I was so excited when I was given permission to interview American author, Chrysler Szarlan. Her debut novel, The Hawley Book of the Dead was a book I absolutely loved. It has been released over seas already, but due for release in late October here in the UK. If you haven’t heard of this book, here is the info:
In the tradition of The Night Circus and A Discovery of Witches, The Hawley Book of the Dead is the kind of novel that makes you believe that magic really exists.
An old house surrounded by acres of forest.
A place of secrets, mysteries and magic.
This is where Reve Dyer hopes to keep herself and her children safe.
But a mysterious figure has haunted Reve for over a decade. And now Reve knows that this person is on her trail again.
In Hawley, where the magic of her ancestors reigns, Reve must unlock the secrets of the Hawley Book of the Dead before it’s too late…
Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Well, actually, I’ve read it, and loved it, here is my review if you are interested.
Q & A with Chrysler Szarlan
- For people who haven’t heard of the book, tell us what it’s about?
That’s about the hardest question a writer has to answer! But here goes: The Hawley Book of the Dead is about a reluctant heroine, Revelation Dyer, a wife and mother who is also a Las Vegas stage magician with a real power. She has contained that power within the illusionist act she performs with her husband. One night, an intruder sneaks a real bullet into Reve’s trick pistol, and she accidentally shoots and kills her beloved husband. Soon she discovers that her husband’s killer is stalking her and her daughters, so she flees with them to Hawley, Massachusetts, the home of her ancestors (she is descended from an entire family of women with special powers), where she hopes to keep them all safe. But Hawley is a fraught and haunted place, too, and Reve also discovers that she is next in line to be the Keeper of a very special magical book, The Hawley Book of the Dead. So she just keeps getting in deeper and deeper, trading stage magic for real magic.
- It seems your past experiences with racehorses has influenced parts of the book. What is it about these animals that you love the most?
I’ve always had horses, since I was a kid. There is something mystical between women and horses, especially, a connection I tapped into while riding my own horse in the Hawley Forest, which is a real place. The horse energy always figured into the book, from day one. I can’t really explain it, it’s just a sense of power and a kind of flow of energy one gets with a horse. Or at least I do. Some of my best ideas come to me while I am riding.
- Your previous work includes working as a magician’s assistant. That must have been exciting? What was one of your favourite magic tricks?
It was actually not such fun – it is a very demanding job, physically and timing-wise. I was quite bad at it, and always got something wrong. But I developed such respect for people who can perform illusions well. I think my favourite was the Three Part Girl, where I walked into a zig-zag cabinet, and the magician sliced me into three pieces with big blades, then put me back together again. It’s quite an exciting illusion!
- The Hawley Book of the Dead has been likened to A Discovery of Witches. How does it feel to be compared to the brilliant Deborah Harkness? It must be such a heart-warming accolade?
I am a great admirer of Ms.Harkness, who brought fantasy to a mainstream adult audience, and opened so many doors to other writers like myself. It is certainly an honour to be compared to her at all! But that said, I think our books are only alike in that we are both writing in the tradition of contemporary fantasy, with adult women heroines. And we have both written about families of women with extraordinary powers. But I’ll take the comparison, for sure!
- Reve is a strong woman, intent of doing anything to save her children. I believe her to be one of the most compelling characters I’ve read in a long time. Where did the idea of Reve come from? Were there any strong influences?
Wow, thanks Dan! High praise indeed! I actually have no idea where she came from, beyond the fact that the first image I had for the book was that of a woman bashing through a forest on her horse, desperately searching for her missing daughters. But my best friend says that of all my characters, I have the most in common with Reve (I think she means that we are both terribly stubborn!)
- The idea of Caleigh’s string-based magic was incredibly creative. Tell us more about your creative processes. Do you ponder on things for days, or write more impulsively?
I try NOT to ponder things. I am an intuitive writer, for better or worse, and it sort of feels like the inspirations for characters, themes, scenes, etc, just come up from the ground through my body, and out my writing hand. Caleigh’s string games as well. I didn’t ever play them as a child, and knew nothing about them at all. When she made her ability known, I had to do some research on the history and patterns of string games!
