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Karla Yvette Interview

Steeped in magic and pastoral images of an alternative American west, The Black Tree Atop the Hill is a mesmerizing debut novella from Karla Yvette. Billed as a gothic western, it follows Marisol–the witch tasked with keeping Jack Boyd’s ranch safe. One day, a strange tree appears in the distance. No one takes any notice of it, but Marisol knows there is something wrong about this tree. Where did it come from? Why is it here? And why does no one else seem worried?

Read the full interview below.

The Black Tree Atop the Hill takes place in the old west, but an alternate old west where magic is universally acknowledged. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted your story to take place in an alternate history?

Yes! While I was brainstorming, my husband and I would take long drives into the Oregon desert, often stumbling upon old schoolhouses and ruined cemeteries, and I took an interest in the history of the American west. And I’ve always been fascinated with the practical aspects of alternate worlds that use magic in some way. How would magic affect the day-to-day aspects of an average person’s life—like in the case of Black Tree, three people trying to get by on a cattle ranch? I had originally toyed around with more complex settings but kept coming back to how a small group of people in an isolated setting would react when magic wasn’t suddenly so mundane.

Marisol is very tied to the land and the teachings of her witch mother. Everything she does feels very organic to both her role as a witch and to the world you’ve created. What was it like weaving those elements together? Were there any particular challenges you encountered?

I love what I’ve seen called “soft magic” systems. Magic that is weird, eerie, has moods of its own, and sometimes only makes sense to the person wielding it. The challenging part was creating magic that felt unique to the setting—something that ringed true for a witch essentially acting as a ranch hand, groundskeeper, and herbalist. I didn’t want it to be glamorous; a witch in this world might spend her morning mending clothes and the afternoon chasing unwanted ghosts off the property.

Your work is inspired by folklore and the occult. That really shines through in The Black Tree Atop the Hill. Have you always been drawn to the strange and uncanny?

Absolutely! As a kid, I begged my parents to take me in to every New Age store we passed. When I was a teenager, there was a resurgent interest in Wicca, psychic phenomena, and the occult, and I couldn’t get enough of it. (I’m sure a lot of people my age still have a battered copy of Teen Witch by Silver RavenWolf somewhere.) Nowadays, I like to dig deep into folklore from a more anthropological perspective. Black Tree was inspired by the many stories of sacred groves in world mythology, only with a sinister twist.

There’s the quiet lyricism to the novella reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy. Who are some writers whose work has inspired you most over the years?

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle opened the door to my obsession with stories about strange people living at the fringe of society. And this might be an unusual answer for a horror writer, but Terry Pratchett was a huge inspiration for how the witches of Black Tree interact with non-magical folks; they’re always the practical ones when everything else falls into chaos.

The horror western is really hitting its stride these days, but most titles in this niche are splatter westerns. The Black Tree Atop the Hill is very appropriately described as a Gothic Western. Was it a conscious choice to lean towards the gothic or is that just naturally where the writing process took you?

I’d say it was natural. I was interested in writing about a setting that felt somewhat claustrophobic, despite being expansive. And with the main antagonist being… trees, it felt more appropriate to focus on Marisol’s psychological response to them—another common trope of American gothic literature.

Forgive me, but I ask everyone who writes a western this because I’m always interested. Do you have a favorite western? Book and/or film.

This is such a tough question! The prose of writers like Cormac McCarthy and Willa Cather was really inspiring to me when writing Black Tree, but I’m going to have to cede to my teenage self and admit that I still love Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. It’s obviously a multi-genre work, and I’m sure a lot of people would balk at me calling it a western, but I love the atmosphere, I love the weirdness, and the iconic opening line still gives me chills every time.

I had the pleasure of spotting your book on the CLASH Books table at StokerCon earlier this year and was immediately drawn in by the cover. Who did the art design and how did you feel when you first saw it?

It was designed by the extremely talented Matthew Revert and I was thrilled from the first moment I saw it. It captured the story perfectly—I love how it’s dreamy yet still somehow ominous. Thank you for the incredible work, Matthew!

You are a visual artist in your own right as well. Have you always been drawn to visual art and language or did one interest precede the other?

I think both happened at the same time. As a kid, I used to love writing and illustrating little picture books. My natural drawing style doesn’t lend itself too well to narrative illustration, but I still like to explore a lot of the same themes in both my visual art and my writing: the occult, folklore, herbalism, and traditions that were historically passed down from woman to woman.

Do you have any other work coming out this year you’d like to tell people about?

I don’t have any other releases this year, but I’m working on another gothic western that revolves around the folklore of fairy changelings. It’s a full-length novel and much darker than anything I’ve written before, so I’m very excited to get it wrapped up and out in the world.

What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre or category. It doesn’t have to be horror.

I just read through much of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s backlist and adored Mexican Gothic. I also seem to be in a constant state of re-reading Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi; it’s such a weird, wonderful book. And I’ve just started Vampires of El Norte by Isabel Cañas—I’m only a few pages in, but I can tell this might be one of my favorite reads of the year.

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

The Black Tree Atop the Hill hits shelves on September 26, 2023.

Karla Yvette is a writer and visual artist, living in the Pacific Northwest. Her work is inspired by folklore, the occult, and focuses on strange women in even stranger places. The Black Tree Atop the Hill is her first novella. Follow her on Instagram for updates at @icomefromthefuture.

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