Thursday, August 31, 2023

Q&A with Ciera Burch


Photo by Chad Dunn



Ciera Burch is the author of the new middle grade novel Finch House. She lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write Finch House, and how did you create your character Micah?


A: I had a ton of inspiration for Finch House but a pretty big one was the many, many Victorian houses in a nearby town when I was growing up. They were gorgeous to me, especially since I grew up in apartments most of my life, and every time I drove through the town with my mom, I wondered what the houses looked like inside. Especially at night, when they looked like every haunted house I’d ever seen on TV and in movies.


I didn’t so much create Micah as she created herself! Most of my characters pop into existence and expect me to come up with a story for them and Micah was no different. A good chunk of my family is made up of young girls (sisters, cousins) under 12, so I think Micah is sort-of a mash-up of the things I’ve observed from them—curiosity, stubbornness, excitement, and a longing for independence.


Q: The writer Lindsay Currie said of the book, “Finch House is a thought-provoking and layered haunted house story that will spark meaningful discussions about family, forgiveness, and what it means to truly coexist.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it’s incredibly kind and lovely! It really does touch on so much of what I wanted Finch House to evoke and represent. Haunted houses are ripe with meaning and history and emotion and I wanted Finch House, both the house and the story, to be too.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Micah and her grandfather?


A: It’s a very sweet, very close one. Micah grew up with him, so they’ve been together for every step of her journey so far. Since he’s much more lenient than her mom, there’s also a deeper friendship there where she confides in him a bit more than she might another adult or parental figure.


It’s also, like many relationships with grandparents, full of history unknown to the younger party.


Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I didn’t! In fact, I didn’t even have an outline for this book the way I usually do. The story, and the ending, all very much unfolded for me as I wrote and as Micah explored Finch House, so there were plenty of surprises along the way. Of course, some things ended up changing during editing but the core of the end pretty much stayed the same.


Q: Will there be a sequel to Finch House? What are you working on now?


A: No, at least not that I’ve currently considered. Right now, I’m working on another middle grade set during a very long summer in New Jersey in one of the state’s most interesting places, at least to me.


Q:  Anything else we should know?


A: I’m very excited for people to meet Micah and the others and to get a chance to explore Finch House! And, despite the majority of Finch House taking place in a Victorian house, I have actually never been inside one myself.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Aug. 31




Aug. 31, 1916: Daniel Schorr born.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Q&A with Alice Carrière





Alice Carrière is the author of the new memoir Everything/Nothing/Someone. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and Amagansett, New York.


Q: What inspired you to write Everything/Nothing/Someone?


A: I wrote this book because I had to. I have never not been writing this book. I wrote it because I find being alive so strange that I needed to tell someone about it, even if it was just myself. I wrote it to stay alive, to remain curious about the strangeness instead of letting it kill me.


I’ve always metabolized my experiences through storytelling. When I was little, I would think in the third person. I would say, “she is walking down the street, it is raining, the rain falls on her jacket,” narrating myself into existence.


When I started dissociating – unable to recognize my face in the mirror or identify where my voice was coming from – writing was my only tether to reality. This book is an extension of that urgent need. But my motivation changed as I wrote the book and continued to live life. It became less about sustaining myself and more about connecting to others.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I was the child of two self-destructive, self-absorbed artists who lived in an alternate universe where they were the exceptions to every rule, where the power of their desires could shape reality. Everything was abstracted, turned into art or theory (including me). I was flooded by the torrential force of their impulses and desires, and I became everything - a child, a mother, a wife, an idea.


When I reached adolescence, a dissociative disorder wiped out the last puff of diffuse self-hood I had, and I became not even no one, but nothing. I couldn’t recognize my face in the mirror, I didn’t know where the words I spoke were coming from, I was completely disconnected from my body, my feelings, my history. I was not real. I didn’t exist. My only tether to reality was writing.


After falling victim to the American psychiatric complex in the form of gross overmedication that caused a near-lethal psychotic episode, I formed a relationship with Gregory, now my husband, himself a recovering addict and alcoholic.


