Today we interview Juliet Blackwell, author of the Witch Mystery and Haunted Home series of cozy mystery novels about witchcraft with a Latin American flavor.
PYN: In your Witchcraft Mystery series, your heroine’s witchcraft is flavored by her Hispanic heritage. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Juliet Blackwell: I worked as an anthropologist and studied medical anthropology, so I was looking at systems of healthcare all around the world. My specialty was Latin America. So when I first decided to write the series, it’s largely because I had an interest in that area and the folk healing, botanicals, and witchcraft that comes out of it. On top of that, my mother-in-law at the time was from a small, traditional village in Central Mexico and is full of information. She’s got a million folk beliefs about medical care, and as I was raising my son, she was always full of interesting stories about what to do and how. I kind of took it from there. The character in the Witchcraft Mysteries who plays Graciela, the grandmother, is based on her.
On top of everything else, it’s a culture I’m close to. I live in California and my mother’s from Texas, and there’s a whole lot of Latino stuff going on.
PYN: Is “bruja” the right word to describe your heroine, Lily Ivory?
JB: “Bruja” means witch. And like a lot of cultures, there’s a word for witch and a word for healer. Calling someone a “bruja” is an insult. But “curandera” means healer.
PYN: I realize this is a huge question, but what makes Latina witchcraft different from the European variety?
JB: It’s based on different traditions. Even within European witchcraft you have very different traditions – you have the Italian, which is different than the German, which is different from the Celtic. Witchcraft is usually based on the history of the place.
You can’t even really say “Latina witchcraft.” In parts of Mexico you have certain beliefs more common than others.
A lot of the imagery that we’re familiar with more typically in this country comes out of Celtic beliefs, such as the Green Man. But in Mexico, you get a lot of old deities that probably go back to pagan times, to Pre-Columbian beliefs. You find a lot of gods that transform, for example transforming from snakes to human and back. There’s an Aztec god, for example, who skins his victims and wears the skin. Transformation is a big theme, that things transform from one thing to another. And this idea of transformation is actually common in a lot of folk beliefs. So frogs, for example, are considered magical because they transform from a fish to a frog. The same is true for butterflies, for anything that goes from one status to another. That’s very true in Mexico. A lot of people are very superstitious about frogs, because if you come across a frog, it may encapsulate another being you’ve just killed.
PYN: One of the most lively characters in your Witchcraft Mysteries is the witch’s familiar, Oscar. What’s the role of the witch’s familiar in general and of Oscar in particular?
JB: I love Oscar. One very typical belief that seems to follow witches in a lot of different cultures – I’ve seen it in England, Africa, Europe and America – is the idea of a familiar, the idea that a witch would normally have an animal. Usually, the familiar we think of most is the black cat, but a famliar could be any kind of animal. And the animals are often associated with nighttime, such as an owl or cat, or frog.
The idea was that animals are closer to the spirit world, so they’re sort of a conduit or connection that helps the witch. Also, they‘re also believed to do reconnaissance work for witches. For example, a cat could sneak in and listen to someone’s conversation and then report to the witch. Also, they’re considered to boost the witch’s power when she brews or is doing magic. In the old days in Europe, when they were burning witches, they would use this as a way to prove someone was a witch. If she was sitting in prison and an insect came by, they’d say “that’s her familiar come to visit her.” So it was a way to condemn witches as well. Often those condemned of witchcraft were women who lived alone with cats or farm animals, and those were considered to be their familiars.
When I was setting up the idea for the book, I wanted to do something more interesting than the black cat. And I’d just read about the strong European tradition of using pigs as familiars. Way back when, it was considered a big deal to disturb the earth, to dig around, to disturb the roots – it was only something a qualified person, a healer, would do. And I think it’s probably based in the fact that so many roots are poisonous. When pigs go out, when they go wild, they root around in the ground and pull up roots. They have really good noses, so they find things. For this reason, the pig familiar was often linked with a healer witch, a witch who did a lot of botanics. So when I was trying to think of a good familiar for Lily, I thought a pig would be fun. And my housemate is fond of miniature pot-bellied pigs. But then of course, it’s always fun in a mystery, especially one written in the first-person, to have someone your protagonist can talk to, who can respond to her ideas, because you want more input instead of being in her head all the time. I wanted a familiar she could actually talk to. And that’s how Oscar was born. I decided he could transform into a creature Lily could talk to, because I’m fascinated by that transformative thing.
PYN: How do you research your books?
JB: I really enjoy the research because it’s so much fun. It’s a subject I’m fascinated with, and it’s no burden for me to read a lot about a subject I’m interested in. I read books. I read on the Internet. And then, when I was first starting the series, I went to several coven meetings that allowed visitors. I also interviewed a few witches, and a gypsy fortune teller at one point, though that last is more for my Haunted Home series. For that I talked with ghost busters and psychics.
Part of my research technique is based on my training as an anthropologist. In anthropology, you talk to people and observe. I also speak a lot with the Mexican side of the family and get their stories as well.
PYN: What can we expect to see next from you?
JB: The witchcraft series is continuing, and Spellcasting and Silk comes out in July. I think that’s #7 in the series. And then I have another Haunted Home mystery. They always come out In December, and the next is called, Give Up the Ghost. And then I also have a non-mystery novel coming out in September, which will be called, The Paris Key. That’s about an American woman who inherits her uncle’s locksmith shop in Paris. She changes her life and moves to Paris. The Paris Key is different for me, because I’ve never written a straight novel before. It’s got some mysterious aspects, but it’s not a genre mystery. As most authors know, it’s important to mix it up a little.
Blackwell is the New York Times bestselling author of the Witchcraft Mystery series, which features a misfit witch with a vintage clothing store in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood; and of the Haunted Home Renovation series –in which Mel Turner, a restorer of historic homes, finds ghosts behind the walls. Under the pseudonym Hailey Lind, Juliet penned the Art Lover’s Mystery series with her sister Carolyn–including the Agatha-nominated Feint of Art. Arsenic and Old Paint is the latest in that series.