Oops, I did it again. I got sucked into another paranormal mystery series! Just by looking at the book cover of Juliet Blackwell’s Hexes and Hemlines – which features a fashionable witch brewing potions with an irresistibly cute pink pig – I had a feeling I’d become an instant fan. Is it just me or are chick lit mystery series getting better and better?
In Hexes and Hemlines, Blackwell’s third installment in her Witchcraft Mystery series, Lily Ivory is called away from her vintage clothing boutique to investigate yet another strange murder in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
With her magical ability to sense vibrations from the past, Lily is overwhelmed by the bad juju surrounding the crime scene in Malachi Zazi’s upscale apartment. Malachi, a high society eccentric who dedicated his life to discrediting superstitions, was found stabbed to death in a room full of bad luck symbols. When his rationalist club members find themselves plagued by bad luck, Lily begins to wonder if his death was a mere coincidence or if something more sinister is to blame.
When evidence points to a creepy time-bending witch, a self-proclaimed Prince of Darkness, and a secret coven of dark witches, Lily is determined to solve the mystery before everyone’s luck runs out.
This best-selling author was kind enough to chat with Chick Lit Café about her spellbinding mystery series. Learn all about her research with witches, how she creates her characters and what’s up next!
What made you decide to write about a natural-born witch struggling to find a place she can finally call home?
The “outsider trying to fit in” is an enduring theme in fiction. I think the reason people are so drawn to this storyline is that we all feel a little out of place, at least some of the time – or maybe, in our heart of heart, we have a fear that “if people knew who I really was they wouldn’t like me anymore.” I loved the idea of creating a character born with natural magical abilities, who is then reviled because of them. I’ve had a lifelong interest in witches and witchcraft, especially in the ways so many witches have been respected and adored healers during good times, and then despised at certain points in history.
You have a real knack for creating wonderfully eclectic characters. I especially love Oscar – Lily’s shape-shifting goblin sidekick! How did you come up with this character?
I’m glad you like him – Oscar’s become a favorite amongst my readers, and I adore him! I really, really revel in coming up with characters to populate my novels—that’s my favorite part of writing. I notice quirks and characteristics whenever I’m around people, and sometimes I utilize these when I develop fictional characters…but just as often, the characters seem to take on a life of their own (that’s the real magic of fiction!). Oscar started out as a regular witch’s familiar, but then I wanted Lily to have someone to talk to about magical things, to express her fears and discuss spells. I had seen the cutest little gargoyle in New York, and I couldn’t stop thinking of him…so he became the “real” Oscar, who naturally had to have a pet form to shift into – and he chose to be a pet-bellied pig.
Clearly a lot of research goes into these books, which are filled with an impressive array of historical facts about witches and mysticism. I’m sure you meet some interesting people and explore fascinating places while you’re doing your research. Do you have any memorable stories to share?
I adore research! I was trained as an anthropologist, and though I do a lot of reading in history and sociology, I love getting out and meeting people who call themselves witches, psychics, faith healers, etc. I’ve been so lucky to have several covens invite me to come witness their circles, as well as solo practitioners who have allowed me to watch while they cast spells and conjure. Some of these people have very strong personalities, and every once in a while they’re a bit scary – many witches embrace the ability to curse, as well as to perform positive magic. For my last book, Hexes and Hemlines, I interviewed a Rom (Gypsy) witch who was a real character. One of the things I find most fascinating is how many different systems of magic exist in the world, and how often they include aspects of religion and medicine in their practice.
The Haight-Ashbury district is like a character all in itself! As a writer, what draws you to this area of San Francisco?
You just answered your own question: The Haight-Ashbury really is its own character! As an author, I love interesting settings, though I’m not wild about long descriptive passages. The Haight allows me to say very little yet still – I hope—set a vivid scene. Also, The Haight-Ashbury is such an iconic neighborhood since it hosted the hippies in the Summer of Love, 1968. There are still so many quirky, intriguing folks living there that it would be a natural landing place for a witch who doesn’t want to draw too much notice to herself. And finally – I think the Haight has more vintage clothing stores than any other area of the city!