The fastidious care and optimism he brought to my life allowed me to slowly turn outward and be able to help care for and connect with my mother when she was diagnosed with dementia, with the elderly nanny who raised me, and to reunite with my father and listen to his story. I wrote myself into a place where I could feel and feel for others, and I became someone. 


I was also inspired by my mother’s fictionalized autobiography called History of the Universe (which makes her, appropriately, the universe). I was inspired by her scope and her arrogance, or maybe the scope of her arrogance, which was directly proportional to her immense fear (of getting close to people, of never being enough, of never having enough).


But I wanted, in both my life and my work, to move away from the alienating force of that grandiosity and self-absorption toward connection with other people and with my Self. The title reflects that movement towards human connection and authenticity, from Everything to Someone.


Q: The comedian and writer Molly Shannon said of the book, “Propulsive, intense, moving, and breathtakingly honest, this searing memoir about family ties, trampled boundaries, and mental illness is completely unforgettable.” What do you think of that description?


A: I think she nailed it, and I’m so thrilled she liked it.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book?


A: It saved my life, and it brought me close to the people I love. It gave me back my relationship with my father. I wrote myself into a place of deep deep empathy for my mother. It showed me that many things, many seemingly contradictory things, can be true at the same time and that I can remain coherent in the center of that understanding.


I hope reading it can help people as much as writing it helped me.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on two novels that were born out of two very practical concerns. I have a lot of anxiety, and I ruminate a lot. There were two specific things I couldn’t stop ruminating on, and it was gradually eating up my life, so I decided to turn my two biggest fears into a novel.


Now my ruminating is actually work, which makes it hurt less and makes it less disruptive. If I’m going to waste so much time being afraid, might as well make it productive.


The other has a similar origin story. It’s about my guilty pleasure. I was wasting time and energy on this one guilty pleasure, so I thought, why not get to immerse myself in it in a way that’s generative?


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: This book is a major overshare. As my publisher says, it sets a new standard for honesty, and, after reading it, you’ll know every single “brutal and illuminating” (to use a line from the starred review from Publishers Weekly) little thing about me and my life, so there’s not much I can add that isn’t already in there!


It’s funny; people ask me how I can be that, often gruesomely, honest. It never occurred to me that I could say anything but everything, and I hope it inspires other people to reach out and say the things they are too afraid to say because it’s often those moments that result in the most profound connections.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Samantha Young


Photo by Mark Archibald



Samantha Young is the author of the new novel The Love Plot. Her many other books include the novel A Cosmic Kind of Love. She lives in Scotland.


Q: In The Love Plots acknowledgments, you write, “Star and Rafe came to me from a desire to write one of my favorite tropes: grumpy meets sunshine.” Can you say more about that, and about how you created these specific characters?


A: One of my favorite tropes to read is grumpy meets sunshine and I had a real desire to bring it to life in a rom-com. I’d watched a marathon of old 1950s and ‘60s rom-com movies over the holidays, and they inspired me to write a modern twist on a classic rom-com in a way I could incorporate that grumpy meets sunshine trope.


I knew one of the best ways to explore that trope was to do opposites attract too and create a character who is so optimistic and non-judgmental, despite her upbringing and lack of wealth, and match her with a hero who is a little world-weary, perhaps a bit cynical, because of his advantages, wealth, and familial pressure.


Star and Rafe’s personalities and situations allowed me to play with tension and banter and have them peel each other’s layers back—all the things I love about Grumpy x Sunshine.


Q: What do you think the novel says about family dynamics?


A: The Love Plot explores different kinds of family dynamics. It explores parental neglect, it explores parental pressure, and it also dives into the safety of familial support. Moreover, the way we’re molded by our family and our upbringings, and how it’s okay to let go of toxic family members and create found family elsewhere.


Ultimately, The Love Plot says that family is complicated, but I think a necessary support system for most people, whether your chosen support system is blood-related or not.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything surprising?


A: When I was dreaming up unique and commitment-less jobs for Star, I thought of line sitting and wondered if it was a real job. Lo and behold, when I researched professional line sitting, I was so surprised by the successful companies people have created out of it.  


