The Author's Corner
M. R. Sellars
Trust: A Rowan Gant Investigation
Never Burn a Witch:
TWPT: Your background is Wiccan. Would you like to tell us when and where you found your present spiritual path?
MS: It was back during dubyah-dubyah two. I was working with the RAF and had been dropped behind enemy lines...No...wait a minute, that was something else....Oh yeah, spiritual path. Well, my mother was a Witch. My father is somewhat of an atheist, and my great grandmother was Native American. I was brought up in a pretty liberal household where spiritual paths were considered a very personal thing. Freedom to choose your own path was considered to be an imperative. As I was growing up I tried on several different religions, looking for a fit. I ran the gamut of Catholicism, Judaism, Pentecost...I was even a dyed in the wool agnostic for a while.
While in my early teens I developed a keen interest in all things unexplained as well as a fanatacism for nature and ecology. With some guidance from my mother and a lot-- I mean A LOT-- of reading on the subject of everything from WitchCraft to New Age White-Lighter Self-Empowerment, I started venturing down a sketchily defined trail into Earth religions and magick. As I delved deeper I moved in and out of different groups, most of them Wiccan. I guess that is basically the long winded version of, "Long about my teens." To this day I don't consider myself strictly Wiccan--and you can bet there are some Wiccan's out there that don't consider me Wiccan either-- I'm a hodge podge of quite a few things, so when I get asked how I define myself, I answer either Eclectic Kitchen Witch or Pagan. (But, you are correct, there's a whole mess of Wiccan in there.)
TWPT: What was your early experiences with Wiccans/Witches like? Was it what you expected or was it something that came as a complete surprise?
MS: Early on my experiences were actually very good. It was later that they became somewhat tainted. Don't get me wrong, I've practiced with some absolutely wonderful people, and early in my "exploration" of paths I was blessed with some wonderful folks to help guide me along. As I moved between covens, as the dynamic often dictates, I came into contact with some horribly unsavory characters. Not that I am one to pass judgment, mind you, but when someone tries to stab me with an athame and claims that he was merely following the instructions of a past life he was channeling, I get a bit suspicious. I would have to say that THAT came as a complete surprise.
However, other than that and a couple of other less threatening incidents, most of the Witches/Wiccans that have passed through my life have been perfectly tremendous people to know. Even the ones who have since lost sight of their paths.
TWPT: What started you in writing, and why fiction?
MS: Usually, when someone asks me this I tell them that at an early age I discovered that I had far too much stuff running around in my head.
Writing it down on paper seemed like a logical course because I could fold it up and put it in my pocket. That's what got me started on writing. I recently gave this answer to an eager young man who attended a book signing and he looked at me like I had grown an extra head. My guess is that it wasn't the answer he was looking for. In all seriousness, my parents were both avid readers, so I was at no loss for someone to read me a story, newspaper, magazine or whatever. I still have vivid memories of sitting on my father's lap and reading the newspaper with him when I was 3-4 years old. I was absolutely fascinated with the fact that those 26 different squiggly lines could be grouped together into patterns that would convey information. I couldn't wait to be able to do it myself, so as soon as I could I began writing.
The question of fiction, I believe, comes from my upbringing. The freedom to choose your path and the who, what, why, where, when and how's is deeply ingrained in me. I simply cannot see myself writing a book to tell someone how, when, why, etc. they should do something. Now, I am in no way putting down those who write such books. I have gotten a large amount of my information from books such as these, and one of my very best friends is just such an author. It's simply something that I don't feel that I can do effectively. Although, I should mention that I was a Journalism major and wrote more than my fair share of news stories for both print and broadcast.
Fiction just held an allure for me. It goes back to that piece of paper-- It gives me a place to put all of the ridiculous stuff that my overactive imagination comes up with so that it won't bounce around inside my skull and keep me awake at night.
TWPT: What draw, or what benefits did/do you see with fiction that you would not or do not have with non-fiction?
MS: In general, money. (Sure, we ALL have a mercenary side don't we? <grin>) For the most part, readers buy far more fiction than non-fiction. It also comes back to my inability to write instructional manuals, so to speak.
Probably a mental block, but hey, we've all got those too.