- The sense of smell is most prominent in the novel, especially the scent of lavenders signifying danger. Herbs and flowers are linked to witchcraft, which is also prominent in the book. Where does your interest in witchcraft come from?
I guess I don’t precisely think of the Dyer women as witches. I don’t know if I believe in witches per se, but throughout history, women especially who had knowledge of healing and herb-lore were persecuted. Or they were persecuted for holding and conveying ideas which were different. Reve’s ancestor, Mary Dyer, was a real woman who was hanged in Massachusetts in 1660 because she spread the Quaker faith. I think when one is living in Massachusetts, where the most infamous witch trials took place in Salem, it’s hard not to be influenced by that terrible history of intolerance for difference.
- I’ve read that you work in a bookshop. Do you sneak a peek inside the books when you have no customers?
Of course! But a bookstore is quite a busy place, so I hardly have time read more than a sentence or two. I also have the great privilege of helping choose books for the Odyssey Bookshop’s First Edition Club. We get to read advance copies of amazing fiction (not at work, though!), and choose one new book a month to ship to our club members (we DO ship to England, as well). Our latest pick was David Mitchell’s amazing new book, The Bone Clocks. I got to meet him when he was touring in the US, and he is the nicest man in the world! Working in a bookstore is the best job imaginable, except being a writer.
- Although mostly told from Reve’s narrative, there are also sections from Caleigh’s point of view. Why did you decide to have a different approach?
I’ve always been partial to the viewpoint switcheroo, having been heavily influenced by writers like Louise Erdrich, and the said David Mitchell. I just think it makes for a more interesting read.
- Excluding Reve, who’s your favourite character in the book?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I really love Nan, and Caleigh of course. I love Falcon Eddy, and have the greatest respect for Mrs. Pike. But I have to say I’m a sucker for a villain, so I think I’d have to ultimately go with Rigel Voss.
- Do we get to see more of Reve and her fabulous daughters?
Absolutely. I have a good start on the next book in the series, called Dreamland. It’s going to be a fun ride, I promise.
- Who did you grow up reading?
At first, just about every horse book known to man – Enid Bagnold was my favourite, with her great National Velvet – the book is even better than the wonderful movie. Then the Victorians – Dickens and Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins. Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre remains my favourite book EVER. Then H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Stephen King. I’ve always been interested in New England gothic. Annie Proulx, though, is my favourite contemporary writer, I’d have to say. Well, it’s a toss up between her and Stephen King. Oddly, they both have the same editor, who also bid on my book. But I decided I needed to learn how to write suspense, and ultimately went with a great editor of suspense novels.
Oh, absolutely TEA! I am lucky to have great tea purveyors nearby, who are also friends, in Northampton MA – their shop is called Tea Trekker. They made a special blend just for the book, called Jolon’s Hawley Forest Blend. You can find a link to them, and the tea, a blend of black teas and Pu-erh, on my website.
A little of both.
Pink and black together, like Velvet’s silks in National Velvet.
- Whilst writing, do you have any particular superstitions? Perhaps you need a drink in your favourite cup? Maybe you have to always wear slippers?
I only use pens with blue ink. Never black. I’m a bit superstitious that way.
- What single most experience has defined your life the most?
I think it was becoming terribly ill while I was practicing law, and having to give it up. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and suffer from it to this day, but to a lesser extent – lots of acupuncture! But that’s the reason I had the time to devote myself to learning the craft of writing. It was a long apprenticeship, too. I was on the writing path for twelve years, and wrote two other novels, before finding success with The Hawley Book of the Dead.
- Do you have any tips for wannabe writers?
Never give up, always keep on, find a writing group, believe the pros (as in agents who blog or give tips about the process of finding an agent – they should know). Don’t have spelling errors on your first page or your query letter when sending out. And signing with an agent is only a step in the process, it just goes wonderfully on!
- Before you go, tell us a little secret ;)
Cats are from another planet. But we love them anyway.
David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is sat patiently on my bookcase! Fab interview, Chrysler. Very insightful. You know, you might be on to something there with the cats; the ancient Egyptians always revered cats – they knew!
UK Giveaway for a physical copy of The Hawley Book of the Dead
Thanks to the publisher, I have two copies to give away. Only open to to people in the UK though I’m afraid. Interested? Check out the rafflecopter link below.