Firstly, a massive congratulations on the publication of Once We Were Witches! For anyone yet to read your spellbinding new middle grade story, Once We Were Witches tells the mesmerising tale of sisters Spel and Egg, daughters of witches and students of Mistress Mouldheel’s School for Wicked Girls. When they discover the truth of who they really are, Spel and Egg embark on a unforgettable journey bubbling with magic, danger, dragons, souls and sailors, and a very grumpy undertaker..! Sarah, what was the original inspiration behind your new series?
Thank you so much! I’m so happy you enjoyed Once We Were Witches. It’s a story very close to my heart. I feel like the inspiration for this one sort of trickled into my brain very gradually, and added to itself cumulatively over a long period of time. Some of it was subconscious and from years and years ago. The first character to appear was the undertaker, Shranken Putch, about 5 years ago while I was on a tour of an old coal yard, although he didn’t make it into the writing until much later – I started writing a scene featuring Spel and Egg first, and at that stage it was all about discovering Spel’s voice. I’d say a major inspiration behind the book was my own school, which was big, old and religious. Also I’ve always had a fascination for witches – from the idea of supernatural powers, to connection with nature, to society’s perception of witches. I’ve always found tales of Witchcraft really atmospheric and exciting. Childhood experiences of being quiet/introverted and being bullied also influenced the book.
What was your favourite part about writing OWWW, and what was the most challenging?
My favourite part was getting to know Spel and discovering the sibling relationship between her and Egg. Also, as is usually the case for me, the worldbuilding was one of my favourite parts of the writing process. The most challenging was probably working out the rules of the Shadow Way – the other world Spel goes into – and all the backstory details underlying the events of the story.
Your writing is so beautifully articulate; it just oozes magic, thought and passion. I loved the scene when Spel is frantically searching for spell ingredients and potions in this enchanting tardis-like library, and you take a breathtaking moment to list some of the wild and wonderful discoveries. So I’d love to know what your top three ingredients for a spell are!
There has to be a spark of inspiration, for sure. In OWWW that’s called a ‘mind-diamond.’ So, we’ll throw one of those into the cauldron. At the moment, I’m really missing a sense of freedom of movement and the ability to travel, so if I were standing in the Library of Spells right now, I’d choose ‘the quiet strength of mountains’ and ‘an ache for distant places’ plus a pinch of ‘the warmth of sunlight on fur’ to conjure up a mountainous terrain, somewhere far away, that I could visit with an animal companion.
What do you hope readers take away from Once We Were Witches?
What I love about literature is that there’s such an individual and intimate relationship between a book and each reader, and I find that readers take such varied things away from a story. That said, I’d love it if readers took away a sense of appreciation for introverted characters like Spel and an understanding that quiet is just as strong as loud, if not stronger, and that quiet people can find their place in the world – and their voice – without having to try to fundamentally change who they are. Also, I’d love it if readers gained a greater sense of the many mysteries of the world – that something magical might only be around the next corner, or even right under their nose.
Spel and Mouse (your heroine from The Huntress) are wonderfully inspiring, brave and kind protagonists. Where do you get your inspiration to write your characters?
Thanks so much! That’s quite a difficult question to answer, because it’s not really a conscious thing for me. The main character’s voice is usually one of the first things to appear before I start writing a book. They start speaking, I write down what they say, and then they begin to appear physically and have interactions with other characters. I think their voices initially show up if I’m feeling generally inspired, and have the tiniest beginnings of a story spark in my mind – which might just be an atmosphere. With Huntress it was an image in my head of a ship at night.
Are you more witch or more sea captain?
I would love to think I could be something of a sea-witch – a little bit like Grandma (Captain Wren) from The Huntress, or one of her prentices, helping mix potions in her lab or capture moonsprites in glass bottles.
Both Once We Were Witches and The Huntress fall under the umbrella of magical, fantasy, adventure. What gravitates you to this genre? And thinking beyond this, what made you want to write children’s books in the first place?
I’ve always liked stories that blur the boundaries of reality. I think since childhood I’ve not found our immediate reality all that interesting – or at least, I’ve always felt as though there’s a lot more going on than it may seem, and am prone to drifting into daydreams and imaginary worlds. I also spent over a decade attending Catholic school, which I think may have encouraged the development of my sense of other worlds lying just out of reach – the belief in other beings and realms was actively encouraged (albeit according to a set of rules I didn’t necessarily stick to!) For me, magic and fantasy are a lot more interesting than plain reality. As a child, fantasy stories were my favourites. I hadn’t initially realised I was naturally drawn to writing for children until someone else pointed out that every story I wrote was for children. That’s when I made the conscious decision to focus on writing for young people, and applied to study a specialist masters in the subject.
Besides writing children’s books you’re also a qualified nurse and midwife, and not to mention an avid traveller! How do you juggle the two, and what does a day of writing look like for you? Do you stick to a strict routine, or flow more freely, mood depending?
