Magic, mysticism and mystery are at the core of Moïra Fowley-Doyle’s novels, The Accident Season and this year’s The Spellbook of the Lost and Found. Set in rural Ireland they take normal girls and unravel the secrets of their past and defeat the demons of their present with spells, enchantment and dreams. We chatted to Moira about the inspiration behind her books and weaving magic into modern Ireland.
Did you always want to write novels?
Always. When I was a child I wanted to be a ballet dancer so I took four two-hour ballet classes a week for ten years – and I wrote constantly: stories and poems and every day in my diary. When I was a teenager I wanted to be an artist so I drew and painted and sketched – and I wrote constantly: poetry and short novels and every day in my diary. When I was in university I realised that my only constant was my real passion, so I started calling myself a writer.
Where did you develop an interest in magical realism?
When I was a teenager I discovered the Weetzie Bat books by Francesca Lia Block.They’re a series of five cult YA books written in the 80s and I’d never read anything like them. They’re glitzy and grim and sparkly and serious, they’re lyrical and strange and poetic.
There’s this sense that threads through them that even the darkest moments can be beautiful, that reality and fantasy are blurred, that everybody has a story to tell.
I took this like an arrow to the heart because I’d always had the same sense myself, but couldn’t quite put it into words.
Once I realised that this interlacing of truth and fiction had a genre and a name I started reading all the magic realism I could find.
It’s the closest type of fiction that I feel reflects real life.
“The real and the maybe-not-so-real have always been a bit blurry for me, and that means that when things are good they’re dreamy and magical, and when they aren’t they’re eerie and haunting.”
What books and authors have influenced your writing style?
Francesca Lia Block, for starters, but also non-YA like Kate Atkinson and Jeanette Winterson on the adult fiction side, and David Almond and Philip Pullman on the children’s fiction side. These are the authors I read the most as a teenager, which was when my writing style developed, and are also some of the authors I read the most today.
Both The Accident Season and The Spellbook of the Lost and Found are dreamy, haunting stories, do you have to get in a particular mindset for that style of writing?
To be honest, that mindset is kind of my default. I’ve never been someone who is particularly anchored in the real world. The real and the maybe-not-so-real have always been a bit blurry for me, and that means that when things are good they’re dreamy and magical, and when they aren’t they’re eerie and haunting. I lived my entire adolescence like this, so I suppose it made sense to me to write about teenagers who lived the same way.
In The Spellbook of the Lost and Found you mix religious traditions, superstitions and wiccan ritual, did you do a lot of research to bring your story to life?
I read a lot about folk magic and patron saints, but these are things I’m very interested in anyway, so I had a good bit of that research done already. I learnt a lot of the superstitions and religious traditions just by having been brought up atheist in Ireland. There’s this fascinating and beautiful almost-paganism to Irish Catholicism when you look at it from the outside: the patron saints, the holy wells, how people bury Child of Prague statues before weddings and keep St Christopher medals in their babies’ prams. I also read a lot about trees. Native Irish trees and the superstitions and legends and folk magic associated with each. Each of the characters’ names were carefully chosen so that their personalities – and relationships with each other – aligned with the meanings of the trees they’re named after. I think I read more about trees than I did any other research.
Your books have such a sense of place – did the area that you grew up in have a big influence on that?
Not the place I grew up in, so much: I grew up in Clontarf, which is a seaside suburb on the north side of Dublin, and it’s very lovely, but not at all like where I set my first two books.
But a couple of years before I wrote The Accident Season my parents bought a house in County Mayo, beside a forest, on the shores of a lake.
It’s in the middle of nowhere, a fifteen minute drive from the nearest small town which has a beautiful river running through the middle of it and not a few ghost estates sitting empty and overgrown. B
oth The Accident Season and Spellbook are set in fictional small towns that are heavily based on that real town.
“I don’t tend to write people I know in real life into my books, but I put a lot of the feel of my family – the closeness, the teasing, the minor chaos, the dad jokes – into Olive’s family in Spellbook”
The characters in both of your novels are loyal and have strong connections of family and friendship – is that drawn from your own life?
I’m very lucky because I have a very close-knit, loving family and a group of friends I’ve had since I was a teenager. Some I met when I started secondary school, the others when I started university, and we’ve been through a lot together and grown up together and stayed strong and a lot of us were each other’s bridesmaids and now our children play together.
I don’t tend to write people I know in real life into my books, but I put a lot of the feel of my family – the closeness, the teasing, the minor chaos, the dad jokes – into Olive’s family in Spellbook.
That’s probably why the chapters we spend in Olive’s house are some of my favourites in the whole book.
Do you have a favourite of any of your characters?
I feel a great kinship with Bea in The Accident Season – she is probably the closest to teenage-me that any of my characters have turned out so far.
But I also love Rose in Spellbook – I think it would be very difficult not to fall in love with somebody like Rose in real life.
The romances and emotions in both of your books are incredibly intense and vibrant – do you enjoy writing that side of your characters or do you find it challenging?
I love the emotions!
Emotions and relationships and family dynamics are the things I prefer to write – in fact, they’re always the things I write first.
My first drafts are a mess of dreaminess and creepiness and characters having emotions and relationships and the rest of what makes a story – the plot, the pacing, having at least half of the book make some semblance of sense – happens in the edits.
“Write the kind of book you want to read but can’t quite find, the one that ticks all your boxes, the one that you’d buy instantly if you saw it on the shelves.”
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
I know this is kind of a cliché, but write what you love. Fall in love with what you write.
Write the kind of book you want to read but can’t quite find, the one that ticks all your boxes, the one that you’d buy instantly if you saw it on the shelves. If you don’t love your book fiercely, you’re less likely to finish it.
And if you love it that much, chances are very high that other people will too.
Do you have plans for your next novel?
I’m currently about halfway through the first draft of my next novel, so because it’s at such an early stage I can’t talk much about it. I like that it’s kind of a secret as I build it, though – this tangle of family history and stormy seas – that will one day soon become a book.
The Accident Season and The Spellbook of the Lost and Found are published by Penguin and available from all good bookshops.