As an anthropologist, how did you get interested in the world of witchcraft and the supernatural?
In my studies I had a particular interest in health and health care (both physical and mental) across cultures. I taught medical anthropology, and later as a social worker I worked with ethnic populations that often have distinct ways of looking at disease and mental distress. You can’t study cross-cultural or historical medical systems for long before you start looking into witchcraft, because traditionally witches have been the folk healers, whether in Scotland, Guyana, Peru or South Africa. The systems are different, but traditionally people always have looked to the supernatural to understand the natural.
Your Haunted Home Renovation Series looks like good spooky fun! Are the homes based on real haunted houses?
I do like to base the stories on true ghost tales. It allows me to delve into local history as well as to explore common ghost lore. But as always in my fiction, I soon veer off into my own entirely fabricated stories – that’s the fun part!
Speaking of haunted houses, I read in your bio that you live in a haunted house! What’s the backstory?
My house had its 100th birthday this year! It’s a beautiful old place that was once very fine, but it had been neglected for some time – it was empty for two years when I bought it, and it needed a lot of work – for instance, we had no heat or hot water, and a very leaky roof. Though I’ve done what I can, I don’t have the money to do a total renovation, but it’s still a lovely, slightly rambling place full of interesting windows and nooks and shadows. When you sit in a room it’s common for the door to open, then shut again. And while downstairs, we often hear footsteps overhead, as though someone’s pacing. Finally, you can hear the click of what sounds like a dog’s claws on the wood floors, and the jingle of a collar. And right afterward, something often goes missing — like a gardening glove or the like – and then you’ll find it in another room entirely. The great part is that whatever spirits might be seem entirely friendly and benign – I’ve never felt threatened, at all. I’ve had a lot of skeptical folk in my house, and they almost always hear something that changes their minds!
I also read that Halloween is your favorite holiday. How do you typically celebrate All Hallows Eve?
Because of the house I just described, how could I keep from having a Halloween party every year? This place looks great in dim light – lots of alcoves and passages. Our parties have become pretty well known around these parts, and the one year we skipped it everyone complained! So now it’s an annual event. We always have a theme: last year was Zombie Apocalypse, and this year it’ll be Haunted Carnival.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give an aspiring mystery novelist?
The advice I give to all novelists is to write. Just keep on writing, and don’t let anyone (or anything) dissuade you from it if that’s what you really want to do.
That’s the best way to learn, by far, in my opinion. I think a lot of writers get too caught up in taking seminars on writing, or reading “how to” books about writing, while what they really need to do is write a novel, re-write it, and then write another one. There’s nothing that will teach you like actually doing it.
And for anyone writing in any genre, it’s critical to read, a LOT, in your field. See what’s out there. Study the writing styles, the pacing. Then read outside the genre, and let all those ideas percolate. Reading is good for us!
Could you give me a sneak peak into what you’re working on now?
The fourth book in the Witchcraft Mystery series, In a Witch’s Wardrobe, focuses on herbs and botanicals and poisonings…it’s a lot of fun. I’m just now finishing it up. And the second in the Haunted Home Renovation series, Dead Bolt, comes out in December. In it, Mel Turner, who has reluctantly taken over her father’s upscale home renovation company, is working on a former boarding house that holds historic secrets –and ghosts of course– in the attic.
More about this fabulous author:
Nationally bestselling author Juliet Blackwell writes the Witchcraft Mystery series (Secondhand Spirits, 2009; A Cast-off Coven, 2010; Hexes and Hemlines, June 2011; Obsidian). If Walls Could Talk launched the Haunted Home Renovation series in 2010; Dead Bolt, the second in the series, comes out in December. As one-half of the sister duo dubbed Hailey Lind, Blackwell wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery Series–including Agatha-nominated Feint of Art and the most recent, Arsenic and Old Paint (September; Perseverance Press). A former anthropologist and social worker, Juliet has worked in Mexico, Spain, Cuba, Italy, the Philippines, and France, and is now a painter in Oakland, California. She served two terms as president of NorCal Sisters in Crime.
Contact her at www.julietblackwell.net or on Twitter and Facebook!