I've actually been approached about ghost writing a true crime story.
I'm only vaguely considering it, because I have WAY TOO MUCH fiction left to write and I'm not sure if I'd be able to find the time.
TWPT: What made you incorporate Wicca/Witchcraft into your writings?
MS: My reasoning behind this has been a point of contention with at least one unique Pagan individual at every festival, gathering, occult store signing or lecture I have attended to date. There are actually many reasons, among them being that I am really into my religion and it is a part of who I am, so why not. The big reason I throw out there is-- and this is the one that gets me in trouble-- I came to the conclusion long ago that anyone who might have a passing interest in WitchCraft and/or Paganism-- or even anyone who may simply NEED to be educated in this arena whether they are interested or not-- is not very likely to plunk down $16.95 for a copy of Uncle Ray's Big Blue Book or The Spiral Dance, or some such. Those books are for someone SERIOUS about a pagan spiritual path. This is where I usually have an individual point out that "The Truth About WitchCraft Today" is only $5.99.
Then this is where I have to sigh, smile, and point out that while, yes, it most certainly is only $5.99 it is not a mainstream book that Sally Secretary or Joe Bus Driver is going to pick up for entertainment. And as we all know, most readers purchase books for the purpose of entertainment.
So, back to my grand, insipid plan to infiltrate and educate the non-pagans of the world <insert evil laugh here>. I figured that since people from all walks of life read fiction for entertainment, why not incorporate a true picture of WitchCraft in my fiction. That way the reader gets entertained and educated at the same time. I only have anecdotal evidence that this works-- In one instance I was recently told by a friend that she had actually been afraid of me for the past few years since becoming aware of my spiritual path. Then she read Harm None. She tells me that now she has a true understanding of exactly what my path is and she's no longer afraid. In fact, she's intrigued.
TWPT: You chose a detective novel format for your writings. It is very common to place Witchcraft in the Science Fiction/Fantasy format. What made you choose the detective format over science fiction?
MS: I know I'm going to get into trouble for this one, but here goes anyway. Most of the time when I have seen WitchCraft incorporated in SF/Fantasy it is blown so far out of proportion that it is no wonder to me that when people find out I'm a Witch, they ask if I'm a good Witch or a bad Witch?
Can I do a spell for them? Can I fly? We've all heard it before. Now don't get me wrong. I have nothing against authors writing fantasy, SF or whatever. I've enjoyed far more than my share of it, and have even penned some of it. However, if educating non-pagans is part of my aim, then I need to write it a bit closer to reality. Yes, I will admit that I push the boundaries somewhat, but I've little choice in that if I want the books to have mass appeal. Let's face it, even pagans don't want to read a fiction story about what Pagans REALLY do on an everyday basis. We'd be bored to death, and besides, there would be no real reason to mention my character's spiritual leanings in such a novel. Brining up that Rowan is a Witch would be like tacking an extra appendage on him just for the hell of it. Kind of a, "Here's this normal everyday guy who's going to help solve this crime...Oh, by the way he's a Witch in case anyone cares." The general public is fascinated with the supernatural, so you give them what they want, then zing them with a left hook that carries a more earthly explanation for the supernatural act they just read, and that ties into the realities of WitchCraft. Or, sometimes, give them a quick jab that says, "Hey, it's just as big a surprise to me as it is to you, so don't think this is something we Witches do for fun." Now, what was the question? <just kidding> So what it boils down to is, people read fiction for entertainment, mysteries and suspense/thrillers have one of the biggest slices of the pie, I myself enjoy mysteries and suspense/thrillers, so why not?
TWPT: I see glimpses of classic mystery writers in your style. Tell me which writers might have some influence in your writing.
MS: Wow. I don't really know where to begin with that. There are so many writers whom I feel have influenced me. Among them being J. D. Salinger and Ray Bradbury (I had the honor of meeting Mr. Bradbury some years back. Delightful man.) I have also repeatedly ingested, digested, and mulled over virtually everything published by H. G. Wells. He was/is a definite influence. As for "classic mysteries" I read plenty of Arthur Conan Doyle and Ellery Queen growing up. Contemporary authors I read are John Camp (John Sanford) and Patricia Cornwell. Mr. Camp is by far my favorite of the two. I was recently compared to him and I took that as a supreme compliment. I can't help but believe that I have been influenced in one way or another by everything I have ever read, but those are a few that stand out right off the top of my head.
