A year after the debut of her YA fairy tale reimagining, Cinderella Is Dead, Kalynn Bayron returns with a contemporary fantasy, This Poison Heart, featuring a queer Black girl, her queer Black family, and a garden full of deadly secrets. Bayron spoke with PW about the varied inspiration for her latest foray into fantasy, the lingering impact of multigenerational trauma on the characters she writes, and what she’s most eager to write next.
What inspired the premise of This Poison Heart?
A lot of different things. I was obsessed with musicals as a kid, [including] Little Shop of Horrors. Of course I have a love for fairy tales and of children’s literature from when I was young, so I also loved The Secret Garden. I thought it would be great to have my own little garden somewhere, but being the type of reader that I am, I thought, “What if the plants were deadly, or some other twist?” So there’s that.
I read an article in 2017, I think, about this guy who was the keeper of a real-poison garden, somewhere in England. He has to wear, like, a full biohazard suit when he goes in to tend to these plants. It was just so fascinating to me, and I already had this idea from Little Shop of Horrors and The Secret Garden, so [I thought], I’m just going to jump in: make it contemporary fantasy, center a queer Black girl, pulling all the things I love together in this kind of weird and wonderful story.
What about This Poison Heart’s main character, Briseis? What inspired her power and her story arc?
Poison Ivy [from DC Comics] is definitely an influence there. I think I see her as this cult, queer icon. She and Harley Quinn are pretty much relationship goals. There’s that and there’s also this part of me that wanted to explore what it means to really step into your power. And what does that mean when you’re trying to navigate the world while you have something about yourself that you have to keep secret when you shouldn’t have to? Briseis is born with this power and she has to hide it, though not necessarily from her parents; they know who she is. She really has to embrace her power to figure out where it comes from. There are a lot of themes and layers there, especially when we’re talking about a queer Black girl at the center of this story.
This Poison Heart is such a wonderfully queer story from roots to petals. What inspired you to go in this direction?
I’m pansexual and so there are Sapphic elements to my own sexuality. I read so much YA, among other books, and a lot of times parents are absent, or there’s only a mom or a dad, and it’s very heteronormative. I wanted to show a queer Black family that was very present in their child’s life, because I know there’s no way I could have been doing anything without my dad being in my business when I was a kid. I wanted to show these queer parents being supportive and just being allowed to exist.
The novel features a multigenerational exploration of the ability Briseis shares with her ancestors. What compelled you to tell the story in that way?
When I got to the end of my first draft, I realized, yes, this is fantasy. This is a story about magic; this is a story about family. This is also about generational trauma. This is about things that we carry, sometimes even without knowing it: things that we carry within ourselves, burdens we carry—and how do we put those down? How do we change the narrative? How do we do things differently? That was a theme for me in Cinderella Is Dead, too. How do generations of people lean into this reductive way of thinking? In This Poison Heart, it was really about why we continue to do things that are detrimental to us just because they’ve been done that way for so long. Those things continue to pop up in my work because those are things I’m still working through and trying to figure out myself.
What authors inspire you?
At a base level, Zora Neale Hurston is probably one of my biggest influences. Obviously, Toni Morrison. Obviously, Octavia Butler. I also have more contemporary authors whose work continues to inspire me, such as Tracy Deonn [author of Legendborn] and Roseanne A. Brown [author of A Song of Wraiths and Ruin]. There’s so many. I love horror, I love speculative fiction, anything to do with vampires. I read Anne Rice, everything she’s ever written. I read a lot of Stephen King as a kid, probably way too young. Anything that was dark and scary, and had that speculative element, I just devoured it. I was an avid reader when I was younger, and I still am.
Having named those inspirations, what’s your dream project?
I want to write a YA Addams Family origins story for Morticia Addams. Somebody call me and let me do that!
What projects do you have coming up, and which are you most excited about?
This Poison Heart comes out June 29. My middle grade debut comes out next year [in 2022], and it’s called The Vanquishers. It’s paranormal so it’s vampires in the suburbs of San Antonio, Texas. I’m also extremely excited since I’m doing a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reimagining. That is the quintessential gothic horror story.
What can readers expect from the sequel of This Poison Heart?
It’s really about Briseis leaning into her power. If you knew that you had to go to the ends of the earth to help the people that you love, would you do it? Would you even go further than that? I think that’s the question at the heart of book two.
This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron. Bloomsbury, $18.99 June 29 ISBN 978-1-5476-0390-9