Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Our Friend is Here: Black History Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond during the month of February, where Black authors are invited to celebrate being Black and Black books! Find the introduction post for Black History Month here.
If you have been craving a story in a magical alternate reality, with a queer enemies-to-lovers romance that also critiques how elite educational institutions can oppress BIPOC and poor students? Oh, and the main character is a witch? Then I’m super excited for you all to learn more about How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy, a story about a biracial teen witch who is confronted with a tough decision about risking the scholarship and future she’s worked so hard for by exposing a predator teacher.
If this sounds like a book that you will love, then you will be delighted Aislinn is visiting us at the Pond today – as a fennec fox! – and you’re going to love the interview that I did with them. And friends, while I was already excited for How to Succeed in Witchcraft from Aislinn’s announcement post alone, learning more about her debut from the interview has made me even more excited.
But, just in case you haven’t heard of How to Succeed in Witchcraft, let’s take a quick look at the announcement post and the blurb – and we can then look forward to its cover together, when it’s revealed!
How to Succeed in Witchcraft by Aislinn Brophy
How to Succeed in Witchcraft doesn’t have its cover revealed yet, so let’s take a quick look at Aislinn’s announcement post:
Publishing announcement reads:
Arianne Lewin at Putnam has bought North American rights at auction to How to Succeed in Witchcraft by debut YA author Aislinn Brophy, pitched as Booksmart meets The Craft. A biracial witch is cast as the lead in her school play and must decide between exposing her predatory drama teacher or getting the magical scholarship she desperately needs. Publication is planned for fall 2022; Gemma Cooper at the Bent Agency negotiated the two-book deal.
Here’s the blurb for How to Succeed in Witchcraft:
Teen witch Shay Johnson has one thing on her mind: winning the Brockton Scholarship. It’s her ticket into the magical university of her dreams. The only one standing in Shay’s way is her nemesis—the brilliant Ana Álvarez.
When the head of the scholarship committee and drama teacher, Mr. B., persuades Shay to audition for the musical, she warily agrees just to impress him. But Mr. B casts Shay, who is half-Black, as the lead because he thinks she’s Latina. Well, she’s not. And who does Mr. B. cast as the other lead? Ana freaking Álvarez.
With rehearsals underway, Shay realizes Ana is…kind of nice. And beautiful. But as Shay finds herself in the favor of Mr. B., his special attention starts to make her uncomfortable. And when Shay learns Mr. B has a history of inappropriate relationships with teen witches, she’s faced with a tough decision: Does she say something—even if it means risking the scholarship and the future she’s fought so hard for?
Author Interview: Aislinn Brophy
CW: Hi Aislinn! A big welcome to the Pond; it’s an honour to have you visiting us for Black History Month this year. For our friends out there who may only be meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself – and your favourite book?
Aislinn: Hi CW! Thank you for having me.
My name is Aislinn—pronounced Ash-lyn—and I’m originally from South Florida. These days, you can find me living in Atlanta with my partner and our two cats. In my professional life, besides being an author, I’m also an actor. I mostly do theater, though I have done a few film/TV gigs as well.
I love to dance, and spend a lot of my free time taking classes in various styles. I’m also a big nerd, and am super into video games, anime, board games, and D&D.
My favorite book right now is probably Gideon the Ninth. I was sold from the moment I saw it pitched as “lesbian necromancers in space explore a haunted gothic palace.” Then I read the book, and the execution was somehow even better than that impeccable pitch!
CW: How to Succeed in Witchcraft releases later this year in September and I’m so excited to read it! What was the ‘spark’ that inspired you to write How to Succeed in Witchcraft? And how has your story evolved since its first ‘spark’?
Aislinn: Aw, thank you so much! I’m excited for people to finally be able to read it. The process of publishing a book takes such a long time, and I’m itching for my book to finally be out in the world!
One of the main inspirations for this story was all the time I spent in elite institutions while I was still in school. Obviously going to fancy schools can give you a ton of opportunities that you wouldn’t have otherwise. But, on the other hand, those schools can also be soul-crushingly oppressive, especially to BIPOC and lower-income students.
There are so many times as a student when you can be put into situations where you have to decide whether to go along with being treated poorly. Are you going to ignore the micro-aggression so the people in charge won’t brand you as being “difficult?” And if you ignore it today, are you going to ignore it tomorrow? What about the day after that?
One of the central questions Shay has to grapple with in this book is “how much is she willing to put up with to achieve her definition of success?” Because if you’re not paying attention, people can push those boundaries further and further, until you’re not sure where the line is anymore.
As far as the evolution of this story goes, I spent a lot of time working on world building while I revised the book. The history and magic system are very different than they were originally, and that’s made the world feel much richer to me. A lot of those changes were made so that my world could better serve the story that I was trying to tell.
CW: I love the unique blend of elements in How to Succeed in Witchcraft; enemies-to-lovers, drama and musicals, and witches! First, let’s talk about witches. From the synopsis, it sounds like your debut takes place in a world of magic. Can you tell us more about what the world in your story looks like, and what crafting the world looked like?
Aislinn: The book is set in an alternate version of our world where magic and how to harness it was discovered in the late 1700s. It’s a very modern fantasy world. The characters live in a time when magical technology has really taken off. A lot of that magical technology is similar to stuff we have in our world, but has capabilities beyond what our tech can do. For example, their cell phones can create illusions, which makes video calling someone a lot more fun!
There are, sadly, a lot of the same problems with inequality, even though people in my version of the United States like to say that magic is “the great equalizer.” (Spoiler: it’s not.) The US education system is set up in a way that makes sure that the most privileged people get the best magical jobs. Shay, the main character in How to Succeed in Witchcraft, is passionate about brewing potions, and wants to pursue that as a career. But to do that, she needs to go to a specific kind of college, which is incredibly hard to get into.
