Curse of the Divine By Kim Smejkal
A year ago, I sat down to read Ink in the Blood by Kim Smejkal. It was a highly anticipated read, despite it only being February. Did I love it, absolutely? I never expected the impact that it would end up having on me. When I sent the questions off to Kim Smejkal, for our first interview, I was terrified that I was going to be exposed as an even greater loon than I have already known to be. Then, I ran to find everything I could on the sequel, Curse of the Divine, which released last week. on it. It was one of the most difficult reviews I have ever written (although I’m still working on the review for Curse of the Divine because… syllables fail me). My review for Ink in the Blood is linked: here. My first interview with Kim Smejkal is linked: here.
To my great shock, Kim not only has come back and allowed me to have an emotional breakdown disguised as an interview after reading Curse of the Divine. Well, listened and then read back-to-back. Even more shocking is that my review of Ink in the Blood is linked on Kim’s website and she provided a referral for my site (something I started on when I relaunched my site this summer but was stalled, after a series of disasters starting with losing Pavel at the end of July- but will be going back to fix, again). But more details about that and a link in my review of Curse of the Divine.
All that to say, thank you. For all Kim Smejkal thanks me for my passion and love of this duology, I want to thank Kim. In this duology, she has created two books that have greatly touched me at a time in my life that has been incredibly difficult. Anyone who talks to me off public timelines, etc… knows that I don’t say anything on this site that I don’t mean. Just go find a few reviews (I won’t name here, because it doesn’t seem right to do), but many know of which I speak. I’m honest, to a fault. Always. Thank you, Kim, for this amazing work that has touched my life in ways I never expected, didn’t know I needed, and will always stay with me. I can’t wait to see what comes next. Also, for allowing me to throw all my emotions, interpretations, seven-layer cake deep questions at you, twice.
I also want to take this time for HMH and Recorded Books for providing advanced copies of both the hard copy and audio of Curse of the Divine. And of course, Kim Smejkal!
Kim Smejkal biography, contact information, as well as information for both Ink in the Blood, and Curse of the Divine are at the end of the interview, if you need to skip to it, first.
Spoilers Alert- Ink In The Blood (Definite) and Curse of the Divine (Possible)
*Please note that I have held this interview for a week. Spoilers for Ink in the Blood are to be expected. However, it was incredibly difficult to conduct this interview without some spoilers for Curse of the Divine. We tried to minimize them as much as possible. I am hoping they are minimal- some just structural. Some are content-related. Proceed with caution.*
Sequel Fears, Celia and The Plague Doctor
I was nervous about starting Curse of the Divine because of how much I loved Ink in the Blood. Also, because of how Curse of the Divine was set-up. It almost sounded like it was going to be the next step in Celia and Griffin’s love story with… obstacles. But that wasn’t what you had in store for Celia and Griffin. They were tortured, fractured due to Diavala. It even made me break. And I don’t break for couples. I’m jaded. Reality sucks.. get over it. But I broke for them.
Was this ever an actual decision? Did you always know that they were going down this path rather than Griffin beating back Diavala (a literal devil) with Celia firmly by his side, fighting back her figurative demons, without a crack in their relationship, kind of storyline?
Ah, yes. This is difficult to talk about without specific spoilers, isn’t it? But I will say that their unique struggle was always fated to be so. From the beginning, I had a crisp, clear image of how I wanted to end Ink, and I absolutely knew the two of them would have a mountain of challenges to overcome in Curse.
Where I always saw the first book as Celia and Anya’s story, this one is Celia and Griffin’s, but I couldn’t make it easy on them. Having a third party literally wedged inside their partnership was challenging to write, but that’s the only way this book ever made sense to me. Defeating the evil together, side by side would have been too clean. Their wounds are deep, their hearts are chaos, and their lives are messy. As much as I personally can enjoy a good breezy romantic subplot, this absolutely wouldn’t have been the right tone for their relationship, this book, or this duology.
Griffin and Diavala
I loved getting the internal dialogue between Griffin and Diavala in the “interludes.” How did those come about? Was there a specific view, insight, or point you were trying to get across that it served?
Honestly, I just wanted to crawl right into Griffin’s head and make a nest there. He’s an amazing character to me: logic and nonsense playing around together in human form. The reason for his point of view chapters was to highlight his personality, but also to give Diavala more depth. I couldn’t do what I did with Diavala’s storyline without someone sympathizing with her along the way.
