Some Thoughts with ... Steve Hugh Westenra

24 Mar 2024

The Author/s

Steve Hugh Westenra

Steve Hugh Westenra

Steve is a trans author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (basically, if it’s weird he writes it).

He grew up on the eldritch shores of Newfoundland, Canada, and currently lives and works in (the slightly less eldritch) Montreal. He holds advanced degrees in Russian Literature, Medieval Studies, and Religious Studies. His current academic work focuses on marginalized reclamations of monstrous figures. He teaches the History of Satan and Religion and its Monsters.

In 2018, Steve’s lesbian Viking novel, Ash, Oak, and Thorn, was selected for the Pitch Wars mentoring program and agent showcase. During Pitch Wars, Steve was lucky to receive mentorship from fellow queer author, K. A. Doore.

His queer horror comedy, The Erstwhile Tyler Kyle, was mentored by Mary Ann Marlowe in the inugural #Queeryfest class.

He is a SPFBO9 entrant.

Steve is passionate about queer representation, Late Antiquity, and spiders.  

The Interview

1.- Could you introduce yourself to the readers of this blog?
Hi, Everyone! I’m Steve Westenra, a Canadian writer from Newfoundland (though my family is originally from the UK). When I’m not writing fiction, I’m researching, teaching, and writing academic non-fiction. My research focuses on monsters and the monstrous, particularly as they relate to marginalized experience and representation and I have advanced degrees in Medieval Studies, Russian, and Religious Studies. My most recent book chapter is an exploration of fungal monsters in speculative media.
I have two published novels: The Wings of Ashtaroth (a political epic fantasy that’s sort of like A Song of Ice and Fire but in the ancient world and with a focus on a nation based on ancient Carthage), and The Erstwhile Tyler Kyle (a voicy, contemporary queer horror comedy for fans of Twin Peaks and Buzzfeed Unsolved). My upcoming fantasy novel, Ash, Oak, and Thorn was mentored in the Pitch Wars contest and is set in a Norse-inspired culture. It’s about a woman named Wytha whose failure to save her king’s newborn child results in her exile.
I’m trans and neurodivergent.

