While I was at RT this past month, I had the opportunity to meet Juliet Blackwell, the author of the new Witchcraft Mystery series. Juliet has just released the second novel, A Cast-Off Coven, but since I was unfamiliar with the series, we talked a bit about the first novel, Secondhand Spirits:
Lily Ivory feels that she can finally fit in somewhere and conceal her “witchiness” in San Francisco. It’s there that she opens her vintage clothing shop, outfitting customers both spiritually and stylistically.
Just when things seem normal, a client is murdered and children start disappearing from the Bay Area. Lily has a good idea that some bad phantoms are behind it. Can she keep her identity secret, or will her witchy ways be forced out of the closet as she attempts to stop the phantom?
Literary Escapism: For those who haven’t discovered Secondhand Spirits, how would you describe the world you’ve built? Is there anything you’re hoping your readers will get, not just from the individual books, but from the world you’ve created?
Juliet Blackwell: Secondhand Spirits is the first in the new Witchcraft Mysteries series, featuring Lily Ivory, a natural born witch. Lily comes from a small west Texas town where her talents weren’t exactly appreciated. She was essentially run out of town as a young woman and then traveled the globe for some time, looking for a place to land where she would feel safe. She finally winds up in San Francisco — more specifically, in the Haight-Ashbury section of SF, which is the traditional hippie haven. There are a lot of open-minded, idiosyncratic people living there, so Lily feels as though she fits in for the first time in her life. She doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb any more. Lily has been a real loner her whole life, but she is very sensitive to people’s vibrations. She likes old things because they feel like the people they’ve been around, and she loves vintage clothing especially. Lily opens a vintage clothing store called Aunt Cora’s Closet so she can indulge in her love of vintage clothing, and contribute to the neighborhood.
When the book opens, Lily has been in town for a couple of months and has made a friend, Bronwyn, who runs an herbal stand in Lily’s store. Bronwyn is a Wiccan with no “real” power, but she’s very excited to find out that Lily is a witch. This is Lily’s first experience finding someone who is actually happy that she is a witch. Through the events in the first book, Lily starts to make other friends in San Francisco and is excited about the prospect of becoming part of a community.
I see Secondhand Spirits as a story about Lily finding a place where she can –more or less—fit in and belong. The plot for this first book in the series centers on Lily trying to keep her witchy tendencies under wrap while she gets caught up in a mystery concerning an elderly client. While Lily’s picking up some vintage clothing from the woman, she hears the call of a demon, la Llorona. La Llorona means the weeping woman, or the crying woman. The demon is based on a folktale that is pretty well known all through Latin America, Mexico and the Southwest. According to the story, a woman who was abandoned by the father of her children took the children down to the river and drowned them, and then killed herself. According to the legend she now walks the banks of the riverside at night, crying out for her lost babies. If children are out at night, she might kidnap them and take them with her down into the river. Why would la Llorona be in San Francisco in the first place? When Lily hears the cry of La Llorona, and then a child disappears, Lily has to try to win the child back, as well as protect her elderly client. There are human suspects in the crimes as well, so Lily has her work cut out for her.
Literary Escapism: Are the witches out in the open or are they….
Juliet Blackwell: Lily is not particular out in the open in Secondhand Spirits, that’s part of the story, her coming out a little bit to her new friends, and because she’s forced to in order to save a child. But she’s still pretty wary of people knowing about her powers. Through the process of her tracking down this mystery, she has to come clean with a few people. And of course there’s a bit of a romance brewing with a myth-buster, the journalist/love interest, Max Carmichael. Max doesn’t believe in any of this stuff.
Literary Escapism: Does he set out to prove her wrong?
Juliet Blackwell: One thing I wanted to avoid was getting into the tangle of a perfectly normal human telling a witch she can’t do what she does. It’s a continuing conflict in the book. Lily’s not willing to not be whole, especially since she’s fought all this time to finally come to terms with who she is. So Max is having to deal with her just as she is. That’s part of the tension.
Literary Escapism: The second novel is A Cast-Off Coven
Juliet Blackwell: Yes, the second in the series, A Cast-Off Coven, came out June 1. I’m currently working on the third one, which is as yet untitled, and that one comes out Summer 2011. I’ve accept a contract to write four books so far, so there will be at least four, maybe more.
