Speculative fiction author Alexis Henderson has found herself in the enviable position of having a debut novel that people cannot stop talking about. It’s been just over two weeks since The Year of the Witching hit bookstores and if the reviews are any indication it is the first of many times we will see her name in years to come.
In the midst of the much-deserved fanfare, Henderson took time to chat with iHorror to discuss the process of bringing her first novel into the world from inception to publish date. It was a journey that changed her and opened her eyes in ways she could never have expected.
“It was a really strange experience with this book,” Henderson explained. “I just had an image pop into my head one day of a girl crouching in the forest at the foot of this creature, Lilith, who had the body of a woman and the head of a deer skull. The story kind of evolved from there. I felt like a lot of the experience of writing the book, I was just chasing this image in order to try to give it context.”
In a way it was like detective work for the author as she sought out answers to who this girl was, what kind of energy the character had, what she was feeling, and so on.
What she uncovered on the page was the story of a biracial girl named Immanuelle Moore living in a puritanical society called Bethel that eerily reflects parts of the world that we live in today. She admits, however, that in writing the first draft, she was somewhat oblivious to the mirror that the novel’s story would ultimately become.
“As I was writing the book, I was so firmly locked into Immanuelle’s perspective that during the first draft I don’t think I even realized how sick the world was until I reached the end of the first draft,” she said. “It was a very organic process in that I was sort of discovering the depths of the darkness of this world alongside her. After finishing the book and reflecting on it, I kind of realized how much of that mirrored my own coming of age and how it kind of mirrored the darkness at play in our world.”
The more we discussed Immanuelle and her journey in The Year of the Witching, it became apparent that there was a definite connection between the author and her character. What we didn’t realize is that the connection was forged almost from the beginning when that first image of the character came to her.
“When I first got that image of Immanuelle in the woods, I saw that she was mixed race,” Henderson pointed out. “At the time, I remember thinking oh she’s like me. I’m not biracial. I’m black, but I’m mixed with a lot of stuff. I don’t normally see characters like me or see myself reflected, and there is this kind of longing to read books about horror or witchcraft or things like that but with characters that I could identify with and who look like me. I think, just as a reader, it’s just wanting to read stories and embrace characters that reflect me for once.”
Henderson says she and Immanuelle also share a fascination with the darkness, something that plays out again and again in the novel.
As I said from the beginning, this novel has been one of the most talked about debuts of the year in genre fiction. Much of that has to do with the fact that Immanuelle stands up to the patriarchal system of Bethel and though there is a love interest built into the story, she never relies on him to save her or protect her during her ordeal.
Funnily enough, Henderson admits this is one area where Immanuelle takes on the qualities she wishes she possessed.
“I think that the fact that her love interest, she doesn’t really need him or rely on him I would love to be that way,” the author explained. “To have that strength to say yes there’s this person that you love but you’re independent of them and you don’t need them to be strong or to accomplish things. I don’t know to what extent I succeed in that, but that’s something that I value. I definitely want to be more like Immanuelle when I grow up!”
With the novel finished after the long editing process, Henderson faced the Final Boss of authorship: the publish date. She had not idea just how intense the moment would be when The Year of the Witching went out into the world nor was she prepared for just how vulnerable it would make her feel.
“It’s a wonderful and terrifying feeling,” she said. “The process isn’t complete until people read the book and respond to it. I think it’s a vital part of the whole creating, writing, publishing process. At the same time, I think I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t bittersweet because it does feel like I’m giving away a piece of myself. It feels like it’s a little less mine. I think that’s wonderful. The story belongs to other people now in a way, but at the same time I feel like I’m giving away a piece of myself. It almost feels like I put my diary up for sale.”
Despite or maybe in spite of this, Henderson is currently working on a sequel book that will dive into what happens after the events of the novel with the changes that have taken place in the world of Bethel. It’s something we will certainly be looking forward to with its release set for 2021.
As our conversation came to a close, I could not help but reflect again on what Henderson had created in The Year of the Witching. Here is a novel that is both terrifying and heart-wrenching filled with characters that leap from the page and a world that is so real you can almost feel it as you read. And all of this was born from a single image that popped into her mind of a girl, a witch, and a forest.
This is the alchemy of writing at its best. This is the obsession to create at its most vital, and like her protagonist, Henderson simply had to see the journey to its end. We, the audience, are as enriched by that process as she is as an author.
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson is available for purchase at bookstores across the country and online from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. Pick up a copy today!