Today I have a special guest on the blog, and I am really excited to share some behind the scenes of her novel with you! I had the opportunity to chat (via email of course) with award-winning author, Margaret Frazer about her new book, Circle of Witches.
She described it to me as this: “Think Harry Potter and Jane Austen having a baby together.”
How could I–lover of all things Harry Potter and Jane Austen–not enjoy this story?
I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did, and for more about Circle of Witches, check out the tour schedule here and look for my review in the future.
Circle of Witches is set in the beautiful countryside of the Yorkshire dales, where the young heroine Damaris and her family makes their home. Have you ever been to the dales?
I’ve made several pass-thru visits. And because I was so enthralled by the beauties of the dales, I once lived in six months far up Wensleydale.
It’s a long and fairly broad – but not the broadest of the dales. It runs upward from the vale of York to the crest of the Pennine mountains. There’s a river, the Ure, that runs through the middle of it. On either side there are the green pasturelands and good soil for crops. As you go up either of the steepening sides of the dale, the lands become rougher and then it simply turns to moorland with heather and marshy places. What grows there is what wants to go there, and humans have no say in it.
The lands smell of the mountains to the west. You can stand well up the dale and see a storm sweeping towards you with rain and hail and wind and you’re left thinking to yourself, “I need a door that I can get through.” [laughs]
There’s a Roman fort halfway up the dale. And a Roman road that runs straight and empty, slanted up across one of the high moor sides. In medieval times there were a series of castles and lordships, principally Middleham Castle that belonged to Warwick the Kingmaker and then to Richard III.
I stayed at a village called Askrigg on a narrow, curving street that led down towards the river meadows and up to the moors.
As much as Damaris loves the dales, the love for her horse – Fansome – is also really clear on the page. Is that something personal for you?
Oh, yes! Through most of my teen years I was a lover of horses. When I was younger, I had a rather vicious black pony and later had a very tall, white mare. So I had my own horses and I loved to go riding.
Unfortunately, where I lived in central Illinois the roads mostly ran in rectangles. So it wasn’t exactly exciting riding, but I did have horses and I did ride. And there was one occasion in my late teens when my family and I took a two-day pack trip up and behind the Grand Tetons near Jackson Hole.
Is Thornoak a real place?
It’s not any particular dale. You won’t find those specific towns, although you may find towns like them – villages, really, that far up the dale. So it’s inspired by reality, but not reality. (And I’ll stick to that story.)
The house itself is based on one that you can see if you’re driving (or riding a bus, as I often did) up the north side of the dale, out-thrust from the hill. And there are aspects of the landscape that are drawn from reality.
For example, Lady Hill is inspired by an actual hill called Summerhill. I was walking on the far side of the dale from it – I did a lot of walking during my six months there – and looked across at it and found myself suddenly thinking, “That looks exactly like a reclining woman.”
And that got me thinking about ancient lore and ancient practices. And how, in the context of those ancient practices, such a hill would be the perfect place for…
And then we get into spoilers. We won’t talk about those yet. People will need to read the book to find out! But the love you have for nature is clear. How important is nature in your life?
I’m most comfortable when I’m living in the countryside watching the wildlife come and go. I’m not a botanist or a deep student of nature. I know my birds; I know “oh, that’s a deer!” But I’m happiest when I’m out in nature and not confined to a city.
Much like Damaris herself. On that note, who is your favorite character in the book?
I suppose Damaris should be, but I think I like her aunt, Aunt Elspeth. She’s a strong woman: Strong in her beliefs and strong in her love of the people and the place around her. I love her maturity, I suppose, now that I’m old. Maybe when I was younger, Damaris was my favorite.
Is Aunt Elspeth based on yourself, then? Or someone you know?
All my characters have some aspect of me that I have to explore and expand upon. If a character is a mean-spirited or hateful or destructive person, I still have to look – sometimes not as hard as you might think – to find some quality of that in me. And it may only be a minor quality, but I can explore it and expand upon it and consider what might have happened if I had allowed it to grow within me.
And so Elspeth is an aspect of me. An aspect that I wish were larger in me.
Speaking of how you’ve grown and changed in writing the book, over the course of the story we see Damaris grow and age as a character. That’s a little unusual: We usually only see a narrow slice of a person’s life in a book. Was that challenging to write? To keep a character consistent from one year to the next?
Surprisingly not. At the time that I wrote the first draft, I had small children that I was watching change before my eyes. And I hadn’t forgotten how I had gone through stages of life up to that point.
That’s actually what writers do: Everything around them is, “Hmm… I bet I could use that in a story.” And even if you aren’t consciously thinking that, it’s still being tucked away. So the idea of a child growing and changing into a mature young woman didn’t require anything that I didn’t already have inside me.
Is Damaris’ experience growing up much like your own?
I didn’t have as much fun as she did! [laughs] Except for the part where Damaris is surrounded by a loving family, no: Her life is very different from my own.
She romps through the dales, you had rectangular roads. If you had read this book when you were sixteen in central Illinois, what’s the one lesson you wish you had learned from it?
To search in yourself for the strengths that come from love rather than for the false weaknesses that come from fear.
In the words of the song: Do you believe in magic?
I believe in the possibility of reality being shifted by working on the energies around us. Wand-waving magic? No.
No “avada kedavra”?
No. If it exists – and I suspect that it does – it’s something more deeply rooted in the nature of the world and the nature of people. And whether people allow themselves to experience it or explore it is their individual choice. Or sometimes, depending on where they’ve been raised or how they’ve been raised, I suppose they might not have a choice.
Is Circle of Witches an exploration of that?
Yes, I think so. An exploring of the possibilities between people. And between people and the world around them.
And finally, a question I ask all authors who visit The Hopeful Heroine–who is your favorite literary heroine?
My favorite literary heroine is Frytha from The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff. I’m trying to think of a way to describe why I favor her, but there are too many elements I enjoy about her and the story. Will it suffice to say that every time I finish The Shield Ring, I find myself wondering how things went afterward with everyone; caring about them doesn’t simply end with the last page. I suppose the best I can do is recommend you seek out the book and meet Frytha for yourself. That’s by far the best way to get to know a heroine!
Thank you so much for stopping by Margaret!
Margaret Frazer is an award winning author of more than 20 historical novels, including the Edgar-nominated Sisster Frevisee and Player Joliffe series–even though writing once started as a hobby. She currently makes her home north of Elk River, Minnesota