Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Visit from Juliet Blackwell

Today JRR welcomes mystery writer Juliet Blackwell, author of the new witchcraft mystery Secondhand Spirits.

RHYS:Hi and welcome to someone I first knew as Hailey, then Julie and now Juliet. I'm confused. Please set me straight on your multiple personalities.

Juliet: I’ve been accused of being in the witness protection program, but there’s a good reason for the multiple personalities! I wrote the Art Lover’s Mystery series -- about an ex-art forger making a living as a faux finisher in San Francisco-- with my sister Carolyn. We wanted the books to have a unified voice and a single name on the cover, so we finally settled on an old family name, Hailey Lind, as our mutual pseudonym. But now I’m writing the new Witchcraft mystery series on my own, so I needed to come up with a new pseudonym. Juliet is very close to my real name, Julie, so I thought I stood a good chance of answering to it, even after a couple of drinks at convention cocktail parties. I just learned that my great grandmother was a Cherokee named Mary Black, and as I was doing research for the Witchcraft series and reading about the history of women healers I came across the story of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive an official MD in the United States. I found Blackwell’s story inspirational, and too rarely told. There is a strong overlap of women healers and women accused of being witches, so I chose Blackwell as something of a personal tribute to her. On a more prosaic note, it’s easy to spell!

RHYS: Your protagonist in Secondhand Spirits is a witch. What made you decide to write about a witch? Are you secretly a witch yourself (gee, I hope I've never offended or insulted you) and if not, how did you learn about witchcraft.

JULIET: I’ve always been drawn to the idea of magical women. As a child, my favorite aunt would come for visits and read my tea leaves and playing cards –her readings were accurate to the point of being scary! She was a joyful, down-to-earth woman without any particular agenda, but right before she passed away at the age of eighty-six, she confided to me that she considered herself a witch. As an anthropologist (which I was in a former life) I studied different cultural systems of health, health care, and folk medicine, and as I mentioned above, this led me to the study of witches and witchcraft.

When my editor and I were kicking around ideas for new series, she asked me if I had ever written anything paranormal. I pulled out an idea I had jotted down some time ago: a magical protagonist with a complicated past who feels a particular connection to botanicals, and the vibrations of vintage clothing. As I wrote the novel, I did a lot of research into the history of witchcraft. I attended a handful of coven meetings, interviewed a number of witches one-on-one, and even participated in the spiritual “cleansing” of a home believed to be haunted. It’s fascinating stuff.

RHYS: Did you ever worry when you were around witches? Did you ever sense any real dark power? Did you learn any useful spells--like how to make the NYT bestseller list?

JULIET: Ha! If only I had the secret for the NYT bestseller list! No, I’m afraid I didn’t find out anything like that, and in truth all the witches I spoke with emphasized how dangerous it is to mess around with spells and incantations when you don’t know what you’re doing. I don’t know whether I believe there are people with the ability to manipulate reality through the focus of their intent –ie, real witches—but I do know that I’m not willing to rule out the possibility. I do know there are some scary folks out there – I interviewed one self-proclaimed witch who had a truly charismatic personality, and she did not shy away from talking about hexes and curses. I wouldn’t want to cross her….

RHYS: Why do you think paranormal stories are so popular right now?

JULIET: I think they’ve always been popular; I find it amusing when reviewers and observers talk about the paranormal as though we’ve never seen it before. Obviously there’s a venerable history in literature: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Edgar Allen Poe’s supernatural stories. More recently we've had many years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then Harry Potter. It’s not as though Twilight came out of the blue. Elizabeth Peters was my favorite author in high school –and the one who inspired me to try my own hand at mysteries; she wrote early “paranormal mysteries” under the name of Barbara Michaels.

That being said, it is true that paranormal stories are “hot” at the moment and publishers are looking for more. I imagine readers are looking for a pure escape from the complicated matters of our times. But in this, as in everything, I think there are cycles in the publishing industry: periods when people are more interested in historical novels, or thrillers, or medical dramas. I’m just glad to be writing at a time when there seems to be special interest in characters who go slightly beyond the norm in their efforts to unravel murders and mysteries.

