Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Ask An Author: These Witches Don't Burn’s Isabel Sterling [Contributor: Megan Mann]

(Image credit: Penguin Teen)

In modern-day Salem, tourists come from around the country to learn the history of the witch trials and visit one of the many shops dedicated to the occult. One such shop, Fly By Night Cauldron, has a specialty though: Hannah, who is an Elemental Witch. No one knows that she's a witch since it's against coven rules to let the Regs — non-magic folk — know about their powers.

Hannah's recent breakup and the possibility of a new relationship are hard for her to focus on when things start to go sideways in Salem. First, Hannah thinks a Blood Witch has come to kill her, but the coven discovers a witch hunter is in town ready to take them out. How will Hannah figure out who it is? Is it Detective Archer or her arrogant classmate Nolan? What about her newest coworker Cal? Can she trust anyone anymore?

In Isabel Sterling's latest release, These Witches Don't Burn, romance, intrigue, action, and the occult weave together to form a fast-paced ride that will keep the pages turning until the very end.

Here's what Isabel had to say about her fantastic new book!

Congratulations on the release of These Witches Don’t Burn! How does it feel?

Thank you so much! It’s been such a wonderful experience so far. I love hearing from readers who connect with Hannah’s story (it’s honestly the best feeling), and it’s been really cool to hear about all the places TWDB is showing up around the world. Most recently, I heard from readers in Paris and Manila!

I absolutely love the idea of the witches still being in Salem. What was the catalyst for the modern-day Salem witch?

I’ve been fascinated with the Salem witch trials since I first learned about them in middle school. When Hannah’s character walked into my life, she was a “real” witch working at an occult shop and highly annoyed with the so-called wannabes who shopped there. I knew immediately it had to be set in Salem.

Right off the bat, you let the audience know that Hannah is a lesbian. I absolutely love that there’s no fanfare when she comes out to her parents. It was the same when Morgan explains telling her parents she was bi later on. In some cases, that’s how it goes. Did you want to make it super easy to let readers know that they don’t have to fear coming out to their families?

Coming out is such a complex, and ongoing, experience, and I’d never want to prescribe for someone whether it’s safe or easy for them to come out (sometimes it’s really not). Everyone should have the space and freedom to come out in their own time.

I open the book with Hannah’s nonchalant coming out to let readers know right away that this is a story where being part of the LGBTQ community is both accepted and celebrated. I wanted to signal right away that this wouldn’t be a book with queer pain. At the same time, I wanted to include some of the small realities of being openly queer. That’s why we see Gemma’s parents treating Hannah differently. That’s why we see Hannah decide whether to come out to her new co-worker, Cal. With each scene, I was actively trying to balance the challenges of being queer in our society while creating a fun story where LGBTQ characters can just be.

I loved the double mystery happening in the book. Hannah is chasing the mystery of what’s going on and readers are chasing the mystery of how everything happened in New York to make Hannah so edgy about the idea of a Blood Witch coming to Salem. How did that dual intrigue come about?

I’m so glad you enjoyed that! The entire NYC mystery didn’t come to me until after I’d signed my book deal, actually! I needed a more concrete reason for Hannah to be afraid of the Blood Witches, and I actually wrote myself a little prequel story about how Hannah and Veronica broke up. The entire NYC situation evolved from there.

Something that I really appreciated about the book was how seamless it was to go from mystery hunting to magic to romance and back around again. It’s one of the few times where I’ve read the mind of a teenager so realistically. Did you mean to show that teenagers can compartmentalize things differently in terms of attention and emotion?

Ooh, that’s an interesting question! I’m glad it resonated. People (including teens!) are really complex, and we often have to juggle so many competing priorities. I remember being a teen and being stressed about finals and band practice and a million other things, but there was always time to talk about crushes with my friends.

Instead of keeping it within the town, you added a collection of new people to Salem as everything started to go down. It made Hannah, Veronica, and the coven question first outside people before looking in. Was the addition of new people in town to make it harder to figure out the identity of the blood witch?

It was! Creating several viable suspects was an important part of crafting the mystery. I wanted readers to feel like no one was completely innocent until all the twists played out.

When you were writing These Witches Don’t Burn, did you plan out the surprises or were they surprises to you too?

The main villain was the same in every draft, though the reason for their villainy did deepen and evolve over time. A lot of the ways the villain goes after Hannah and her friends did change a lot through revisions with my editor though!

I recently asked author Camille Perri this question and I’d love to hear your opinion on it. It seems like LGBTQIA+ stories and authors are becoming more common on the shelves and bestseller lists. These Witches Don’t Burn has several different LGBTQ characters (including a lesbian, a bisexual girl, and a queer trans guy). Do you think we’re finally moving forward? When do you think stories like this will be less labeled and seen as regular stories?

While there’s been progress made over the last decade (and the last few years in particular), there’s still a long way to go, especially with trans characters and characters of color within the LGBTQ communities.

As far as book “labeling,” I actually think there’s a lot of value in being explicit about LGBTQ rep in books; I think it’s important for queer and trans readers to be able to easily find characters like themselves. Though it may not be done with this intent, when LGBTQ books are marketed with zero hint of their identities present, it can feel like the publisher was purposefully burying that information to “protect” sales. LGBTQ identities shouldn’t be a dirty secret that readers only discover after picking up the story or intense online research.

All that said, I do understand the need for “under cover” LGBTQ books for teens, especially since not everyone can safely bring openly queer content into their homes.

What was the researching aspect like for this one? It’s a fun book, but you have to get your facts straight.

Well, as Hannah would say, I don’t do anything “straight.” (Sorry, I had to!) The most fun aspect of research was visiting Salem with my wife! We went to Salem in between my first draft and my initial big revision, and walking the streets helped the feel of the town come alive for me.

What is it about magic that you think readers are perpetually drawn to?

I think there’s something undeniably fun about magic. Especially for those of us who might not have a lot of power in our own lives, the thought of having an inner power manifest in such a real and undeniable way is alluring for a lot of us.

The book was released just a few days shy of Pride Month. What are some of the best LGBTQIA+ books you recommend?

So many! Some of my recently released favorites include:

  • Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
  • Hot Dog Girl by Jennifer Dugan
  • We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
  • Her Royal Highness by Rachel Hawkins
  • Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy

Finally, and I feel as if this is the most important, what kind of witch would you be? Elemental, Caster, or Blood Witch? What would be the best part of having magic?

Hmm, if I could choose one for myself, I'd want to be an Elemental. Being able to control the elements would be so cool. But if I’m going based on my personality, I think I’d probably end up a Caster Witch. I’m definitely a nerd, and keeping a journal of potions would be very much my thing.

These Witches Don't Burn, as well as Hot Dog Girl and Her Royal Highness are available now from Penguin Teen! And follow Isabel on Twitter.


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