A Brighter, Darker Art by Halli Starling – Author Interview

Hello friends,

Today I am excited to bring you my first ever author interview. I have had the absolute pleasure to get to chat with Halli about her newest release A Brighter, Darker Art.

A Brighter, Darker Art is the companion novel to Ask Me For Fire, following Raf who we meet in Ask Me For Fire, and Silvan. The book follows Raf as he has a chance meeting with Silvan in a bar, only to find out that Silvan has been recently let go. Raf desperately needs a marketing manager to help him get the newest of his galleries open and to make the opening perfect so that the illustrations entrusted to him by his best friend, Ambrose and Ambrose’s boyfriend, Barrett are prefectly highlighted. But working with someone you’re attracted to is harder than either Raf or Silvan realized, so they make a deal. Hands off, for now.

Halli Starling is queer librarian, reader, gamer, and author. Halli has always been involved with books, and her love of the written word inspired her to get her MLIS and continue her book career outside of public libraries.

When not writing, she co-hosts The Human Exception podcast, plays D&D, and spends time in the beautiful outdoors of Michigan.

She is available for podcasts, interviews, panels, and book signings.

She can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and at her website: https://hallistarlingbooks.com/

If you’ve been following my reviews you will know that I adored A Brighter, Darker Art (ABDA) and Ask Me For Fire (AMFF). It was absolutely a joy to read about Raf and his journey after meeting him in AMFF. I was especially thankful to get to hear more from Halli. So, I’ll start by just thanking her for doing this interview and giving me the incredible opportunities to read her stories.

We met Raf in AMFF as a side character. Had you always planned on writing his story?

The answer to this is…yes! Always. Since Raf first made his appearance as an original character in a Witcher fanfic I wrote about two years ago. He was meant to be the sweet, funny best friend for Jaskier, the bard in The Witcher (the story is a modern AU). OCs are a constant point of discussion in fanfic, since they’re an inclusion of the writer’s own design in a set world/story/cast of characters. But something about Raf struck readers and they really liked him, so after the fic was done, I put him away for a bit. He was a rare moment for me as an author – a character, fully formed, of my own making, that just popped into my head.

So when I was considering Ambrose in AMFF, I realized he must have had someone as support in dealing with his mom and Preston. And I realized that Raf was perfect for that role. Ambrose is an only child, raised by a highly narcissistic woman who demanded perfection at every turn, and when he couldn’t deliver that, he was given the cold-shoulder and silent treatment (both of which are deeply abusive). When he met Preston, Raf was already a fixture in Ambrose’s life (met at 21, Ambrose and Preston started dating when Ambrose was close to 30). Ambrose had a support system in Raf, he’d always been there since the day they’d met. 

But I also knew Raf was going to blossom into a more fully-rounded character than simply the dependable best friend. One thing that I continually found echoed in how he was written was his balance between fun-loving and level-headed. As we see in ABDA, a lot of that comes from the mild chaos of his family, full of strong women who don’t take any crap but also don’t forget to live their own lives.

Was there something specific (plot, theme, trope, etc.) you really wanted to get into this story?

It’s all about art! (Clarifying to say art as in…paintings, books, music, sculpture, knitting, what have you. Creative works!)

We see a bit of this in AMFF, with Ambrose enjoying his writing and music. I think my works will always have this…nod to the value of creativity and imagination in them. And that comes from me knowing how much art has helped me over the years. Our art is possibly the clearest mirror through which we see ourselves, and lets others see us as well. Raf’s passion for art is from his mother, but he found his own way to make it worthwhile by providing others the chance to explore their creativity. 

What’s been the hardest or easiest part of writing ABDA?

Honestly, figuring out Silvan! He was SUCH a cool character when I first wrote him. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of “Oh, this straight-laced, uptight guy who just got laid off is now going to go on a bender” or, even worse in my opinion, “Oh, this straight-laced, uptight guy is secretly a masochist in the bedroom”. It’s utterly predictable and sure, people are wired like that, but to me that’s a very surface character. There’s no depth, no reality, no passion.

So when I realized that Silvan does in fact have a sexy streak a mile long – with the right person – I realized I’d found the recipe for him and Raf. 

How was ABDA different from AMFF to write?


AMFF was the thing the distracted me from my wlw vampire story for NaNo 2021. Around mid-November, I realized the vibe of that story (which I just NOW figured out how to write!) wasn’t working. I’ve never actually completed Nano, but instead use it as a springboard for ideas and to force me to write every day for a bit, as a habit.

As I was staring at the wlw doc and not liking what I had, I went back to my notes on this other story, the whole concept being, “A forest ranger has to go on a fire watch. Maybe he rescues someone? Maybe he falls in love with the person he rescues?” From there, it practically fell off my fingertips, lightning-in-a-bottle style. I wrote AMFF in 8 weeks.

