SPELLHACKER Interview with MK England!

There’s something about M.K. England’s writing that I just understand. It clicks with me. We talk all the time about relatable characters, #ownvoices, and being able to see yourself on a page. SPELLHACKER is the first title I’ve read in a long time where I have felt completely seen. The genre-bending YA fantasy needs to be on everyone’s radars. Heists, magic, and queerness abounds in this incredible sophomore novel. 

Maz used to be a free natural resource in Kyrkarta, but that was before an earthquake released a plague that killed thousands. Now, maz belongs to a greedy corporation controlling access under the guise of public safety. That’s where Diz, Remi, Jaesin, and Ania come in: they steal maz. But when their final heist turns into a world of trouble and reveals a new strain of (rather explosive) maz, they realize they may have uncovered the secret to the spellplague.

“One last heist.” Famous last words.

When I heard from MK England that they’d chat with me about this January 2020 title, I was overjoyed! 

1. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. SPELLHACKER is one of my most anticipated 2020 releases! There’s so much to talk about: the characters, the setting, the conflict. One of my favorite aspects of SPELLHACKER was the incredibly inventive magic system. How did you come up with it?

Thank you! The initial idea seed for this book and its magic system came up during a tabletop roleplaying game session. I honestly can’t remember what system we were playing… Dungeons & Dragons? Star Wars? Pathfinder? But something in what we were playing made me think “magic hackers.” I needed a magic that could be physically stolen and would look cool with a sort of glowy cyberpunk-ish aesthetic—maybe a silly consideration? But it’s an important setting building block and I wanted it to be awesome. I had a really visual idea of what I wanted the magic to be like, which is unusual for me—I’m the world’s least visual person, and I have to work really hard to include visual detail in my books! 

I knew I wanted the magic to revolve around weaving glowing threads of energy together, and if that was the case then it made sense for the pattern and technique to be important, and for there to be multiple types of “fiber” to use. I started building out the different types of strands needed and went down this bonkers rabbit hole of naming them all after proto-germanic root words (a very distant relation of English) so I wasn’t co-opting anyone’s language for my fantasy magic. All that remained after my editor (rightly and gently) reigned me in was “maz” and the -az word endings. 


2. Of course there was a tabletop RPG involved! Inspiration can always strike when you least expect it. Clearly, I need to play more games to get my creativity flowing. 

The magic system isn’t the only thing I loved about the book, of course.  I’m a sucker for a found family in any form, and SPELLHACKER didn’t disappoint. Can you tell me more about Diz’s found family and how the characters came to be? Did all the individuals pop into your head, or did you tailor the characters to match personalities you wanted in the family?

Normally I approach building an ensemble cast a bit like building a party for D&D or a video game. I start with the practical roles I need on the team, figure out what personalities I need to be in the mix so they’ll clash in fun ways, then assemble those elements in as non-stereotypical a way as possible. With Spellhacker, though, all four main characters did show up with their basic features intact from the start. Ania walked on set with her glamorous cloud of curls, perfect grades, and expensive jeans from day 1; Jaesin has always been the dad friend; Remi has always been the spellweaving prodigy who loves life; and Diz has always been an angry, emotionally constipated techy who just needs her friends to read her mind so she doesn’t have to actually say feelings. I did a lot of work in the early drafts to make sure they all stayed differentiated, especially Ania and Jaesin.


3. As someone who also struggles to just say feelings, I appreciated Diz so much. Feelings can be hard sometimes! Your ability to write dialogue between your characters is amazing. It’s so natural, quippy, and fast. How do you approach writing dialogue? Does it come to you, or do you practice it out loud?

Oh, thank you so much! I LOVE dialogue. My first drafts are basically all action and dialogue. Writing dialogue is a lot like listening to a conversation happening in my head. I need to be able to hear it, or it’s not right. I do read things out loud, and strongly encourage all writers to do so. Better yet, read out loud to someone, even if it’s a plant or a pet. It flips a weird switch in your brain. I also think being a librarian has been a big benefit. Working with the public, and mostly with teens, I get to hear lots of different ways of speaking every day, which I think really helps. 


4. Speaking of dialogue (ha!), what is your favorite line of dialogue you wrote in Spellhacker?

Ack, I should really start keeping track of quotes as I write, because I can never remember after the fact! Diz has tons of quippy one-liners, but I really love at the end of one chapter where the group comes home ready to start planning their last heist, and she calls out to their apartment’s computer (who she’s named Unicorn Sparkles McSunshine): “Play my Badass Illegal Funtimes playlist.” It became the inspiration for both of the vinyl stickers in the Spellhacker pre-order campaign package!