TWPT: So lets take a look at your first book, Harm None. Where did you come up with the character of Rowan Gant. What about the other characters?
MS: Okay, so here's my thing. Follow along closely if you can Rowan, who is now a late thirty something male, was originally a mid-twentysomething female.
But his name wasn't Rowan, it was Wendy. But that was when he was a she. Not a he like he is now. Anyhow, she was blonde, single, and was just coming into her own as a Witch, i.e. just becoming truly open. Anyway, she--Wendy not Rowan-- ended up getting involved in a murder investigation when one of her best friends, a professional dominatrix, is mysteriously murdered.
In the process, she ends up in a romantic triste with the investigating officer, Ben. By the way, did I mention that this all took place somewhere on the order of 2147 AD or some such? So, where did Wendy come from? I'm guessing some outlandish adolescent wet dream that hung around for a while because this version of the story was outlined and partially written about a million years ago when I was around 19 or 20. Anyway, all of those notes and sample vignettes went into my filing cabinet with all of my other manuscripts (some finished, some not), and story ideas. There it fermented for something on the order of 15 years, during which time I did some growing as a Witch and as a person.
I continued writing during all this time but the idea of a crime solving pagan kept bouncing around in the back of my brain like one of those silly head bobbing dog things you see in the back of cars-- popping up into view, then dipping back down to hide. One day it came up for air and stayed. I dug through the notes and refreshed my memory, then set to thinkin' (southern expression, you'll have to excuse me, I'm from a town that sits on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee) about it all. I updated, (or backdated as it were) the story line and applied it to the framework of a mainstream suspense thriller, then came to the conclusion that while I thought I might be able to convincingly write a female first person POV, now WAS NOT the time in my life for a gender crisis.
<GRIN>. So Rowan became male, and about my age. I often get asked if he is me, and the answer is unequivocally, maybe. Usually, I say no, but I can't escape the fact that there is a lot of me in him. But truth be told, there is more of me in Ben Storm. I actually wish I could be as calm and even-tempered as Rowan. The rest of the characters are literal amalgams of my friends, relatives, and people I've met along the way. Ben is based on a friend of mine who is actually 6' 5" and a St. Louis City Cop. He became Native American because I have Native American friends. On that note, I've taken some heat (not much, just a little) from self-appointed political correctness police regarding the banter between Ben and Rowan--(the whole white-man, kemosabe, tonto thing)-- I hate to burst their bubbles, but that is exactly the kind of banter that goes on between my friends and me, and they aren't offended in the least. Guess they don't need any self appointed advocates. Go figure.
TWPT: Why did you choose Rowan Gant to be Wiccan, and where were you going with this?
MS: Well, I suppose I chose that path because while I don't profess to be strictly Wiccan, there is quite a bit of it in my background, so I am fairly familiar with the in's and out's. I knew from the git-go that Rowan, (Wendy) was going to be a Witch. I was a fledgling Pagan at the time it all started so I really hadn't chosen much in the way of a path for her/him. Now, these years later, with my experiences and such, it seemed like a natural fit. As for where I was going, I'd have to say pretty much headlong into the fray. I wanted the character to come across somewhat like the premise of the Harry Kemmelman "Rabbi Mysteries". Be an entertaining read and educate at the same time. On a more personal note, I am aiming for Rowan to grow as I grow. Have him learn as I learn. Who knows, I might even learn something from him.
TWPT: Do you really think this kind of approach to introducing Wiccan/Witchcraft to the public accomplishes good PR or do you think they are seeing just another book with a "spooky" topic.
MS: When the general public sees it on the rack/shelf they are probably thinking, "ohhhh spooky topic!" Actually, that is okay by me, because the PR occurs between the pages, not on the cover or in the title. If it takes the "image" of a spooky topic to get people to pick it up, then so be it. I only have anecdotal evidence that my idea is working, but I keep hearing from non-pagan fans and one theme that is consistent is the "You know, I always thought Witches were evil Satan worshippers, but then I read your book and..." or "I never believed that Witches were anything but fairy tales but after I read Harm None..." In my mind, at least, that tells me that I must be getting the message across.
