Exploring The Contemporary Fantasy: An Interview with Terry Benton-Walker

Terry J. Benton-Walker Photographed by Derek Blanks with CrowdMGT

Updated June 7, 2024

Terry J. Benton-Walker is the bestselling author of the young adult contemporary fantasy series “Blood Debts,” published by Tor Teen in the US and Canada and Hodderscape in the UK.

“Alex Wise vs. the End of the World” is his apocalyptic middle-grade contemporary fantasy series, published by Labyrinth Road and Random House Children’s.

He edited and contributed to the soon-to-be-released “The White Guy Dies First,” which will be available on July 16, 2024. The young adult horror anthology published by Tor Teen features 13 subversive stories by authors of color.

PrideIndex enjoyed a wonderful conversation with this Atlanta resident. He shared why he became a writer, the inspirations behind “The Blood Debts” series, and more.

PrideIndex: Hello Terry. Let me ask you to tell us a bit about yourself.

TJB-W: My name is Terry J. Benton-Walker. I grew up in rural Georgia and hold a Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering from Georgia Tech and a Master’s in Business Administration from Georgia State. I currently live in Atlanta with my husband and young son.

Design: Lesley Worrell, Artist: Tomasz Majewski

PI: When did you decide you wanted to become a writer?

TJB-W: I started writing my first novel back in 2008. It was an adult contemporary novel. One day, I was in my feelings and started writing a stream of consciousness. It became a character and a scene, becoming a chapter of a larger story. When I finished the first chapter, I thought, “This is really interesting. I wonder what other people would think of it.” I posted it on Facebook to see what people would say. After reading, people were very complimentary and wanted to know what would happen next. I continued adding to the story and eventually had a full-length novel.

I studied the process of finding a traditional publisher and a literary agent. I figured out how to query and put together my whole query package. I might have queried more than one hundred fifty pages for that book, but every single one was rejected. It was devastating. I knew that I enjoyed the process of putting that story together and storytelling in general. I knew that I wanted to keep writing. It took eight years and seven more manuscripts before I got the one. I had leveled up my craft enough to sign with my literary agent. Through those eight years, and by then a total of seven manuscripts, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a writer. That first story woke me to my purpose: knowing that this was what I was meant to do. I really didn’t see myself doing anything else. I stuck with it, and I’m happy I did. It has been quite an intense journey.

PI: What year was that? I would like to know if you’d mind my asking.

TJB-W: I signed with my literary agent in the fall of 2019, and we sold “Blood Debts” in the fall of 2021.

PI: Wow. This happened during COVID-19? Did you experience any challenges or slowdowns due to COVID?

TJB-W: No more than anyone else in any other industry was feeling. We were all dealing with the same things, a shrinking market and other business-related stuff. For those same reasons, the children’s market was down. I didn’t personally feel anything extraordinary outside of what was going on. We were all affected in some way.

PI: Could you share a bit of your writing process with us? How do you conceptualize your projects from ideas to finished products on the page? How does that work?

TJB-W: I typically start with an individualized concept or component of an idea. I might start with a character, an attractive setting, an intriguing or thought-provoking plot, or a theme. I then build around one or more components to create a fully formed concept. I then follow a process I’ve laid out in a document called “The Novel Planning Kit.” I’ve made it available for free download on my website as well. I have a special section on my website with free resources to help other writers because, as I mentioned previously, I spent so much time creating queries and trying to figure out how to write a book that was good enough to get the attention of a literary agent and sell to an editor at a major publishing house.

Part of the reason it took me so long was that I needed access to information and resources. It took me so long to put this kit together to put all of the necessary resources in one place to especially help marginalized writers, but anyone can use it. It will help an author build a perfect foundation to create their story. The kit contains everything I’ve picked up over the eight years I was reading many craft books, attending conferences, talking to people, and working with editors. This is a process that I actually use to build all of my stories. I have created a character dossier or a cheat sheet that helps you better understand your characters, their motivations, and their emotional arc throughout a story or a series. I’ve created brainstorming devices like a bubble chart to develop a high-level plan for the story.

