JK: What is Essential Magic about?
CM: Essential Magic is the story of Etta Mae Cook, a backwoods witch from Appalachia. But underneath the fantasy trappings, she’s a woman who has been stifled most of her life, and who is finally breaking free and trying to live the life she’s always wanted. The book takes place in an alternate late-Victorian era, so in practical terms, that means she has uprooted herself from the mountains of North Carolina and sailed to London, where she hopes to learn magic from her distant relatives, the Fay clan.
Immediately upon arrival in England, though, some powerful people take an interest in her, including Queen Victoria. And her family is not as welcoming as she’d hoped. Clan Fay has been waging a silent battle for years with the future of magic in the balance, and Etta could be the piece that upsets the scales.
And right in the middle of everything is Malcolm Seward, a mage who has given up magic after an accident involving his sister. He and Etta feel a powerful attraction, but for many reasons decide they must resist its pull…until it grows so strong they give in, and discover that together they are able to do things they’d never imagined apart.
JK: How did you get the idea for the story?
CM: I am an obsessive planner. I outline everything in advance, do lots of research, create pinboards on Pinterest, and generally organize the story to within an inch of its life. So this book is a bit of an anomaly for me. I sat down in November of 2015 to write the sequel to another of my projects, a book about a kitchen witch, which I had already outlined and planned. But when I started writing, it wasn’t about the kitchen witch. Etta Mae Cook stepped from the passenger car onto the platform at Waterloo Station and stumbled. That’s still the first line of the book.
I didn’t know who this woman was or why she was in London, but by the time I got to the end of the first chapter, I was hooked on her tale. So the answer is – I honestly do not know! She came to me. Of course it required lots of research and revision to get the book ready for readers, but that’s another story!
JK: Your undergraduate degree is in mythology and folklore. Can you tell us about some of the myths and folklore that inspired your book?
CM: Of course! I love stories, and I think that folklore is the lifeblood of our civilizations. Every culture has stories, even in the modern era. Now we call them urban legends, and we pass them around as clickbait and memes. And we believe in them as fervently as any ancient civilization believed in the fairies or gods. Admit it – you’ve reposted/blogged/tweeted something that turned out to be debunked later. We’ve all done it. We’re drawn in by the narrative, and we accept it as true.
It helps to put folklore in that context first, because we have a tendency to believe that people in the past were somehow different from us. That we’re much more advanced and wouldn’t make the same choices they did. Yet we do every day!
That’s one of the reasons why I can’t stop writing fantasy. Fantasy has a bad reputation in some places because it’s “escapist,” or “soft,” or “nostalgia for something that never existed,” but I think fantasy taps into those deep stories that underpin human existence. It’s important that we remember the sense of wonder and possibility that magic creates. It reminds us that we’re a tiny speck in a limitless universe – and yet even that tiny speck is an important piece of the whole.
Essential Magic is set in a specific era of history when in the real world society was obsessed with the occult, spiritualism, and fairies. The Grimm brothers gathered their tales during this period (earlier in the 19th century), Hans Christian Anderson wrote his stories, and folklorists across the world collected the oral traditions of hundreds of native peoples.
So I’ve taken all of those things and made them real in the world of my series. Fairies and ghosts really exist. As do gods and goddesses, although they might wear different shapes and be called by different names depending on what culture they’re visiting at the time. Magic is real, and some people are able to use it.
I wasn’t inspired by any one particular tradition of magic, myth, or folklore, but you could say I was inspired by all of them!
Essential Magic releases tomorrow and is available for pre-order at the following retailers:
There will also be print versions available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble online.
Cara McKinnon writes fantasy romances because her heart pumps equal parts magic and passion. Her love of history caused her to set her books in an alternate Victorian era, with surprisingly few changes from the real world. She lives on the East Coast of the United States with her husband, two kids, and an oversized lapdog named Jake.
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