Celia and Demons
These are a bunch of questions at once…
For Celia, her character arc from IITB through COTD is tremendous. If you think back to the opening scene where Anya is telling her she’s late again, to where she ends up, it is another person. Did you know that from the start? She has become less selfish, stronger, loyal, and understanding of sacrifice. Anya understood this at the end of Ink in the Blood. It seems Celia’s arc to understand it by the end of Curse of the Divine.
How did you plot out her growth over time?
How did you know what was enough grief, self-loathing, when she had faced enough tribulations, to come out the other side of the tunnel?
I’ll answer a bunch of these questions at once since they’re related. Yes, Celia is very different at the end of Curse. I always begin and end with the main character’s growth arc when I’m plotting, because if the character hasn’t changed significantly, then what was the point of going along with them on their adventure?
I gave Celia a pile of flaws (because we all have a pile of flaws, let’s be real, life is messy as hell) and then I set her on a journey to overcome them. These flaws were glaring enough that if she didn’t find a way to overcome them, they would overcome her. She really had no choice but to confront them. And as she confronted them, she grew. While her core essence stayed the same, her worldview shifted. She evolved. How she approached a problem changed. Celia started from a deeply fractured place and it took two whole books for her to even begin to heal and mature, but that’s exactly the kind of difficult journey I want to read about.
Sometimes I feel bad for putting characters through those specific traumas that force them to either fight or die…but I get over it pretty quickly. 🙂
How Kim Smejkal really feels about the torment of characters and readers…
The release of her anger and grief with Anya, her feelings of betrayal over everyone that had lied to her… it was palpable and tangible. Did you need to tap into something so you could make it visceral?
I definitely have something specific in mind from my personal life that I think about to access deep feelings of rage and grief, but that’s between me and my therapist! Just kidding (sort of, not really, lol). To answer your question though, yes, I think writers often have to tap into something personal to write emotion. Or we at least have to possess enough empathy to imagine those emotions deeply.
Xinto (A manifestation of her inner-bees from Ink in the Blood) being Celia’s first illusion, an extension of the bees representing her anxiety- it was…
When she has to leave him in the afterlife, is that symbolic for as Celia says at one point that there is freedom in losing everything… what is left to fear (I’m paraphrasing)… so why have the anxiety after having survived so much? Leaving Xinto in the afterlife was death to her anxiety? Is that what was intended?
Thank you! Xinto is one of my favorite characters, and I really enjoyed bringing Celia’s insides out. You’re dead right that I made her first illusion a bee with intention.
I love your interpretation of the bees as representing her anxiety (you’re not the only reader to tell me this!) Others have told me that they saw her bees as something positive, like her guardian angels or her intuition. Still, others told me they saw the bees as symbolic of regular old human thoughts that never make much sense. Every theory is valid! While I know what I was thinking when I wrote that aspect of her character, this just highlights how the biggest, most wonderful thing about writing a book is how different people bring themselves to the reading experience. The story takes on a life of its own when it’s out there, and that’s beautiful.
I’ll leave it to each reader to see what they want to see in Celia’s bees, Xinto’s character, and the reason he had to stay back because that’s a special kind of reader magic I don’t want to mess with.
I LOVE THIS! When I first started listening to a Scottish band named Travis, Fran Healy used to say the same thing. He said that he always knew what he wrote a song about, but once you released it, it wasn’t yours anymore. It belonged to the listener and what they made of it.
“Surviving is exhausting.”-Kim Smejkal, Curse of the Divine
I loved reading that line because I say it all the time. People say I’m strong. BS I’m sick of it. Being strong. Surviving is exhausting. Celia is right and I’m damn glad it was written, said. I cried. Well, I cried a lot but it was a relief- feeling seen. So yes, she survived and yes she kills her anxiety but she is left, a shell. Is that all a connection? That you can survive only so much before what doesn’t kills you stops making you stronger- not to mean it negatively, but to validate that it’s ok to say- I’m have lived through trauma and that has caused scars that won’t go away?
This is heavy, but yes, I do think that pain and trauma can overwhelm. I believe there is a point where scars become a part of you and you have to learn how to live with them because they will never heal.
The thing I tried to show at the end of Curse is that, that breaking point—when you’ve given it all and have nothing left—can also be the moment where things finally turn around. That there’s life even after being beaten down and gutted. Once you’re gutted and have nothing left, you can begin to fill up again, and there’s a lot of inherent power in that. With Celia, she’s spent both emotionally and physically, but she’s determined to count every star in the night sky no matter how long it takes. She’s determined to keep going on her own terms. For me, I find it an incredibly hopeful ending with limitless possibilities.