ABDA took longer! Granted, maybe 14 weeks instead of 8, but it fought me at first. I think some of that was because Silvan was a struggle for me at first, and the other part was realizing that ABDA had no real “stakes”. There’s no third arc drama. No real misunderstandings. Simply people living their lives. It can be hard to write and keep readers interested.

AMFF and ABDA are both low stakes, low angst romances. Why did you decide to write romances that don’t fit the mainstream genre? 

Oh, mainstream books. I do love them. But as someone who works in publishing and had a twelve-year career in libraries, I did find myself (and still do!) jaded with the copycat-syndrome that happens, particularly in genre fiction. Publishers find a pattern and follow it until it’s no longer profitable, which puts off book-savvy readers/power readers. 

When I started reading romance, I read only historical, mostly Regency, and I quickly found a few authors I really trusted (Sarah MacLean, Courtney Milan). Their romances were thoughtful and interesting, and while they did follow a lot of the conventions of a typical romance, their characters stood out.

Modern/contemporary romance drives me up the wall a lot of the time. I absolutely understand that many people turn to genre fiction, romance in particular, for a little escapism and don’t mind if plots hinge on the same concepts, like my dread miscommunication trope. I’m right there with them! (Though honestly if I need escapism, I’m just as likely to go to fanfic as I am a standard genre book.) But what I’ve found over the years is that you don’t need “stakes” in order to write something compelling. I’m also shit at developing complex plots, and I fully believe in my characters to open their mouths and speak like adults. So I wrote these books for me first, and by putting them out for public consumption (and trying to stick to a “death of the author” mindset), I was hoping to find readers looking for the same.

As a big reader and lover of the art of books and writing, there are few worse feelings than finding a book you adore, that hits everything in you perfectly, and be unable to find more like it. 

In both AMFF and ABDA you feature characters with a friends with benefits situation before they get involved with the main love interest. Was there a reason you wanted to feature these kind of relationships within your stories?

I think some of this goes back to what I said above – genre romance, many times, has a lone MC meet a lone MC, sparks fly, there’s some drama, the end. (Obviously not every romance book is like this!) Sometimes the MC is engaged, sometimes they meet the LI while in a relationship with someone else, etc. But FWB was not something I saw often, and if I did see it, it was handled with my, as usual, dread miscommunication bomb. THIS is why Barrett tells Ambrose immediately about Oz – “Hey, man, I know we’re still working things out on what we want to be to each other, but head’s up I’m FWB with this guy. That cool?” 

Yes, that can easily bother a romance reader looking for the typical escapism. I’m not doing anything revolutionary but I am trying to write more realistically. And realistically, people’s lives don’t follow a neat path. I knew that by writing these scenarios into books, I would likely ostracize a lot of romance readers. But I’ve been extremely lucky to find readers who appreciate what I’m attempting to do! So maybe I was also writing for a specific audience? I’m not really sure about that hahaha.

What does your research process look like when working on a book?

Ooof, it really really depends! AMFF required me to do a little research on firewatch towers, which aren’t super common anymore. A lot of them have been abandoned by forestry services as technology has made forest fire detection easier/faster. 

Honestly, spending a few weeks high up in the air to watch for fires and being utterly alone in the woods sounds fabulous, but that’s my inner hermit talking!

ABDA didn’t require any research, as I wasn’t going to get deep into the art world when it’s wide and varied and the specifics of it didn’t matter for the overall plot of the book.

However…this research project I’m currently deep into for my “Victorian gays” poly romance/magical realism book that I’ll start writing later this year? Deep research. My librarian degree has been brushed clear of dust! One of the things that intimidated me in the past when I considered writing something outside of modern times was the amount of research involved – and how much of it would be used. I don’t want to write historical fiction, it’s not my jam at all. But my curiosity needs to be fed details so I can get into the proper frame of mind when it comes to writing the details – what did this street in NYC look like in 1890? How did gay men refer to themselves during that time? 

I think it is entirely possible to use some historical detail and then change what the story demands, especially when you throw in fantasy, magic, and/or magical realism.

Is there a playlist/show/movie/media that keeps you company while writing?

I am deeply jealous of anyone who can focus on writing – or anything, really! – with media on with words. Songs, podcasts, TV, etc…I can’t have any of them on while I write! I stick to rain and ocean soundtracks and then usually don’t pull myself out of my head for a few hours hahaha.

If you had to recommend a book (or a few) people are missing out on and need to read, what would it be?

Several years ago, I sat down on a very rainy Saturday and tore through a book that left an indelible mark on how I write. Robert Jackson Bennett’s The City of Stairs, book one in The Divine Cities trilogy. It gave me everything I wanted in a fantasy book – a deep backstory, bits of history told through snippets of books and journals from that world, a female main character who wields her unassuming appearance as a benefit (instead of moaning about how unpretty she is), and no romance. (There’s an old flame but that’s a whole other part of the story!) It is an incredible book, and an incredible series. I know other readers like it, but I so rarely see the series recommended in those “give me fantasy recs” threads.


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