[This issue, we sit down with witch and author, Serene Conneeley. Here, she discusses her personal spiritual practice; her Into the Mists and Into the Storm series; and her nonfiction projects.]
ev0ke: How do you define your personal spiritual path? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Serene Conneeley: I was first called a witch many years ago, when I interviewed musician-author-witch Fiona Horne in the late nineties, and that word still fits. (She was also the first to tell me I should write a book, funnily enough.) For me, witchcraft is an earth-honouring spiritual path of self-development, self-discovery, and self-awareness. Of holding nature as sacred, and aligning myself with its energy and its magic. Of recognising the magic within me, and within all. Of healing, helping others, taking responsibility for my actions, and knowing that within me – within all of us – I have the power and the will to rewrite my dreams, reinvent my self, and recreate my life.
ev0ke: Which Deities, spirits, or other powers do you honor?
SC: I honour nature, and the magic of the earth. I work with the elements to ground, awaken, and connect, and perform rituals to the rhythms of the lunar phases, flowing with my own emotional tides as the moon waxes and wanes. I align myself with the Wheel of the Year and its dance of the seasons, feeling the introspection and endings of winter, the crisp change and transformative power of autumn, the potent energy and vibrant life force of summer, and the rebirth and renewal of spring. Some witches work with these changes as the life cycle of god and goddess, but for me, deities are more metaphorical, anthropomorphisations of nature, and aspects of our own selves.
ev0ke: Your Into the Mists and Into the Storm trilogies could be classified as paranormal romance or urban fantasy. What do you find so compelling about speculative genres? What draws you to them?
SC: They’re probably more magical realism, or loosely fantasy, than PRN or urban fantasy – I got a bad review once from someone who complained that there is no magic in them, because they were expecting Harry Potter-style spells and transformations, and were disappointed by the real-life magic of priestesses who honour the goddess, the earth, and the seasons, who use spells and ritual to create the lives they want to live, to heal and support their communities, and to affect change in more subtle ways. But there is Otherworld magic, too – elemental women who emerge from the swirling mists in order to guide the two friends; a cottage of secrets that is sometimes there, but sometimes not; a ghost or two.
I love speculative fiction because it allows us to explore and tell truths in a gentle way. To consider possibilities and new perspectives. To build a world that seems so far removed from our lives, yet speaks to our deepest knowing. To use magic to reveal what the characters struggle with in a way that awakens empathy and allows readers to go on a healing journey from a distance that feels safe yet is transformative.
ev0ke: Romance has an undeserved reputation as a “lower” form of literature, but I find it perfect for exploring themes centered around gender, and social and political structures. What about you? What themes do you like to explore?
SC: It is such a shame that there is still a stigma around it, because there are so many beautiful, touching stories that are overlooked, and we need more of them in the world.
My novels have elements of loss in them, which allows the main character to be stripped of all she’s known, all that is comforting and familiar, and discover who she truly is, who she wants to be, what love means to her, and who she will trust with her heart. And I guess I explore the way it’s so easy to give away your own power in a relationship, to lose yourself and your voice, and how important it is to find them, because without them it’s not really love. I really enjoyed writing the love stories in these books, and seeing the younger characters grow into themselves, and start to figure out what love is, and is not. And it was an absolute joy to see one of the other main characters realise the terrible cost she’d paid for guarding her heart and being too scared to allow anyone in. To see someone who’s always given love to everyone else, and not even seen the ways she denied it in her own life, finally break open.
I also love exploring transformation, and what we’re willing to sacrifice in order to find and keep love. And I adore the love that is friendship, which can be just as powerful as romantic love. It was so important to me that the girls were friends, and that they could have misunderstandings and hurt each other, but work through that because it was worth the trouble for what they ultimately gave each other. And I love exploring hope. I think that may be the thread that weaves most strongly through all the stories. The ways humans are able to find light in the darkness of loss and betrayal. That they are resilient enough to keep trying to find love. That one bad choice doesn’t define you, or prevent you from finding real love. That a bad relationship can make you stronger and teach you what you don’t want, which is just as important as knowing what you do want.