Once I’ve done that, I can distill that into the high-level plot points of all the things that I want to happen from start to finish, and then I separate all of that into acts. I sometimes stick to more than just the three-act structure. I let the story be whatever the story needs to be. I’ve written stories in three, four, and five acts but still separate those high-level points by acts. Then, the high-level plot points typically develop into chapters or a couple of chapters. I’ll then begin to detail each chapter or build a detailed outline. I’m the type of person who does heavy planning. I have to plan out every single thing before I start a draft. It’s partially my neuro divergence and analytical and logical ability because I’m also an industrial engineer.

I approach developing a story as I would in improving or designing the manufacturing process. I do it in the most efficient way possible. I like doing all of the development and planning upfront. By the time I start writing, the characters are so well developed that they start making their own decisions and steering away from the outline I originally put together, which is fine. That’s what we want them to do. That means that, like the character dossier, all the work I did beforehand is working. That’s the sweet spot when they become almost three-dimensional, leap off the page, and start making their own decisions. And that’s where you want to be as a creator.

Designer: Lesley Worrell, Artist: Tomasz Majewski

PI: It’s beautiful that you have created a resource guide for yourself and are willing to share that resource with others. So, I want to talk briefly about “Blood Debts” and “Blood Justice” and your muse for those books. I love the illustrations for your books. Tell us a little bit about your young adult series.

TJB-W: You’ve just mentioned “Blood Debts” and “Blood Justice,” part of “The Blood Debts” series, a young adult contemporary fantasy series. “Blood Debts” was released in April 2023, and “Blood Justice” was released on April 23, 2024. I also have two books in “The Alex Wise vs. The End of the World” trilogy. The first book, “Alex Wise vs. The End of the World” was released in September 2023. The second book, “Alex Wise vs. the Cosmic Shift,” will be released on September 24, 2024.

PI: You also have another book coming out soon.

TJB-W: Yes, “The White Guy Dies First,” which comes out on July 16, 2024.

PI: Okay, so that’s three books. Let’s return to “Blood Debts” and “Blood Justice” and where you found your muse for them.

TJB-W: For the people that don’t know, “The Blood Debts” series is a contemporary Game of Thrones featuring Black and White Queer teams set in modern-day New Orleans. My inspiration for this series comes from a couple of places. The main inspiration, of course, is Game of Thrones. I was super into the book and HBO series when it was airing. I was late to the game as I started binge-watching the series when it was already in its fourth or fifth season. I had to catch up a lot.

What was so cool about that experience was that so many people were in the show then. I had so many friends I had never been able to talk to about the nerdy fantasy stuff I was into; with this show, I could speak to them every week. We were doing recaps of what happened and making predictions for coming episodes. That was so cool to me. The only thing that sucked about it was there was very little Black and Queer representation. The few we did have needed to have a better time in Westeros. They were constantly suffering. I decided that I would love to create an experience for Black and Black Queer people that centered us and not just the perception of us through the white gaze, but unapologetically, authentically us. That’s what inspired me to shape that story.

Of course, after I signed with my agent, we worked on completely reimagining the story from the original manuscript that she read. As I was working on it, so much was happening in the summer of 2020, with the murder of George Floyd and everyone’s response to that. Simultaneously, I was going through a challenging moment in my personal life where I faced a massive injustice, and I could do nothing about it. I felt so powerless. I was so angry and angry on a macro level at the injustice in the world at large but also on a micro level in my own life. That emotion shaped the story of “Blood Debts” and helped me. It was cathartic to be able to write that story because that was where I put all of that anger at real-life injustice. I put it all into that story, which helped me cope, and something good came out of it.

Through this series, we explore the dangers of perpetuating the cycles of trauma and violence across generations. It is a cautionary tale of what could happen if we do not stop it. Even though I poured so much anger and grief into it, these stories are still there to entertain, teach, and leave our people hopeful.

Designer: Lesley Worrell, Artist: Khadijah Khatib

PI: With this being a series, which would make “Blood Justice” a continuation of the story in “Blood Debts,” correct?

TJB-W: Yes. “Blood Justice” is the sequel to and takes place nine months after the End of “Blood Debts,” I don’t want to spoil the story for people that haven’t read the first book; however, at the End of “Blood Debts” Cristina and Clem, the main protagonists and their family have regained control over the generational magic counsel of New Orleans. In “Blood Justice,” they find that holding on to that power may be more complex than they initially imagined. They have multiple threats coming at them from different directions. The central theme of “Blood Justice’ that I wanted to continue is what happens when people who have been denied justice become frustrated to the point of desperation with the systems of oppression and the people who have propped them up.

