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Juliet Blackwell Author Interview: Season of the Witch

Posted by sirensays on October 26, 2010


Author Juliet Blackwell

Some years ago, I became enamored of The Art Lover’s Mysteries, which Juliet Blackwell co-authors with her sister, and their pen name is Hailey Lind. They can be found here: http://haileylind.com/ These fun, adventurous stories are set in the San Francisco Bay Area and feature reformed art forger Annie Kincaid, who gets caught up in exciting art-related mysteries. Juliet paints the covers of these books and the fourth just came out last month.

Then, I discovered her new series, The Witchcraft Mysteries, set in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. These cozy-with-an-edge mysteries feature a powerful witch named Lily Ivory, who has always been an outsider and an outcast. After wandering the globe for some time, she settles in quirky, foggy San Francisco, opens a vintage clothing store and begins to make friends. Along the way, she acquires a demon familiar shapeshifter, brews up some potent spells, flirts with some enticing men and helps those in distress. Drawing on the author’s own fascinating background, including a stint as an anthropologist, two of the mysteries have been published thus far and they are fun, intriguing reads.

Juliet, a Bay Area writer and artist who lives in a haunted house, has a new series coming out soon, too, but I’ll let her tell you all about that, some of the mystical people who have influenced her, and more.

1. First, let me congratulate you on your three different book series! This has been a busy year for you. Let me see if I can keep this straight: the second book in the Lily Ivory Witchcraft Series Mysteries came out in June, the fourth book in The Art Lover’s Mysteries that you write with your sister, Arsenic and Old Paint, is a lot of fun and just came out in September, and the Haunted Home Renovation Series, also set in the bay area, like the other two series, is coming out in December of this year. Is that right?

Yes, you got it right!  It was a busy year indeed, though last year, when I was writing all of them, was pretty busy too.  I feel so lucky to be in demand at the moment — it’s a tough business, and you never know when such opportunities will evaporate! — that I have a hard time saying “no”.  Besides, I have way too many ideas for books, so I want to write down as many as I possibly can.  Though I have to say, I think three series is about my physical and creative limit, especially as I’m also writing a non-mystery fiction book in all my spare time.

2. So this means that you are writing full time and often juggling multiple storylines, characters and phases of book development? How do you keep it all straight?

I usually only work on one book at a time.  My two magical series, the Witchcraft Mysteries and the new Haunted Home Renovation series, are with the same publisher and editor, so we make sure that the release dates make sense, about six months apart.  The Art Lover’s mystery series is a whole different animal, since I write that with my sister.  My other non-mystery fiction is such a distinct kind of book that I occasionally wander over and write a bit on that one even while I’m writing one of my series books, but for some reason that seems to inspire me even more to get back to my other storyline.

Secondhand Spirits, set in San Francisco, features witch Lily Ivory

But it IS a challenge to juggle storylines – my memory’s not that great, so I can only deal with one mystery at a time!  And I work hard to make sure my heroines are distinct, even while sharing geography and certain life issues, such as being single women in the San Francisco Bay Area. So once I’m rolling on a story and have my characters developing as I like, I try to stick with the story until I get at least a rough draft completed.  Often there are times when I have to write up synopses or outlines for other books during that time, and I *hate* that!  It definitely throws my creative energies off track, and it takes a while to get back into the story.

3. What can you tell us about your background in anthropology that informs your writing?

What doesn’t it inform?  Anthropology is the study of humanity, throughout history and around the globe.  That’s a pretty big subject area 😉  I was trained in the classical American system in which you learn about linguistics, archaeology, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology, and though I went on to specialize in cultural anthro – how people live, and why – I find that even the arcane bits from human evolution, for instance, are still relevant in a lot of what we see around us everyday.

But specifically, my studies focused on Mexican immigrants and Vietnamese refugees coming into the US, how they managed the transitions and dealt with the cultural and socioeconomic shifts demanded of them.  A big part of this is the family’s physical and mental health, and though I didn’t set out to study it I wound up collecting a great deal of data on spiritual and health practices amongst both groups.  My fascination with the subject grew, and I paired up with a fellow graduate student, a former nurse, who was studying physical anthropology.  With her science background and my cultural information, we taught several successful college courses concerning the anthropology of health, medicine, and health care.

