The creepiest and oldest of legends have a way of prickling the spine and turning dark nights into the haunted unknown. In The Near Witch, the debut YA novel by Victoria Schwab, ancient ghost stories are the same as truth.
Lexi Harris lives in the village of Near, a place where the wind seems to speak and children are told the story of the Near Witch, who died long ago in the moors. It is a lonely place where strangers never venture—until one night, someone is spotted disappearing into the shadows. Lexi goes in search of the stranger, only to find a mysterious boy with a singed cloak and eyes the color of coal. Almost simultaneously, the children of Near begin to go missing, plucked from their beds without a trace. Lexi, with the help of the stranger, Cole, goes in search of the truth and the missing children, only to find that some legends have yet to be put to rest.
In a Q&A with BookPage, Schwab elaborates on ghost stories, sisterhood and her intriguing new project.
What drew you to a ghost story set in the moors?
I’ve always loved fairy tales, but the setting in many of my favorites was barely sketched out, little more than a strange gray space in which the characters moved. That absence of place helped make the stories timeless, but when I decided to try my hand at one, I wanted to have a true setting. More than that, I wanted to make the setting its own character, while still maintaining a timeless quality. The moors were a perfect place to start because they are vast and old and have at once so much character and yet when you’re on them, it’s easy to forget the year, the century. They are magical, in the old way, an elemental way, all fog and wind and wild earth. I knew they’d be the perfect place for Near.
There is no one cut-and-dried villain in The Near Witch; instead, danger comes from the townspeople’s fear, anger and confusion. Did you intend to write a book without a singular evil character? What effect do you think that has on the story?
Classically, fairy tales have a very clear source of good, and a very clear source of evil. I wanted to change that.
Most definitely. I don’t believe in absolute good and absolute evil, and similarly, I don’t believe in a total villain, because in most cases, villains are people, and people are complex, a product of their culture and their wants and fears, strengths and weaknesses. And, classically, fairy tales have a very clear source of good, and a very clear source of evil. I wanted to change that. I think the lack of one, single villain (you can argue there are none, or several) helps make the situation in Near more real. I like a healthy dose of realism in the middle of my magic.
Lexi’s relationship with her little sister Wren is even stronger than her connection to Cole. Why is this sisterhood so important in The Near Witch?
Truth be told, Wren started out as a very minor character, but over the story’s evolution, it became apparent that Lexi’s attachment to her sister would be her attachment to Near. Wren is the reason Lexi would never sever ties. Wren is her investment in Near, protecting Wren her biggest motivator and losing Wren her biggest fear. Wren keeps her from blindly trusting Cole, because she has a direct investment in the disappearances. Instead, Lexi must go in search of truth.
As a child, did you ever believe in witches or ghost stories?
I still do believe in one of them. I won’t tell you which ;) But in all sincerity, I’m the kind of person that gives magic the benefit of the doubt.
Is there any myth or fairy tale that you wish were true?
Haha, well, most of the original fairy tales were pretty dark, so I wouldn’t wish them into being, but I would like a little more magic in the world, in some form.
What stories were your greatest influences in crafting the tale of The Near Witch?
I grew up with Silverstein and Grimm, and between the two language and lore both became incredibly important to me. I joke that growing up, I literally thought in rhyme, and would have to break it up before I spoke, so people wouldn’t think I was crazy. By the time I started writing, I thought in rhythm and fable and nested tales, the kind with stories tucked one within another.
Lexi Harris is one tough girl in a town where she isn’t always appreciated. How did you come up with her character, and did you have any particular goals in writing about her?
Her character was actually the very last part of the book I created. First came the stories told in the town, which then helped me understand the town itself, and then its residents and their attitudes/mindsets, and finally Lexi came in reaction to those mindsets. Cole might be the stranger, but she is an outsider in her own world.
Who is your favorite heroine in literature, and why?
Fire in Kristin Cashore’s Fire is one of my favorites. She is fierce and powerful, other and yet magnificent.
What do you hope readers will take from your story?
A want for more? But truthfully, I don’t have an answer for that. I hope people come TO the story with as little notion as possible. Notions get one into trouble ;)
What are you working on next?
My next project is called The Archived. I shouldn’t say too much about it yet, but I will say this: It’s kind of like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” meets The Shining meets If I Stay. In a library.