RHYS: Tell us a little about the story.

JULIET: In Secondhand Spirits, Lily Ivory has just arrived in San Francisco after traveling the globe for several years, searching for a place she feels safe. she sets up shop in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, which as any local knows is as good a place as any to feel safe as a practicing witch. In the final analysis, Secondhand Spirits is as much about a woman learning to trust enough to create friendships as it is about witchcraft.

Shortly after Lily opens her vintage clothing store, a client is found murdered and a child is taken by a demon called La Llorona, or the “weeping woman.” La Llorona is a powerful folktale from Mexico and the Southwest about a woman who was abandoned by the father of her children; compelled by grief, she drowned her children in the river, then drowns herself. Now she is condemned to walk forever the banks of the river, crying for her babies…and if she finds a child out after dark, she will add him or her to her brood.

Lily has been trying to keep her powers undercover, but finds she’s the only one powerful enough to figure out the murder, to stand up against the demon, and to save the life of a child.

Oh, and Lily has a wannabe familiar: a goblin-like creature who shape-shifts into a miniature Vietnamese potbellied pig. I think he’s my favorite character.

RHYS: So which of your multiple personalities is up next? Is there something new for Hailey or more Juliet?

JULIET: Hailey Lind will be coming out with the fourth in the Art Lover’s Mystery series next summer. Entitled Arsenic and Old Paint, it deals with erotic art, tunnels under Chinatown, and an exclusive men’s club atop Nob Hill.

Wearing my Juliet Blackwell hat, meanwhile, A Cast-Off Coven, the second in the Witchcraft series, comes out in June 2010. And finally, also under the moniker of Juliet Blackwell will be a new series about an ex-anthropologist who takes over her father’s high-end construction business renovating historic homes – and of course, she finds a good many spooky things in the walls. The first in that series, If these Walls Could Talk, will be released from Obsidian (Penguin) in December, 2010.

Thank you so much, Rhys, for inviting me to stop by the fabulous Jungle Red and yammer on about myself and my various series! I invite folks to stop by my website, www.julietblackwell.net, where they can read the first chapter of Secondhand Spirits. And feel free to write me any time, especially with their own tales of witchcraft, ghosts, and supernatural mischief. I’ve been hearing some amazing stuff from readers!

RHYS: Good luck with all your endeavors, Juliet, and thanks for visiting JRR.


  1. Great interview - thanks Rhys and Julie(t)!

  2. Read the book and loved it (I also love the Art Lover's series). When I'd finished it, I wanted to go track down the witches of San Francisco--you made them seem quite plausible. Of course, San Francisco is a rather mystical place, which helps.

  3. Hey, um, Juliet! Welcome!

    Has writing about witches changed how you look at the world? Are you-you separate from the mystical part--like a reporter? Or has it altered your perspective a bit?

  4. Thanks for this interview. Julie/Juliet, your books sound fun (both the Art and the Witchy ones) and I look forward to reading them. Where can we find you on the web? Please post a link to your website.

  5. Welcome Juliet/Hailey/Julie! My head is spinning hearing about all the books coming out so close together. And that makes me wonder how you keep it all straight? And what is your writing schedule like?

  6. Well Sheila, there are a lot of self-proclaimed witches in San Francisco, and in the East Bay as well (Oakland and Berkeley). YOu don't have to look too far!
    Hank -- thanks for the welcome! I have to say that working with this theme makes the unexplainable ever more...intriguing, should I say? I think it really has altered my (sometimes too) academic perspective on such things.
    Venus, my website is www.julietblackwell.net, and www.haileylind.com. Please do drop by!
    And finally, Roberta: I used to say that I quit watching TV, but now I've also quit taking care of the yard, or the house, and barely make it to the grocery store. I'm pretty much a one-note woman these days, writing, writing, writing...

  7. What a great interview! I loved the book, Juliet, and I'm looking forward to the sequel, though sorry I have to wait so long.

  8. Thank you, Marlyn! I know, it's hard for me to wait to see it in print, as well. I always think it should come out the week after I finish writing it...!