Creating the world was probably the hardest part of writing the book! I knew initially that I wanted the book to be a contemporary fantasy that was heavy on the contemporary elements. The characters have a lot of issues that are recognizable to teens in our world now. But even though the book tackles some heavy topics, it’s also supposed to be a fun read. The fantasy elements were one of the ways I got to balance out the darker parts of the book. I spent a lot of time layering in fun bits about brewing potions, playing magical sports, doing transfiguration, and trying to convince your Black mom that she should let you get a broom.
CW: Your main character, Shay, is a biracial witch and I’d love to learn more about her. What personal experiences or other real life sources did you draw from when crafting Shay’s character and her story?
Aislinn: One of the things I love most about Shay is that she’s so confident about who she is. She’s Black and biracial. She’s a lesbian. She’s a smart and powerful witch. That quality of hers is a bit aspirational for me, because I definitely haven’t always been confident like that! But when I’ve seen that confidence in other people in my life, I’ve really respected it, so I wanted to include it in this story.
Shay is also an ambitious overachiever who’s extremely passionate about her interests and is willing to run herself ragged to achieve her goals. I definitely pushed myself too hard in a way that wasn’t healthy when I was in high school and college, so I created this character to be in conversation with the version of me that existed back then.
CW: Musicals will be central to How to Succeed in Witchcraft, and I’m really excited to see this context in the story. Where did your love for musicals/theater come from, and what can fellow musical/theater kids look forward to in your story?
Aislinn: It took a while for me to start acting onstage myself, but my love for musicals started pretty early. I grew up watching movie musicals on VHS and DVD when I was little. The Sound of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, West Side Story, and Mary Poppins were some of my favorites. I actually used The Sound of Music as a ploy to stay up late, because my parents liked the movie enough that they wouldn’t make me go to bed while it was on.
I had such a good time writing the theater parts of How to Succeed in Witchcraft, and lots of the experiences I wrote about are things that theater kids will be able to relate to! Without giving too much away, I think the scenes where Shay is auditioning for the musical are some of my favorite parts. Shay actually isn’t a theater kid herself, so I had a lot of fun with her observing things that are part of theater culture and being deeply confused by them.
My fun fact for all the theater-savvy readers out there is that the musical that Shay’s high school is putting on in the book was originally In the Heights, but I ended up changing that in revisions. Instead, I made up a musical called Bronxtown Brooms, and wrote a ton of lyrics for it. Most of those lyrics didn’t make it into the book, but I hope people enjoy the snippets that are in there.
CW: Your story features an enemies-to-lovers romance! What do you love about enemies-to-lovers romances, and what did you love most about writing the romance in How to Succeed in Witchcraft?
Aislinn: I’m a total sucker for an enemies-to-lovers romance! Banter is one of my favorite things to read, and enemies-to-lovers romances tend to have top tier banter.
On a structural level, it’s also a good reason to have a character pay a lot of attention to another character early on. An enemy, at the end of the day, is a person that you’re spending an extraordinary amount of energy thinking about. Nobody feels lukewarm about someone they’ve deemed an “enemy.” That’s why the switch between a character considering someone just as their enemy and considering them as a romantic interest is so satisfying to me. It feels like a redirection of all the energy they put into that relationship previously.
One of the things I enjoyed most about writing the romance in How to Succeed in Witchcraft is that Shay and Ana are just not on the same page at all during many of their interactions. That disconnect was both hilarious and really relatable to me.
CW: From the synopsis, it sounds like How to Succeed in Witchcraft will tackle a pretty tough topic: choosing between exposing her teacher’s misbehaviour or winning a scholarship that she desperately needs. What do you hope readers will take away from the challenging position that Shay is put in the story?
Aislinn: The story is really about teens who are pushed towards being incredibly individualistic because of the society that they live in. I feel like lots of students in that position internalize messages about working extremely hard, being self-sufficient, and achieving as much as they can. However, acting that way can lead people to become extremely isolated, and that isolation can make them vulnerable to being preyed on in various ways.
Because of that, the importance of community is one of the takeaways from this story that is most significant to me. It’s really Shay leaning on the people she trusts that allows her to figure out how she’s going to deal with these big problems she’s facing. Connectedness and community, in my opinion, are what give us the emotional bandwidth to face situations that seem hopeless and overturn forces that try to oppress us in the world.
CW: Aislinn, thank you so much for visiting us today! My final question is one that we always ask our friends of Pond: What is a food that reminds you of ‘home’ – wherever or whoever that may be?
Aislinn: Cheese on toast! Growing up, my mom used to make that for me as a treat. When I got older and would go home to visit my parents, she would have it ready for me to eat when I came in from the airport. It’s a really simple thing to make. You just put sharp cheddar on bread, sprinkle some salt and pepper on top, and then broil it in the oven for a few minutes. But whenever I eat that, I think of my mom and how much she’s cared for me throughout my life.
About the Author
Aislinn Brophy (she/they) is an actor, writer, and arts administrator based in the Atlanta area. She was born and raised in South Florida, but made her way up to the frigid northeast for college. Their hobbies include pawning off their baking on anybody nearby, doing funny voices, and dismantling the patriarchy. Aislinn has a degree in Theater, Dance & Media, and her experiences as a performer consistently wiggle their way into her writing. In all aspects of her work as an artist, she is passionate about exploring identity and social justice issues. Their debut YA novel, How To Succeed in Witchcraft, will be published fall 2022, with a second untitled novel to follow.