2.- What made you choose self-publishing?
Whew. Well, here’s where I’m glad you said it was okay if my answers ran long! Also, a brief caveat that I’ve met some truly lovely publishing people (agents, editors, mentors, etc), and this is in no way me throwing shade on those people. Still, I feel the need to be honest about how bleak and exploitative the system is as it currently stands.
Choosing self-pub was a long, fraught process.
I queried for years with a lot of close calls that left me more frustrated than encouraged. After a certain point (and a variety of projects in different genres), you start to worry that the problem is you and that perhaps mainstream publishing just isn’t interested in the kind of work you’re doing (spoiler: it wasn’t, at least not at the agent level), or that you’re delusional and are a talentless hack. I think my authorial voice is just a little (a lot) left of centre and not quite what people are used to. While that theoretically ought to make my work stand out in a good way (both for me and a hypothetical publisher), publishing is notoriously risk-averse and rarely are debuts given the opportunity to put out something very different from the mainstream. That sense of difference being a setback instead of a benefit gets compounded when you’re marginalized. Regardless of your particular marginality, you’re expected to perform (and write) in a certain way, and when the majority of literary agents are straight, cis, white women, that fact starts to make a lot of sense. I’ve had rejections that were 100% based on the queerness and neurodivergence of my characters (and myself), and have also had friends whose books were rejected by publishers due to publishing’s systemic racism.
In a world that’s very fixated on fast reads and that increasingly considers quality the same as brevity, long-form writers are also at a disadvantage. On the publisher’s end (especially for small and indie presses, who I have a lot of love for) there are reasons for this that are associated more with print costs. But it’s certainly not the only reason for what feels sometimes like a cultural fixation. Sometimes it’s like people read with the approach of getting the experience over with as quickly as possible, and I find that incredibly depressing. Ideally, I’d love for writers and editors to weave stories that get to be the length that works best for the narrative being told. In the nineties, you had fantasy authors pressured to pad their books, and nowadays I pick up a lot of epic fantasies that feel anything but epic because they just don’t have the page time to detail their world and bring depth to their characters (often through no fault of the writer).
My self-confidence took a big hit after querying. Taste is subjective, but speaking frankly, I saw a lot of not-very-good writers and books land agents and deals while I was floundering. It was a flip of the coin whether that would make me feel bad about myself (was I actually just a terrible writer?) or angry (why was the system set up in a way that seemed to reward mediocrity and derivative works?). There’s also a cliquishness in some circles that’s off-putting. That’s not to say that good books don’t make it through–there are plenty of traditionally published books that I adore (and again, it’s all subjective!), but it adds to the sense of screaming endlessly into the void. The querying and subbing process is absolutely soul-crushing. I’m glad I went through it in some ways, and desperately regret bothering in others.
I could have written a fourth MS and queried that (as industry advice usually suggests), but it would have been another several years of writing/editing/querying/subbing, with no guarantee of a yes. I was very ready to get my work out there and into the hands of readers, and having been told multiple times by some very kind agents and editors that my work was ready, I drummed up enough confidence to make the leap. I didn’t want to have to wait for someone else to set a trend so that I could be given a chance to ride someone else’s coattails–I’m more interested in creating original work and releasing stories while they still feel fresh and necessary. At a certain point it became important to be the one saying yes to myself.
The choice to switch to self-publishing wasn’t easy. Although I knew self-publishing was less complicated and much more respectable than it once was, I was terrified of the marketing side of things. Given how little support even traditionally published authors receive these days on the marketing front though, the choice was slightly easier.
I also love the artistic control self-publishing has given me. I don’t have to worry that my publisher is going to screw me over by marketing my books as something they're not (I’ve unfortunately seen this happen to a very talented friend), purchase an AI cover, or force me to change the queer and neurodivergent aspects of my writing. Mistakes will still happen, but I know they’re my own mistakes instead of ones I was forced to watch someone else make on my behalf. I don’t have to watch my career being punished for bad choices made by an algorithmically-obsessed boardroom full of straight cis white dudes.
I love love love collaboration, and one of the things that did attract me to trad was that sense of both collaboration and validation–being whisked off my feet by an agent who (finally!) “fell in love” with my MS enough to represent it. As “whisk” suggests, I’m highly skeptical now of that language, which intentionally invokes the fairytale romance. Of course there are agent-author teams that are fantastic, but publishing language loves to encourage this false belief in the ubiquity of these sorts of relationships while simultaneously disavowing them when convenient (the, “well, publishing is ultimately a business and so we have to consider the bottom line” schtick).
Collaboration is still possible in indie and self-pub spaces. We still need critique partners, editors, beta and alpha readers, etc. I still get to feel like I’m part of something bigger. (Look! I managed not to end on a cynical note!)
P.P.S. I should also note that, when it came to The Wings of Ashtaroth, choosing self-pub was in some ways easier. I didn’t query it for long given its length (it was 260k at the time of querying). I knew it was too long for a debut. So the above is more in reference to my overall decision to quit querying. Retrospectively, I probably should have kept querying TWoA, as it was a close call for several agents and I didn’t query it anywhere near as widely as advice suggests. I just didn’t have the experience to know that at the time.