PI: What comes to mind are the terms speculative fiction and Afrofuturism. Do you also fall into those genres as well?

TJB-W: Yes. My stories specifically fall into speculative fiction. They are something other than Afrofuturism because they’re not so futuristic but more contemporary.

PI: Could you also write something in the Afrofuturism genre? Is that something you could venture into in the future?

TJB-W: I never say never, but I don’t have any plans for anything like that now. But each time I say that I’m not going to write something, I write it anyway. So again, I never say never.

PI: That is an excellent outlook. Keep your options open in case there is demand. Let’s talk briefly about the new book coming out in July.

Artist: Maeve Norton

TJB-W: Yes. “The White Guy Dies First” is a young adult horror anthology with thirteen scary stories from thirteen incredible BIPOC authors, myself included. We subvert very classic sub-genres of horror, and of course, the white guy always dies first. I had a lot of fun working on this project. When we started out, I made a list of twenty classic sub-genres of horror, which are haunted house, cannibals matrix, rage, paranormal, demonic possession, killer clown, and so on and so forth.

I sent the list to the contributors, and everyone got to choose one. The instructions were that they could write whatever story they wanted, but they had to subvert their sub-genre in a new and exciting way. The other caveat was that a cis-hetero White guy always has to die first. I created a framing story for the collection to tie everything together. I won’t spoil your framing story, but it’s cute. It’s really cool. It also has a message at the end when you get to the epilogue. Everything that I do has a more profound message and a deeper meaning. Every story in this anthology has its own message. The collection as a whole has its own message as well. But I had a lot of fun working on this anthology. It was really cool because this collection had some heavy hitters. Everyone is established in their brand as an author. They each chose a sub-genre that perfectly complements their writing style. For example, Tiffany D. Jackson chose the sound media sub-genre, and her story is a series of journal entries that are excerpts from case files from a police investigation. Chloe Gong chose a slasher for her story. When I saw that she had decided on that one, I screamed. She wrote the bloodiest, goriest horror slasher that reminds me of less problematic Tarantino.

PI: If your writing style were a flower, what kind of flower would it be?

TJB-W: I will preface this by saying I only know a few specific details about many flowers. The first flower that comes to mind is an orchid. Orchids are gorgeous and require a lot of effort and attention. You must be intelligent, attentive, and empathetic to care for an orchid. On the one hand, they can appear very fragile, but they’re also very resilient flowers. Orchids are something that needs to be examined very slowly and appreciated. Something long-lasting. That’s what my writing style and brand would be.

PI: Have you considered teaching any writing or creative writing classes?

TJB-W: It has crossed my mind. I want to do that if the opportunity ever arises in the future. I have four mentees who are up-and-coming writers of color on whom I’ve been distilling knowledge to help them with their query projects. I have enjoyed teaching them from that standpoint, so I could see myself teaching creative writing on a larger scale. That would be interesting.

PI: If Emory University, Clark-Atlanta, Spelman, Morehouse, or a similar institution were to approach you to teach a course, would you consider yourself approachable?

TJB-W: Absolutely.

Design: Jen Valero, Art: Eric Wilkerson

PI: Let’s discuss influences. Name three people who have had the most influence over your artistic style.

TJB-W: Jordan Peele has awakened a creative part of my art history. My favorite thing about watching a Jordan Peele film is that there are so many layers to them. Each film is such a rich experience. There’s so much to be consumed, understood, and talked about. I will finish one of his films and start Googling to see what it means. I’ll read all the different think pieces and take on what different things meant and what he was trying to say. I like open-ended art that makes you feel. I have taken his style to heart.

I think about it all the time with the work that I do. I think about the more profound meaning and layers to this or that, and I want to create stories and conversation pieces. With every project I put out, I’m making something you could discuss in many book club sessions. I love podcast interviews with people who have read the work in depth because there’s so much to discuss. I can have five different podcast interviews talking about the same book. Still, each interviewer could discuss five different themes from the book and never touch on the same thing.

