After reading Josh Roberts’ debut novel, The Witches Of Willow Cove, I leaped at the chance to interview him for our Mixed-Up File Blog. It’s a spellbinding tale, full of mystery and magic, friendship and folklore. Josh wastes no time jumping into the action and setting the tone for his fast-paced story. Without a doubt, it is one of my favorite books of 2020.
I am so excited to welcome Josh to our blog and cannot wait to hear his answers to all my burning questions.
“A delightfully spooky page-turner . . . Roberts spins an engrossing tale of magic, mystery, and friendship.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review).
“Full of magic, mayhem, gripping danger, and a good dose of humor . . . Hits all the sweet spots for the modern spooky middle grade novel.” –WritersRumpus
“A spellbinding story of friendship, teamwork, and the perils of coming of age in a modern-day coven.” –Kurt Kirchmeier, Author of The Absence of Sparrows
- Tell us about The Witches of Willow Cove.
In THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE, thirteen-year-old Abby Shepherd and five other middle school girls from a small New England town discover they not only have magical powers, but also share a secret connection to the Salem Witch Trials. Then a mysterious stranger named Miss Winters arrives and offers to teach them everything she knows about witchcraft—for reasons that may or may not be entirely innocent.
It’s one part spooky mystery and one part fantasy adventure, and it pulls heavily from real history, local folklore, and my desire to explore themes of friendship, family, loss, and loyalty. It’s also firmly rooted in the upper-middle-grade range, meaning the characters are a little older than the usual eight to twelve, the story gets a little darker, and the questions of right and wrong don’t necessarily have easy answers. And I hope it’s a lot of fun to read!
- How did you come up with the idea?
Growing up, I lived in a three-story Victorian funeral home a few towns over from Salem, Massachusetts, so it was probably inevitable that I’d be drawn to writing a spooky book set in a small New England town. I always knew that Abby would discover she was a witch, too, but the story definitely grew in the telling from those initial ideas.
One thing that influenced me early on is the historical anecdote that the Salem Witch Trials didn’t actually take place in modern day Salem, but rather in a nearby town that used to be part of Salem in the seventeenth century. I loved the idea of a town with a dark and secret history, and I started to wonder what would happen if you were a kid living in a town like that and you discovered not just its secrets, but that those secrets were directly tied to your own family history.
It was an intriguing idea that wound up taking me to some very unexpected places.
- Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!
Actually, I think to a great extent they are all reflections of how I see myself—the good and the bad parts, the characteristics I like about myself and the ones that I don’t. I will admit to borrowing some of the smaller details of certain characters from people I know, though. The way one person twirls her hair, the way another’s nose turns beet-red when she’s angry, that kind of thing. And one of the characters—I won’t say which!—is based on my wife, who I met when we weren’t much older than the characters in this story.
- How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell?
Probably more than you’d think for a story about teenage witches. Obviously, I was never a teenage witch, or even a teenage girl, for that matter. But I did grow up in a town a lot like Willow Cove, and I did like to sneak around and solve mysteries when I was a kid, and like most people I’ve dealt with feelings of betrayal and questions of loyalty and the hard reality that most people are a lot more complicated than “good” or “bad.”
I’ve always been interested in historical mysteries, as well as the treatment and portrayal of women throughout history, too. I guess you could say that while I haven’t lived all the experiences of the characters in THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE, I’ve certainly given them a lot of thought over the course of my life.
- What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Did those books influence your writing?
My favorites were THE PRYDAIN CHRONICLES by Lloyd Alexander. They were the first books that made me cry, not necessarily because they were sad but because I was sad when I finished reading them, knowing that I’d never go on more new adventures with those characters.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that my whole understanding of what it means to grow up was defined by the character development and experiences of Taran, the main character—what’s right, what’s wrong, how one should act, how to apologize, how to be a man in a world where sometimes the wrong kind of masculinity is celebrated. If there was ever a better literary role model for impressionable boys, I don’t think I’ve encountered him.
And it’s safe to say that as a kid, my first literary crush was Taran’s love interest, the clever, hot-tempered, stubborn, snippy, creative, sarcastic, talkative, scatterbrained, wonderful Princess Eilonwy of the red-gold hair. You could probably argue that she made such an impression on me that I filled THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE with a whole coven of girls who’d be right at home alongside her on any adventure.
- What are you working on now?
I’m deep into the second book of the Willow Cove series, tentatively titled THE CURSE OF WILLOW COVE. I tried to make the first book a fully standalone novel, but anyone who’s read it knows that the final chapters suggest a larger world of magic and mystery waiting for them. I’d always planned on this being a multibook series and I couldn’t be happier that I get to continue on with these characters and this world.
- What is your writing process? Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m a plantser! Half plotter, half pantser, 100% willing to tear things up if I think of a better idea along the way. My usual process is to think of general story idea, then write the first five or six or seven chapters to see where it goes, and then panic and stop everything until I have a more solid understanding of what I’m writing towards. I don’t recommend it, but I’ve come to trust the process. Even if I could do without the panicking part.
- Loaded question: How long was your road to publishing and what happened along the way?
It took my ten years from the day I wrote the first sentence of the first draft to the day I got an offer for publication. There were at least three full drafts in between, and two other unfinished manuscripts mixed in as well.
THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE is the book that taught me how to write a book, because I wrote it and rewrote it so much that I do think I made (and hopefully corrected) every mistake a beginning author can make with it before it finally found a home.
- What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
There are a few things I wish I’d fully understood before I set out on my writing journey. The first is the importance of getting something on the page. You can improve a bad manuscript. You can’t edit a blank page. I said earlier that took me ten years to write this book, but in reality it only took me a few years once I really committed to writing every day, even for a few minutes at a time. Writing is the only way you can get better at writing. There’s no substitute for it.
The other lesson I learned is to not judge myself too harshly. Sometimes what you’re capable of putting on the page isn’t very good. I mean, congratulations if you’re one of those people who can nail it on the first try, but for most authors I know, the process of improving is gradual. So, while it’s good to be critical of your work, it’s maybe not productive to be your own worst critic. Take joy in the process of writing. Celebrate the small victories when you realize you’re getting better. It’s a journey, and journeys aren’t meant to be fast.
- Do you have a favorite middle-grade book?
I have dozens of favorites. These days, I consume most of my middle grade books on audiobook, listening to them with my daughter as we drive around on errands or road trips or to and from her dance classes and riding lessons.
We’ve both enjoyed the CITY OF GHOSTS series by Victoria Schwab, THE STITCHERS by Lorien Lawrence, MIDNIGHT AT THE BARCLAY HOTEL by Fleur Bradley, and THE BOOKS OF ELSEWHERE by Jaqueline West, just to name a handful of recent titles. I love that middle grade is thriving these days, and I’m excited to be a part of it with THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE and its forthcoming sequels!
Find Josh Roberts online at willowcove.com