I was also shocked by the lengths in which line sitters go to wait in line for products for clients, including waiting in line in little tents for many days in all weather.


Readers have asked if Line Sitting is really a thing, and it most definitely is. If you want the latest phone or sneakers before they’re sold out, but you don’t have time to wait in line for them, you can absolutely pay someone else to do it for you. Who knew?!


Q: In our previous Q&A, you said of your novel A Cosmic Kind of Love, “I hope readers will take away the idea that before you can truly take care of another person in a relationship, you first have to learn how to take care of and be true to yourself." Would you say this applies to The Love Plot as well?


A: I’d definitely say this applies to The Love Plot. My romances are all about passionate, emotional connections between the hero and heroine, about characters that fall madly in love… but along the way they also learn to love themselves.


Star is the perfect example of staying true to yourself, even if it means losing someone you love. Because ultimately you wouldn’t lose that person if they love you for who you truly are. Thankfully, Rafe adores every bit of who Star truly is.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on Through the Glen, the third book in my Highlands Series. It’s another opposites attract but this time my characters fall in love by a wintry loch in the Scottish Highlands.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Samantha Young.

Q&A with Jacqueline Friedland




Jacqueline Friedland is the author of the new novel The Stockwell Letters. Her other novels include Trouble the Water. She lives in Westchester, New York.


Q: What inspired you to write The Stockwell Letters?


A: When I was researching for my first novel, Trouble the Water, I stumbled upon the story of Anthony Burns. I was pulled in from just a few sentences about him in a very old article. Everything I read about him made clear that his story was an incredibly important piece of our country’s history, yet I had never heard of him.


He was the last fugitive slave ever returned to the South by the state of Massachusetts, and many people believe that his case was one of the final factors that incited the Civil War.


As someone who loves history and considers herself well informed about America’s past, I couldn’t believe that it was the first time I was learning about him. I felt that if I hadn’t learned about Anthony Burns before, there were probably many contemporary Americans in the same boat.


As I dug deeper, I learned about the female abolitionists who were also involved in this story, and I was fascinated. In particular, a woman named Ann Phillips, who had been married to a famous abolitionist, kept reappearing in my research. I knew I had to explore the connections between all these people and their moment of history and then share what I found with others.


Q: Your three protagonists include two historical figures and one fictional character. What did you see as the right balance between fiction and history as you were writing the book?


A: I truly believe that each of the historical figures portrayed in the book led lives sufficiently interesting that a novel written about only one of them would also have been a valid, worthwhile, and enormously engaging project.


What really fascinated me, though, was the interplay between the characters and how their stories related to each other. I brought in a third protagonist who was fictional only as a means of showcasing certain aspects of the other characters’ personalities. Sometimes having contrast or another perspective can help underscore points that a writer is making about the characters with whom another is interacting.

Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Sadly, much of the information I discovered or confirmed in my research wasn’t a surprise at all. As someone who had already written one novel set in the antebellum South and who also studied much American history in her life, I was already well-aware of the atrocities and lack of humanity displayed by so many during that era.


The one thing that did surprise me was how much of a “small world” the abolitionist community was back then.


There were several cases during the era involving the Fugitive Slave Act that went to trial in Boston and became famous. Amazingly, in many of them, the same attorney represented the alleged fugitive, each alleged slave owner was also represented by the same counsel, and even crazier, the same judge presided in all these cases!


There were more examples of repeated appearances like this all throughout my research, and I still haven’t gotten over the surprise of it all!


Q: The writer Allison Pataki said of the book, “Showing both the best and the worst of human nature, Friedland’s writing prompts every reader to ask: How can I stand up for what is right?” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m thrilled by Allison Pataki’s description. I always thought, when I was growing up, that I would go into a profession where I was helping people as part of my daily work, like teaching or nursing, or something similar where I could go home at night and know that I had made a positive difference in someone’s life.


When I realized I was going to be a novelist, I remembered that thought from my youth and wondered if I was still doing something “good” for others. I decided that I do think authors help people in that fiction has the potential to spread certain messages and increase empathy among readers.