3.- If I’m not wrong, you have been part of Pitch Wars and #QueeryFest, could you tell us more about your experience inside there?
I have been!
Pitch Wars and Queeryfest were both wonderful experiences.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Pitch Wars was a long running mentorship program founded by author Brenda Drake. Every fall authors could submit a “package” (usually the first few pages, query, and synopsis) to several mentors of their choice. Mentors were usually published and/or agented authors who had more experience than potential mentees. Over the course of about a month, mentors would request full and partial MSS from potential mentees, then at the end of the process would select a writer to mentor. Completed projects would be placed in the “agent showcase” where agents could request to see partial or full MSS.
It was such an event in the online writing world and it’s hard to express to people who weren’t there the level of excitement around it. On the day picks were announced people would hover around twitter in case the announcement was made early (it usually was). When it ended, it felt like the end of an era. While the contest had its flaws, the benefits far outweighed them, and I do miss the excitement around it!
My personal Pitch Wars experience was a bit of a journey. Before the year I got in, I’d attempted to enter several years in a row. I don’t think I received any requests on Ashtaroth (I imagine for many reasons, but I assume a major one was length–it’s a long book to work on over four months). The second novel I entered with was my lesbian Viking novel, Ash, Oak, and Thorn. That one got in on my second try with it. My mentor was fellow queer fantasy author K. A Doore. I was so happy to work with her. I remember being very nervous prior to our first video call, but she put me at ease and was so kind and fun to talk to. It was immediately clear from how she talked about the book that the things which were important to me about it were also important to her. She taught me a lot of tricks that I still use, particularly at the editorial level, and was an excellent champion for the book. I wouldn’t be the writer I am now without her.
While I did get a decent number of requests for an adult book (YA tended to be the big focus of the contest), I didn’t land an agent. Even so, the experience was invaluable.
Queeryfest was kind of an offshoot (or successor) to Pitch Wars in many ways. After PW ended, a bunch of former mentors got together to form new mentorship programs and Queeryfest was one of those. As the name suggests it was specifically focused on queer books and authors. The Erstwhile Tyler Kyle was mentored by the absolutely wonderful Mary Ann Marlowe (known for her romance novels, which I HIGHLY recommend). Mary Ann was a font of knowledge and shared so much of her insight into the industry with me. I could seriously fill an encyclopedia with everything I learned from her.
I want to phrase this in a way that doesn’t come off as bragging, but it’s hard to do. Basically, she felt TETK needed very little work–it just needed to be cut down (but cut down by A LOT). Mary Ann diligently and tirelessly combed sentence by sentence through my 144k novel with me till we had it at 119k. It was still longer than most horror debuts, but it was a substantial improvement, and it was about all we could do without sacrificing the beating heart of the story. I was very adamant I didn’t want to cut something if it would impact the quality of the book. It was a story I knew could easily turn into a very shallow novel if trimmed too much, and fortunately Mary Ann understood and respected that. When it came to self-pubbing, I did put a couple of scenes back in that I felt strengthened a specific arc within the story, but I kept the majority of the edits (it now sits at 122k).
I got a tremendous amount out of QF and met a whole new group of talented writer friends (all queer, too, which was nice!). If it happens again, I’d love to be involved somehow behind the scenes to give back and support queer voices.

4.- The Wings of Astaroth was your debut novel, which you serialized at first and after, published. Why did you decide to serialize it? What would you say you learn from this experience?
I’d considered serializing TWoA for quite some time, but at various points it’d felt like throwing something away or giving up, and I’d decided not to do it. That attitude was definitely a result of how traditional publishing had pretty successfully sold itself as the arbiter of quality and value–something I still struggle with and which I think a lot of us self-published writers do. To switch not only to self-pub, but to serialization, was a big leap.
Ultimately I decided on serializing first, before self-publishing the full book, because I was depressed coming off an R&R with an agent that I’d foolishly got my hopes up about. I think I needed the immediacy of knowing my words would be read by someone else. It helped that the style I’d written TWoA in seemed to fit a kind of “episode a week” format. I’m actually a huge fan of long form storytelling (when done well) and some of my favourite writing comes from TV shows like Oz, Rome, Battlestar Galactica, In the Flesh, and Twin Peaks.
I’m not sure I did serialization very well. I did learn a lot, I think, but it’s hard to verbalize. One thing I will say, that might be helpful to anyone interested in serialization, is that consistency is key. Make sure you update regularly so people don’t forget you or lose track of the story. I feel like I’m paying the price for that now in terms of The Crown of Asmodeus (sequel to TWoA). I got busy and wasn’t able to start posting it until Fall 2023–several months after TWoA finished. I definitely had readers drop off because of that (and I didn’t have a huge number to begin with).
Serialization is a lot of fun. When you do have someone regularly reading and commenting it’s a fantastic and communal experience. I love engaging with readers, so getting comments on my work is very enjoyable to me. When readers feel passionate about my characters it makes my day (whether it’s a case of the reader loving or hating them).
My readership is very modest, so I’m hesitant to give out advice, but I think “have fun” and “relax” are two perennial suggestions that’ll never steer you wrong.

