2023 sees the ninth iteration of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off or SPFBO (pronounced Spiff-bo). The competition invites 300 #indieauthors to submit their fantasy novel. Ten panels of judges, bloggers & vloggers, review those books to identify their finalist. The ten panels then read each finalist to select the outright winner.
The competition has taken on a life of its own. This year it took just 41 minutes for the 300 authors to log their entry. The competition offers writers additional publicity, to get their work in front of people who may be unaware of it. Finalists can find even greater benefits, some finish up with publishing deals and representation by literary agents.
It’s also a wonderful way for the writing community in the fantasy genre, to support one another. That’s what I’m trying to do here. Let’s find out about our next author!
Mathilda Zeller's entry into #SPFBO9 is The Revenge of Bridget Cleary. The story was Inspired by the actual 1895 murder of Bridget Cleary by her husband Michael, the struggle for Irish Home Rule, and events surrounding the late pre Raphaelite artistic movement, The Revenge of Bridget Cleary has been heralded by author Joanna Ruth Meyer as "equal parts haunting, compelling, and throughtful." It was nominated for the 2022 Whitney Awards. On her website she describes herself as: a writer of stories, a reader of books, and a drinker of herbal teas. She has lived in 18 cities across the United States and abroad. She has seen a lot of really wild stuff, including: goat slaughter, the northern lights, desert lightning storms, and a half dozen children leaving her body.
That last one, being the mother of six children, I'll leave her to tell you how she manages that challenge as a writer!
Intrigued? I am! So, let's get started with the interview.
1. Tell us who you are and how we might have read something by you.
I’m Mathilda Zeller, which is definitely not my actual name, and I write about mermaids (the bloodthirsty kind), fairies (the vengeful kind), and anthropomorphic eldritch bees (the fierce kind). If you read literary magazines, you might have seen my novelette, “The Incident at Veniaminov,” featuring Qalupalik (Inuit mermaids, the violent kind) in the May 2021 issue of Mermaids Monthly.
If you read horror anthologies, you might end up reading “Kushtuka,” my short story in Never Whistle at Night, an anthology of Indigenous horror, coming from Penguin Random House this fall.
If you’re into sort of gothic historical fantasy by indie authors, you might have read The Revenge of Bridget Cleary (SPFBO9 Contender, Whitney Awards ‘22 finalist) or The Bee King (which came out May 2023) but I’m small potatoes as an author so you probably haven’t seen them.
On that note, thank you for interviewing me, a small potatoes author. I’m allegedly supposed to yell for attention so I can sell books, and I appreciate the opportunity to yell here.
2. Give us your ‘Elevator Pitch’ for the book you’ve entered into #SPFBO9.
In 1895, Michael Cleary murdered his wife, Bridget, because he thought she was a fairy. (I’m not making that up). Enraged at the injustice of Bridget Cleary’s murder, the fairies exiled Michael and Bridget’s half fae daughter, Brigid, to the worst place on earth (England) with the order to avenge her mother’s death by stealing a lot of gold and killing her father. (I’m probably making that up).
Brigid wants justice for her mother’s death and pre-raphaelite painters, newfound female friendships, and an unexpected romance complicate matters. Shenanigans ensue.
3. Tell us about your journey as a self-published author.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I wrote several (bad) books and queried them unsuccessfully. I learned more about writing and wrote some (decent-ish?) stories and queried those. I got an offer of representation in 2018 and ended up having to turn it down because our interview was littered with red flags. That was really, really hard. When it came time to query The Revenge of Bridget Cleary I had this deep existential weariness about the querying process–to put so much time and energy into researching agents and querying them, only to possibly have an offer from someone who, despite my best vetting efforts, turned out to be dressed in red flags left me feeling like the whole process was a hamster wheel to nowhere. During this time, I had also become friends with several traditionally published authors, who, while having had somewhat successful publishing careers, also had all sorts of behind the scenes catastrophes that made me realise that even if I get off the query hamster wheel, I might just be moving to a bigger, shinier hamster wheel.
So after some serious soul searching and internet searching and picking the brains of a few indie authors, I decided to give indie publishing a go. I think there are opportunity costs to both indie and traditional publishing, and at this point I’m just here to read and write and publish stories, wherever the universe allows.
4. Have you tried the traditional route to publishing?
Yes, I have! I spent about ten years writing, rewriting, and querying. I got a lot of manuscript requests, and many, many rejections along the lines of “I personally loved it but I don’t think I can sell it; send me your next one.” I was beginning to feel like these agents’ personal Scheherazade, doomed to tell them stories night after night for their entertainment but no one else’s. Finding my readers and broadening my network of writing friends through indie publishing has been a phenomenally empowering experience. I haven’t ruled out traditional publishing entirely, but knowing that I can tell stories and find people who love them with or without a traditional publisher has been a game changer for me.
5. What prompted your decision to self-publish?
-Why Not? -What’s the Worst that Could Happen? Which reasoning is the basis of all the most remarkable (good) and remarkable (bad) choices I’ve ever made.
6. Writing is a lonely business. Self-publishing even more so. Does this isolation affect you?
Strangely enough, the reverse has happened for me! I’ve always had writing friends, but networking in the indie author world has opened so many wonderful new friendships and connections. I feel more interpersonally fulfilled in my creative life than I ever have before, and a great deal of that is because of some very wonderful friendships I’ve formed since embarking on indie publishing.
7. Tell us how you manage the range of jobs of a self-published author.
I have loved working with my cousin Kari Schuerch (@myreamofpaper on instagram) and Paulo Graner (@VitohGraner on Twitter) for my covers and other illustrations. I have stumbled incompetently through the steep learning curve of marketing on my own, but I’m learning things, and at this point, that’s what I care about. Regarding editing, I am blessed to have wonderful critique partners and beta readers, but I do dream about the day that I can afford to bring a paid professional editor on board as well.
8. How do you balance writing commitments with other pressures, like your career and home?
*Desperate laughs in grand multipara* So…I have six children ranging from preschool to high school, and I homeschooled them until 2021. My husband earned his doctorate in physics about a year ago and is now completing a post doc. If you’ve ever been to graduate school or supported a partner while they’re going through it, it’s…a lot. At this point, the majority of my work takes place while my youngest is in preschool. I make more time in early mornings, late nights, and occasionally when my husband is home and up to running the dinner and bedtime circus solo. He’s so supportive and I definitely would not have gotten these books out without him.
9. Many self-published authors want to retain control of their work and their IP (Intellectual Property). Is this important for you? What properties do you value?
I’m so new at this, I don’t have a particularly interesting answer. At this point, I think whether I’d sell rights to my books would depend on who wants them, what the contract looks like, and what guidance I could get from people who are more knowledgeable about IP than me.
10. What is your greatest success?
When a reader is still referencing or talking up my story weeks or years after they’ve read it, it’s the most rewarding thing in the world. That my words can live rent free in people’s heads that way is both terrifying and also a lot of fun.
You can buy Mathilda's books from her store by going here: https://mathildazeller.company.site/
Her website is here: https://mathildazeller.wordpress.com/
Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MathildaZeller
I'm sure you'll agree with me that the covers of her books are beautiful!
It's been a genuine pleasure to find out more about how writers maintain that writer's life balance. Mathilda's philosophy regarding #selfpublishing needs to be recorded on mugs and bookmarks for everyone to see. So succinct. So accurate. So much better than going through submission processes! Plus, I'm in awe of anyone who can manage a large family AND write novels at the same time. That takes some doing!!
Mathilda is in Bookborn's judging panel. We wish her the very best of luck!!