5. Trust me, everyone, the stickers are great. All of the pre-order goodies are excellent. Reminder that you can pre-order your copy of SPELLHACKER from Brazos Bookstore in order to get the pre-order campaign package! All you need to receive your pre-order campaign package is email MK England a picture of the Brazos Bookstore receipt with your pre-order.

Okay, back to the interview!

The story takes place in this area called Kyrkarta, which is so vibrantly described that I swear I’ve been there before. What were the inspirations behind Kyrkarta? I used to live in the DC Metro area and kept sensing some hints of DC. Was that intentional or am I just homesick?

I was actually thinking of a combination of Richmond, VA and Pittsburgh, PA. Both cities have tons of different named neighborhoods, each with their own character, and they both prominently feature rivers. Pittsburgh has an amazing spot where three different rivers come together with a bunch of bridges, which inspired the Bridges District in Kyrkarta. I really wanted the city to feel like more than just a place where the events of the book happen, because it’s Diz’s city, and she loves it fiercely like a member of her family. 


6. Ah! That’s it. I also jumped in and out of Richmond, VA for a little while. Kyrkarta is designed so wonderfully that it still feels like its own thing while reminding me of places I’ve been. Kyrkarta is a perfect setting for your heist story. 

We know a lot about how Diz, Remi, and the crew feel about heists, but we don’t know about you! What is your favorite heist? Follow up, is there anything you’d ever pull a heist to obtain?

Back in 2017, someone pulled off a Mission Impossible-style theft of rare books. They repelled 40+ feet from a warehouse ceiling and made off with over 160 books, including some by famous scientists. The score was valued at 2.5 million dollars, and the thieves were never caught. HOW COOL IS THIS STORY. (Sidenote: I didn’t do it.)

I’m not sure there’s anything in the world I want badly enough to risk my freedom, but there are definitely some rare video games I’d love to get my hands on, and Star Wars props and memorabilia. Neeeeerd. 


7. That heist sounds SO COOL (sidenote: I also did not do it, but I respect it)! I love reading heist novels, but I can’t think of a real life heist that I find fascinating. 

Risking my freedom sounds bad and I would never risk that, but if I somehow mysteriously acquired footage from the History of Theatre on Film and Tape archive from the New York Public Library, I wouldn’t complain… (especially that Spring Awakening revival I know is there. Neeeerd, indeed).

Moving away from that, I think it’s great that you write standalone sci-fi stories. I’ve always felt a need for more of those. However, I’m also a sucker for a series. Do you think you’ll ever write more for SPELLHACKER or THE DISASTERS?

I actually have a whole second companion novel plotted out for The Disasters and I loooooove it, but a publisher has to be willing to publish it, you know? I won’t rule it out, though—I really hope I get to write that book someday! For Spellhacker, I could see myself revisiting the world someday, but I don’t have a specific idea of how it would go. I think so many SFF books end up as trilogies and series because there’s so much worldbuilding, it seems a shame not to play with it more, right? I’d love to splash around with maz and tech more. 


8. Here’s hoping that someone is willing to publish it! I would love more of THE DISASTERS, and I know I’m not the only one. It was one of the books I most recommended to teens and parents this holiday season. And I would die if I got to read more adventures with maz and tech!

Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions. Before we go, I have one last one: What’s next for MK England?

I wish I knew! This was the final book of a 2-book deal for The Disasters, so I’m a bit adrift at the moment. I’ve written a TON in the past few years, across every age category and several genres, but nothing has really landed. I do know that I want to write more queer, funny, fast-paced sci-fi and fantasy, but to be honest, they’re hard sells, so I don’t know how long it’ll be. I also have some major life/health things coming up soon, so I may take a bit of a break to focus on my day job and survival. I hope more of my stories will find homes, though! I wrote these books because they were what I wished existed on the shelves, and I hope I’ll get the chance to keep making shelves queerer and more full of sarcastic jokes in the future. 

There is nothing wrong with taking the time to care for yourself before you release more of your creativity into this universe. Rest and recharge! Here’s to making shelves queerer and full of sarcastic jokes!

Pre-order your copy of SPELLHACKER by MK England from Brazos Bookstore! Pub date - January 21, 2020.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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