What more perfect way can you show someone what it’s like to walk in another shoes? What Pataki wrote about the book says that The Stockwell Letters does just that, and if my work inspires anybody to be kinder or more generous, in any way, I will be beyond delighted.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a dual timeline novel that takes place in the 1920s and current-day America. I don’t want to give much away yet, but I’m deep into a draft and extremely excited about it.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Stockwell Letters is entirely different from all my other work, and I’m hoping that readers will be excited to check it out.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jean Meltzer


Photo by Lisa Damico



Jean Meltzer is the author of the new novel Kissing Kosher. Her other novels include The Matzah Ball. She lives in Virginia.


Q: What inspired you to write Kissing Kosher, and how did you create your characters Avital and Ethan?


A: In 2020, smack dab in the middle of the pandemic and right around the same time I learned that The Matzah Ball was going to be published, I woke up with what I thought was a urinary tract infection.


Three doctors and eight rounds of antibiotics later, I knew that what I was experiencing was no simple UTI. My journey with chronic pelvic pain had begun. Once again, I found myself having to maneuver the medical system in order to find relief.

It was not an easy process. Most of all, because chronic pelvic pain—like the sexual dysfunction and intimacy issues that come with—is so rarely talked about. And yet, when I did talk about it, the most interesting thing would happen. Someone would lean into me and whisper, “Me too.”


I knew that I wanted to write a book about chronic pelvic pain and sexual dysfunction. I wanted to give voice, and visibility, to this thing so many people struggle with, but rarely feel comfortable talking about.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the novel says, in part, “Meltzer’s latest novel follows a vulnerable, authentic journey about learning to navigate pain of all dimensions—individual and generational—and the boundaries people can set for themselves while also advocating for others who might not be capable of speaking up for themselves.” What do you think of that description?


A: I love it. While I was writing this book, I was still very much processing my own experience, fear, and grief around becoming a chronic pain patient. In addition, my father died. As a society, we tend to think about “pain” like we think about disease. Something that exists on a binary, that either gets better, or goes away entirely.


But pain can be both emotional and physical. And so many of us—whether we’re consciously aware of it or not—live with chronic pain in some form.


Books don’t just change their readers. They change the people writing them, too.


What I learned from going on this journey with Avital and Ethan—in addition to research and study I did regarding kosher sex and Jewish intimacy—is that boundaries are a part not only a part of our Jewish tradition, they are fundamental to building safe and intimate love, despite the pain we carry. When one feels safe to advocate for themselves, they can advocate for others, too.


Q: Why did you decide to set the story in a bakery?


A: George Hartman once wrote, “The Jewish imagination developed in the sphere of the Hebrew Bible,” and I certainly find that to be true in my books. I can’t separate out my creativity, the tales my brain concocts each book, from the stories I was raised with. That includes midrash, Jewish law, holidays, text sources, as well as Jewish thinkers and philosophers.

One of the best tales from our tradition that explores women, sexuality, and the boundaries we erect comes from our holiday of Purim. Purim celebrates the story of Queen Esther, a woman who saved the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of an evil man named Haman during the Achaemenid Empire.


Every year, we recount this story. We eat hamantashen, triangle-shaped cookies, stuffed with jams, reminiscent of the triangle-shaped hat that Haman wore. But also, and perhaps more relevant to Kissing Kosher, there is early evidence that these cookies represented sex and fertility. Hence their very womb-like shape.


It just made sense to have Kissing Kosher be set in a bakery, and lead into the holiday of Purim, and for Ethan to have hamantashen be his signature cookie that he eventually feeds to Avital. Indeed, our sages teach: “Purim is when we take the masks off.” Kissing Kosher is very much a story about revealing ourselves to another person in the most intimate and vulnerable ways.  


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Avital and Ethan?


A: Wow. What a great question! I freely admit that the books I write are often chronic disability romantic fantasies. Meaning, I write stores for women like myself—women who occasionally need caregiving—women who want to be safe, and know that they are loved and values, even when they can’t get out of bed.


