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Interview: June 15th, 2016

In JULIA VANISHES, the first book in debut author Catherine Egan's Witch's Child trilogy, Julia has the ability to disappear --- more or less. It's the perfect ability for a thief and a spy. Julia's latest job requires her to infiltrate Ms. Och's mansion and spy on the goings-on of its mysterious residents. Before long, she starts to feel conflicted --- should she should deliver her report and betray the people she has come to care for or not? Combining mythology, philosophy and spellbinding writing, Egan's debut is an intricate fantasy perfect for readers of Sabaa Tahir. In this interview with's Erin Siu, Catherine Egan shares her inspiration for the world and religions she created, the character she most identifies with and what readers can expect from the next book in the trilogy. When did you first become intrigued with witchcraft and mythology? What prompted the idea to write a series about witches and a heroine who has the ability to vanish into another state of reality?

Catherine Egan: Magic and myth were my earliest passions, and my love of witches goes back as far as I remember. I learned to read with Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch series, but it was the White Witch Jadis from the Narnia books that gave me real witch fever --- my first fictional encounter with evil and real stakes and frightening magic. When I was a little older, Diana Wynne-Jones was my witch-fix of choice. I wanted my witches complex and multi-faceted and human but powerful. The earliest seeds of JULIA VANISHES involved witches that had to write their spells down to work magic, and a girl-spy. As soon as I thought of giving Julia the ability to disappear(ish), I had to think about why she could disappear, and so much of the world-building and plot emerged from that.

TRC: How did you come up with the settings of Spira City and New Poria? Did you base the world of your novel off of real cities? 

CE: Spira is an anagram for Paris, and it sort of maps geographically onto Paris, which was the site of my first big solo adventure. I spent six weeks there by myself when I was 18; I was looking for adventure and got into all kinds of trouble, some of it quite scary, and so I think of Spira City as a kind of emotional map of my impressions and experiences in Paris in my late teens. The vibe of the city, however, is probably closer to Oliver Twist’s London, and I suppose that’s just all of my beloved Victorian novels creeping into my story. New Poria stands in for Europe, of course --- the world of JULIA VANISHES is an alternate world, but with loose parallels to our own.

TRC: I noticed while reading that you came up with various different religions and types of people, such as the Rainists, Simathists, Baltists and Lorians. How did you come up with these religions and what inspired you to create such intricate theories and beliefs?

CE: I tend to overcomplicate things when I’m brainstorming and outlining --- one idea always leads to another. So if I think to myself, all right, witchcraft is illegal, then I have to think about why and what the politically dominant belief system is, and then I have to think about how that belief system came about, what preceded it, what splinter groups there might be, the history of it all, etc. I hugely enjoy all of that and can get completely lost in it. The challenge of revising, then, is to pare it down so that there’s enough to give the world a sense of completeness, but not so much that it’s overwhelming.

TRC: "For a moment, I am terribly sorry for what I'm doing here. They are nothing but good to me, and whatever else they are doing, they are helping people too, people like my mother, long after the rest of Frayne has given up on opposing the brutal laws of the land." The moral dilemma that Julia goes through in this book is particularly intriguing to me and is a huge part of what makes her such an authentic and strong character. How did you come up with such a well-rounded and relatable protagonist?

CE: While I labored endlessly over the world-building and plot, Julia herself sprang fully into being as soon as I started my draft of the first chapter, and of course that made everything else so much easier. I began with the idea of a somewhat amoral girl working for the wrong side, doing something terrible and having a crisis of conscience --- kind of discovering her conscience for the first time. That was just an exciting concept for me. While I can appreciate stark good and evil as a reader and sometimes wish I could write the kind of utterly vile, hateful villains I love to loathe in other books, as a writer I’m always drawn to shades of grey and murky moral territory.

TRC: Similarly, I found the scene where Wyn cheats on Julia to be incredibly striking. Julia doesn't just watch Wyn cheat, but she states, "I watch them the way I watch every Cleansing...I look my nightmares in the eye. And if my nightmares should look back, they see nothing but shadow. I am not there." This is definitely a huge plot point in the novel as Julia grows to be wiser and more informed about the world. Are there any real people in your life who remind you of Julia, or any incidents that inspired you to write such a powerful scene?

CE: I don’t know what it says about me but I find it more interesting to write about love gone wrong than falling in love. I had the vague idea that Julia would have a faithless lover, and as I was writing their scenes I found myself making her kind of naïve and a bit of a romantic, for such a tough girl --- but she’s not someone to stay in denial too long. As I wrote Wyn, I became really interested in his character as well. I didn’t want her love for him to be completely foolish or misplaced. When he says they are alike, “two peas in a pod,” he’s not wrong. There’s potential for a really deep friendship between those two.

TRC: Romance and love are not central to Julia's overall development. In fact, it is the lack of love from Wyn that furthers the development of Julia's character. This is unusual for a lot of YA novels, as many of them revolve around the love between a female protagonist and a boy. Was it a conscious decision on your part to keep the romance aspect of your book minimal?

CE: I don’t know how conscious the decision was --- just a reflection of my unromantic nature, I guess! I hack chips off my frozen heart to put in my G&Ts in the evening.

TRC: You probably get this question a lot, but I have to ask! What are the chances of Frederick and Julia having a romantic future? 

CE: You’ll have to wait and see! (But also --- see above re chips off frozen heart…)

TRC: Out of all the characters in your novel, which one do you identify with the most?

CE: Hmm, what a tricky question! I might have to choose Bianka and backstory-Ammi (Julia’s mother, who doesn’t actually appear in the book but is very much a character in my head) --- because they are mothers trying desperately to protect their children, and the fear / love / protectiveness of one’s children is pretty much my constant state of being nowadays. But there are elements in all of them that I identify with, since they are all built out of things I’ve felt or experienced. I loved writing Pia --- all the rage and nastiness it’s inappropriate to express in real life got poured into her, along with the nihilism and defeatism I struggle with. Gregor is made of my most pathetic failures, the disappointment and self-loathing and shame I’ve experienced. Every time I try to be something better than I am and then wind up still just being me --- that’s Gregor. Julia, on the other hand, is built of all my best and most daring escapes --- she’s the feeling of the car pulling onto the highway, the airplane lifting off the ground, the train picking up speed. Julia was incredibly freeing to write, and I love her for it.

TRC: What questions are going to be answered in the next book of the Witch's Child trilogy? Will we learn more about Julia's mother? Is Wyn going to try and win Julia back? Is Julia going to discover more about her ability and what it means? 

CE: You will learn more (but not everything!) about Julia’s mother. Yes, Wyn is going to try to win Julia back. Julia is going to discover a lot more about her ability to vanish and what it might mean, although the final answers to those questions will not be wrapped up completely until the third book. Readers will have a lot more clues to work with after book 2, though. The vanishing in particular --- its perils and potential --- gets blown wide open in book 2.

TRC: Lastly, do you have any tricks for countering a bout of writer's block? What inspires you to write when you feel like you've run out of good ideas? 

CE: My version of writer’s block isn’t running out of ideas (I have yet to run out of ideas) --- it’s more a matter of failing to make my ideas work. I don’t know if I have any particular tricks for countering it. I’m a big outliner, so usually I can keep writing to the end and then look at the problems and just keep tinkering until I’ve got something that does work.

I have, a few times, had the experience of just running into a wall and seeing no way forward. Whenever that’s happened, it means that I haven’t mapped out the story properly, and it can be hard to tell the difference between giving up too soon and abandoning a sinking ship. There’s always the possibility of salvage --- a lot of the world in JULIA VANISHES comes from a novel I abandoned. I just put it to use in a new story.