Diavala’s Demon Arc
Was it that you managed a redemption arc for Diavala, or that maybe we just didn’t know her full story because she didn’t share it with anyone, until now. What is her motivation to not tell the truth in Ink in the Blood (or at least tell more of the story/clarify the truth of it all)?
Diavala is an arrogant, selfish, manipulative delight. She never does anything that doesn’t benefit her, particularly in Ink in the Blood when she’s so keen to hold on to her power. For Diavala, there was no reason, to tell the truth in Ink because it didn’t suit her carefully curated narrative. It was a story of weakness, and she wasn’t weak.
Until she is weak, that is. Diavala meets her breaking point in Curse too—that point where she has no option left but to change—and only then does she understand anything remotely related to cooperation or selflessness. It was an amazing thing, to write a character I absolutely loathe but completely understand.
After knowing the full truth as it’s revealed in Curse of the Divine, little things in Ink in the Blood that look like throwaway details on first reading become much more meaningful. I always wanted this duology to reward rereading, and a lot of things in Ink in the Blood will hit differently once you know the whole story, particularly around Diavala.
So here we have this incredible depths of darkness duology and then Griffin and Celia get to Wisteria and it is like that song Walking on Easy Street (which I only actually know from an episode of the Walking Dead but it fits). This isn’t the episode because no one needs to see Darryl in a cell for a whole hour…
When creating Wisteria… was it intentional to make it the exact opposite of everything leading up to that world? And then the afterlife within Wisteria is even more devoid of color, of feeling, the five senses, life (anatomically speaking)… but Wisteria is right there… the contrast is harsh. Where did the inspiration for the general worlds of the duology come from, the contrast between it, Wisteria and the afterlife… and Wisteria on its own? But everything is all perfect bright colors and smiling faces and quick healing sickness. And no one notices anything is wrong… it is like the exact polar opposite of everything so far, which immediately jumps out like a bucket of WTF ice water.
The problem is… as Celia and Griffin know. It becomes a question of who do you trust? The devil you know or the creeper you just met. The ink follows intentions… but what are Halcyon’s intentions?
Ha! WTF ice water. I love that. Yes, I wanted to shock with the contrast. Everything about Wisteria is performative. What I mean is that instead of the Rabble Mob setting the stage as they did in the first book, Halcyon is the one setting the stage of Wisteria. He’s a narcissistic set designer. An evil Oscar Wilde (as my editor once called him). It’s funny to me now that a bold, colorful, happy world was used as a kind of foil for the normal setting in this duology, but it makes sense. This is still a dark story with a dark underbelly, and when something looks nice… alarm bells should definitely start ringing.
In terms of inspiration, I will give one specific example regarding the illusionscape of Wisteria. If you’re not familiar with wisteria the plant, it’s a vine with a climbing habit. The flowers grow in bunches and are quite dainty, hanging down like grapes, but it only blooms a short time each year. It’s always struck me as a little sinister. A healthy plant can cover the outside of a house, and the main stems often twist around each other and grow quite thick, like a tree more than a vine. To me, it feels like something that disguises itself as benign and delicate to avoid suspicion while it takes over. It’s no wonder Halcyon loves it so much because that’s basically his MO.
What an amazing character addition to the cast! They also had an amazing character arc. Their relationship with Celia was also brilliant. Please tell me what brought Lyric to the story.
In my opinion, Lyric is the most level-headed character in the entire duology. Despite being surrounded by nonsense, somehow they have the most common sense of anyone. I enjoyed writing them because they’re so black and white, their needs are so understandable. Of course Lyric has their own issues and traumas (I am not kind to my characters), but Lyric’s character arc is basically a study in trust. They can’t trust because nothing in their life has been trustworthy (not even her family), then these new kids come around and shake everything up.
Speaking of Lyric- Halcyon has a very fitting name in the context of his character and the story. And Lyric is also a very different and meaningful name. It isn’t something I’ve seen often. Can you tell more about the idea and how it came about?)
I don’t really have a deep answer for this except that in the world-building of this duology, the children choose their own names when they’re old enough to do so. There are two main camps: traditional family names (like Zuni, Dante, or Rian) or ones that reflect something that appeals to the child (like Lilac, Griffin, or Lyric).
All of the names give some indication of the person’s personality, at least for that moment in time when they first choose it. Most of the Rabble Mob has inventive names, keeping in line with their lifestyle, whereas most of Illinia would probably have chosen more traditional names.
