The Apprentice Witch is a middle grade fantasy novel with all the charm of Harry Potter, but a magic all its own. From the rich world building to its spunky characters, this is a book that will have readers clamoring for more. I had a chance to meet with James during his publicity tour to talk about his book and his experiences and challenges faced when creating a children’s book.
Whitney Smyth: This is your first book. Did you set out to write a middle grade novel or was it a natural evolution?
James Nicol: For about three seconds I think I toyed with the idea of writing a YA, and then I realized that actually the books that I read, at that middle grade level as a child, stayed with me much more than the books that I read later in my life. Talking with other people, they felt the same way and so I felt that was where my heart was really, so it went back to middle grade. But, I don’t know that setting it as middle grade or YA is kind of the stuff that happens when you’re in the process of editing rather than in that first rush of creation because you’re just telling a story. I think it sat in that middle grade setting rather easily and there was lots of YA content that needed to be stripped out.
WS: I did notice that Arianwyn is an ambiguously aged character. She’s clearly old enough to do her own thing and not be under constant supervision, but she’s still very attached to her grandmother. It does sit very well between the two age groups.
JN: I didn’t think that, realistically speaking, sending a young child out into the world would work even in a fantasy world. It needed to be somebody of a suitable age, so that’s why it’s kept a bit fluffy as to how old she is.
WS: How do you feel about inevitably being compared to J.K. Rowling due to the magic aspect of your book?
JN: I mean, that’s a massive compliment really, if somebody says “oh it reminds me of Harry Potter.” In fact, Barry Cunningham, he’s a publisher, after they first bought the book and we were having dinner and I had a mouthful of food, he said that it reminded him – that it gave him the same feeling rather – that he got when he read the first Harry Potter books. I thought, “does he say that to everybody?” and some of the other editors were there as well and Rachel said, “I’ve never heard him say that before.” It never got referred to ever again, but then it was used in some publicity. I think there’s such a wealth of fantasy books for middle grade, so it [the book] draws a lot from all sorts of references. In some respects, I tried to step as far away from Harry Potter as I could, but as soon as you have magic and broomsticks people will make that automatic connection. As soon as someone says “oh, you’ll be the next JK Rowling,” you kind of, nobody is going to be the next JK Rowling. You want to be the first YOU, of your stories.
WS: Where did you come up with Arianwyn’s name? It’s not one I’ve ever heard before.
JN: It’s a Welsh name, and my grandfather on my father’s side was originally from Wales. He wasn’t called Arianwyn though, that’s a girl’s name. It was just a name that I heard somewhere, whether or not it was a story I heard, or if it just developed… but it was just kind of there in the back of my mind. I wasn’t sure if it was something I held onto in case I had a child, but I had a book child, named Arianwyn. For me, Welsh names have a sort of magical sound and I liked the clash of her very magical sounding first name with Gribble, which doesn’t sound magical at all.
WS: Are you one of those authors that collects names and places?
JN: Absolutely! I always carry a notebook around with me, and I had a long, long list of different names for different characters. But now I’ve been going to school events and meeting children and signing books, and children’s names in the UK are so different from the ones I grew up with. Everyone was either Jack or Sally. Now children have the most fantastic names and it’s kind of a unique challenge when you’re faced with a child who gives you a name and you sort of think “so that’s Bell with a z?” There’s been a few names that I’ve thought “Oh, that’s a beautiful name” and I’ve started to collect some of those names. Though I haven’t met any Arianwyns yet.
WS: Most of the fantasy and young adult books that I read while growing up starred male characters, and the ones that did have female protagonists were always so short. As someone who is 6” tall in real life I could never identify with the tiny leads. Was there a particular reason you chose to make her a tall, gangly kid?
JN: I think really, a part of that was to exacerbate that feeling of differentness, as we grow up. We all feel completely different to everybody else, so it was really to magnify that. I wasn’t tall as a child, I had a growth spurt over the course of about two nights when I was sixteen, so I went from an average height to being really, really tall. I think even then, I tended to hunch to try to not feel so tall. It was a way to make that character feel like they stuck out more than they wanted to and she just wants to get on with doing the job of being a witch and there’s all these things that mark her as being different. Over the course of the book, and other stories to come, she’ll embrace these things that make her different, her uniqueness, which is a really important message for young children. It’s boring if you fit in!
WS: I really liked the glyph system used in the book, and the means of using magic is very important in fantasy stories. Was that a runic inspiration?
