[This issue, we sit down with paranormal romance and steampunk author, Alys West. Here, she discusses her love of and deep connection with stone circles; her Spellworker Chronicles series; her work as a book whisperer; and her upcoming projects.]
ev0ke: How would you describe your personal spiritual tradition? Does it have a name, or is it more intuitive and eclectic?
Alys West: For me, spirituality is always intuitive. I’m not keen on being told what I’m supposed to feel and I find that labels can hem me in. My spirituality developed from an interest in (some might say, obsession with) stone circles which started in my teenage years. I feel the energy of the earth particularly strongly in certain places (for example, Glastonbury and Orkney) which is something I explore in The Spellworker Chronicles. In recent years I’ve engaged more with the sabbats as a way of marking the turning points of the year and trying to bring my busy life back into harmony with the earth’s rhythms. I find there’s a great sense of calm in realising that many generations of people have felt the same longing for spring or sadness at the end of summer and marked it with ritual and ceremony.
ev0ke: To date, you have released three novels, which can be classified as contemporary fantasy and steampunk romance. What draws you to speculative genres? What do you find so appealing about them?
AW: Speculative fiction gives me a space to explore things which some would categorise as ‘unexplained’ or just ‘weird’. Many dismiss earth energy, for example, but I know what I feel when I visit a stone circle; the tingling when I touch one of the standing stones, the sense of latent power in the earth. I took that experience and magnified it to create the power of awen, which is the magic of the druids in The Spellworker Chronicles. From the reactions I get from readers I’ve realised that I’m not alone in feeling these things.
I joke that I was drawn to steampunk because it’s a genre that shares my belief that almost any problem can be solved with a cup of tea. There is rather more to it than that though. I love the possibilities of steampunk and the alternative narratives which are possible because of that. In essence, steampunk is a space to speculate on how the world might have worked out if certain things had been different. One of the ideas that I find most intriguing is how the world could have been different if women had been permitted to work and have the vote earlier.
ev0ke: The Spellworker Chronicles includes Beltane and Storm Witch. What kind of research went into these stories? Big stacks of books on Arthurian lore and Scottish mythology? Long hours on the internet or at the library?
AW: I do most of my research on the ground. I like to go to the place I’m writing about and soak up everything I can find while I’m there. That was particularly tricky with Orkney as it’s a long way and I could only get up there every couple of years. I’ve also talked to a lot of people while I’ve been researching. In Glastonbury I met witches and druids who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and in sharing their stories.
When I’m at home I rely on the library of folklore and mythology books I’ve acquired over recent years. There’s some wonderful bookshops in Glastonbury which have provided me with books on witchcraft, Druidry, tree magic, ogham, and loads of other things. I’ve had reviews from readers that praise the research in The Spellworker Chronicles, so that makes all of the hours pouring over the books worthwhile.
ev0ke: Your steampunk romance, The Dirigible King’s Daughter, deals with issues of classism, sexism, and misogyny. Romance has a poor reputation in “high literature” circles, but I have always found it to be one of the best genres for exploring the above issues, as well as many others. Is that your experience, as well? And how do you use romance to examine social, legal, and political issues?
AW: There’s a romance element in all of my books, but I try to explore deeper issues in the story as well. Storm Witch deals with themes of mental ill-health and recovery from trauma. When I wrote The Dirigible King’s Daughter, I was pulling on issues which many women face in their lives. I’ve had to deal with sexual harassment and misogyny throughout my career. I think I may have given Harriet (the main character in The Dirigible King’s Daughter) a pistol and the ability to fight back as a way of working out some of my own frustrations about situations I’ve found myself in.
I often wonder if the people who have no time for romance have read one recently. There’s some wonderful, eclectic, inclusive romances which deal with a far greater range of experiences than is found in much “high literature”. Of course, there’s a happy ending in most romances and some find that positive resolution cliched and predictable. However, in a world which is as troubled and challenging as the one we’re living in, I think we can all do with a little more of the hope and happiness that romance can give.
ev0ke: In addition to writing your own books, you also offer “book whispering” services. Could you walk us through what that entails?
AW: “Book whispering” is designed to help an author find the story at the heart of their novel and then let it shine. I do that through working with them on key areas, including narrative structure, character development, and understanding conflict. I met a couple of book doctors early in my writing career who I found quite brutal in their feedback. I wanted it to be clear that what I do is much more holistic for both book and author. In my experience, many authors are lacking in self-belief, so I work intuitively and collaboratively with them to help them develop confidence in themselves and their work. I also mentor early-stage authors and help them find the book they want to write.
ev0ke: How did your mindful writing sessions on Zoom come about? And what has the response been?
AW: I started doing mindful writing sessions with my friends at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020. After a few weeks I realised that I’d got all of these sessions planned and other people might benefit from them, too, so I started running workshops for anyone who wanted to come along. The response has been wonderful and the sessions have evolved into a wonderful, creative space where we write together, share work, and have some laughs, too. The feedback is really positive and includes people telling me that it’s the highlight of their week and they feel much less anxious after a session.
The sessions are on Monday and Wednesday evenings at 6.30pm (GMT). If anyone would like to join us, then there’s more information on my website and you can book the Monday sessions through Meetup.
ev0ke: Where can readers find your books?
AW: My books are available as e-books and paperbacks on Amazon.
ev0ke: What other projects are you working on?
AW: I’m busy teaching a novel writing masterclass for the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of York at the moment. I love teaching and, although I miss being in a classroom, it’s wonderful that people from all over the UK can now attend my courses. I’m also gathering ideas for the third and final book in The Spellworker Chronicles. As I like to research on the ground, progress has been rather stymied by lockdown and restrictions on travel, but I’m hoping to get out and about to visit locations and develop ideas in the spring and summer.
[Bio: Alys West writes contemporary fantasy and steampunk. She lives in Yorkshire, but loves to travel, especially to Scottish islands. Her stories grow out of places and the tales which people tell about places. Her work draws on her own experience of surviving trauma, but always with the possibility of a hopeful ending. When she’s not writing you can find her at folk gigs, doing yoga and attempting to crochet. She occasionally blogs, intermittently tweets, and spends rather too much time on Facebook where you can find her at Alys West Writer. She is also on Instagram at @alyswestwriter. To keep up with Alys’s news you can join her Facebook readers’ group ‘Druids, Spellworkers and Dirigibles’.]
Really enjoyed this interview, Alys. I haven’t read your novels yet, but I certainly will after reading this. I love the idea of exploring spirituality and the inexplicable through writing.