Welcome today to Spooky MG Authors–debut MG author, Josh Roberts!
Josh, I really enjoyed reading your modern twist on the witches of Salem, which also highlights upper MG issues like friendship and blossoming young romance. Where did the idea for The Witches of Willow Cove come from?
Growing up in New England, I was always aware of the Salem Witch Trials and how important they were to our local history and lore. But what really fascinated me was the fact that the witch trials actually occurred in what’s now an entirely different town. Salem gets all the tourists, but the real witch history happened a few miles away in another town that’s hardly ever mentioned.
As I was brainstorming ideas for this novel, I kept coming back to the concept of a town with a secret history. And as I often do when imagining a story, I started asking questions. What if there were kids growing up in that town who discovered an important personal connection to its secret history? What if that connection impacted their lives in some important way? What if the past literally came back to haunt them? What if I wrote something that was part Gooniesand part Sabrina the Teenage Witch?
Once I had the kernel of an idea, the rest of the setting began to fall into place for me. Then it was time to start thinking about who these kids would be and where the story would take them. That’s always the fun part of writing—getting to know your characters and then seeing where the ideas go from there.
Oh, I agree about how fun it is to get-to-know your characters. I’m always surprised when these invented characters start leaping from the page and surprising me with their words and actions—especially my monsters.
Why do you like to write spooky stories?
I lived in a three-story Victorian funeral home for most of my childhood, complete with creaky floors and drafty windows and a secret room sealed off from the rest of the house, so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be attracted to writing spooky stories.
I think spooky stories have some great narrative advantages going for them, too. Atmosphere is very important to any story, but especially in something spooky, and that can be a lot of fun to write. Pacing is crucial, too. I love when I’m reading something that induces a growing sense of dread inside me—this sense that something is about to go wrong for a favorite character. I love it even more when I’m writing it.
I also think spooky stories lend themselves to twists and turns and surprise reveals. In many ways, spooky stories are like mysteries. There’s usually something unexplained going on, and what’s more exciting than solving a mystery?
That’s a great comparison of spooky stories and mysteries—twists, turns, and reveals. What other interesting things did you discover while working on your story?
Writing is hard work! You probably know that already, though. I think for me, the biggest discovery was to trust the process of writing, revising, and writing again. I spent a lot of years trying to get everything “right” in my first drafts, which I think most authors would agree is pretty much impossible. And also a terrible idea.
Now when I start a new project, I write what I call an exploratory draft: I try to explore the story and characters and see where they go without focusing too much on if it’s “good” or polished—just figuring out what I’m trying to say first and leaving room to surprise myself. There’s always time for rewriting. (Writing is rewriting. I wish I’d really taken that message to heart years ago.)
Excellent point about rewriting! And I love your “exploratory draft” concept. I think the less pressure a writer creates for himself, the greater opportunity to produce a fresh, vibrant story.
What are some of the key points you learned as a debut MG author?
For me, it’s really about staying true to the story you want to tell and the themes you want to address. The Witches of Willow Cove is somewhere between a middle grade and young adult novel. It has one foot in each category and so it’s maybe a little hard to nail down where it should go on the bookshelves, and I’m okay with that.
At thirteen years old, my two main characters are a little older than traditional middle grade leads and a little younger than typical young adult protagonists. As a writer sending queries to the literary slush piles, I got a lot of feedback that I should either age them up or make them younger, and I tried both approaches . . . only to realize that this story only works for me as an upper-middle grade book with characters facing the particular set of challenges and struggles that early teens face (albeit with witchcraft and deadly secrets).
My favorite reader feedback so far has been that the characters feel and act like real kids their age, and I think that’s so important because there just aren’t enough books for kids in that in-between group.
I agree with your reader feedback. The characters felt spot-on to me. As a former school librarian, I believe your book would be well-received by upper-MG and lower-YA readers.
What books are you reading now or plan to read next?
I’m reading Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia right now (talk about a spooky story!) and next on my list are two spooky middle grade books, The Stitchers (Fright Watch #1) by Lorien Lawrence and Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie.
I’ll have to add the first two to my TBR list! I have read Scritch Scratch and I loved how Lindsay combined history and don’t-turn-off-the-lights spooky intensity. It re-enforces your earlier statement about spooky stories paralleling mystery stories.
Who do you feel was the biggest influence on your becoming an author?
There are so many ways to answer this question and they would all be true. Many people in my life have encouraged me, supported me, and influenced me on my path to being a writer. My mom, for one, and my wife, and numerous teachers over the years.
I think the biggest influence is probably the stories I’ve read, though—worlds I’ve gotten lost in, characters I’ve loved, stories that have stayed with me all the way since childhood. It’s probably true that all writers write because we’ve been inspired to do so by someone else’s writing.
In my case, it began with Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles and never let up from there.
Oh yes, those are amazing stories. I’m so pleased to hear you recommend a modern “classic” like Alexander’s that many young readers probably aren’t reading—but they would love. And ones they should be able to check out from their local library right now, while they are stuck at home.
How have you adjusted your marketing/promotional plans with the pandemic?
Everything has gone online and I’ve done a number of virtual events and interviews and school visits, which have been great. Mostly I’ve just been trying to keep my book out there in front of people on social media and hoping it finds its audience (which, thankfully, it seems to have done).
Right now, I’m also in the midst of contacting a lot of independent bookstores across the country to introduce myself and my book. If there’s been any bright spot, it has been talking to a lot of booksellers who truly love discovering new books for their readers.
Yay! for being able to connect with young readers during this tough time and a great idea to reach out to independent bookstores as well.
Can you share anything about a new story you’re working on?
Right now, I’m working on the sequel to The Witches of Willow Cove, which is entitled The Curse of Willow Cove. It picks up about eight or nine months after the events of the first book and takes the story in, I hope, some totally unexpected directions.
I’ve had the idea for this second book in the series since the very beginning, and it’s been a treat to finally work on it, knowing that this time there are people actually waiting to see where the story goes next!
Final question: What is your advice to aspiring authors?
Write something that gives you joy. That’s the secret. There will always be ups and downs and frustrations, but if you really love the process, you will stick with it because the writing process can be its own reward.
Josh, thanks so much for sharing your insights with us! I wish you continued success with The Witches of Willow Cove and its sequel.
For more information about Josh Roberts and his books, check out the links below.
My website: https://www.willowcove.com
Stay spooky and Stay SAFE!