Hi Abie, thank you for joining us on Story Snug!
We’re delighted to join Abie on her How to Catch a Witch blog tour. We really enjoyed reading the story which seamlessly mixed magic and witchcraft into ordinary situations that are familiar to many children.
Here’s the blurb for those of you who haven’t yet read How to Catch a Witch;
‘Nothing has gone right for Charlie since her family moved. The house is creepy, school makes her nervous and the village seems odd, spooky, almost … magical. Charlie is drawn into a tale of the unexpected, a tale in which good must do battle with evil over an ancient curse. A tale in which Charlie will play a much bigger part than she ever imagined…’
Abie, where did you get the inspiration for How to Catch a Witch?
As a child, I moved schools seven times. I was always the new girl so I’m very familiar with the awkwardness, the fear that you won’t make new friends or that you’ll never find your way around. My own children recently started secondary school and all those feelings came flooding back. A character popped into my head – a girl called Charlie who was having trouble settling in.
Charlie, the main character in How to Catch a Witch, has just moved house and started a new school. These are both situations that are familiar to many young readers but you have also interspersed magic, fairytales and witchcraft into Charlie’s story. How easy was it to create a believable balance between reality and magic?
My story ideas always seem to lean toward the fantastical! The books I loved when I was younger are all fantasy-based so I guess, when I started writing, it was natural that my own work would end up with a fantasy element. I can’t seem to stop it! But I also love blending the fantasy with reality. In my Fairytale Hairdresser books I have real world jobs for my fairytale characters – the Tooth Fairy is a dentist, the Big Bad Wolf is an optician (‘All the better to see you with’). In Tally and Squill I spent ages researching what spider web is made from so that, when Tally makes it, there is a factual as well as fantastical basis to her recipe. In Charlie’s case, I just thought about what it would be like for an ordinary girl to sense strange growing powers within herself, and how scary that would be when combined with a time when your body and mind are changing as well.
It’s obvious from reading the story that you have done a lot of research and we’re fascinated to know how you learnt more about witches – their use of a familiar, their history and the various elements that Agatha suggests Charlie uses to help Suzy, e.g. the white heather. Is most of the magic used in the story based on facts or are some of the magical elements also fantastical?
The magic is based on ‘facts’ in the sense that some people believe white heather is good for warding off evil or almonds bring wisdom. I researched every ingredient carefully and looked on forums and in old books on witchcraft to ensure that every element was based in the belief systems of those who practise modern-day witchcraft. My criterion was: if someone believes this herb or candle or chant works, then I will use it. I loved learning all about the history of witches and familiars, and I get to explore this even more in the second book.
My daughter was fascinated by the idea of a Witch Bottle and was inspired to make her own! Did Witch Bottles really exist and if so, how were they used?
Witch bottles did exist – they were used in mediaeval times for protection. They often contained horrid things like old nails or even urine (ew). Bottles would be buried somewhere in the garden or hidden inside the chimney to ward off bad spells.
You have included recognisable fairytale elements throughout the story, Suzy’s house, Agatha’s cottage and the curse. Do you have a favourite fairytale?
My favourites change depending on my mood. I tend to like the ones where the girl does a lot of the rescuing like The Snow Queen or Beauty and the Beast. The Little Match Girl is one that’s guaranteed to make me cry!
Charlie has a stutter which causes problems for her when she’s under stress. She’s the first character with a speech disorder that we’ve come across which led to lots of questions from my daughter and has hopefully helped her to develop an understanding and empathy towards anybody she may meet in the same situation. Do you feel that authors are now more consciously addressing diversity and disability in their books?
I can’t speak for other authors. I never deliberately plan to make my books diverse – but I do want to reflect the world we live in and, for me, it’s a very diverse one. I grew up in Hong Kong. I have five sisters – one of us is gay, four of us are White, one is heavily dyslexic; so I’m used to seeing all kinds of people in my world. When I write I want to keep that range of backgrounds and abilities so it feels natural to me to make the dwarves or fairies in my picture books come from all over the world. With Charlie, I didn’t start out by wanting to create a character with a disability. I wanted to give her an issue that she was worried about, I wanted to make it hard for her to settle into school, and I was playing with fairytale themes. I already had one of the characters, Suzy, losing her voice due to a curse so it felt natural to extend this theme further. There’s often a theme of silence in fairy tales both in a literal sense, like The Little Mermaid or Six Swans, and in the sense of disempowerment and lack of choice, like Rumpelstiltskin. So I pushed it to give Charlie a stutter. But I ended up having to do lots of research about that as well! The Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children was extremely helpful, and kindly gave their time to advise me.
You’re well known for your picture books, we’re huge fans of The Fairytale Hairdresser series. How different is it writing fiction for older children?
For picture books you have to think very visually, and the process is much more iterative in that I will look at Lauren Beard’s [the illustrator] work and change my words depending on what she’s drawn. We send drafts back and forth and the book will change substantially as we go.
With fiction, it’s me typing on my own, hoping someone will get my jokes. Then, when I send the manuscript off to the editor there’s a very scary period where I wait to get her comments. The editorial team on How to Catch a Witch was fantastic – and luckily they did get my idiosyncratic jokes.
We always like to know how our guests became authors. Which was your first book and how did it come to be published?
I spent a long time writing and not being published. Then I entered a competition and did well and, off the back of that, got an agent. She’s been amazing and she really helped me think more commercially about my work. Before her, I just wrote what I wanted without really understanding the market – so my picture books were far too long! My first published book was The Fairytale Hairdresser and Rapunzel.
Do you have a favourite location or environment to write in?
I like to mix it up and write in lots of different places. I’ve got a little video of all the different places I write on youtube here:
We really enjoyed your Fairytale Hairdresser workshop at The Edinburgh Book Festival this year. Will you also be taking How to Catch a Witch to any book festivals?
Ah, it was lovely to see you there! I was at Cheltenham with How to Catch a Witch recently and we had a great time imagining a witch together. I’m due at more festivals next year so check out my facebook page or website for event details (www.abielongstaff.com).
Can you tell us about any future titles or projects that you’re working on?
The Fairytale Hairdresser and Aladdin comes out next March, along with more books in my Magic Potions Shop series. I also have book two in my Tally & Squill series (for 7+) full of code-breaking, secret passages, mysteries and a magic library. And then How to Trap a Wolf comes out next year so I’m super busy!
We’re always interested to know what authors enjoy reading. Do you have a favourite book from your childhood?
Oo it’s tough to pick one favourite! I’ll give you a list instead:
The Enchanted Wood (Enid Blyton) for fantasy.
The Tillerman series (Cynthia Voigt) for strength and coping.
The Black Stallion series (Walter Farley) for excitement and daring.
Hating Alison Ashley (Robin Klein) for wonderful school-age characters.
Thank you so much for joining us on Story Snug Abie. How to Catch a Witch kept us glued to our seats (I had trouble resisting the urge to read on without my daughter!) and we’re looking forward to reading Charlie’s next magical story, How to Trap a Wolf.
Abie Longstaff is the author of the bestselling Fairytale Hairdresser series which follows the adventures of Kittie Lacey, stylist to the Big Bad Wolf, Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy, and all of Fairyland. She has also written The Magic Potions Shop series for 5 to 7 year olds, (also illustrated by Lauren Beard), Tally and Squill and How to Catch a Witch.