Sweet Sixteener Ashley Herring Blake recently spoke to Fearless Fifteener Virginia Boecker about her YA fantasy debut novel, THE WITCH HUNTER (June 2, 2015 from Little, Brown BFYR).
Virginia Boecker recently spent four years in London obsessing over English medieval history, which formed the basis of her debut novel, THE WITCH HUNTER. She now lives in the Bay Area, California with her husband and spends her days writing, reading, running, and chasing around her two children and a dog named George.
In addition to English kings, nine-day queens, and Protestant princesses, her other obsessions include The Smiths, art museums, champagne, and Chapstick.
Elizabeth Grey is one of the king’s best witch hunters, devoted to rooting out witchcraft and doling out justice. When she’s accused of being a witch herself, Elizabeth is arrested and sentenced to die at the stake. Salvation comes from a man she thought was her enemy. Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful wizard in the kingdom, offers her a deal: he will save her from execution if she can track down the person who laid a deadly curse on him.
As she’s thrust into the world of witches, ghosts, pirates, and all-too-handsome healers, Elizabeth is forced to redefine her ideas of right and wrong, of friends and enemies, and of love and hate.
Ashley: THE WITCH HUNTER is rich in magic, witchcraft, and romance. If feels very fresh and unique. What inspired you to write this type of fantasy?
Virginia: Thank you! I love anything historical, anything English, anything otherworldly and fantastical. I selfishly set out to write something that I would want to read: a romp back in time with entertaining characters, fun dialogue, villians, magic, romance. I wanted the story to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Tudors and I think (I hope) that’s what I achieved.
Ashley: Elizabeth, THE WITCH HUNTER’s main character, is extremely well drawn. She’s brave and fearful, vulnerable and strong. In other words, she’s very realistic. What did you draw upon to create her? Is there any part of her that reminds you of yourself?
Virginia: Thank you so much! When I create characters, I like to give them each a single, basic quality and let them evolve from there. For Elizabeth, I gave her bravery. Over the course of the story that bravery informed her her actions and her choices, which in turn informed the character she eventually became. To me, Elizabeth is extemely flawed–very nearly an anti-hero. She’s selfish, she’s hypocritical, she’s violent; the end justifies the means for her…until it doesn’t. For all that, I love her anyway. I find flawed characters to be the most interesting because you want to see their redemption, you’re hoping for it, but for them the road to get there is longer, rockier, and a lot more painful.
Ashley: I love the themes of tolerance and acceptance in the novel. Were these intentional or did they arise organically from the story?
Virginia: They came organically as I wrote. Those themes were sort of naturally seeded simply by virtue of the subject matter – this book was inspired by the English Reformation and the Marian Persecutions (though ‘inspired’ is probably not the right word…) but each time I revised and edited the manuscript I teased them out a little more.
Ashley: How did you become a writer? Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?
Virginia: When I started writing in 2010 I was at a weird crossroads; I guess you could say an early mid-life crisis. We had just moved back to the US from London and I was in the throes of repatriation, I had gone back to work and discovered the career I thought I loved, I hated–personally and professionally I was lost. Writing a book was something that had always been a goal of mine so when I sat down to write it, I thought I’d at least be productive and achieve it while trying to figure out my next step. I never thought writing would actually become the next step.
As for the book itself, I knew I wanted it to be YA, fantasy, and to take place in the sixteenth century. That’s not a lot to go off of, but I dove in anyway. I treated it like the career I had just left: I showed up every day and I worked. No excuses, no quitting, and three months later I had a novel. A terrible novel. But somewhere along the way, I discovered I liked writing. Loved it, even. It gave me that sense of purpose I had lost, that sense of achievement. So I scrapped terrible novel #1 and started with #2. I kept the main characters, I kept the time period, but everything else was new. Over the course of three years I kept at it until I had a story I thought I could share with friends and family. They were really the ones who said, “hey, I think you have something here,” and convinced me to try and get it published. If it weren’t for them, this book might still be sitting in a file somewhere, alongside its very ugly ancestors.
Ashley: While writing THE WITCH HUNTER, did you ever reach a point where you felt like quitting or weren’t sure you could write the book you envisioned in your head? If so, what helped push you forward?
Virginia: Call it stubbornness, call it obsession, call it a commitment to the motto “anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” but once I start something–no matter what it is–I like to see it through. I did run into a lot of dead ends while writing this book – as I mentioned, my laptop is full of drafts that were not what I envisioned this book to be. But I kept at it and eventually it got there.
Lightning Round Questions:
Planner or pantser?
Both! I pants my first drafts, plan my subsequent ones.
Favorite writing snack?
I’m going to be obnoxious and say I try not to snack while writing. I’ve been warned about the dreaded Debut Twenty, and I’m fighting it with everything I’ve got.
Like Fifer in THE WITCH HUNTER imagine you’re a witch and have a specialty. What is it?
Cleaning. Organizing. Beautifying. Oh god, do I ever love a makeover. I’m the person that dreams of breaking into people’s homes at night to paint living rooms, organize bookshelves, clean garages, weed gardens. How creepy am I? But this is actually my dream job.
You can revive three deceased historical figures for a dinner party. Who do you invite?
Anne Boleyn. Jane Seymour. Catherine Howard. Henry VIII’s wives number 2, 3, and 5, respectively. My job is easy: I pour the wine, sit back, and referee the best catfight in history.
If you could go back and tell your sixteen-year old self one thing, what would it be?
Trust yourself more. Value yourself more. Love yourself a lot more.
Music while writing? If so, what?
Pandora, the Talk Talk station. I’ve spent five years perfecting this station, and it’s divine. It plays me everything from Talk Talk (of course) to Alice in Chains to Sigur Ros to The Smiths to The Beastie Boys. As I say: divine.
About the Interviewer:
Ashley Herring Blake is former singer-songwriter and teacher turned YA writer. She has a Master’s degree in teaching and lives in Nashville, TN with her husband and two sons. When she’s not writing, she can be found under a pile a books listening to gloomy music. In her YA debut, SUFFER LOVE (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Spring 2016), two teens attempt to wade through an intense relationship complicated by their parents’ infidelities.