TWPT: The material in the book, some of it is real and some of it is "stretched". Do you think this gives a false impression of what Wicca and what we are about? Or is this a tool of the trade?
MS: It's a tool of the trade, no doubt. While I am certain that there are some folks out there who might get a false impression, they are most likely the same folks that are going to read whatever they want into something to begin with. I knew I would be going out on a limb to embellish some of the practices, but like I've said before, it's a hook. It makes the story entertaining, and even pagans don't REALLY want to read about what pagans REALLY do. Fiction writers call this particular device "writing over the top." To give you an idea, Patricia Cornwell writes about a Medical Examiner that solves crimes. In reality, autopsies are downright boring. A lazy S cut here, a Y incision there, weigh a few organs, collect a few samples, declare a cause of death and sew up the corpse. But when Ms. Cornwell writes a Kay Scarpetta mystery her M.E. is boiling the flesh off of skeletons, or conducting some other utterly bizarre procedure that, while being an actual procedure, is stretching the reality boundaries of what M.E.'s really do on an everyday basis. My character is a Witch, he practices his religion, lives a good life, and on rare occasion deals with a prophetic dream/nightmare, an illusion or two, or a little spirit channeling. All things that are purported to be real enough, but not something that happens on a "regular" basis to Pagans or non-Pagans for that matter. What it all boils down to is, "things remain, unexplained."
TWPT: What concerns, if any, do you have with the "ritualistic" murders in the book and possible copycat murders?
MS: You know, that is a very interesting question. It has been brought up to me maybe a half dozen times. I'll be honest here, the murders that I write give me nightmares. Really. I've done a marathon weekend of cranking out 3 or 4 chapters and been unable to sleep for the next 24 hours all because I can't believe the ritualistic atrocities that came out of my head. Then I switch on the news and I watch a report about a college kid who bludgeoned a 15 year old girl unconscious after raping her then saws her head off--she was just unconscious mind you-- and leaves the head in one place, and the body in another. It's then that I realize that there are some very sick people in this world and they sure as hell don't need me for ideas. They have plenty of their own. Now this is not to say that I wouldn't be devastated if there was a string of murders mimicking the ones in my book and when the killer is caught he goes on record saying, "I did it all because I got the idea from M. R. Sellars' book Harm None/Never Burn A Witch/yadda yadda."
I have to keep telling myself that anyone sick enough to do such things is going to do it without any prompting from my work of fiction. Any nut case can make an excuse and place blame. I seem to recall "Catcher in the Rye" being the catalyst for an assassination attempt or something of that sort, and I don't recall any murders in that novel.
TWPT: Do you think that this medium can serve as "educational" or is it just for having a good read?
MS: Both. I think it is definitely for having a good read, and that the education sneaks itself in there. It's a fact that we learn and retain more when we are in a positive frame of mind. A good read puts you in the right "mood" to retain the educational material that is included between the lines. It goes back to such things as fables. They were/are enjoyable stories intended to teach. Most fiction contains some form of message, some more important than others obviously, but a message nonetheless. Of course, we also have to remember, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, so we don't want to read TOO much into the spaces between the lines.
TWPT: Your new book coming out soon, Never Burn a Witch, lets discuss some aspects of this book.
MS: Okay. Sounds good to me. :-)
TWPT: There is contained in that book some real far out events/material that is nothing like what we witches are all about. This one is a real "spooky story" and it has a killer that can only be described as "macabre". The "tool of the trade" gets a bit pointy here. Your thoughts as you write this, are you a bit scared of what this could bring about?
MS: Well, yes and no. There is a "far out" event or two, but they are also explained as NOT being WitchCraft, or not being NORMAL to the concept of WitchCraft. But you are quite correct. There is a definite "over the top" element, and this story is a real "spooky story" on many levels. Macabre is a good word for the killer, actually. In truth, my personal gut reaction to him was "this is one downright scary bastard." It kind of comes back around to the whole "entertainment value" thing. Let's face it, just what are Witches? Well, last time I checked we are just people who happen along a different spiritual path. A good number of us have a strong belief in things psychic/magickal, yes, but we are still people nonetheless. We like to eat hot-wings, ride rollercoasters, and watch scary movies. In short, we like to be entertained just as much as the next guy, be he/she Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. I'm going to be semi-plagiaristic here for a second...