5.- The setting on TWoA is quite interesting, could you tell us more about the inspiration behind it? In general, could you tell us more about the characters and some of the ideas that brought you there?
Ooo! Well, clearly I love talking characters (will it surprise you that I also love talking worldbuilding?).
The Wings of Ashtaroth (Book One in the Sands of Hazzan series) is set in a world based on the classical Mediterranean and in particular on the Punic Wars (real world conflicts that variously erupted and simmered between Rome and Carthage). It’s not a one-for-one comparison, so readers expecting historical fantasy will be disappointed, but it does hopefully have the texture of that subgenre (in a similar way to how A Song of Ice and Fire feels textured and historically grounded while being secondary world).
That said, I’m such a perfectionist that the idea of writing actual historical fiction (even fantasy) sends me into an anxiety spiral. I don’t want to get things wrong (and especially not when writing outside my own cultural background). I don’t necessarily apply that same standard to other people’s writing (anachronism, when used well, can be incredibly effective as a device), but it does rub me the wrong way when I read something and the cultural or geographic setting feels like window-dressing without any thought or care behind it.
So, with Ashtaroth, the cultures I created needed to feel well-rounded to me, and the world lived-in. Not everything needed to be on page–and indeed shouldn’t be–but it was crucial to convey a sense that the reader was being immersed in a world that existed beyond the page. For me, this is different from there just being a lot of lore that’s exposited at the reader–it’s rather the sense that lore exists apart from what we’re reading. That it’s living and breathing and informs character at every level.
Ashtaroth draws on real-world history (including, ahem, historically accurate buckets), but it reconfigures and reimagines that which it draws from. It’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, except the pieces can fit together multiple ways, so that depending on how you arrange it, the finished image is different.
There are specifics I can mention. I drew on my Biblical Hebrew, Latin, and Old Norse (among others)—as well as the very little Punic that we have—to help develop some of the languages and naming conventions in the various cultures and countries you meet in the book. Occasionally I do use real words and names as well and I’m still on the fence about whether that was wise, but it felt a bit silly at the time to invent a different word for gladiator–I did come up with a few of my own types of gladiator though! When I needed to describe some detail of the setting, I referred to my research on Carthage, and where there was no information available I looked to adjacent cultures where the archaeological record is more intact. I do hope this kind of layering gives Qemassen (the main city where the story takes place) a sense of depth and realism–that lived-in-ness I mentioned.
Capturing a particular atmosphere and kind of fatalism was also important to me. Famously, Carthage was destroyed and then colonized by the Romans. In the novel there are several nations and cultures that play pivotal roles, and I tried my best to make each distinct while also maintaining a sense of intercultural exchange. Next to Qemassen, two of the other important nations are the fallen land of Indas and the highly academic eq-Anout, which both draw on the history of Numidia. If you know the real history of the Punic Wars, there’s this tragic element to the relationship between Numidia and Carthage–it was important for that “vibe” (to use a young person word) to come through. Some of Carthage’s own political organization I also distributed to eq-Anout instead of to Qemassen–as I said, it’s a jigsaw!
Some key elements to TWoA’s plot don’t align with Carthage’s history. For instance, the question of whether the Carthaginians practiced live human sacrifice is one of our foremost historical mysteries. At the very least, the god “Molech,” or “Moloch,” upon whom Molot is partly based, likely did not exist. If such sacrifices were made (and it’s possible they were an exaggerated rumour spread by Carthage’s enemies), scholars now believe they would have been made to the goddess Tanit. Nonetheless, this element was essential to how I conceived the story. I love a bit of high drama and part of what I wanted to explore in the prologue was the internal conflict of a character who fundamentally believed they were doing the necessary, right thing by making this choice, even if it still personally horrified them. There’s also a lot of external tension and conflict that comes about as a result of the characters’ warring ideologies. Sometimes characters with whom we might share common values do things in service to those values that seem unusual or even reprehensible to us, while those with whom we don’t share a moral outlook turn out to be the ones we root for by virtue of their status as victims. I love that kind of tension and I love when you can really sink into a character and imagine their perspective. I was deeply influenced by Oz in particular when it comes to that element of the characterization, but also A Song of Ice and Fire, and even Revolutionary Girl Utena. Unless it’s done in a very campy way, I tend to shy away from narratives that paint characters in black and white.
Now, that said, there are some characters who are so sadistic that one would be hard pressed to sympathize with them, but even in those cases, I hope there’s a level of nuance to their personalities and situations that makes them feel like full, real people.

