Hello everybody! Today, I’m super excited to be welcoming Jennifer Claeseen for an interview all about her incredible debut the October Witches. Onto the post!
Hi Jennifer, thanks so much for being here today!
1. How would you describe the October Witches in 5 words?
Fun, feminist, family fantasy… oh that’s four. Starry? Cosy? Autumnal?!
2. As the title would imply, the book has such autumnal energy and it’s the perfect read to get you in the spirit of the season. What other books would you say are good for this time of year? Was yours always going to be set in October, or did you flirt with the idea of other months too?
The idea for this book came to me at 4.30am in September whilst I was awake (insomnia and a small baby!) thinking about how magical October is! I always plan our Halloween costumes early and love an ‘autumn bucket list’ (pumpkin patches and baking and all of that wonderful kind of cosy stuff!) so this story was definitely born out of a love of October specifically. I am not massively into the spooky – no horror for me ta – but recently I’ve read Maggie Blue and the Dark World and The Whisperling and loved them both so much – big recommends from me!
3. The book pays homage in such a clever way to the Arthurian myths and legends that we all know and love. What made you want to weave them into the October Witches?
Do you have any particular stories from these tales that you love? Oh thank you, that’s so kind! When I started writing The October Witches, I’d just finished reading Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier and one of the characters is called Patience Merlyn. She has a pretty rough time in du Maurier’s book but I just LOVED the name (Merlyn with a Y sounded very cool to me!) and I wanted to give that character a better life… so I stole the name and then deep-dived into Arthurian legend to work out which other bits I’d steal! I loved the idea of King Arthur basically being the punchline to a joke (like a footnote, flipping the usual way the genders are presented in the legends!). I love all the Morgana/ Morgan La Fay myths and was interested in the sibling rivalry element. I’m not really into all the chivalric romance stuff (as you can probably tell by which bits I cherry-picked to play with!) but I also love Queen Guinevere of course. Basically here for the girls.
4. Something else about your book that I have to admit I adored is that it has an almost entirely female cast, and a STELLAR one at that. Was this an intentional decision or did it just come about naturally?
And I’m sorry to do this to you, but who would you say is your favourite Merlyn? (And Morgan, if you want!) Oh that is a cruel question! Of the aunts, I love Aunt Prudie maybe the most (but I’m more of a bossy Aunt Connie myself). And of course I really love poor cold lonely Mirabelle who just wants someone to enjoy her puns with. I have one sister and, for a long time, only female cousins so growing up I definitely felt surrounded by that busy, buzzing female energy that I wanted for the Merlyns. My dad (I do have one, unlike the Merlyns) used to call me, my mum and my sister ‘The Coven’ when we would gang up on him. There was one male character who got cut early on and I do think it’s stronger as a matriarchal story – and we should have more books where it’s the norm to have all women/ non-binary people to even out all the old male-dominated tales!
5. I mentioned in my review that your writing reminded me of the inimitable Eva Ibbotson. Who are some authors, whether past or present, that you really look up to? If you could choose any book by someone else to make it that you’d written it, what would you choose?
I am a huge Diana Wynne Jones fan, going back to my own childhood so I’d probably choose Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s the perfect mixture of adventure and cosiness and I love the film too – Sophie as an old lady is iconic and, like lots of people, I had one of my first crushes on Howl! I love everything magical and all picture books are magical to me! Shaun Tan’s Eric is just incredible. I wish I was a visual artist because the power of being able to put words and pictures together blows my mind.
6. As you might expect from that comparison, it’s such a lovely reading experience with your book, particularly if you heed the advice to do so with a blanket like I did. I could definitely see myself rereading!! So, which books are your go-to comfort rereads? How do you feel about rereading in general?
Stardust by Neil Gaiman is still an all-time favourite and super comforting to me. I don’t reread a lot because there are so, so many books out there for me to still discover but I’m overdue a big reread of His Dark Materials (which was also a favourite when I was younger) and I’d be really curious to reread Narnia and see what I think about it now I’m a (bit) more grown-up. My background is in theatre so I also reread plays a lot more than novels (they’re also shorter!) and I probably read or at least have a look at Shakespeare’s The Tempest every year. I literally read Judith Kerr’s The Tiger who Came to Tea EVERY. SINGLE. DAY and it holds up to hundreds of rereads, every single page is a masterpiece. Jon Klassen’s ‘Hat Trilogy’ is incredible too.
7. I think the world could always do with more cosy fantasy, because it’s the BEST, so what tips would you give to other writers attempting to create that atmosphere in their work, while maintaining a really engaging plot that keeps readers hooked?
Oh such a good question and I definitely can’t help with that! The October Witches took a LOT of knocking into shape with my agent because in the earlier drafts the witches all definitely just sat around chatting and having hot drinks! I’m really chatty and so are my characters so curbing the dialogue and making the action happen is hard for me! I’m still learning a lot about plotting as I could probably read domestic scenes endlessly! I didn’t know I was going to struggle with peril so much but I basically didn’t want any of my precious characters to die and had to be forced to get them into mortal danger!
8. Another writing question now, what is your writing routine like, if you have one? Do you have any unusual habits or quirks?
I ‘write without a pen’ which always blows the mind of the children I visit at schools! I usually ‘write’ by walking and record myself talking into my phone. It looks so, so silly but it helps me get words down quickly and I think it helps with voice too (though I can’t really be the judge of that!). Then I type up all my notes, which are shambolic and all over the place and try and arrange them into a skeleton plot to then flesh out (ooh, bit of a Halloween metaphor there!) I write a lot in the evenings, just snatching moments really because I’ve got two very young children and life is hectic! I used to love going to the British Library for full days and being super productive but right now all my writing happens either on my phone or from my sofa!
9. Finally, what can you give away about what you’re writing right now? Can you ever see yourself returning to the world of the October witches? I’m not sure, I definitely know what happens next for Clemmie and her coven but I’m also happy with where we leave them on Halloween! I’m Writer in Residence at Abney Park, a very cool, very green Victorian cemetery in North East London which I love. I’ve just finished a story about that cemetery and hope it’ll be able to become a book – but the jump from story to book is a big old jump!
Punctuation mark you’d be?
An exclamation mark on a good day; a semi-colon on my odd days!
Favourite thing about October? The weather when it’s amazing, blue skies but cold and crisp. The hearty food, all the costumes at Halloween!
Best flavour of soup, in honour of you being horrified I don’t like any?
Haha! It has to be pumpkin right? French onion soup done fancy with the cheese on top – oh my gosh, heaven in a bowl!
Top reads of 2022 so far?
Ok so I’ve mostly been reading in a research capacity so Red Thread by Charlotte Higgins and Labyrinth by Borges (both of which are pretty intense but amazing to me). Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow was also totally worth the hype! My TBR pile is so intense – I hope to get to more next year! In children’s books, Suzie and the Space Blasters by Katie and Kevin Tsang, Unraveller by Frances Hardinge, Mia and the Lightcasters by Janelle Mccurdy.
3 upcoming releases you’re excited for?
The Octopus, Dadu and Me by Lucy Ann Unwin
The World Between the Rain by Susan Cahill
The Storm Whale Book 4 by Benji Davies
Thank you so much for reading! Do you love October? Are you planning to read Jennifer’s amazing book? I’d love to chat in the comments!
2 thoughts on “Author Interview with Jennifer Claessen”
Thank you so much for such a thoughtful Q&A Amy! ✨✨
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It was such a pleasure! Xxx