All of that, naturally, leads to a study of witchcraft, because in most parts of the world witches are also healers. Hence we hear the term “witch doctor”, by which I suppose we’re supposed to think they are somehow lesser doctors than the European medical healers.  But often, even today, witches are effective healers with an incredible working knowledge of botanicals, rituals, and anatomy—not to mention their own cultural psychology.

Turmeric, commonly used by Vietnamese healers

Vietnamese massage

Epazote, Mexican & Central American healing herb

Virgin of Guadalupe

4. I read an interview with you where you mentioned two women who had metaphysical talents that influenced you. The first was your aunt, a tarot card and tea leaf reader who stopped reading after she predicted the death of a friend. The second woman, your former mother-in-law, was from a small Nahautl village in Mexico who taught you about their traditions, botanicals, and spirits. Can you tell us more about how each of these women and their abilities influenced you?

I’ll start with my ex-mother in-law, since she fits in so well with what I was just saying above.  Abue, as we call her, comes from a small village, though she’s lived in California since she was twenty.  But she still speaks her native language, Nahuatl, in addition to Spanish and broken English.  Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs, who called themselves Nahuas.  When the Spaniards came to Mexico they slaughtered huge numbers of the native peoples, as Europeans did here, but they didn’t manage to devastate the country in the same way.  Few Spaniards came to live, for example.  They wanted gold, not a new country.  So the Spaniards that did come to stay tended to have children with native women, producing a very mixed race.  Most Mexicans call themselves mestizos, which means mixed person.

But thousands of native villages also remained relatively unmixed, and maintain strong ties to their past.  Abue came from one of these towns, and she has an amazing knowledge of botanicals and folk remedies for everything from warts (onions in your shoes) to headaches (a rubber band around the tip of your middle finger, and a tonic she makes which includes willow bark).  She’s also a font of advice about your love life, so don’t ask a question without some time to spend listening respectfully 😉  Interestingly, Abue is also happy to tell you about evil, which she believes in thoroughly.  She has an entire philosophy regarding the evil inherent in snakes, for example, and has dozens of stories to illustrate her point.

Raven playing cards

A typical deck of playing cards

Tea leaf reading

My aunt Mem, my mother’s sister, couldn’t be more different.  She was raised in Houston, along with eleven brothers and sisters.  Her father, my grandfather, was literally dirt-poor from a small West Texas town, while my grandmother was one of the South’s faded aristocracy – she completed college in New Orleans, was extremely formal and wore a corset until the day she died.  I suppose it was a case of opposites attracting, since they went on to have eleven children 😉  Unfortunately, my grandfather died young.  Several of the children were farmed out to other family members, including Mem, who went to live with a cousin in New Orleans.  According to her, she was allowed to run somewhat wild – and she had the temperament for it.  She had been quite ill as a child, and cheated death several times.  So when she was a teenager in New Orleans, she had no time for being demure.  She learned how to read cards, though she read regular playing cards, not tarot.  But she was good; startlingly good. Tea leaves, too.  But then she also read the National Enquirer and had a hearty laugh (often aimed at herself), and cooked amazing gumbo and hushpuppies.  She was my second mother, and though she passed to the next dimension last year, she’s still with me.

National Enquirer, with one of its believable covers

5. Besides family connections, what, if any, was your background in magic and witchcraft before you started your two paranormal series, The Witchcraft Mysteries & The Haunted Home Renovation series? Has your magical/spiritual path changed now that you have these series?

As I mentioned above, I have a solid academic background in a lot of different magical ways and belief systems.  One of the things I most enjoy about my work on the books is that I get to explore these worlds even more.  I’ve met with witches and “ghost hunters,” interviewed skeptics and believers, attended coven meetings, and toured haunted houses.  Can you imagine?  I have so much fun!

Spooky Village by Claire Handy

In terms of changing my own path, I’d say that I’m far less academic about the subject than I used to be.  Though I still maintain a good deal of skepticism, the more I see, the more I believe in certain magical systems.  For example, there are people who know much more than they should, by looking at cards or crystal balls.  I have met very able psychics.  I know that part of healing, in both a physical and psychological sense, is magic.  The interesting thing is if you ask an MD or detective, they would probably tell you the same thing.  People who deal with this sort of thing on a daily basis are often hidden believers.  They don’t like to admit it, but they’ve witnessed too many miracles to turn away from the idea of faith, hope, and magic entirely.

