Today we’re chatting with Lena Coakley, author of the YA fantasy novel WITCHLANDERS, which we absolutely loved!
The worldbuilding in Witchlanders is so detail-rich and extensive. You deftly weaved this very complex history of two opposing lands and their rivalries, prejudices, and misunderstandings into a riveting plot full of secrets and mysteries to unravel. How did you come up with the idea for the book? Did the history come first, or the characters?
People have been asking me how I came up with the idea for Witchlanders and I swear I’ve given about ten conflicting answers so far. Is it terrible to say that I can’t really remember? The book took many years to write and it started out as sketches of scenes on the backs of envelopes. MANY scenes and characters got thrown out. I knew early on that I wanted the book to be about a tough, older-than-his-years farm boy named Ryder, but it took me a long time to find his story. He really needed Falpian to help define him, but it took me a while to realize that. It was when I finally started to lay out the conflict between Ryder and Falpian that the story really came to life. The mythos of the Witchlanders and the Baen are fascinating. Did you take inspiration from any existing mythology in creating the religions surrounding the goddesses Aata/Aayse and the god Kar?
I loved mythology as a child, especially Greek and Norse myths, but I can’t think of any existing mythology that is directly related to Witchlanders. I very much wanted to create two religions that reflected the values of the two cultures I was creating: the Witchlanders have a goddess worshipping culture, and the Baen to have a more patriarchal society that worships a male god.
One of the things I agonized over while writing the book was the scene where the God and Goddess actually appear. I called this my “channeling Megan Whelen Turner scene” because she has gods show up in her books every once in a while. I must have put this scene in and taken it out a hundred times. I loved the idea of having the god and goddess sort of shaking their heads and saying ‘wow, both sides have it so wrong!’ but I didn’t want to be obvious or give too much away. Readers will have to tell me if I did the right thing! Music and singing play such a huge role in the book. How big of a role does music play in your own life? Was there a soundtrack you listened to while writing, or any music you took inspiration from?
When I was young, music was all important. I was in dozens of choirs and I wanted to be a singer for a while. It’s too bad that I’ve let that part of my life slip, because clearly this book shows how much it is still on my mind! I love how music is both emotional and mathematical, and can thrill me on different levels at the same time. A choral teacher I had in High School once had us sing a very complicated song in 6-part harmony while walking around a room listening to each other. It was a real test of how well we knew our parts! I found it a very moving experience. Something about singing a complex harmony with other people…there’s nothing like it. Of course, quite a few of my feelings about music seem to have leaked out into my book!
I listened to a lot of classical music while I was writing Witchlanders, mostly Bach, Rimsky-Korsakov and Vaughan Williams, but I like contemporary stuff too. These days I’m listening to the Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine and old David Bowie.
There is one scene in particular that turned my mild fear of spiders into full throttle arachnophobia. Was there any scene that was spine-tinglingly scary to write? Which would you rather encounter in a darkened cave tunnel – a gormy man or a pack of thief spiders?
Oh, I find the gormy men quite terrifying because they are driven by blind hate—there is just no getting around them. But I know the secret to how to avoid thief spiders, you see, so I would definitely pick them. I’m so glad you found them scary! (Is that mean?) The spiders weren’t in the first draft, but my agent, Steven Malk, wanted something dramatic to happen to Falpian in the caves. I really wrote that chapter with Steve in mind. All my beta readers are women so it’s great to have Steve for the “boy” perspective. He was always advocating for bigger monsters, more drama and grosser dead bodies!
There are so many strong characters in this book to champion and love – Ryder, Falpian, Skyla, and Dassen are my personal favorites. Which of your characters are you most similar to? Are any of them based on real people? Which character was the most fun to write?
There is a part of me that is very much like Ryder. He’s practical, skeptical, an introvert, a bit of a bear sometimes… I keep waiting for my friends to notice that making him my hero is actually my secret way of glorifying my own flaws!
That said, I would have to admit that Falpian was probably the more fun character to write. First of all, I loved writing about the singing magic he learns to do. And also, he’s just so funny! He’s one character who was constantly surprising me.
Outside of your own writing, who is your favorite hero/heroine to read about?
At the moment I’m a bit obsessed with Emily Brontë, having just spent a week taking a course on the Brontës at Oxford. It’s funny, when I read Wuthering Heights as a teenager, I read it as a romance. I saw Catherine and Heathcliff’s behavior as being perfectly normal for two people in love. I read it now and I think: These people are insane. I still love them, though.
I did an interview recently with Chime author, Franny Billingsley, where she talked about how she always wants to read about larger-than-life characters—characters who would drive her crazy if she met them on the subway. That’s how I feel. Heathcliff would definitely drive me crazy if I met him on the subway—he’d probably be a menace to public safety!—but he’ll always fascinate me.
I loved reading about Bo the dreadhound, and kind of wanted to yank him out of the book and make him a pet. Are you a dog lover, and is Bo based on a pet?
I have never had a dog so I am really indebted to my writing-group buddies Hadley Dyer and Kathy Stinson (and their dogs, Luke and Keisha) for helping me through! Hadley and Kathy were very patient with my calls for information such as: If a human peed on the rug, would a dog be tempted to pee there too, even if he was well-trained? I’m incredibly lucky I have friends who don’t hang up on my when I ask stuff like that!
I would put Witchlanders in the same company as Tamora Pierce’s and Kristen Cashore’s novels. Are there any other YA books you can recommend for people who loved Witchlanders and are impatiently awaiting the sequel?
Wow! I’m delighted to be in such great company; those are two of my favorite authors. Sabriel by Garth Nix is still one of my all-time favorite books and I’m completely thrilled that Nix is going to be at World Fantasy Con in October because I’ll be there, too! One book not a lot of people know about is Deathscent by Robin Jarvis. It’s quite strange and hilarious, and, if you are a writer, it is a great lesson in how to use the omniscient narrator. I’m also looking forward to reading Kenneth Oppel’s new book, This Dark Endeavor, about the young Victor Frankenstein.
Thanks so much for stopping by Lena. I really enjoyed having you!
Thank you so much for hosting me today, Alice!
High in their mountain covens, red witches pray to the Goddess, protecting the Witchlands by throwing the bones and foretelling the future.
It’s all a fake.
At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?
But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—
Are about him.
Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She got interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto. Witchlanders is her debut novel.