6.- SFPBO9 was your first experience in a contest with TWoA; how would you say it was? Something you liked specially?
SPFBO9 was wild! And wow, what a way to jump into the self-publishing world.
 Although I didn’t get very far in a technical sense, I’m so glad I entered. It’s become a joke (“the real SPFBO was the friends we made along the way,” and as I said in one of the Discords, “this isn’t SPFBO’s best friends race!”), but the best thing to come out of SPFBO for me has been the connection with other writers and reviewers. Right away, you were super welcoming and encouraging, and I’m so so grateful for everyone who took the time to give me and my work a chance, to answer my newbie questions, and for everyone who was patient and friendly.
 I’m a real newcomer to the self-publishing world and when I entered SPFBO9, I only really knew a couple of people. I’m usually a very shy, retreating, and self-deprecating person (especially online), and I made a conscious decision that if I was legitimately going to try self-publishing I needed to make a go of putting myself out there more. I learned how to do modern internet speak (using .gifs and emojis!), and learned how to use Discord (sort of).
I think part of the reason a sense of community has grown up around SPFBO is that, as with any contest like this, it’s an intense and anxiety-inducing experience. I know I wasn’t the only entrant who basically lost the summer obsessing over the contest, and getting excited (or sad!) when a fellow entrant moved forward or was cut. I say I didn’t get very far (I was cut in the first round), but there was a bit of an illusion that I had because my cut was announced quite late. In some ways that was great, and in others it extended that period of anxiety and hope. For the majority of the contest, I didn’t have much hope that I would make it through (and I cultivated that feeling intentionally so as not to get disappointed), but toward the end I started to think, “Oh! Maybe!” That uncertainty wasn’t all bad though–it’s also part of the fun. I think I can speak for most of us when I say it’s an adrenaline rush whenever one of the blogs or channels posts a review, even when it’s not your judge.
 To anyone thinking about entering, I will say to just be aware that so much is down to things out of your control. If you write YA, for example, and you’re assigned to a blog that hates YA, you may get cut not because your book is weak, but because there’s something the particular judge or judging team don’t connect with in terms of age category–and that’s okay! Internalizing that as much as possible will do you a big favour. I was lucky in that my major comp is ASoIaF, and my judging team was headed by someone who loves that book. I do know writers, however, who were assigned to teams that simply don’t love a particular genre or age category. This is not to say that the judging in those cases was dismissive–my impression is that all the judges did their best to be fair and open minded–but something that’s important to keep in mind is that someone not well-read in a subgenre or category is . . . well . . . not well-read in that genre or category. They may not know the expectations for what you’re writing, or may fail to pick up on the traditions you’re in conversation with. And, to put it bluntly, I don’t think there’s a way around that problem short of having a SPFBO for every single fantasy subgenre, which would be impossible.
Outside meeting some truly wonderful and talented people, and getting introduced to a bunch of phenomenal new books, the other thing I got out of SPFBO was that people read my book. I still only have a modest number of readers comparatively, but if I hadn’t entered SPFBO, that number would be zero. The readers I have found have tend to be quite passionate, and that’s honestly the best thing I could have asked for. If anything, SPFBO helped me realize my writing is perhaps even more niche than I thought, but that’s been both humbling and extremely helpful.
I’d like to shout out a few non-judging people, yourself very much included, who were such vocal champions of the SPFBO authors: Katherine D. Graham, Jamedi (you!), Raina Nightingale, The Fictional Escapist, The Nerd Book Review, Beard of Darkness, Zack Argyle, Rebecca Crunden, Rune S. Nielsen, Tom Mock, Sue Bavey, Vivienne Raper, E.L. Lyons, Steven Hannah, and so many more! I’m definitely leaving people off (I know I’m leaving off the judges and Mark Lawrence, but if I thanked them this would be pages and pages long).