But I think it’s too simplistic to look at Ethan as a protector, safeguarding Avital physically, and Avital as the nurturer, cultivating Ethan emotionally.


In all relationships, there needs to be balance. There needs to be give and take. And so, what I hope people come to see in Kissing Kosher is that Avital and Ethan take turns being the person the other one needs in the moment.


That, to me, is the essence of a healthy and whole relationship. Two people who are not necessarily perfect, but who despite their weaknesses, work hard at being better together.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m pleased to tell you that my fourth book, Magical Meet Cute, will arrive August 2024.


Magical Meet Cute is about a proud Jewitch woman and potter named Faye Kaplan, determined never to fall in love again after being traumatized from a series of toxic relationships, who finds herself the victim of an antisemitic incident.


Desperate to reclaim her power—and after two bottles of wine—she heads to her pottery studio and crafts a man out of clay, etching all her desires for a guardian and protector, friend and lover, onto his skin, before burying the doll in her backyard.


When a handsome and mysterious stranger arrives to town the very next day, and checks every box scribbled on her clay man’s belly—including the most esoteric ones—Faye is left wondering if she’s looking for reasons to avoid falling in love, or if she’s inadvertently summoned a golem.


I'm also THRILLED to tell you that I am, once again, writing a Hanukkah romcom!!! While I can’t go into too many details just yet, my fifth book will publish in 2025, and coincide with the five-year anniversary of The Matzah Ball.


I’m so excited to bring Magical Meet Cute and another holiday romance into the world. Both books are so special, and unique, and I truly cannot wait to share them with my readers!


Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I absolutely love connecting with readers, and schmoozing over all things romance, books, Judaism, chronic disability, and Siberian huskies.


You can find me on Instagram: JeanMeltzer or Facebook: JeanMeltzerAuthor. Or, check out my website:, where you can send me a message and sign up for my newsletter. Otherwise, thank you all for reading my books. And your support!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jean Meltzer.

Q&A with Shamara Ray




Shamara Ray is the author of the new novel The Referral Program. Her other novels include Recipe for Love


Q: What inspired you to write The Referral Program, and how did you create your characters Dylan, Ivy, and Brooke?


A: I was inspired to write The Referral Program after realizing I was having the same conversation over and over with many of my friends. There was a shared sentiment that it’s not easy to find the one. Once you’ve tried all the apps with minimal success and have been to all the trendy spots, what’s next?


It’s not uncommon for single women of any age to get discouraged when it comes to dating or feel a bit apprehensive about meeting someone new.


Those discussions sparked the idea for the novel and the characters Dylan, Ivy, and Brooke. I thought, how could a group of friends make it easier for one another to meet great guys? Three friends, all single, with aspirations of love and marriage, yet they had no prospects.


Creating the dynamics of their friendship, closeness, and wanting the best for each other, was pivotal for the creation of The Referral Program. Their personalities are quite unique and, though they ultimately want the same thing, they each approach the program in different ways.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I actually did not know how the novel would end or whether Dylan, Ivy, and Brooke would find love. While writing the novel I wanted each character to experience her own journey with the Referral Program. I didn’t map out the ending in advance. It was an organic writing process. When meeting someone new, we don’t necessarily know how it will turn out.


Much like the ups and downs many of us go through with dating, the characters have similar and very relatable experiences. I anticipate there will be quite a few people who see themselves in Dylan, Ivy, and Brooke!


Q: What do you think the novel says about the concept of Mr. Right?


A: I think the novel begs the question, does Mr. Right exist and, if so, how do you find him? Dylan, Ivy, and Brooke each consider their criteria for Mr. Right and are open to trying something different and new. Furthermore, they question if they want Mr. Right or Mr. Right For Me.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope readers can appreciate that dating can be a journey and it might take a bit of creativity and the willingness to try something new to find your person. It may not be easy, it might even be a little tough, but don’t lose heart in the process.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m currently working on my next novel. I can’t share too much, but I can say it’s something a little different than usual. There will still be an element of friends supporting one another, but under much more challenging circumstances.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Yes, I would love to hear from those who are putting the Referral Program into action. Please share your stories of how it’s working for your circle of friends. Send me a message on my website at, Instagram @shamararay, or Facebook.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jennifer Hamm




Jennifer Hamm is the author of the new novel One Friday in Napa. Also a travel writer, she lives in London and Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write One Friday in Napa, and how did you create your character Vene?