Lily Ivory is not your average witch. She runs a vintage clothing store called Aunt Cora’s Closet and has the magical ability to sense vibrations of the past from clothing and jewelry. When students are spooked at the San Francisco School for the Arts, Lily is called in to search for paranormal activity. She finds a dead body00and a closet full of old clothes with some very bad vibes.
Literary Escapism: You’ve already introduced Bronwyn, is there any other characters you can introduce us to that we’ll be running into? That will make regular appearances?
Juliet Blackwell: Actually, there’s a big cast of characters. I love to write characters as a writer, I don’t intend to, but the numbers of characters do tend to grow. It’s fun to have a lot of different folks, and a wide circle of friends. That’s one of the fun things with San Francisco, you just see such interesting personalities and I like to base characters on people I know.
Another important person in the book is Aidan, a very powerful male witch. We’re not clear in the first book what his role exactly is, but he comes in to Aunt Cora’s Closet to welcome Lily to town. Lily is rather leery of him. Aidan may or may not become a love interest, I haven’t quite decided that. He’s a little bit frightening. He has his office at the wax museum at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, which is kind of creepy, don’t you think?
Literary Escapism: You don’t see a lot of wax museums either.
Juliet Blackwell: Lily also meets a voodoo priest, his name is Herve, and he helps her in her quest to reach the demon. I got to learn a little bit about voodoo. As a writer, I really love research and one of the things I’m fascinated by is the various systems of witchcraft all over the world. Plus I think people have a tendency to think voodoo is frightening — of course a lot of people think that about witchcraft, too. I think there are scary aspects of any magical system, but then there are some really intriguing aspects. There’s also a whole religious component to voodooism. People tend to be very devout and use it for worship and for good, just like most religious systems.
Lily also has a young friend, Maya, who she hires to work in Aunt Cora’s Closet. But my favorite character is the witch’s familiar that Aidan gave Lily. His name is Oscar. She’s not quite sure about this familiar; Lily thinks he may be a spy for Aidan. Oscar’s kind of a gargoyle-goblin guy, who transforms into a miniature pot belly pig when people are around. So he’s her little pig in the store. He’s a lot of fun because he gets to be the comedic relief.
Side note: The fourth Art Lovers novel, Arsenic and Old Paint comes out September 9, 2010.
Juliet Blackwell: I wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery series with my sister, so we used the pen name Hailey Lind, an old family name. It was our first experience with publishing, and it was a lot of fun. We published three books in that series, with a fourth one that comes out later this summer, called Arsenic and Old Paint. The series is about an ex-art forger who is trying to stay on the straight and narrow, working as a legitimate faux finisher in San Francisco. I had a lot of fun with it since I am an artist myself. Annie Kincaid, the protagonist in this series, has my day job, which is painting murals, stuff in kids rooms and bathrooms, portraits and that sort of thing. The Art Lover’s Mystery series has a really devoted following, but it didn’t have the sales numbers the publishers wanted to see.
My editor was very supportive of the series and of me, and asked if I happened to have anything paranormal lying around. As a matter of fact, I had been playing around with the idea of demons and other entities. My editor asked to see what I had written, and with a few changes it really fit into a storyline they really liked. I wrote the first chapter for a story about a witch, which eventually morphed into Secondhand Spirits. Lily didn’t start out as a standard witch, though. She was something entirely different that may or may not eventually come out in the series. I’m going to keep quiet about what that is, for the moment — Lily may have a secret! Plus, the more I thought about witchcraft and did the research, the more I liked the idea. There aren’t that many witch books around.
Literary Escapism: No, actually, most are concentrating on vampires and werewolves right now due to the movies.
The tone of your Art Lovers Mystery series and Secondhand Spirits, are they ore lighter fun reads or are they more the deep intense type?
Juliet Blackwell: The Art Lovers Mystery series includes a lot art forgery, but they are humorous, fast-paced mysteries. They’re funny characters and settings — I guess people always say this, but they are in line with Evanovich’s Stephanie Plumb series, and that kind of thing. They are fast moving and funny capers. There are also a couple of love interests, of course: an incorrigible art thief (what else?) and an art security expert/landlord. The books are a lot of fun for me because the characters run in and out of various museums and a lot of wealthy homes. That was my day job, I was a muralist and faux finisher, so I got to hang out in wealthy people’s homes. I like to use those quirky scenarios for the Art Lover’s stories.