7.- Your next book was The Erstwhile Tyler Kyle, a queer horror novel. What inspired you to write this novel? How would you describe the switching gears needed between fantasy and this genre?
TETK was my pandemic novel. I’d just finished a very long thesis chapter and was experiencing a lot of what I’ll charitably call pandemic-induced malaise related to the job market, my writing “career,” and the fact that our world is not-so-slowly ending as a consequence of global warming. There was also a lot happening in my personal life that informed certain aspects of the book and which I’ve been pretty open discussing privately, though less so publically.
 In many ways, TETK was a cathartic book for me. In a heavily fictionalized way it expresses a lot of my own anxieties. There’s a reason that when I was still pitching it to agents, one of my target audiences on the query form was “burned out millennials.” Beyond that, it engages with themes of queer longing that I think (and hope) will resonate with a lot of queer people. I remember wanting the book to feel like pure Id; I planned for it to have this visceral feeling throughout, like maybe fuzz was growing on the inside of your teeth. I’m not sure how true that ended up being in the writing of it, but I think some of that came through in the “fever dream” quality that a lot of reviewers mention.
In terms of its plot, TETK was actually based on a short story I started to write over ten years ago. The basic premise was that a closeted biology graduate student took a trip to this isolated island to study a rare bird that could only be found in the region, and that while there he became embroiled in this weird local tradition called the Dog Days (Dog Days was the original title of the story) that involved hunting dogs (and possibly humans) through the woods. In the novel, I deemphasized that part of the book, largely because I felt at that point that Wild Hunt imagery had become a little overdone in between me starting the short story and planning the novel. I also changed Tyler from a biology grad (since I know nothing about that!) to a YouTuber (something I also know nothing about!).
One of the earliest inspirations that I did retain was a secondhand story my friend told me about a friend of hers who’d visited this obscure island in Quebec that was essentially owned and governed by this one eccentric mayor. You could only access the island by helicopter, the mayor’s portrait was prominently featured in all public spaces. The local diner was weirdly old-timey and everything was laminated for no apparent reason. I’ve never managed to find out what this island was, but it immediately jumped out at me as a fantastically weird horror setting. For the figure of the mayor in TETK (my Conrad Uphill), I drew both on this story and on a real figure from Newfoundland called Geoff Stirling. Stirling was in every way an eccentric. He owned NTV, one of our local television channels, and invented this trippy Atlantean superhero called Captain Newfoundland. When I was a kid, NTV would play psychedelic promotional videos that featured Captain Newfoundland alongside a lot of Ancient Aliens stuff. It’s deeply, deeply strange and so quintessential, I think, to the Newfoundland experience. Here’s one of them:
There’s a reason that in the promotional material for TETK, I called its setting “Newfoundland but less weird!” Although the novel takes place in a fictional town in a fictional province, Echo Island is very much just Newfoundland but shrunk down and without the fishery crisis.
There’s a lot in terms of the atmosphere that was inspired by Twin Peaks, and the Silent Hill games. One other aspect that I’ve leaned on in promotional materials is also, of course, the influence of Buzzfeed Unsolved/Ghost Files (although Ghost Files didn’t exist when I wrote the book). I had been struggling somewhat with the setup for the YouTube show that Tyler and his co-host Josh ran, although I knew I wanted to explore themes related to parasocial relationships and how we create these almost fictionalized versions of ourselves through our online personas (and how sometimes the line between the fictional self and the real self can become blurred or distorted). This was in part an extension of something I had experienced as a teenager through a very intense freeform roleplay that I had with two of my best friends–and still maintain with one of those friends! As a trans person especially (though I think for my friends in different ways) it was an important outlet for me to express my gender identity. I felt much more at home inhabiting those characters. That said, there were negative sides to the intensity of how much each of us related to our characters (and related to each other through those characters). I think a lot of this tension is something actors and other artists will probably relate to. I wanted to capture some of the porousness and slipperiness of identity when it comes to art.
Buzzfeed Unsolved was this fun show I would sometimes put on in the background while making lunch. The dynamic between the hosts was one I thought might be a fruitful starting point in terms of how this tension arose between the two characters–Josh and Tyler. I think drawing on the premise and popularity of that series helped me ground the book in some ways, though ultimately the characters themselves are very different from the BU hosts, and take more from me and my personal experiences than anything. It was a tricky thing, because through deciding to use that as a jumping-off point, I became more of a fan of the show, but I also very much didn’t want the book to be fanfiction of any kind. I didn’t want to cross over into the territory that some of the characters themselves do in the book and which I was actively critiquing. On a meta level though, maybe that adds an additional layer to the whole thing.
In terms of switching genres, I didn’t find that to be challenging. I’ve always been a horror fan (the book is peppered with references to my favourite works), and I’ve also been a big believer in the importance of cross-pollination when it comes to writing. By that I mean that, consciously or unconsciously, we all draw on the wealth of our experiences and interests whenever we write something new. The Wings of Ashtaroth and Ash, Oak, and Thorn are both horror-inflected. It was exciting though, to plunge right into something where horror was the primary genre.

8.- What lessons would you take from the releasing of The Erstwhile Tyler Kyle?
 As always, I probably should have taken more time and drummed up interest ahead of time, but that’s a lesson I’ve never learned. I’d been waiting so so long to get the book out and I just wanted my ideas and characters to exist in the world while they were fresh and new. I’d been waiting for a rejection on a full for about a year and I was exhausted. I wanted the book out and I wanted to sever the remaining ties I had with traditional publishing. It was also coming up on October and I really fixated on the idea of having TETK release on Friday 13th.
 For those considering self-pub, I’d recommend trying, if you can, to put out the physical book alongside the eBook. I don’t have a physical book yet (though a kind friend I made through SPFBO is helping me to create one!). A lot of reviewers want a physical they can hold up and show off on their channel, or simply prefer to read physical books (I’m like this myself, so I get it). I just didn’t have the money or means to produce a quality book at the time.