Another influence who is less well known is author Tim Floreen. He is the author of “Willful Machines” and “Anatomy of a Murderer.” I remember when I first started writing fantasy. My very first fantasy story wasn’t the first story that I queried. It was different from the one we discussed earlier, but another one. I thought that no publisher would want to read a story that was Black and Queer, even though I am Black and Queer.

I thought I was being clever in writing a fantasy story with a cast of all straight White characters. I loved the story and put so much work and effort into it. I queried it multiple times and got a few requests, but no agents wanted to take it on. Even though I was so committed to that story then, something about it didn’t feel right. It was because deep down inside, I knew it wasn’t the story I needed to tell. I thought I was being clever and tried to cheat the system. I felt that I was going to give them what they wanted. I was going to provide them with this cast of straight White characters, and then when I got it in, I would flip the script and give them something Black and Gay. They were like, “Absolutely not.”

I remember reading “Willful Machines.” That was my first time reading a speculative work in the young adult market where I identify with the protagonists. The protagonist was Queer, and he was White, but it was the first time I had seen a Queer male leading a speculative work in the young adult genre. I read the book, and I loved it. I remember reaching out to Tim and telling him how much I loved the book and how much it meant. I had never seen that before. Of course, I’d never seen a Black Queer person either. We’d barely see any Black people leading fantasy back then. I spoke to Tim about my story, and he was very encouraging. We discussed how I felt that something wasn’t right about the story and that I was afraid to write my truth. He spoke with me and told me I should never be scared to write my truth. He’s part of the reason I put that story down. From that moment forward, I only wrote stories reflecting my identity. Tim definitely shaped my career, and I’m really grateful for him.

My last influence is a cliche, but I don’t care. Beyonce is a significant influence and let me tell you why. I have followed Beyonce’s career since I was in high school. She performed in Destiny’s Child at North Dekalb Mall in Atlanta. I have always been a fan. Seeing her continually challenge herself with every project has been so encouraging. She levels up with every new project that she does. Seeing her progression from Destiny’s Child to the star she’s become now inspires me as an artist. Her last couple of albums have really touched me. I’m inspired by and admire her for being unapologetically Black and Queer-affirming in her artistry. It has been like a shot of adrenaline to my own creative process. When writing “Blood Justice,” I listened to “Renaissance.” That was a big part of “Blood Justice” being as rich as it was because it was almost like I had jumper cables attached to my brain during the process. I’m listening to “Cowboy Carter” and working on my next project. I am even more excited because just as Beyonce took a chance and did a whole country album, I’m also taking a chance and doing a genre that I had never done before. I hope it will be as successful as “Cowboy Carter” and that people will like it because I feel inspired as I write it.

PI: What projects are you currently working on?

TJB-W: I am working on two projects. I’m on the final book in “The Alex Wise vs. the End of the World” trilogy. I’m also working on an adult roman-tasy project. That is coming out in 2026 but has yet to be officially announced. So, I can’t say too much about it. I can tell you that it is a love story between two Black Queer men and was inspired by the “Last Unicorn” and it is high fantasy.

PI: Will you be on the circuit promoting “Blood Justice?” Do you plan to go out on the circuit this summer or fall?

TJB-W: Yes, I will be out and about this summer. So, I will be at LITapalooza at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, IL, in the Chicagoland area on Thursday and Friday, June 25th-26th. {Terry is a confirmed author at Lavender Con in DC on June 29th -June 30th.} Then we’re on to The National Book Festival at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC, on Saturday, August 24.

PI: What does the future hold for Terry J. Benton-Walker?

TJB-W: I don’t know. I used to be very anxious about the future. I’m more conscious about being in the present and ensuring that I’m constantly laying the groundwork for a bright future, whatever that future is. I see myself writing more projects for the adult market. I’m working on an adult romance and an adult psychological horror novel. That’s all I can say now because I haven’t found that one yet. But I’m excited about expanding and trying new things. I would love to see one of my existing IP projects adapted to film and television. I would love to see “Blood Debts” as a television series or “Alex Wise” as an animated film. I would also like to see “The White Guy Dies First” as a television anthology series, maybe on Netflix. That would be really cool. I am still determining the future but have many irons in the fire.

Connect with Terry on Twitter (@tjbentonwalker), Instagram and TikTok (@icecreamvicelord), or his website: https://www.tjbentonwalker.com.