A: My friend, Kelly Hail, was a house guest for a week and wanted to cook a thank you dish at our Sunday family dinner. She took out one of my cookbooks, found the recipe that she loved and proceeded to write notes all over it!


When I stopped her with a “what are you doing with that pen in my cookbook” question, she was perplexed at my surprise as all of her cookbooks read like a diary of sorts. Her annotations had more to do with the emotions behind the dishes and the people she was cooking them for than any spices or extra dashes of ingredients.


That got me thinking…what if you found your mother’s cookbook and it read like a diary? What would happen if secrets were revealed that described a woman you didn’t recognize? That is what happens to Vene, and in her search for some sort of reconciliation with her mother and their tumultuous relationship before her mother dies, she discovers much more than she ever anticipated.


Q: As the title indicates, the novel is set in Napa--how important is setting to you in your writing?


A: Very important. The setting triggers emotions. A love story at a seaside in Ireland evokes different emotions for me than a love story set in Barbados. My mind immediately jumps to different ideas, feelings.


As I sit here writing these answers right now, I am in Rome, on a rooftop looking over the city and the Vatican is in the near distance. It is summer and really hot. My first thoughts of my day here are nuanced towards fantasy, so I play with that before starting each day properly.


The setting for me is the beginning of everything. And Napa was no different. It is the land of dreams for so many who choose to live there, and their stories usually involve risk, love, and a lot of passion.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “The mother-daughter dynamic at the heart of the narrative remains nuanced, complicated, and not easily reconciled.” What do you think of that description, and how would you describe the dynamic between Vene and her mother, Olivia?


A: I was very pleased that the reviewer felt all of my intended layers of their fraught relationship. Like all family dynamics, the mother-daughter one can be very complicated. I have always been fascinated by different interpretations of one moment or event; how two people who love each other deeply can still experience something between them so emphatically opposite.


I wanted to take that and ask the “why” of it all, peel the onion, and hopefully reach some sort of genuine appreciation of the other.


By using the time jump I was able to go back and discover the unanticipated shaping of Olivia’s emotional life and set that against the present, and Vene’s discovery of her mother’s cookbook that reads more like a diary, providing an unforeseen window of revelations.


And all of this within the confines of a ticking clock where the end is in sight for Olivia and therefore the pressure on both of them to reconcile themselves to the other is more important than ever.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew how the novel was going to end, but getting there changed many, many times. Ironically, if you are trying to fully understand another, it takes time. Vene and Olivia needed to go through quite a few drafts to get to acceptance.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The film script of the novel.😊


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I’ve been writing in some format or another my whole life. I took the long road getting to this moment of publication, and while I wouldn’t change a thing, I am very excited to be here! I took my own personal journey inward writing this novel, and I am hopeful it will touch those interested in family nuanced dynamics and heartfelt love relationships.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Q&A with Jennifer Claessen




Jennifer Claessen is the author of the new middle grade novel The October Witches. A teacher and theater maker, she is based in London.


Q: What inspired you to write The October Witches, and how did you create your character Clemmie?


A: The idea of witches with time-limited magic came to me when I was awake at 4.30am one September morning (in a year where I didn't sleep much at all!). I think 4am is a much witchier feeling hour than midnight...and I can't truly recommend sleep deprivation as creative fuel but that's how this novel was born!


I started writing immediately, thinking about October and how much I love the season (scarves, boots, pumpkin picking, all the magical cosy things) and wrote the first draft very, very quickly with two “what if” questions in my mind: What if there was magic but it only lasted a month? What if “Merlin” was “Merlyn,” meaning...could I steal the famous wizard of Arthurian legend and change almost everything about him?