And for someone who didn’t consciously set out to write romance (although as a pantser, I didn’t consciously set out to write any specific thing), I love just how many love stories were entwined in all the novels. Deep, wonderful, realistic, inspired, flawed and transformative love.
ev0ke: You recently released a hardcover omnibus edition of Into the Mists. First, congratulations. Second, what prompted the creation of this series?
SC: Thank you! That was a while ago now. I’ve since written the second series, the Into the Storm trilogy, and published a hardcover omnibus for it, too. It was initially because I combined each trilogy into an ebook omnibus so people could read all three books for less, and the hardcovers were just to provide another option for people who may prefer physical hardback books – and because they’re so beautiful in that format, although very heavy! Since then I’ve released The Swan Maiden, an original faery tale about love and loss, and transformation and hope. (I guess those really are my themes!)
ev0ke: How much research went into Into the Mists? Long hours at the library? A mile of open tabs on your computer?
SC: Into the Mists emerged from a lifetime of ritual and spellwork, plus all the research I’d done for the book before it, the non-fiction Witchy Magic. For Witchy Magic, I wrote and researched long chapters on working with the phases of the moon and the wheel of the seasonal year, on witches as healers and environmentalists, on coven work and the history of witchcraft and magic, and I interviewed witches, druids, shamans, high priestesses, herbalists, and other magical practitioners. That was a year of intense research (I bought a lot of books, oops!), writing and work, so once it was finished, I decided to try National Novel Writing Month (where you spend November writing madly and trying to hit 50,000 words in thirty days), to see if I could write a novel.
I thought Into the Mists would just be a small, one-off, stand-alone read, but as I was finishing the editing process I started thinking of new threads of possibility, new questions to ponder, new character arcs for Carlie and Rose. So Mists turned into a trilogy, each book longer than the last. Then I was about to start something different, but my hubby (who’s read each book several times) said he thought Carlie’s best friend Rhiannon got a bit of a hard time, and he was sure she had a reason for something she’d done, so I figured I’d write a small, one-off, stand-alone novel for her. But Rhiannon turned out to be way more complex than I’d imagined, and her mother Beth, who’d only rated one mention in the Mists books, wanted her story told too, so Into the Storm turned into a dual pov book twice the length of Mists, and two more books followed. And I’ve written 50,000 words of priestess Rose’s story, too, so in a few years I’ll return to that, and my little one-off NaNoWriMo experiment will be nine books long. But first, I have a few more non-Mists stories to tell…
ev0ke: You co-wrote Mermaid Magic, Witchy Magic, and The Book of Faery Magic with Lucy Cavendish. How did this collaboration come about? And what was the writing process like? Did you pass chapters back and forth?
SC: I’d known Lucy for a long time – many years ago she’d tried to get me to work for a magazine she was editing, and we used to go out for coffee; then in 2005 we travelled to England together, and spent two weeks wandering around the countryside, soaking up the magic at Avebury and Stonehenge, climbing Glastonbury Tor, weaving in then out of its labyrinth, sitting by the healing waters of Chalice Well. It was a profound journey for both of us, and spawned a lot of creative and magical projects!
A few years later when I was launching my first book, Seven Sacred Sites, Lucy was so wonderfully supportive, especially with my decision to return my publishing advance and create my own imprint. When it was time to launch the book, she suggested I do the Mind Body Spirit Festival in Sydney with her, which I jumped at the chance because I’m pretty shy, and it all seemed so daunting. But it went really well, so we did a couple more, me releasing A Magical Journey and Sacred Journey over the following year, Lucy launching new oracle decks; then we flew down to Melbourne to do a festival there as well. On the first day, Lucy made a throwaway comment that we should write a book about faeries together, and at first I laughed, and said I wouldn’t know what to write, but over the (long) days of the festival, we kept chatting about it, and by the time we flew home we’d mapped out a rough contents order and decided to go for it.
