Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy Talk The Brilliant Death, Being Nonbinary, and Empowering Magic

Amy Rose Capetta’s lush, Italian-influenced fantasy The Brilliant Death is out today, telling the tale of a magic-wielder, or strega, who hides her powers, and the genderfluid fellow strega who helps her embrace what she is and what she can do.

Teodora’s transformative ability has long allowed her to turn her family’s enemies into objects, but now she herself is transformed: into a boy, to travel to the capital at the command of Vinalia’s ruler. He has poisoned the heads of the kingdom’s five most powerful families, including Teodora’s father, and obeying the royal summons may be the only way to save him. Teo makes the journey alongside strega Cielo, who can switch their gender easily, discovering frightening truths—and possibly love—along the way.

To celebrate the release, Capetta talked with partner (and coauthor, of the forthcoming Once & Future) Cori McCarthy, about being nonbinary, favorite tropes, and the endless possibilities of fantasy.

Cori McCarthy: Hey, girl.

Amy Rose Capetta: Umm…actually. I’m nonbinary! Specifically, demigirlflux. Basically, my gender fluctuates from “mostly femme” to “no, thanks.” I never felt like I fit into the gender binary, but it took me a long time to find the words that fit best.

Also, I like saying demigirlflux because it sounds like a superhero.

McCarthy: I’m so glad I tricked you into that, Ryan Gosling–style. I, myself, am a trans masc nonbinary person. Which means I’m fairly masculine-ish on the inside and pretty much painted by those numbers on the outside.

Shout out to everyone who has just opened a second tab on the screen to look up the word “nonbinary.” You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.

I heard a rumor that your new book, the magical, sexy, Italy-inspired fantasy The Brilliant Death is about two nonbinary people in love. The rumor is coming from inside the house.

Capetta: It’s all true!

At a book event recently, someone asked about favorite and LEAST favorite story tropes. Mine are the same: the “pants” role, when a girl disguises herself as a boy. I’ve always been drawn to these stories. Shout out to Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the original Italian femme in slacks. But there usually wasn’t much gender exploration beyond showing that boys and girls were treated differently, which I already knew. And the story always ends in a very cisgender, heterosexual way.

But this is TwentyGayTeen, and The Brilliant Death casts nonbinary characters in the lead roles and takes my favorite/least favorite trope for all it’s worth.

P.S. You look cute scheming up questions on the other side of the kitchen island.

McCarthy: I’m not cute. I’m a scoundrel.

Tell me about the gender identity journey of main character Teodora di Sangro, mafia daughter and secret magic user who turns men—enemies of her family—into objects. Is it *cough* #ownvoices?

ARC: There are two answers to this question. The first is that Teodora’s identity journey is very much patterned after mine. At the start of the story, she’s somewhat aware of her queerness, but she’s keeping a lot about herself quiet, including her identity as a magic user—a strega. She feels lonely and different, but she’s resigned herself to that fate. Before she meets Cielo, she doesn’t know there’s anyone else like her.

We all need to see the pieces of ourselves in the world around us, in another person or a community, a book or a movie. Our brains are story machines, and we need stories like ours to understand our own. That’s a big part of why people are fighting so hard to take LGBTQIAP+ visibility away. It took many years for me to see myself reflected. And when I finally did, it felt like long-awaited magic.

The second answer is that, due to magic, the way I wrote this story could only happen in the world of Vinalia. I’m not sure I can call a magical gender exploration #ownvoices, but I’ve always felt playful about gender—it’s one way to subvert a rigidly constructed gender binary. The transformation magic of Italian folktales allows such beautiful possibilities, and I could see ways for them to empower nonbinary characters and get under the skin of Vinalia’s patriarchy.

I love when magic empowers marginalized people so I’m not going to limit the options in order to be more “realistic.” I’ve never been a big fan of the way LBTQIAP+ people are treated in the normal world, anyway.

McCarthy: What are you talking about? We’re one of the most sneezed-on items at the salad bar! Just kidding; that was all super important and your brain is full of starlight.

I heard another rumor that the love interest, the sexy, occasionally overconfident magic tutor, is based off of someone you know. Maybe off of someone you live with? Someone who might even be interviewing you on the Barnes & Noble Teen Blog? Would you like to talk about this person?

Capetta: I wrote the book for this person! In a very literal sense. I’d been wanting to create a fantasy based on the remote, mountainous part of Italy my father’s family came from since I was a ferocious fantasy reader as a kid. I researched for five years. But when I started to write—I couldn’t actually turn out more than five pages.

I had just started to live with THIS PERSON (who is currently twirling their dark hair in a rascally handsome way) and they gave me the perfect idea: drafting it longhand in a large, unlined notebook. Then they listened to me read every chapter out loud, which made the story feel real in a way it never would have just living inside my head. And they made the most brilliant, wonderful story demands—most of which involved more flirting scenes. This person not only made me feel brave enough to write The Brilliant Death, they brought me back to the delighted love of writing that I’d had when I was younger. And they gave me TONS of glorious inspiration.

I think I should admit: I’m inspired by a love story that’s more epic than anything I could ever write.

Wait! I have a question for you! If Teodora di Sangro changed our love into something, what would it be?

McCarthy: I’m all blushy now. That was really sweet. And I think Teo would change our love into a brass candlestick. Old school, fashionably tarnished, a carrier of light.

Oh gods, we’re so cheesy. I love you.

One last question, and this one pertains to the promised title. What are nonbinary gender roles?

Capetta: For nonbinary people, gender identity (what your gender is) and presentation (how it looks to the world) cover a wide range. It’s not about finding a third box to put people in: it’s about exploding the notion that there are only two boxes. Patriarchy relies on controlling and confining gender definitions. Teo starts out being treated as less because she’s born as a daughter, because she’s seen as a girl. Being a man is power in her world. But the world doesn’t have to be that way and living outside of the binary makes that clear. Nonbinary people don’t have set gender roles. They’re:

Personal. Changeable. Different. Or nonexistent.

In short, they’re whatever we want them to be. Teo and Cielo get to define who they want to be in their lives and in their love story. Their quest is epic: they have to do nothing less than transform their world. Much like we have the chance to transform ours. Fantasy pushes at the boundaries of all of our maps. That’s why it felt like the perfect space to tell a story about gender, power, and a love that changes everything.

McCarthy: Thank you so much for having dinner with me and answering my bantery questions! Now, we need to go work on the sequel of that series we’re writing together. You know, the one with all the queer love, mythical swords, and space dragons…

The Brilliant Death is out now!

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