9.- You describe yourself as a monster expert, so could you tell us more about it?
Yes! I am a monster expert, in the same way that someone who completes an advanced degree in a science is an expert in their particular subfield (whatever that may be!).
 Years ago, a professor of mine who was from England (where I’m originally from) gave me the advice not to understate my expertise. To make a sweeping statement, in England it’s generally considered impolite to brag or draw attention to your accomplishments or focus on your expertise. You don’t want to make someone else feel less-than because of a skill you possess. Although I grew up in Newfoundland, understatement and self-deprecation feel very baked into my personality. One thing I hadn’t realized as a young person was that (again, making a sweeping statement), what would be received as polite humility in England would be received as a genuine statement of one’s incompetence or lack of skill in North America. I’ve tried as best I can to push back against that and be emphatic about what I know and where my expertise lies, but it’s a constant battle and it’s always something I have to do consciously. So. Yes. I am an expert on monsters. I have published on the topic with reputable presses and am regularly invited to speak on the subject to audiences large and small. I teach at a university level and am respected in my department.
My interest in monsters comes from a similar place to that of many people, I think. Although sympathy for the monster has existed in a number of times, places, and cultures, we can track a definite rise in that sentiment in the twentieth (particularly late twentieth) century. Much of this is due to the monster’s historical association with marginalized groups and people, and an increase in our suspicion of grand heroic narratives. If heroism has become a dubious prospect, then monstrosity has as well. When asked about monsters, students of all ages will gesture more toward “real,” “human,” or “psychological” monsters. It’s a cliche at this point in its own right, but in many late modern and postmodern narratives, it often turns out that we (whoever we is) were the real monsters all along. This is not to say that monstrosity has become totally uncoupled from the physical. Throw a stone at any year’s Hollywood offerings and you’ll find examples of monstrosity or villainy that are communicated through physical appearance (e.g. Wonder Woman, Tangled, The Witches). Usually these texts will depend on a cultural legacy of associating disability (Wonder Woman, The Witches), ethnicity (Tangled), race, religion, gender, or sexuality with the monstrous in order for the characters to be legible to audiences. That said, concurrent with this has been a rise in marginalized identification with the monster. The reasons for this aren’t too surprising–we grow up watching, reading, and listening to works in which the characters who look, act, or desire the way we do are villains and monsters, and those same figures and archetypes have come to have an appeal for certain marginalized people. In my thesis, I examine reclamations of monstrous characters on the part of marginalized people. I’m particularly interested in works wherein that reclamation is a little messy and in which the monster retains its ability to cause fear or even death, yet marginalized audiences are encouraged to receive the character positively. My current chapter though, actually examines the monster fucker subculture (and subgenre), and I do a lot of work on ecohorror.
My latest upcoming publication is a book chapter on the fungal imaginary–the rise of fungus-inspired monsters across our media landscape and cross-culturally. I was very excited to be included in this volume, which was edited by the lovely Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. If you want to dip your toes into the world of Monster Studies, I highly recommend Weinstock as an entry point.
 In my teaching, I draw a lot on my background as a historian. I teach in a Religious Studies department (not the same thing as Theology, as a note), but my courses have all been entangled with the monstrous in one way or another: The History of Satan; Religion and its Monsters; Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion; Religion and Popular Culture. I work a lot on demons and angels in a historical context and if you really want to get me excited, just bring up 1 Enoch.