All three books involved lots of meetings over pots of tea and plates of cookies ☺ We would start with us working out what we most wanted to write for each one, then figuring out if there was anything missing, but between the two of us we pretty much had it all covered. We have very different, but complementary views and practices and points of view, so between us it was a kind of alchemical magic we created, contrasting with each other, and providing really full and in-depth books that have appealed to a wide cross-section of people, from dedicated magical practitioners and priestesses to the merely curious. We both strongly believe that each person’s path is their own, and they should be encouraged to find what works for them, what helps them, and what makes their heart sing. I have so much respect for those who have a very prescriptive, traditional path and way of working magic, but I’ve also experienced some of the downside of that, and want to encourage people to trust themselves and their own inner knowing, to question things if they don’t feel right, and to never feel pressured to do anything they don’t want to do, or give away their power to someone else.
ev0ke: You have also written two books on sacred sites and magical journeys. How did you decide which sites to include? And how did you go about designing the meditations and journal?
SC: Seven Sacred Sites: Magical Journeys That Will Change Your Life was my first book, and it includes the places that have touched my heart the most, the ones that changed me in some way. Peru was the first place I visited outside of Australia, when I spent a few weeks with six American women and a shaman doing ritual and ceremony in Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley, taking ayahuasca and feeling part of me die in the Amazon jungle, and learning so much about myself, and about others, too. Egypt was a similar trip, and in each I experienced the most harrowing events of my life, but also lots of good, and lots of growth. Glastonbury is my heart-home; I’ve been going there for more than twenty years – and it meant the world to me that when I took my husband there on our honeymoon, he fell in love with it as deeply as I did. (And oh how we miss it right now! We’d planned to travel there in 2020, but alas .…) I also adore Stonehenge and Avebury, and the islands of Hawaii, and had an incredible time walking part of the Camino across the north of Spain, so they were obvious inclusions. And Uluru, the spiritual heart of my own country, was the last place I visited before I finished writing, which was so incredible, and surprising. (It’s ironic that we place the lowest priority on where we already are. I have English friends who have been to Uluru, but have never been to Stonehenge, whereas I’d been to Stonehenge, but not Uluru). The only place missing for me is Ireland, but at the time I thought I’d probably devote a whole book to it at some point, and perhaps I will.
Of course I’ve had people tell me I’m flat-out wrong about some of the places, which I find somewhat amusing – depending on how rude they are, and because I believe that all places are sacred. Bottom line, these are the places that affected me, and while there are commonalities to some, it will be a different list for everyone. (I always tell those critics they are very welcome to write their own book!)
Seven Sacred Sites is part spiritual adventure, part history, part travel guide, focusing on the wisdom keepers that have lived there before, the rituals they once performed, and the beliefs they once held; the political impacts of wars, shifting borders, and colonisation; the reasons pilgrims go there today, and some of my experiences working magic there (the scary and the sublime) as well as interviews with those who have been drawn there too, from Shirley MacLaine to Cassandra Eason and Lucy Cavendish; and it is also part armchair traveller guide, with lengthy sections on to how to access the energies and transformative power of each place from wherever you live on this beautiful planet.
A Magical Journey: Your Diary of Inspiration, Adventure and Transformation is part writing exercises, part moon magic and seasonal dance, and part place to write your own book, or reveal your own inner world, even if you never show a soul. It takes courage to dive in and face your own story, but it’s so worth it. And Sacred Journey: A Meditation to Connect You to the Magic of the Earth is seven tracks of guided meditation over beautiful music, which will help ground and centre you, inspire and awaken you, and connect you with your inner wisdom. All of my books, the non-fiction and the novels, are related, in that I hope to encourage and inspire people to look within, to get in touch with the wisdom they already have, to empower themselves to change their lives, and live a life that is full of magic, joy and contentment. To find their authentic self and be true to their own heart. Not in a just-cast-a-spell-no-work-required kind of way, but by becoming clear on what they want and who they are, and working hard to make their dreams come true.
ev0ke: You self-publish your books through your own imprint, Blessed Bee Books. What advice can you offer to other authors who are considering self-publishing? Mistakes to avoid? Things they absolutely must do?