Blackwell's 2nd Witchcraft Mystery, A Cast Off Coven, with witch Lily Ivory

The Sacred Well in Oakland, CA, a well known metaphysical store

6. What are the similarities between writing and magic that you experience, if any?

That’s an excellent question!  I often tell people that there’s a great deal of magic to writing, and to painting (which I also love).  There’s a place that you get to occasionally –not always, and not consistently, but erratically—wherein you almost leave your body and allow the words to come out with no conscious knowledge of directing them.  It can be almost frightening at times, when you “come to” an hour later and know that you wrote those pages, but realize that you weren’t totally in charge, as though you were channeling something.  It’s eerie, but so powerful.  Sort of like what a lot of people seek through drugs or meditation, a sense that you’re outside yourself.   It’s a real rush.  It’s when the magic becomes real, and it’s beautiful.

The magical practitioners who I’ve interviewed and watched while they conjure often describe “subsuming” themselves to sensations of the earth and beyond, and to the powers of their ancestors.  I think we can all attain that kind of incredible energy at moments of great love, great inspiration, and great creativity.

7. Ok, since this is the Season of the Witch, how about we focus more on Lily Ivory and the Witchcraft Mystery Series for the rest of this interview? Since Wicca is popular, was it tempting to make Lily Ivory, your protagonist of The Witchcraft Mysteries, a Wiccan?

No, it wasn’t.  Wicca is a religion –though since it’s not dogmatic, it’s not easy to categorize—whereas witchcraft is a practice.  Often the two coincide, but not always.  Though I know a lot of Wiccans and respect them immensely, I wanted to make Lily a natural-born witch who doesn’t really have an obvious belief system at first—that’s part of her journey, her character arc over the series.  The Wiccans I know are far too welcoming and friendly to be a loner like Lily.  I wanted my protagonist to have to struggle and make a conscious decision to become part of her new community, and to have to stand outside of it, still, because of her powers.

Classic Halloween witch, an image many Wiccans don't like

8. Have you ever felt yourself to be as much of an outsider as Lily, or have you always felt relatively enfranchised?

I was very lucky to have been raised by loving, caring, and relatively accepting parents.  I have been incredibly lucky my whole life, in fact, and have many dear, close friends and incredible community support.  But I have traveled and lived in a lot of different places, from a small Yu’pik settlement on the Bering Strait, to a refugee camp in the Philippines, to a small village in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. I’ve put myself in the role of outsider, and even though I was doing it on purpose, it’s always hard to be by oneself, without friends, unsure of the traditions and expectations.

And I think that we all–even those of us lucky to be loved and supported always– sometimes feel like square pegs in our own lives.  We all have dark moments of feeling alone and misunderstood.

Kim Novak plays witch Gillian Holroyd in Bell, Book & Candle, a character who felt left out of normal human life

9. Given the coincidence that Lily has Oscar, a demon familiar who shapeshifts in the books, and that you have a neighbor’s cat named Oscar who visits you regularly, has the cat become a familiar of sorts?

I say yes, only in that sense that I love having animals in my life.  My neighbor’s cat Oscar, pure black of course, set about winning me over shortly after my beloved dog passed away of old age.  I was heartbroken to lose my pup, and though I love all animals I had never been much of a cat person.  But after my dog passed on, the neighbors’ many cats started enjoying my big, overgrown yard (the dog had pretty much kept them out, previously.)  Out of all five cats, only Oscar started approaching me, demanding attention and interest.  I ignored him for some time, which only made him adore me more.  I find that cats are like that 😉

Now he visits every morning while I drink coffee, and often   sits on the ledge outside my office window while I write.  He runs up to greet me when he hears my car coming, or sees me walking down the street.  He’s demanding and funny and makes me stop and rub his belly and bump noses and love him, all of which reminds me to relish the moment.  So in that sense yes, he’s a bit of a familiar…or at least an artist’s muse 😉

10. How have your friends and family responded to the Witchcraft Mystery series? Do people in your life tease you about your subject matter, or are they supportive, or both?

I’d say both. Few of my friends abstain from teasing me about anything, so yes, I do get teased a bit.  But once I launch into the real history of witchcraft, and misogyny, and folk healing, they realize that there may be more to it then they thought.  Then they read it because they’re my friends, and I wind up convincing a lot of them.

By and large, though, my friends are extremely supportive of me as a writer.  I suppose if they weren’t, it would be hard to continue our friendships!  Writing is a demanding vocation, which requires attention and time and energy.  My friends often make me take some time to enjoy life a little, which I appreciate in the long run.