JN: The very first bit of the story that I wrote, was these two pages where Arianwyn was in a garden and it was dark, and she knew something was watching her and I just found myself writing that she was drawing these symbols; one she drew into the ground, and one into the air. So, yeah, the glyphs were always there, but it took a long time for me to formulate exactly how many were there, what they looked like, and what their properties were. For awhile it was “oh, glyph,” and I draw a line to mark it, and come back to it later. It was only when I actually sat down a drew the glyphs myself into my notebook that they started to coalesce. I’m really quite lucky that they actually used those in the book so the children can see them, and in the glossary in the back so people could see them and what their properties actually are. I sort of combined musical notes and numbers as the basis for making the shapes. Designing those shapes was really exciting and in the real world we depend so much on symbols, emojis and app symbols, so we communicate much more by symbols than we ever have done.
I was conscious that there needed to be a method for the witches to actually use the magic, and wands are, of course, everybody associates them with Harry Potter, so I didn’t really want to use that. I thought quite a long time about using a cauldron, but then realized that by the time you’ve lit a cauldron and actually heated it, you’ve probably been gobbled up by whatever it was you were trying to fend off! So, not a practical option and also quite heavy to carry around.
WS: It sounds like you had quite a bit of fun building the world!
JN: Yeah, I think that was the lovely thing. I knew quite quickly that this wasn’t going to be set into the real word. The lovely thing about Harry Potter is that it is set in a secret world, but I didn’t wan’t Arianwyn’s world to be secret. She’s grown up in them, and magic is an everyday thing that everyone, magic or not, has to deal with. When I was twelve or thirteen, I don’t know why because I was really shy as a teenager, but I thought I’d quite like to be an actor. I think now, that being a writer is so much better. As an actor, you have to say someone else’s words, costumes, and be directed by someone else. When you’re a writer, you’re everything; you’re the actor, the costume director, the designer, the director. I wanted it to be about Arianwyn’s journey, going from having no confidence, to realizing that she can deal with this and doesn’t need to be afraid. Magic is almost a secondary thing and can’t solve all your problems.
WS: You did a wonderful job with not just Arianwyn, but the whole cast. The secondary characters have just as much personality.
JN: Thank you! Actually, I have a bit of a soft spot for Mayor Belcher. He’s hopeless in the best possible way. He’s so frustrated that they’ve been waiting for years and years for a witch and they’ve been sent this apprentice who has failed. In earlier drafts, he was a much kinder and more supportive character, but someone said “there are too many people helping her,” and so I decided to make the mayor less helpful. At first I thought it would be an easy thing, but it was almost like ripping the original mayor out and creating someone entirely new.
Some of the smaller characters were almost as wonderful to create as Arianwyn. Collin is due to one of my best friends who really liked him and asked if he would be showing up later on. Even characters like Mrs. Newam, the woman who does the evaluation, she’s utterly repellant and you wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with her and yet she’s just delicious!
WS: Do you have a particular part in the whole process that you’ve enjoyed the most? Not just the writing, but editing, or publicity tours?
JN: I’ve been really surprised because I went into this whole thing not having a clue as to what I was doing. When I got to the point where I was doing editing with an actual editor, I was apprehensive because I believed it would be like back in school where papers would be sent back covered in red pen. Editing hasn’t been like that at all. It’s actually been one of the most creative parts in the whole process. It’s like you’ve got a bit of clay and you’ve already shaped it, but your editor is saying, “let’s make this a bit more beautiful, let’s chop this off since it’s not doing any favors,” and slowly, but surely, by the end of it you’ve got this really beautiful finished sculpture at the end that isn’t just your work, so it’s very collaborative. I personally loved the editing phase because it challenges you to think differently.
I have also loved going out and meeting children who’ve read my book. About a month in, at a local bookshop in the UK, a little girl produced a read copy of my book, it was quite a bit worn and the spine was all bent back, and I said “You’ve read it?” She said, “I loved it! I’ve read it three times.” I can’t describe that feeling at all.
WS: Can you remember a specific book or a series that really got you into reading in the first place?
JN: Yes! I was writing up a blog post and it started out as one thing but then turned into another. I was classified as a slow reader, which basically meant I wasn’t very good at it. There were lots of reasons they thought that. Part of it was that I spent a lot of time playing outside, and that was where I got my stories. The wood was everything from space ships in Star Wars, and magical forests and castles, and so I didn’t spend a lot of time inside reading stories. I knew in the school library that there were books full of stories that were similar to the ones in my head, but they weren’t terribly interesting. Then one day my grandmother brought me a second-hand copy of 101 Dalmations and that was the book that turned me into an avid reader. I remember the massive sense of achievement after reading the whole book on my own without having to go to anyone and ask them “what is this word, can you help me?” From there on I couldn’t stop reading anything I could get my hands on.
James Nicol has loved books and stories his whole life. As a child he spent hours absorbed in novels, watching epic 1980s cartoons or adventuring in the wood at the bottom of the garden. He lives on the edge of the Cambridgeshire Fens with his partner and a black cockapoo called Bonnie.