Thursday, July 09, 2009

Juliet Blackwell Talks About Witchcraft, Good Cooking, and the Dual Nature of Us All

Juliet Blackwell's first Witchcraft Mystery, Secondhand Spirits, comes out today from Obsidian. She was kind enough to share her thoughts about writing and her new series.

Juliet, I just finished Secondhand Spirits and thought it was great fun! How did you come up with the idea of Lily Ivory, a 31-year-old witch who opens a used clothing store in the Haight-Ashbury district?

Hi, Julia, thanks for having me! So glad you enjoyed Secondhand Spirits. Lily Ivory, my protagonist, morphed from an undeveloped idea I had for a much darker paranormal novel. I was talking one day with my editor at Signet, and she asked whether I had a “paranormal novel in a drawer somewhere” since the genre is so popular lately (and most of us writers have manuscripts shoved, willy-nilly, in one drawer or another!). I shared my ideas with her, and then we brainstormed about how to make my character a little less dark, and to put her in a setting that would lend itself to a mystery series.

I wanted Lily to be surrounded by history; she has been estranged from people all her life, but she finds solace in the vibrations of people who have gone before. I thought of an antique shop first, but I’m a vintage clothes lover and one day in a consignment shop on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, it dawned on me: how better to feel vibrations than from vintage clothing?

The Haight-Ashbury setting was a natural–-where better to place a witch who wants to “fit in” with all the odd characters and misfits? And Lily’s age was merely a function of wanting someone old enough to have gained some wisdom and self-awareness, but young enough to still be unsure of her path in the world. That’s how I felt when I was thirty-one, anyway.

Lily is rather a loner, yet she accumulates a great many friends in the book. Will her friends’ characters continue into the next book?

Yes, I enjoyed having Lily make friends in the first book. Her personal story –being sent away from her home as a girl, then run out of her small West Texas town altogether as a teenager, then wandering the globe alone for years—-is a powerful motivation. She wants to settle down, create a sense of home, and develop friendships. But that’s not easy, for any of us--it’s always a risk to open yourself up to others. For Lily, as a natural born witch who has been despised for her abilities, it’s even more difficult. So it was lovely to surround her with characters who not only accept her as she is, but celebrate her.

Lily was an interesting character for me, as a writer. It probably sounds strange to say it, but she took a while to open up to me. As I got to know her, I came to love and admire her mix of strength and vulnerability. Her friends will certainly follow her into the next book – one of the things I most like about writing is building whole new worlds full of quirky characters, and I always enjoy them too much to drop them!

You reference many stereotypes of witches in the novel, as well as the historical realities about witches who were burned at the stake. One of your characters cites Arthur Miller’s The Crucible as an example of witch persecution (and persecution in general). Did you do a great deal of research about witches?

When I set out to write a novel featuring a witch, the last thing I wanted to do was produce a sort of warmed-over version of the old “Bewitched” television show (though I must admit I loved that show as a child!) I wanted to treat witchcraft seriously. It has been such an intense, important topic throughout the history of the world . . . besides, I love research! I couldn’t stop reading about witchcraft, not only in Europe but all over the world: Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia . . . witchcraft is, and has been, something of a global obsession. Of course the traditions are all different, but what they share is the mixed respect and fear that people have of witches.

Witches are often associated with health and healing, as in the case of “witch doctors”--this was also true in Europe, where some believe the witch hunts were at least in part a response to the desire to run women out of the health professions. But that association with health can go both ways – when epidemics occur, the local witch healer might be stuck with the blame.

In Secondhand Spirits, Lily Ivory learns to control her powers from a “curandera," which is a sort of Mexican folk healer. That character, Graciela, is based on a fascinating woman I’ve known for many years--she has an intriguing approach to the world, and especially to botanicals and health. I also interviewed any number of self-proclaimed witches, from the US, Scotland, and Mexico, and attended a few local coven meetings. Of course, I did way too much research to include everything in the books, so I write more in detail on my blog (link below).

For instance, did you know that as recently as 1944 a woman, Helen Duncan, was charged--and convicted—-of witchcraft in England? Fascinating.

That is surprising! What was her punishment?

