New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders

Lena Coakley is the first-time author of Witchlanders (Atheneum, 2011). From the promotional copy:

High in their mountain covens, red witches pray to the Goddess, protecting the Witchlands by throwing the bones and foretelling the future.

It’s all a fake.

At least, that’s what Ryder thinks. He doubts the witches really deserve their tithes—one quarter of all the crops his village can produce. And even if they can predict the future, what danger is there to foretell, now that his people’s old enemy, the Baen, has been defeated?

But when a terrifying new magic threatens both his village and the coven, Ryder must confront the beautiful and silent witch who holds all the secrets. 

Everything he’s ever believed about witches, the Baen, magic and about himself will change, when he discovers that the prophecies he’s always scorned—

Are about him.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you’re debuting this year? 

I was a big daydreamer as a kid, and books were my raw material; I devoured them like a furnace.

Before I went to bed at night, I liked to retell stories in my head, using the characters and situations I’d read about, but putting myself at the forefront of the story: I was the fifth Pevensie sibling in Narnia; I was Dorothy Gale’s best friend; I traveled around Middle Earth as Gandalf’s magical assistant. These stories were fantastically complicated and could go on night after night.

One of my favorite things to do was go on long car rides, because then I didn’t have to wait for bedtime, I could just stare out the window and dream stories. I was probably a pretty weird kid, come to think on it.

In a way, writing a novel is just my brilliant way of getting paid to do this. Of course, there is a huge difference between dreaming up a story and writing it down. Somehow, when it’s written, all these huge flaws and plot holes and inconsistencies begin to materialize—things that certainly weren’t there when the story was in my head!

My childhood may have been my apprenticeship as a storyteller, but I had to go through a whole other apprenticeship as a writer before I had a publishable novel on my hands.

I still think daydreaming is a crucial part of writing, though. In fact, Witchlanders started out as a daydream about two young men, opposites in every way, trapped together on a snowy mountaintop. I didn’t know who they were or what they wanted, but I knew that neither of them could survive on their own, that they needed each other. For me, finding their story was a combination of my skills as a writer and my skills as a dreamer.

As a fantasy writer, going in, did you have a sense of how events/themes in your novel might parallel or speak to events/issues in our real world? Or did this evolve over the course of many drafts? 

Although Witchlanders is a high fantasy, it tackles some very gritty, real-world issues. To be honest, if someone had told me when I began that I was writing a novel about religious conflict, drug addiction and war, I would have been terrified. What did I know about those things? But clearly these were all issues that my subconscious was gnawing on.

People often talk about fantasy as escapism, but I’ve never seen it that way. For me, fantasy novels have always been a place to see real-world issues from a different point of view.

The two main characters of the book, Ryder, a Witchlander, and Falpian, a Baen, are on opposite sides of a bitter cultural divide. If I had chosen to write a real-world story about such a conflict, everyone reading it would have a preconceived notion about each group, but no one picks up the book with a preconceived notion about what it means to be a Witchlander or a Baen, so I was able to play with people’s sympathies. I hope that sometimes the reader will see the Witchlander point of view and at other times, the Baen.

In the end I’d like them to come away with a feeling that both cultures are deeply beautiful and both cultures are deeply flawed. And couldn’t we all say that about most cultures, including our own?  

Cynsational Notes

Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto. 

Lena contributes news and interviews to Cynsations from the children’s-YA creative, literature and publishing community in Canada.

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders

  1. Thank you for this great interview. I love high fantasy, so I promptly downloaded Witchlanders to my Kindle. I so resonated with this quote from Lena: "My childhood may have been my apprenticeship as a storyteller, but I had to go through a whole other apprenticeship as a writer before I had a publishable novel on my hands." So true of my journey as a writer.

  2. LinWalsh, happy reading! I'm thrilled that Lena's interview resonated with you, and must say that the quote applies to me as well.

    Natalie, Witchlanders is a must read–definitely one of the best of the year. And I agree that the more resonant fantasy reflects our real world. This sounds contradictory, but in some ways, you can be harder hitting through metaphor.

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