SC: I signed a contract for my first book with a traditional publisher, but long story short I asked them if I could break the contract and return the advance, and they let me. (And a few years later the publisher saw me at Book Expo, and stared at all my titles in surprise, and conceded that I’d absolutely done the right thing.) It meant that when people said Seven Sacred Sites was too big to take travelling, I could create seven mini books, one for each place, as cute little paperbacks and ebooks. It meant I could publish my three books with Lucy, the way we wanted them, with the cover art and breadth of subject matter (and length) that was important to us, and that we could negotiate a Japanese publishing deal for Mermaid Magic (it was incredible to see it in Japanese – we can’t read it, but it looks so so beautiful). It meant I could suddenly switch to writing novels instead of non-fiction, that I could publish as frequently as I wanted to, and that I could turn the Into the Mists trilogy books into audiobooks.
Which feeds into my advice/mistakes to avoid answer. Be cautious of, and do a lot of research into, any company that offers you a publishing deal. Read the fine print. Ask questions. Ask questions of others who may have experience with them. There are many helpful and wonderful companies who provide great services to authors, but there are some that are just trying to cash in, too. I’ve seen a few friends be completely ripped off financially, as well as losing the rights to their own books, because they’ve signed with a so-called publisher who has charged them for every expense, yet will earn all the money and only do marketing if they pay more. A genuine publisher will not make you pay for covers, for editing, for marketing, or for anything else. And if you choose to go indie, be sure to retain and protect your intellectual property, and use your own ISBNs so that you are the publisher.
Find a group of supportive writers you have things in common with, perhaps genre-wise, or experience level. It might be near you so you can physically meet up (covid-willing), or it might be online. I have a writers group I love, and two writer besties who beta read my novels, and I theirs, which is a wonderful way to improve your own writing – not just by getting their feedback, but through critiquing theirs as well. (But always remember, everyone has an opinion, and a style, and not all feedback is right for your story.) There are also some great writer groups on Facebook and Instagram, full of writers who genuinely want to help new writers, and who share their bad experiences as well as their good. I’ve also met so many wonderful writer friends through events I’ve done or on social media, who offer moral support and practical help and encouragement, and push you when you need it. And always be kind, and polite, and share your experiences, too.
And keep writing. The best promotion for your book is the next one. Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft, rather than paralysing yourself with perfectionism and rewriting the opening chapter for months on end instead of allowing yourself to continue. And know there will be days (weeks even) when you’ll hate everything you write, think no one will ever want to read it, and feel like giving up. (It still happens to me, on book fifteen. Surprisingly, it still happens to long-time authors who have sold millions of books.) But keep going. It will pass. A few days later, a few weeks, you’ll be quietly thrilled to realise you love what you wrote, and eventually you’ll hear from readers who have loved it, too, if you have the courage to finish your book and get it out there.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your work?
SC: My books are all available from the Blessed Bee Books store, as well as from Amazon and other retailers. The audiobooks are available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. And the meditations of Sacred Journey are available as digital downloads or a CD from bandcamp – you can listen to them all there first to see if you like them.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
SC: After my most recent book, The Swan Maiden, which is an original faery tale about a black swan who transforms into a woman in order to help a young girl, I’m working on an original faery tale duology. I was recently part of an anthology of faery tale novelettes with a bunch of American authors – mine was (very loosely) based on The Snow Queen, and imagines that Hans Christian Andersen’s villain had a daughter. I’m currently expanding it into a full-length book, and also finishing its companion novel, which is based on the journey that Gerda from the original faery tale makes to rescue her best friend, whom the Snow Queen abducted. (Faery tales are strange beasts, all abductions and imprisonments and cannibalism!) I have another few original faery tales planned too, including some more set in Australia. I’m part of the Australian Fairy Tale Society, which investigates faery tales from an Australian perspective, and it’s fascinating how few are set here. Yet whether they’re from Germany or Denmark or China (like the origins of Cinderella), they all have timeless themes that can apply to any place, and any era.
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