She was imprisoned for nine months. The trial lasted seven days. Mediums and believers of all sorts rallied to her defense and set up a defense fund which allowed her barrister to call 44 witnesses to testify she wasn't a fraud. Ironically, it was precisely their fear that she was NOT a fraud that led to her conviction and sentencing.

The jury deliberated only half an hour before declaring her guilty. Happily, though the court used a law written in 1735 to convict Duncan, at least the punishment for witchcraft had been reformed. Her sentence was nine months in London’s Holloway prison…a step up from the traditional Scottish burning or hanging of witches.

That is bizarre!

On another topic, Lily manages to attract two sexy men in this book; it made me think of the Stephanie Plum triangle in the Janet Evanovich series. Will both men be significant in Lily’s life?

It’s funny, in my last series I had two interesting men in the protagonist’s life as well . . .I know a lot of people think the idea is reminiscent of Evanovich, but I think it’s a common device to show that we’re all attracted to different aspects of ourselves. In Secondhand Spirits, Aidan is a powerful witch very content in the supernatural world, and Max is a cynical “mythbuster” doubtful of magic in general and witchcraft in particular. I think the men represent Lily’s dual, contradictory desires: to be comfortable with her special abilities, but on the other hand to live a “normal” life.

In Cast-Off Coven, the second in the series, Lily meets yet another man –this one was not intended to be a love interest, but sometimes these things happen . . . he made overtures to Lily, and somehow she responded, despite my instructions to the contrary. . . what can I say? Yet another case of characters acting badly. Such is the magic of writing!

Lily has a goblin familiar who looks like a gargoyle. Was he inspired by anything in particular?

I adore gargoyles; I even have one sitting by my computer watching me all day. I used to live in Princeton, where I would walk the campus to check them all out; and every time I’m in Europe I can’t get enough of them. In New York City, 81 Irving Place, there’s a gargoyle that has big ears and feet, and a friendly expression on his face. He was my specific inspiration

Lily is a very good cook; she says, “There’s a reason that when opening one’s home to guests, the first thing you do is offer food and drink. Cooking is a kind of everyday magic.” That’s a great line; do you cook yourself?

I do love to cook! And if you think about it, it really is a sort of alchemy: taking raw ingredients and creating something entirely different. Sharing food and drink creates an aura of family, trust, and acceptance; the word “companion," for instance, comes from “one who shares bread.” I also believe that food cooked with love is better for you than mass-produced food, and not only because of the contents (my son makes fun of me when I say things like that!). The only difference between me and my character is that Lily bakes a lot, whereas I’m more of a stovetop cook. I especially like to make ethnic foods: Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese . . . . and my super-duper chicken soup is guaranteed to cure whatever ails you!

I want some. Does it cure the desire for food? :)

Lily loves vintage clothing, and you mentioned that you do. Did this inspire her love for it?

Yes! I live in an area that has great consignment shops and vintage clothes stores. The only problems are lack of time to meander (shopping vintage takes much longer, though it’s so much more fun and rewarding!) and my size—I’m no waif, and what with vitamins and good nutrition, even today’s normal-sized woman is often too big for the clothes of our smaller, older generations. But still, I love wandering the aisles and sensing the history, wondering about who wore this dress, what the occasion was, that sort of thing.

Have you ever lived or worked in the Haight?

I worked as a painter in a house just off Haight street (I am a muralist/faux finisher in my other life), but I’ve never lived there. I do have a lot of friends who have, however, and when I thought about where to set this book I spent many days just hanging out, soaking in the culture, and talking to people about their experiences. There are far too many funny, quirky local stories to include in the books, I’m afraid! I had several options for great San Francisco neighborhoods, but I finally decided on the Haight because it is just so distinctive, and has such an interesting history, both good and bad.

Lily’s witchcraft is very positive; it is focused on healing, togetherness, and positive energy. Do you think the connotation of the word “witch” is changing, or that it still evokes negative associations?

That’s a hard one for me to answer, because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and hang around artists and the like, so around me “witch” is almost always considered positive. But I was just at a family gathering with several Texan relatives, and they all kept asking whether my protagonist was a “white witch” or an “evil witch”, so I guess those stereotypes still run deep! I think the Wiccan religion is changing a lot of people’s conceptions, since its followers often refer to themselves as witches and practice a very loving, open, nature-based spirituality.