Instead of being old, male and wise, my hero Clemmie is young, female and insecure. Clemmie is, of course, a witch, but her magic is not the most important thing about her. I gave her some of my own personality (though arguably none of the better bits!). She is self-conscious, easily embarrassed, doesn't want to appear silly, a bit lonely and gets fed up with her family sometimes. We also share big tangly curls.


Q: What do you think the novel says about family?


A: This is such a lovely question as family is everything in The October Witches


When I began writing, I'd actually just finished reading Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn, which features a Patience Merlyn who gets a very rough deal! The name stuck with me and I felt she deserved a chance for more joy so she became one of the founding characters of my two covens, “The Merlyns” and “The Morgans.”


She is Clemmie's mom and she is intended to be pure light, simply the sweetest fictional mom of the kind I haven't read much of myself. The Merlyns have their issues and arguments but at their core, they are a busy, bustling matriarchy full of love. It is possible to be very fed up with your family and still love them more than anything and Clemmie has to save her many aunts, even from themselves.


My favourite of the Merlyn aunts is Aunt Prudie the gardener witch, as I love her elderly, crotchety almost Yoda-esque humour.


Clemmie wants the friendship and approval of her cousin Mirabelle more than anything in the world. Their relationship is the most important one of the book as they battle inherited prejudices and build their own new family/coven/friendship together. 


One of the recurring lines of the novel is “the stars know” as the coven elders trust to fate and the stars but to be young is to ask questions so of course our protagonist has to find her own way.


What I hope The October Witches says is that families come in all shapes and sizes and that, even at their most annoying, we have to appreciate the coven around us...and rescue them when things get hard. 


Q: What did you see as the right balance between magic and realism as you wrote the book?


A: Magic is hard! For Clemmie as the character and for me as the author too! It took seven substantial redrafts to get the magical rules “right” for this story and it's still something I think about now.


The way in which I took legend and twisted it to fit my own (nefarious) ends comes out in the setting of the story: I can visualise the witches' world very exactly because, to me, Clemmie lives in London and goes to Cornwall, both places in the UK I know very well and full of ancient history.


But neither are named, they are “the city” and “the coast” because I love how legend can be universal, transferrable, “borrowable.” I hope any reader sets their own scene because Clemmie's world is ours, it is now but it can hopefully be any time, anywhere too.


Clemmie is not immediately good at magic but she is always a witch, whether she has power or not and that was interesting to me. There's no “oh wow I'm a witch” moment, they've always known that but their starry power and how they manage it is a metaphor for growing up as a young woman.


Having your “First October” of magic, confusing, painful, exciting, is analogous to first periods and all of the other difficult firsts we experience.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: No spoilers but yes, I knew the novel would span a month and end on Halloween, my non-spooky take on Halloween! A lot changed in the edits but this was always an optimistic story with people coming together in celebration at the end and that was important to me.


There is tension and conflict but I also love writing scenes where characters chat and eat delicious things because I love to chat and eat delicious things. Many scenes of chatting and eating had to be cut to turn this into an actual novel and not just... a list of delicious things!


Don't ask my editor about how many times Clemmie and co sat down to have a nice bowl of soup in the first draft!


I also knew a lot of the key plot elements very early on (an hourglass, a castle, a giant pumpkin) but others (a tiny pony, some ridiculous puns, a flock of dark birds) surprised me and there was so much joy in the surprise.


I love the idea that the writer is a sparky creative throwing things into the mix and the editor is there to insist on structure, sense and clarity. I definitely needed support to get the “backbone” of the story strong. Writing is one thing, editing truly a separate and vital skill!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Something that feels different! Though there is some shared DNA: I will always write middle grade because that is where my heart is and I think all of my stories might have a touch of legend to them too.


I love Greek myths and I'm fascinated by women who history has previously overlooked so I'm currently working on a retelling of Ariadne, Princess of Crete, famous for her red thread and not much else. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my Ariadne, like Clemmie, is full of big emotions


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: October really is the best month and my serving suggestion for The October Witches is that it is best read under a blanket, fire-side with a bowl of soup.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb