Tuesday, August 29, 2023

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

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