Halcyon likes to think of himself as a romantic, so I imagine that even as a kid he’d be drawn to something whimsical. Goodness, thinking about him as a kid is a trip. I don’t think I like it.
Magical Consistency And Temptations
There isn’t a hole to be found in terms of consistency when it comes to ink magic, how it works in the context of the duology, and then the more we learn in Wisteria, the line between life and death, Diavala and the more we learn about her history. Everything is seamless. Was it hard to keep that consistency and continuity while telling the story you wanted to tell? Were you ever tempted to just make a tweak here or there to do something different?
Keeping the magic consistent was the most difficult part of writing this duology. It helped that I had a fairly deep understanding of how the ink magic worked from the beginning, but still, it’s impossible to think about every single detail or situation ahead of time. I wrote myself into a couple of corners in Ink and had to adapt in Curse, and that included a lot of head-desking. I had to fix things along the way. Thankfully, I also had a team (my editor, copyeditor, critique partners) to help me keep track of everything!
To answer your question about whether I’d ever considered doing things differently, yes, of course! I tend to fall down rabbit holes when I’m exploring a story, and write a lot more than I could ever use in one book. I could have turned this into a trilogy no problem.
One fun and terrible example: in one of the very first drafts (for a reason I can’t even recall anymore) I made the ink poisonous. Anyone with a divine tattoo began falling ill, and the illness culminated in a graphic, violent death. It was gross, morbid, and amazing, and everything logically fit with the world-building, but oh my god, I’ve never been so glad I deleted words. If I’d kept that side plot I would have released a book about a pandemic in the middle of a pandemic. o_o
Final Note From Kim Smejkal
Thanks so much for the wonderful questions!! I really enjoyed answering them. And to anyone new to this duology, I hope you enjoy spending time with these characters as much as I loved creating them. This part of the journey—setting our stories loose upon the world—is always so bittersweet for an author.
About Kim Smejkal
Kim Smejkal lives with her family on Vancouver Island in Canada, which means she’s often lost in the woods or wandering a beach. She writes dark fantasy for young adults and not-so-young adults, always with a touch of magic. Her debut novel, INK IN THE BLOOD, released in February 2020 from HMH. The sequel Curse of the Divine, released in February 2021. She is represented by Danial Lazar of Writers House. Follow her online at kimsmejkal.com and on Twitter and Instagram at @kimsmejkal.
Contact Kim Smejkal
Ink in the Blood Links (Ink In The Blood#1)
Ink in the Blood Blurb
A lush, dark YA fantasy debut by Kim Smejkal that weaves together tattoo magic, faith, and eccentric theater in a world where lies are currency and ink is a weapon, perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo and Kendare Blake.
Celia Sand and her best friend, Anya Burtoni, are inklings for the esteemed religion of Profeta. Using magic, they tattoo followers with beautiful images that represent the Divine’s will and guide the actions of the recipients. It’s considered a noble calling, but ten years into their servitude Celia and Anya know the truth: Profeta is built on lies, the tattooed orders strip away freedom, and the revered temple is actually a brutal, torturous prison.
Their opportunity to escape arrives with the Rabble Mob, a traveling theater troupe. Using their inkling abilities for performance instead of propaganda, Celia and Anya are content for the first time . . . until they realize who followed them. The Divine they never believed in is very real, very angry, and determined to use Celia, Anya, and the Rabble Mob’s now-infamous stage to spread her deceitful influence even further.
To protect their new family from the wrath of a malicious deity and the zealots who work in her name, Celia and Anya must unmask the biggest lie of all—Profeta itself.
Curse of the Divine (Ink In The Blood #2)
Curse of the Divine Blurb
Return to the world of inklings, tattoo magic, and evil deities as Celia uncovers the secrets of the ink in order to stop Diavala once and for all. This eagerly anticipated sequel to Kim Smejkal’s Ink in the Blood is perfect for fans of Leigh Bardugo and Wicked Saints.
Celia Sand faced Diavala and won, using ink magic to destroy the corrupt religion of Profeta that tormented her for a decade. But winning came with a cost she wasn’t prepared for. When she discovers that Diavala is still very much alive and threatening Griffin, the now-infamous plague doctor, Celia is desperate not to lose another person she loves to the deity’s wrath.
The key to destroying Diavala may lie with Halcyon Ronnea, the only other person to have faced Diavala and survived. But Halcyon is dangerous and has secrets of his own, ones that involve the ink that Celia has come to hate. Forced to choose between the ink and Diavala, Celia will do whatever it takes to save Griffin—even if it means making a deal with the devil himself.