant to be monstrous but because it also represents generational trauma, it had to be something the Colchis women felt obligated to care for regardless of how much it costs them.
6. I can count on one hand the number of books where Black hair –particularly curly hair– is present as vividly as it is in Briseis’ narration. In this novel, we get a look at wash day and the entertaining but inconvenient “Don’t come over too soon” adjustment of hair routine when plans get moved up. Can you tell us a bit about writing these moments into the book?
That’s real life for us, right? We all know the feeling when you’ve got your twists in and somebody hits you up to go out or come over and you have to weigh your options. And wash day is such a big part of our lives we sometimes schedule things around it, or push it off another few days knowing we shouldn’t.
I have specific memories of reading books where the main character gets in the shower, washes their hair then just gets out and leaves the house. I’m sitting there like, yeah, that’s not how we do it but okay. So I make sure to incorporate these little details into my contemporary work because even if you’re the chosen one and you’re going to try and save the world, you need a bonnet.
7. This Poison Heart features so many wonderfully eerie elements that will feel familiar for lovers of the horror genre —the secretive small town, suspicious characters showing up, the dusty old house, mysterious murder conspiracies. I know Bri references Get Out in the novel. Where do you take most of your horror inspiration from?
I am a horror fanatic. I love all things spooky and scary. I am so happy to see this wave of horror from Black creatives like Nia DaCosta, Jordan Peele, and Misha Green. Horror from our POV can be such a powerful tool for reckoning. I’m also hugely inspired by gothic fiction in which the atmosphere is treated as a living breathing thing.
The feeling of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the social commentary contained in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are all things I tried to touch on. I like to think of this story as a gothic-inspired contemporary piece with horror elements.
8. Cinderella Is Dead and This Poison Heart are part of what I call the ‘Girls who look like me’ renaissance that YA has had in recent years. I imagine it must be revolutionary for young girls to see your books in their school libraries. What has the cover design process been like for your novels, and was there always going to be a Black girl with her hair out front and centre?
I’ve been very lucky when it comes to cover design. My publisher has allowed me to be involved in the process and they have been committed to getting it just right. They came to me and asked me what I wanted to see on the cover and I told them point blank, “I want a Black girl in a ball gown with her natural hair out.”
The same is true for This Poison Heart. I wanted Briseis on the cover with her hair out and her glasses and her hoops. Having girls that look like us on these covers is important. It let’s my readers know upfront who the star of the show is!
9. What has it been like to be part of the moment (alongside books like Legendborn, A Song Below Water, and Blood Like Magic) bringing Black Girl Magic in a very literal sense to the forefront of literature rep for young adults especially? Have there been some favourite reader responses, or pinch-me moments with fellow authors?
I feel incredibly honored to be in community with so many amazing creators. My debut year was packed with amazing stories by and for Black girls. For most of us, it doesn’t feel like competition, it feels like community. Our successes are shared and all of us are lifting each other up as we climb.
Some of the most surreal moments have come from my readers who are brilliant and so endlessly creative. The Cinderella is Dead hashtag on TikTok has almost 4 million views. I’m so bad at TikTok it’s not even funny! So all of that comes from my amazing readers.
The most wonderful moments are when someone reaches out to share with me how my work has helped them in some way. I’m constantly in awe of the power of storytelling in its ability to affect our every day lives. I love my readers.
10. This Poison Heart confronts the topic of generational trauma, and the way most Black families are denied their histories. You’ve given Briseis a family history that can be traced further back than we can imagine, inserting them into myths and ancient classics where her ancestors are both magical and powerful. Can you tell us a bit about the motivations and inspirations for writing this into your story?
I come from enslaved people. When I go back to trace our history, I hit a wall right around 1860. The records that exist of my people before that list them as property or goods to be bought and sold. When I sat down to write This Poison Heart I wondered what it might be like to be able to trace your’ family’s lineage back hundreds or even thousands of years.
It was an emotional thing to have Briseis look at her family tree and be able to see how it had branched off and where it originated. It moved me in a way I hadn’t expected. We’re all here because of the people who have come before us and there is something powerful in that truth.
11. Rhinebeck, the town Briseis’ family moves into, has defunded the local police, and we see a lot of the logistics about how that plays out when crimes occur in the novel. What made you want to explore this, and how did you go about researching the topic to include it?
I thought of it in a practical way, and I drew on my own experiences. We should all be aware of how the police continually fail BIPOC communities, how they fail victims of domestic violence, how they fail people struggling with mental health issues.
There has to be a better way and, in my mind, it begins with more expansive social services staffed by qualified professionals. Dr. Grant is a mental health professional and the police department has been defunded because in my story, police have crossed the line between policing a community and terrorizing it through fear and intimidation.
I do not claim to be an expert on the subject of police abolition. There are lots of much more qualified people to speak on the subject but I continue to be a supporter of defunding the police and diverting those funds to social services and community based initiatives that actually help make us safer.
12. Are there any easter eggs or inspiration that no one’s picked up on or asked you about yet?
There’s actually a huge one that nobody has mentioned yet! It concerns Nyx. The first person that pins it down is going to get a signed book and some fun swag.
13. You’ve said before that This Poison Heart is like The Secret Garden meets Little Shop of Horrors. Are there are any novels, movies, or perhaps songs that inspired storylines or atmosphere in the sequel?
This Wicked Fate is like National Treasure meets Percy Jackson with a little bit of Pirates of the Caribbean thrown in for good measure. It’s a book written in the spirit of the hero’s journey with the understanding that these kinds of perilous journeys are not without cost.
14. Will we see more about the witchcraft as part of natural culture and way of being (folk magic, as opposed to the big-picture world-shifting type) in the sequel —like Bri’s granny, auntie Leti’s knowledge, and Isaac Grant’s brimstone spell?
We see Isaac again and he’s got some surprises of his own. We definitely get a better understanding of the way Bri’s gifts work. Bri is learning to lean all the way into her power. And we’ll get a better understanding of the power of the Absyrtus Heart in its various forms.
15. Considering the (many, shocking) reveals at the end of This Poison Heart, will we be learning deeper meanings and links to the various mythology-related names in the book (Briseis, Circe, etc) or are these characters your own reimagining of the names familiar to us? Alternatively, are there any Greek myths we could be brushing up on to give us insights into the characters in the series?
The names are pulled from mythology as an homage to the people who have come before. Brisesi, Selene, Circe, they’re all named for people this family had ties to at some point. We get deep into the mythology in book two. It’s really my favorite part because there is so much. As far as what you brush up on, all I can really say is that we meet many more figures form the mythology and there is a hint to a few of them in the title.