10.- Gender and identity play important roles in your books; why would you say they are as relevant to them?
One thing that remains pretty consistent across my work is that you’ll find a lot of characters who are “in between,” marginal, or ambiguous in some way. People in my books tend to be on uneven footing in terms of both identity and status. Much of that, I think, comes from my own experiences of being neither quite one thing, nor the other, and of having grown up in a small community but coming from outside that community. The status of the outsider has always interested me and in TWoA you’ll see different characters’ Otherness or outsider statuses brushing up against each other and causing friction (as well as camaraderie). In TETK, the role identity plays on the level of theme and motif is probably more obvious because the identities in question are framed in a very modern way (the 2019 setting helps), but I tend to examine identity as something fluid and malleable. I’ve always bucked a little at over-categorization, and so sometimes feel like an outsider even in queer communities because of that. There’s a utility to category–being able to articulate one’s perspective and sense of self to others can be crucial to being understood and to implementing rights-based language in activist spaces. Many queer people find themselves able to flourish precisely at the moment when they’re given a name through which they can encode–rather like a demonic summons–feelings and desires that were previously hard to express. Identity categories can also foster a sense of community and companionship–they make it easier to find one’s tribe. As “tribe” suggests, however, there is also the danger that such definitions and categories can become both exclusionary and self-fulfilling. Are we, I wonder, less likely to interrogate and explore the shifting nature of our desires and our selves under the pressure to conform to a definitional category that may smooth over our rougher and more permeable edges? 
I think it would be an oversimplification to say that all trans people are naturally interested in gender, but I do think most of us come to be interested in it even if we don’t start out that way. For example, as a teenager I really would have fought that suggestion because I very much didn’t want to acknowledge gender or my relationship to it. At that time in my life, I wanted to be accepted as male without reference, necessarily, to transness, let alone any of the ambiguous spaces I occupied as a non-cis person. As I matured, I grew more comfortable probing the raw, more uncomfortable questions that I think naturally arise from these conversations. All that to say, whether I engage with gender intentionally in a work or not, I find these days that it forms a prominent aspect of my writing. There’s almost always something new that I discover about gender (whether my own, or as a broad category), through writing. I think that’s a wonderful thing.
TWoA is the easiest book to talk about in terms of gender. It probably doesn’t fulfill a lot of the expectations readers might have of a “queer” book (whatever that means–and I could write an essay on the problems attached to thinking it means any one thing), yet its characters are deeply queer to me in a way that speaks to my experiences and interests. I’ve talked previously on your blog about the character of Ashtaroth himself and how the messiness of his queerness was (and is) very important to me. Initially I wrote here that I wanted to capture the messiness of queer identity (actually, human identity in general), but capture is too suggestive of something that can be contained. The spectrum of human experience, regardless of whether we’re talking gender or any other high-order category, is far too capacious. What I’ll say instead is that I want to refract gender; I want to explore what it looks like from a certain, uneven angle.
For good or ill, gender is one of the primary identifiers we use to categorize people, and so I think it’s important from both a worldbuilding perspective and a characterization perspective to consider the role it plays in shaping in-world expectations and experiences. In that way, gender can’t help but be important to any work of art. In fact, I’d go a step further and say not just important, but foundational. We live in a gendered world, and so any artistic work must naturally respond to that–rejection, especially, requires a relationship to something prior, after all. There are so many fascinating ways in which authors of speculative fiction have done exactly this kind of worldbuilding and characterization work, whether through the exploration of queernorm universes, the use of techniques like defamiliarization, or by holding a magnifying glass to the ways gender has been (and can be) used as a tool for oppression. The power of gender both to free and constrain us is fascinating.
One thing I do want to always be careful of is that I never offer any definitive or prescriptive answers. I think it’s when we start demanding fixed answers to these deep and far-reaching sorts of questions that we get into shaky and dangerous territory. I’m always wary of people who claim to have “figured out” something as particular and mutable as gender.

11.- What can we expect from Steve Hugh Westenra in the future?
Too much! I’ve been somewhat overwhelmed lately trying to work on too many things at once (reviewing, writing, editing, working, etc). The result has been that I’ve neglected all four of these things.
That said, I’m hoping to release Ash, Oak, and Thorn this spring (fingers crossed it’ll be ready for SPFBOX). Part of me also wants to submit TETK, but I’m worried it’s not fantastical enough to qualify, and I don’t want to take someone else’s spot if the book’s going to get cut for not being the correct genre.
Ash, Oak, and Thorn is a secondary-world, Norse-inspired dark fantasy. It’s set in the same world as TWoA, but on a different continent and two generations in the future. It follows a persnickety witch named Wytha, who’s been exiled to the frigid mainland by the king whose newborn child she failed to save. If Wytha and her band of misfit companions can find a gift worthy of the king’s forgiveness, they’ll be allowed to return home. But as Wytha and her friends navigate the densely forested landscape, spectral barrow wights begin picking them off one-by-one. The deeper into the woods they travel, the clearer it becomes that the wights aren’t attacking at random, but have been summoned by one of their own. Uncovering the culprit will involve an unlikely alliance with the followers of a foreign monotheist god, investigating the truth behind a small village’s murderous Wild Hunt ritual, and upending everything Wytha knows and trusts about her family.
I’m also continuing the story of TWoA in its sequel, The Crown of Asmodeus, and hope to have the sequel to TETK (titled For One Night Only), released in November 2024. For One Night Only follows the Discovery Bang team to Josh’s hometown in rural Alberta, where their investigation into a local cryptid combines with a hellish family reunion and a decades-old cold case with ties to Josh’s own family history.