It can sometimes be quite tricky to juggle the two, especially since both jobs demand quite a lot of emotional energy. I’m lucky enough to be able to work part time as a midwife at the moment, so I usually work two long shifts a week and try to write around those on the other days. I think my routine depends on where I’m at with a project – if I’m close to deadline I definitely have to stick to a stricter routine. I remember being at my desk for 12 hours once while editing The Huntress: Sky! Outside of deadline I’m generally more relaxed. Travel for research is one of my favourite parts of writing a book and is something I prioritise (outside of pandemic times!) I use holidays from my NHS job to do this.
So you now have four gorgeous books under your belt and you’re a winner of the United Agents Most Promising Writer prize. Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring children’s writers?
There are a few things that I think I would have found useful in the past (but everyone works differently!) Keep writing your stories. Keep listening for those voices and get them down on the page. Have fun with building your worlds and getting to know your characters. Keep writing, and don’t worry that it’s not perfect in the first draft. Just keep going. Write the story you’d be excited to read. Find ways to tease out the fun in the process – do you like sketching your characters? Making collages? Making playlists for your writing soundtrack? Are you a researcher? Feel your way into the story the way that works best for you. Find your community – this changed everything for me. It is so valuable to make friends who also love children’s books and writing, and who will read your drafts and offer rounded feedback.
What’s next for your writing journey? Can you give us a hint of when we’ll be seeing more of OWWW!
Next is OWWW book two, I’m excited to say! You’ll be able to join Spel for another witchy adventure in early 2022. After that, I have a few different ideas up my sleeve (some of which I’ve started drafting), but my focus will depend on which projects my agent likes best.
This question is about your favourite children’s/YA books. What’s a book you loved as a child, a book you love now, and a book you can’t wait to read?
As a child I loved a book called Spellhorn by Berlie Doherty. It’s a fantasy story I read aged about 11, about a girl called Laura who enters a fantasy world after meeting a unicorn. Laura is blind, and I found it really interesting experiencing the world through her heightened perspective, and the author researched the story by working with a group of blind children who she credited with teaching her how to see ‘with her mind’s eye.’ I found the distinctive language used in the book really interesting and evocative, and remember going round one summer holiday talking like the ‘Wild Ones’ from the book!
There are so many amazing books to choose from but a series I often think about that I’ve loved recently is Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy, which I devoured. It’s a series of wintry fairytales set in Medieval Russia featuring house spirits and frost demons, centred around a fierce, wild, witchy heroine who defies society’s expectations. It’s the most delicious storytelling.
I’m desperate to read ‘The Left-Handed Booksellers of London’ by Garth Nix, not just because I am a left-handed book lover but also because I’m a big fan of the Abhorsen series.
If you were stranded on a deserted island and could only bring one thing with you, what would you bring and why?
This is soooo difficult. I’d like to say my cat because she’s my best friend but 1) that’s really selfish of me and 2) she is not a thing. Maybe my phone? Is that cheating? Maybe it wouldn’t have any reception, though…so maybe a knife that I could use to cut material for shelter and open coconuts with? (I’m picturing this island as tropical!) Final answer.
If you could invite any five people – past and present, real and fictionalised – to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?
I’d sort of like to just say ‘my family and closest friends’ because we’re in a pandemic and it would be really lovely just to be able to spend time with loved ones again, but here’s my more interesting answer!
Anne Frank, because for a start I’d like to be able to show her an anniversary edition of her book and how many copies have been sold. I think she was the most amazing person with such acute insight, and I often wonder what she would have grown up to achieve if she’d had the chance.
The character Alice from the Lewis Carroll books, because I’d like to chat to her about her adventures in various realms! Perhaps we’d slip off through some portal or other in between courses.
Maya Angelou, because I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most powerful, poignant and important books I’ve ever read and also because she was such a phenomenal person, who had such a fascinating life and achieved so much both in the arts and in social activism. I know she would have such incredible wisdom to share and I feel like she would be a very kind and fun-loving presence, too.
Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid, because I think she has a rather different story to tell than the one portrayed in the Disney movie, plus I appreciate her lifestyle and am sure she’d know how to party!
Captain Edward Smith, who took the helm of Titanic. I would love to hear his story and his reflections on that voyage and the evening of the sinking.
PS. I’ve just got to ask! Your Huntress trilogy came to a thrilling conclusion in 2018, where and what do you envision Mouse doing in the future?
Mouse is totally in her element as the socially-conscious captain of the Huntress until a very old age (nothing can slow her down!) She maintains some very important relationships from her youth as well as forging new connections. I’m keeping details of some of those relationships secret for now! A difference between her and previous captains is that she experiences sailing beyond the Hollow Sea (to the South of Trianukka.) So a whole new world of tribes and territories is open to her.