Some time ago I happened to read an interview with another St. Louis author that a few folks might have heard of. Her name is Laurell K. Hamilton. In the interview she was asked why she writes the genre she does. Her answer was basically something on the order of "I write what I like to read.
If other writers wrote what I like to read then I wouldn't have to write"...That quote is probably butchered, but you get the drift. She writes the kind of stuff she likes to read. So do I. Apparently other Pagans like my stuff as well. And her stuff. And some other author's stuff...And if you look closely you'll see that author's such as Laurell make my deviations from absolute reality look like a well worn patch of shoulder on the highway as opposed to full fledged adventurous vacation routes, if you get my drift.
I just realized that a chunk of my answer here sounded defensive and I really didn't mean for it to come off that way. I guess what I'm trying to drive at is that a work of fiction is just that, fiction. While I certainly strive for accuracy and education while I entertain, I make no warrantees that each and every little fact is going to be absolutely and perfectly grounded in bland reality. Like I've said before, nobody is going to be all that interested in what we witches REALLY do. Another point that I always try to make in my seminars is that some of this might just be MY view of reality, because if you get ten Pagans in a room, you'll be hard pressed to get them to agree on everything (sometimes anything) when it comes to their spirituality.
Back to the killer. Yeah, he scared the hell out of me. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about what could be brought about by the telling of this story. There have been similar stories told before, always with a disturbed religious zealot running willy nilly about doing a mess of killing. I can think of at least two movies where prostitutes were the victims. The victim profile might change, but the overall crime is the same. Yes, I'd be horrified if someone took this work of fiction to heart and attempted to reenact it, but I can't truly believe that by my telling a story that I could be responsible for such an act. Maybe it's a bit of the epistemology coming out, but I believe in being responsible for your own actions. My action is to tell a story to entertain, nothing more. I can only hope that people who read the story find the idea of a repeat of the inquisitions just as horrific as if it were say, depicting a repeat of the Holocaust. That's what I keep telling myself anyway. :-) Certainly the story depicts a terribly horrid concept, but it also goes to great lengths to point out WHY it is wrong. There is a balance there. Now if I'd written something on the order of the Malleus Maleficarum, THEN I'd deserve an ass whoopin'. <G>
TWPT: The murderer is almost invisible, wispy, giving the flavor of the old "thriller mysteries". Were you shooting for this when you started, or did the murderer take you there as you were writing?
MS: The murderer in this one was intended to be a bit of a conundrum from the very beginning, but the overall feel was developed along the way. Some of it was a surprise to me as it gelled, but not all. I think perhaps there was a bit of the fortiesish The Shadow/Creature Feature/Weekly Serial kind of clay that I started out with. Maybe a little Twilight Zone and Outer Limits influence as well. Hey, I'm a child of the 60's and I love old movies <G>. I'm bound to get influenced here and there. :-)
TWPT: Speaking of taking you there, this particular murderer must have been one of those that kept you up after you started working with him. Tell me a little about the relationship between the writer and the characters. How do you work up the characters and maintain them and/or evolve them as you write?
MS: Oh yeah, he kept me up... and looking over my shoulder and peeking around corners and freezing at every little noise in the dark. That's the price I pay for creating the character. Sometimes I tend to frighten myself with what comes out of my head <grin>. On the subject of the relationship, that is easy to sum up. Most of the characters are like family. (The murderer, of course, being the illegitimate second cousin with mental problems that gets kept in the attic) There are like a group of wonderful friends that you enjoy spending time with. (And even sometimes getting away from) In that sense, there are many things about them that I still don't know. While I am "friends" with them, I am also kind of like a clinical psychologist with a rat maze and a clipboard with them as the mice. I throw situations at them and see how they react. That is pretty much how they maintain and evolve. Sometimes they react just as I suspect they will, and other times they throw me for a loop. One character in particular blindsided me in Never Burn A Witch. I had developed a situation as a bridge from one point to another in the storyline. She suddenly reacted to it in a wholly unexpected manner, throwing me a serious curve ball. I had no clue WHY she was reacting the way she did, and then she finally broke down and told me, (Which then translated in to her telling Rowan in the story,) Suddenly a minor sub-plot was born that added even more depth to her character, and filling me in on something I hadn't known. As if that wasn't enough, later on in the story one of the characters tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Meet so and so." Suddenly I had a brand new character with a sketchily developed outline and this character began fitting in very well and subsequently will most likely appear in the next book. I guess what it all boils down to is, watch out. They tend to take on a life of their own and proceed to grow and evolve with very little maintenance. Kind of like weeds.