Secondhand Spirits, I think because of the subject matter, is a little more serious in tone. It does have a lot of humor to it, because I personally think it’s more entertaining when you have some humor, even in a dark story. The book includes a search for herself and identity. Lily’s learning a lot about the history of witchcraft as she goes along, and it’s a serious history. Witchcraft has a lot to do with prejudice and small-mindedness and a lot of hatred. It’s kind of hard to leave all of that out and make it a “fluffy” tale. I didn’t want it to be like Bewitched, I wanted it to be a real story. I was an anthropologist in my past, so I’ve worked in a lot of rural situations where “witch” was synonymous with “healer” and there are often elders in the village who heal people and know a lot about botanicals and medicine. But then they also tend to psychological health, giving people talismans and chants to make them feel better. They are casting spells, in a way. If people believe they will be helped by such spells, they are helped. So the books have a little more serious tone, but it’s not gory or graphic. The series is considered to be more on the cozy side of the spectrum of mysteries, which means there’s not a lot of on-screen violence.
Literary Escapism: You said you have a contract for four novels, do you see the series going beyond that?
Juliet Blackwell: I think it could go farther and I think it probably will, from what the publisher has been saying. The response has been really good, so they see it as being an ongoing series for a bit. That’s a good thing because then I can bring in all these characters, give them deeper backgrounds and motivations. There’s a whole mystery surrounding Lily’s father, for instance, that will probably come out in the fourth book, but it might go into the fifth book. We’ll get to find out more about Lily’s origins and what happened to her back in Texas that caused her to flee.
Literary Escapism: When you were drafting Secondhand Spirits, did you ever take anything you’ve seen in real life and twisted it to make it work for what you wanted it to do? Do you have to separate your imaginary world with what you do sometimes?
Juliet Blackwell: I do bring a lot of reality into my books. I spend a lot of time in various neighborhoods, such as the Haight-Ashbury, and the vintage clothing store is based on a real one I know there. A lot of the secondary characters, also, are based on people that I know or have met while doing research for the book.
Literary Escapism: Do they know this?
Juliet Blackwell: Sometimes they know and sometimes they don’t. Most often people think they are a certain character when they’re not. I think there is always blending of reality in fiction — at least that’s my theory.
Literary Escapism: That’s one of the intriguing things about Urban Fantasy/Paranormal. How often are you going to walk around the streets and see a vampire?
Juliet Blackwell: One of the fun things about writing a paranormal after writing a more traditional mystery is that you can bring all of this stuff in. I just act as if there are people who are born with these powers and whether you learn to control them or not has to do with your life experience. Lily keeps meeting these really interesting people who have different sorts of powers… and in urban fantasy you get to act as though that’s perfectly normal.
Literary Escapism: You mentioned that Lily was from a small town in Texas, is that where her coven is and that’s who drove her out or was it a general population?
Juliet Blackwell: No, it was the general population. Lily was born with these talents, but she was a misfit and an outcast and she didn’t know how to control them. Essentially, her father abandoned her when she was an infant, and when she was eight, her mother couldn’t deal with her any more. Lily grew up with a woman who she calls her grandmother, who also raised her father. Lily’s father is very powerful, but Lily never knew him. The woman, her adoptive grandmother Graciela, raised Lily and helped trained her. Before finishing with her training, Lily was driven out of town by the townspeople. I think at a later point I would like to bring the story back to Texas because we don’t yet know exactly what happened. Lily was accused of something and she needed to leave.
Literary Escapism: Has there been any point that you’ve gotten stuck with writers block, what have you done to get past it?
Juliet Blackwell: I do get writer’s block. I’m writing every day now, because I have a third series starting in December as well. So I’m writing as my full time job, and in a way that makes it a little easier, because you can produce a lot more, but in another way it’s tough to keep your motivation going as a writer. There’s always a point where you get bogged down. I’m part of a really active writers group in the Bay area and we’re pretty tight and we know each other real well, and it’s always helpful to reach out to them. Plus I’m a member of Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America, so I have a lot of writer friends. We do plotting lunches often and we talk through plot issues, which are often a big reason behind writer’s block. We try ideas out on each other and it’s really energizing.