11. Have you sought the assistance of magical practitioners for research? If so, have they been helpful?

I have had my cards read, and a crystal ball.  One woman in particular seemed very gifted, and she intuited many things about my life, helping me through a difficult transition.  Also, I have visited a lot of alternative healers over the years for everything from a cold to bursitis, and they’ve always helped.

12. I really love that there’s a balance between the coziness of the stories and the darker aspects. Has it been difficult to balance those aspects without sacrificing one or the other?

I’d say that’s the most difficult aspect of the books.  Often when I’m in the midst of writing, it’s hard to make realistic assessments of how dark something is going, or whether I’m treating something too superficially.  I want to take the history seriously, and I do think that any discussion of witchcraft has to include a continuum of good and evil intent.  But I think my readers like to laugh a little, as well – Oscar’s usually good at bringing a little humor into a situation 😉

13. I also love that Lily is half Mexican and that some of the most important characters in the first book, “Secondhand Spirits” were Mexican, and that Graciela, the woman who raised Lily, is Mexican. Will Lily’s mixed heritage play a larger role in future books?

I would really love to bring Lily back to her hometown in Texas, where she needs to face her past.  That would allow her to reunite with her grandmother, which would be fabulous.  I should point out that though Lily calls Graciela “grandmother”, she was really more a step-grandmother.  In Mexico there’s a concept of the “ahijada”, someone who is made to be your child – not through official adoption, but just because the need was there.  I think it’s more common in Mexico, as it used to be in rural areas of the US, for this sort of thing to happen.

Herbs ready for brewing

Green herbs, ready for picking

A cauldron - so handy for brewing!

I love Mexico, and tend to have a strong affiliation to Mexicans.  I speak Spanish fluently and love the way so much of our cultures mingle and make one another stronger, especially in the Southwest of the country. So yes, I would like to continue bringing in some of those aspects into the story.

14. Was it difficult to decide what Lily’s magical abilities and attributes would be?

The biggest problem was to figure out how to write mysteries if Lily was such a powerful and talented witch – after all, couldn’t she just look into her crystal ball and figure it all out?  But then I decided to make that her weak spot, something she’s working on.  I also met with a number of people with such talents, and realized that the visions are rarely that clear.

I knew from the start that I wanted her to be talented in brewing, since that is so closely allied with healing, and I have a background and particular interest in herbs and botanicals.

Altar de la Curandera by Pola Lopez

15. Have you always had an appreciation for vintage clothing? Was there a strong learning curve involved when writing about how vintage clothing is purchased, cared for and sold?

I’ve always adored vintage clothing, yes.  But I did have to learn a lot about running a shop, and the conservancy of old cloth – there’s a whole world out there in textile science! Who knew?  So yes, it’s been a rather steep learning curve.  But one of my favorite things about writing is getting to learn about new things, so that’s always a plus.

16. What can you tell us about Lily’s intriguing love life? How is it  shaping up in book #3?

Hmm, can’t give too much away, can I?  This is another area that I need to balance – I don’t want these novels to be romances, since they’re really more about Lily and her own path.  But what’s a story without at least some romance — and sex?  One interest, Max, is a skeptic, and I got a little annoyed with him, to tell you the truth!  Lily isn’t the kind of woman who would cave in to a man just because she cared for him.  Max either needs to start supporting Lily as she is, or hit the road, in my opinion.  But what do I know – I’m just the author!  Sometimes these characters do what they like, without consulting me 😉

17. What else can you tell us about Lily and her world, that you’d like readers to know?

Skeleton key

St. Michael Prayer Card

I’m just excited that I had the chance to have Lily and her “gang” come alive.  It has been such fun doing so, and I look forward to exploring other worlds – that of the woodsfolk, and Rom (gypsies), and further into the traditions of hoodoo and Mexican folk healing.

Romany caravan

I’d also love to hear from readers about what they’d like to see.  Anyone who likes can visit my website, www.julietblackwell.net, and please join the mailing list and see me on Facebook and Twitter!

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One Response to “Juliet Blackwell Author Interview: Season of the Witch”

  1. […] -If Walls Could Talk, by Juliet Blackwell (yes, she of the author interview last autumn https://sirensays.wordpress.com/2010/10/26/juliet-blackwell-author-interivew-season-of-the-witch/). […]

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