TWPT: How far can you take Rowan Gant without taking it over the edge? Have you thought about how much you want Rowan Gant to reflect our community and how much you want it to remain fiction? And how does this effect your working relationship with the main character Rowan Gant?
MS: Probably not much farther than I have in Never Burn A Witch. I have pretty much toed the line that I drew for myself with this one. I might be able to nudge it just a little more, but not much. As to reflecting the community, I think it is probably a half and half proposition. Rowan is still very much fiction and I want to keep him that way. I personally feel that if I try to get TOO community with him, I am going to start sounding way too preachy. I've already been vehemently accused of that by one reader, so I'd like to avoid giving any more ammunition to the troops (especially the ones on the other side of the trench.) I DO want to educate the non-Pagan community, but I want to entertain as well. People, (including Pagans) are entertained by the unknown and the bizarre, so Rowan will continue to deal with the extraordinary, and pushing the envelope just enough to keep everyone guessing. As to the working relationship, it is great. I get to leave my mundane existence and live vicariously through Rowan. He's really a very fun guy.
TWPT: This book becomes the second Rowan Gant, and it is now officially a "series". Do you intend to keep Rowan going or do you have a set number of books in the series you are going to do?
MS: The number is set at the number of the last book I write featuring Rowan that isn't stale and worthless. Basically, as long as I can keep it fresh and fun, Rowan will be running about, but he WILL age along with me, and that will be part of his evolution. He's not going to be a Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys kind of series where he solves 65 thousand crimes in a span of three years. He'll grow old, and perhaps even die. In the short run, I am currently working on the third Rowan Gant novel and have outlined concepts for two more, so barring anything unusual, I'd say readers can expect at least 5 in the series. Maybe more if his popularity continues and grows.
On that note, I've started on another mystery novel featuring a Witch--completely different set of characters-- and a slightly more whimsical approach to magick and mayhem. Basically something fun to help me take the edge off the darkness of the Rowan Gant stuff. If it works out, it could evolve into its own series as well.
TWPT: You are going to be on the road alot this summer. Where are you going to be appearing for book signings? Where else will you be?
MS: Gads, book signings, let's see. There's Mystic Valley Books here in St. Louis. They are kind of like my home base/home away from home. The owner, Kristy, has been just absolutely wonderful to me, as was her father, Vito, the original owner. He crossed over late last year in a rather tragic vehicular accident. Kristy picked right up where he left off and I spend a LOT of time there. Just dropping in to sign stock, chat with patrons, and have a cup of tea or coffee at the espresso bar. I recently had the pre-release party for Never Burn A Witch down there and it was a rousing success, as well as a blast! I'm going to be at New Ages-Other Worlds in Murphysboro, IL on 5/5. I'll probably do a gig or two at Subterranean Books in the Delmar Loop here in STL as well. As to other bookstores, there are currently some negotiations in the works so that's about all I know right now.
The big OTHER places will be some major events. I've been extremely blessed to be invited as an honored guest to the 16th annual Heartland Pagan Festival in KC, Pagan Pride Day in KC, and Salem West's Real Witches Ball in Columbus, OH. I'll be signing at CAST's Pagan Picnic in St. Louis, and I'm scheduled to speak to a Mystery Readers Group at the Peoria Public Library later this year. I've already been a guest at an absolutely wonderful Unity Festival put on by S.P.I.R.A.L. in Tennessee.
There are other irons in the fire but nothing completely set in stone yet.
My website, mrsellars.com carries an up to date itinerary, so anyone interested can just surf there and click on TOUR SCHEDULE.