Also, I leave near a lake and I often find that going for a walk around the lake when I can’t think of what to write really works. It’s amazing. I’m not a hugely committed exerciser, but I’ve found that exercise, getting outdoors in the fresh air, it just jogs things in one’s mind. It’s hard to sit down and write for more than three or four hours without your brain going to mush. The other thing I do to get over writer’s block is to read other people’s books. An evening with a good novel often kicks my mind into gear.
Literary Escapism: What are you reading right now?
Juliet Blackwell: Right now I’m reading a book by Marisa de los Santos, which was recommended to me. It’s good. I think it would be called women’s fiction. It’s not a mystery. I don’t often read my own genre—for instance, I don’t read the other witchcraft mystery series– because I don’t want to accidentally pick up ideas. I do a lot of non-fiction reading for research, but I love to read fiction and I read across the board, all sorts of genres. Now, because I know so many writers personally, I have a large stack of novels from people I know, so I’m trying to make my way through their books. A lot of them are thrillers and grittier mystery novels, not the stuff I write, but it’s inspiring to read other fiction to get myself revved up.
Literary Escapism: You mentioned that you have a new series starting in December?
Juliet Blackwell: The first novel is entitled If Walls Could Talk. The main character runs her father’s construction company, which specializes in high-end historic renovations in the San Francisco Bay area. They end up coming across ghosts in the walls, so it’s another paranormal.
The protagonist for this one, Mel Turner, is pushing forty, and she was divorced a few years before the book starts. Her idea was to escape to Paris and simply hide out, alone, for a couple of years. Unfortunately, her mother passed away and her father had his own construction company, but he couldn’t really deal with his mother’s death. So Mel stepped in to take over the construction company for a couple of months — but now it’s two years later. Mel lives with her dad and his best friend Stan…she also has an ex-stepson that she’s really close to still. So she has all these people in her life that she loves, and I think like a lot of us, you love them and adore them, but at the same time it’s a bit overwhelming to be dealing with a lot of people all the time when all you really want to do is run and hide. Mel’s a lot of fun to write because she doesn’t want to be in this situation but she’s making the best of it, and she can be a bit sarcastic. That comes out December 7, 2010 and it’s called the Haunted Home Renovation series.
Literary Escapism: Is each novel going to be based on different homes?
Juliet Blackwell: Yes and that’s fun because I get to talk about different architecture styles. Mel hunts through salvage yards and deals with great old antique architectural finds.
Literary Escapism: Are any of these old homes based on real haunted houses?
Juliet Blackwell: Yes, I do base a lot of them on reality. The mansion in the first novel is actually based on a home that I worked in while I had my old design company. We found a lot of things behind the walls, which is always intriguing. And there are a lot of supposedly haunted houses in the Bay Area, so I’m enjoying the research on all those places.
Contest Time! We have a signed copies of the first two Witchcraft Mystery novels – Secondhand Spirits and A Cast-Off Coven – to give away. All you have to do is answer this question: What treasures have you found via vintage stores?
As always, there’s more ways of getting your name in the hat (remember, these aren’t mandatory to enter, just extra entries):
- +1 for each place you post about today’s contest on your blog, social network, or anywhere you can. Digg it, stumble it, twit it, share it with the world. Wherever you share it, make sure you add a link to it along with your answer.
- +1 to any review you comment on, however, comments must be meaningful. Just give me the title of the review and I’ll be able to figure it out from there.
- +1 If you are a follower of Literary Escapism on Facebook and/or Twitter
- +10 Purchase any of Jennifer’s novels through LE’s Amazon store or through the Book Depository sometime during this contest and send a copy of the receipt VIA email for your purchase to: jackie AT literaryescapism DOT com. Each purchase is worth ten entries.
There is one thing I am adding to my contests now…the winner must post a review of the novel someplace. Whether it is on their own blog, Amazon, GoodReads, LibraryThing or wherever, it doesn’t matter. Just help get the word out.
I have not been contacting winners, so you will need to check back to see if you’ve won.