On the other hand, I also spend a lot of time with Latinos, many of whom –especially rural folks--have a still-vivid belief in “brujas," most of which are feared. And I do think that when people think historically, they often think of witches as being outcasts and vicious. We all react with fear to the unknown.

True. You also wrote a series of books with your sister as Hailey Lind. Is she working on a solo mystery, as well? Will you be returning to the Hailey Lind art series?

My sister Carolyn is actually working on an academic book right now – she teaches history at Old Dominion University and writes about women’s associations in the antebellum period. But I’m happy to say that we’re working together on the fourth in the Art Lover’s Mystery series, called Arsenic and Old Paint, which will be coming out from Perseverance Press in summer, 2010. Unfortunately, our original publisher, Signet, decided to discontinue the series, but I’m very excited about our new publisher – they put out beautiful trade paperbacks, and I’m writing the book this summer, so my mind is very much with Annie Kincaid and art forgery!

That's great to hear! (My 2006 interview with Hailey Lind is here).

Do you think the Harry Potter books helped to create a more welcoming climate for books about witches and wizards?

I do think so, in general. Still, one of my best friends teaches third grade, and she used to read Harry Potter to her students, but some of the parents complained on religious grounds. So I guess magic is still a hot-button issue for a lot of people, even here in the Bay Area. Personally, I loved the books, in part because they do take magic seriously, as something that needs to be studied and worked at, and as something that involves politics and persecution, as does so much in the world.

I found myself envying Lily’s independence and her bachelorette apartment. It’s probably because you described it as so cozy and comforting, but it might also be because I have children.

Ha! I have a teenager myself – I love him to death, but these are long, loooooong years. The idea of having a little cozy getaway, all to myself, with no one asking for rides or food or homework help or sneering at my music or my use of the language…why yes, that WOULD be refreshing, wouldn’t it!? On the other hand, don’t we always yearn for what we don’t have? Lily feels alone so much of the time, and I think she would love to have a family, and children....

Great point; I'll remember it when my 14-year-old harasses me.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on the fourth in the Art Lover’s Mystery series, Arsenic and Old Paint, which features forged erotica, an exclusive men’s club, and old tunnels under San Francisco’s Chinatown and Nob Hill. I’m also writing the second in the Witchcraft series, A Cast-Off Coven, which will be released June 2010. And next I’ll be starting my new series, which features a cynical, divorced, 40-something failed anthropologist who takes over her father’s upscale home construction company, specializing in renovating historic homes. The first in this series is called If These Walls could Talk. I’m really looking forward to developing that character--she’s snide and wicked and really funny, though basically kind and decent. She says the things I’m afraid to say.

Wow! You are one busy woman.

What are you reading these days?

Right now I’m reading Tim Maleeny’s newest, Jump, which is SO well written and fun. I also have Sophie Littlefield’s first novel, A Bad Day for Sorry, waiting for me--very excited about that one. And not long ago I re-read Evanovich’s Two for the Dough, because it’s perfect bathtub/airplane reading! When I get a few brain cells back, I’m looking forward to Richard Russo’s latest novel – I really love his prose. Oh, and I just finished Dan Savage’s account of adopting a child, fabulous; and Ann Lamott’s Plan B; and A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby; and I re-read Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. My reading tastes are all over the map, and entirely dependent upon my mood!

What you should market, along with your books, is your energy!

How can readers find out more about Lily Ivory and the Witchcraft mysteries?

Please visit my website at, and check out my blogs at –about witchcraft and the series -- and–about the craft of writing in general; I write every other Wednesday on that one. And I love to hear from readers, write me at or

Thanks for chatting, Juliet.

Thank you for talking to me!


Tim Maleeny said...

How can you not love a writer who loves gargoyles? Read this book, Juliet is a terrific writer.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for stopping in, Tim.

jonathan said...

Wow, very detailed review and information about the book's background. I think it is really worth reading. Thank you

Julia Buckley said...

You'll enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

thanks Tim -- your check's in the mail!
And thanks, Julia, for the chance to go on about myself!

Chick Lit Cafe said...

Her Witchcraft Mystery series is top notch! I got hooked after reading Hexes and Hemlines. Really good stuff!

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