I’ve never been one for book clubs (I’m not much of a joiner, I’m afraid) but if I were, Taisia Kitaiskaia and Katy Horan‘s witchy gem, Literary Witches, released into the world yesterday, October 10th, is certainly a title I’d want at the very top of the roster. Incidentally, the few book clubs I have attended focused on best selling titles I had no interest in reading, and there was more gossipy chatter than book-related conversation, so perhaps book clubs just aren’t for me. (And don’t get me wrong, I do love the gossips, but if I’ve consented to leave the house for a reason, I want that reason to hold true to its intended promises! Especially where books are concerned.)
Literary Witches is a celebration of magical woman writers, a “mystic dossier” sprung from the heads of two women, magical in their own right, and accessing the spirits of the titular Literary Witches through their own respective mediums–Taisia Kitaiskaia, who channels the book’s fanciful, enigmatic prose, and Katy Horan, the conjurer of its enchanting and intimate illustrations. Together Katy and Taisia draw a connection between witches and visionary writers, and through their poetic portraits and imaginative vignettes, they honor the formidable creativity, empowerment, and general badassery of well-known and obscure authors alike, including Virginia Woolf, Mira Bai, Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson, Octavia E. Butler, Sandra Cisneros, and many more.
Haute Macabre recently had the good fortune to chat with Katy (who used her technocauldron to contact Taisia through the ether, for additional info and answers!) See below for our interview wherein we chat about what, exactly, is, a “literary witch”; a potent handful of Katy and Taisia’s favorite authors from within this lettered coven, and how to best approach this dazzling tribute of a grimoire. We did not, however, discuss how the grand working that is Literary Witches might fit into the agenda of your next book club’s discussion …but no doubt you will have more than a few strange and splendid ideas after you’ve finished the last page of this singular creation. Come back and let us know, and in the meantime, read on!
Haute Macabre: How did Literary Witches come about? What sparked the idea of connections between the ultimate mystical female archetype of the witch, and visionary writers, these conjurers of words and worlds?
Katy Horan: Literary Witches came directly from its genius writer, Taisia Kitaiskaia. At first, her idea was to make a sort of Tarot deck, with the writers as the various characters and figures of the Tarot. We let that idea go, though, as we further conceptualized the project. However, it still influenced the visual language I used in the illustrations.
As for the actual origin of Literary Witches, Taisia says she made the connection, “…because witches and literature are two of my most treasured subjects, the idea came to me as an obvious connection. One day, I came to the conclusion that all of my favorite writers are witches.”
Your art, with its focus on feminine folkloric magic seems perfectly suited to Taisia Kitaiskaia’s luminous language, the mystic fragments of text that accompany each portrait. Can you share how you came to work together on this curious compendium?
Taisia contacted me late in 2014. She was looking for someone to illustrate her “Ask Baba Yaga” series. There was an agent interested, but as I was working on the sketches, they dropped out. We realized we both lived in Austin, and knew that we needed to get together and discuss other possible collaborations. When we met, she told me her idea for Literary Witches and I took to it right away. I was in a career lull, having just had a baby and was in dire need of a project. We set out to work on the first 5 and pretty quickly got word that Electric Literature wanted to put those five online, so the project had direction and purpose pretty much from the start.
As we were working on the original five, we talked about how it would be an awesome book, and once Electric Literature published it and received the response it did, we started thinking it might have a shot. We were talking about putting together a proposal when our agent, Adriann Ranta of Foundry Media, found us. With her help, we got our deal with Seal Press. We owe so much to her.
Can you define for us, in your own words, what is a Literary Witch, and identify the criteria you used to choose the Literary Witches you celebrate in the book? Do you have a favorite literary heroine amongst those featured?
To me, a Literary Witch writes with her own voice regardless of what is expected of her. Her work has originality and weight to it. She isn’t afraid to be dark, moody, challenging or funny. Her work is fearless and boldly her own. In the end, her writing feels like something channelled or conjured. For me personally, Shirley Jackson and Toni Morrison were favorites before the project, so I was incredibly honored to do their portraits.
As a further, among the thirty Literary Witches in the book, you reference “a matter of seniority”, that “long-practicing Witches must be noted before newly initiated Witches”; I’m curious–if time and space had allowed for the inclusion of authors one might consider novices and initiates, who would you like to have included, and why?
I would add Maya Angelou, Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Walker. All of these were on the table at one point but were removed to make space for older (even ancient) writers, foreign writers and some much lesser known writers that we wanted to shine a light on, like Yumiko Kurahashi. Even though I love those writers I mentioned, I am completely happy with the 30 we chose.
Taisia has a great list of who she would add. She says, “There are lots of daring, magical writers out there who have Literary Witch written all over them. Here are a few who come to mind: Helen Oyeyemi, Carmen Maria Machado, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Valeria Luiselli, Rivers Solomon, Han Kang”
In the book’s forward, Pam Grossman has a fabulous approach to tackling this tome; as an act of bibliomancy, flipping pages at random and following where the wit, wonder, and wisdom of the selected Literary Witch leads. Early reviewers laud it as an enjoyable illustrated almanac of fun facts to bone up on your favorite literary heroine’s super powers, and suggests that not only will it inspire readers to dig further into transportive works of fiction and poetry, but allow access to their inner creatix. As one half of the creative team responsible for Literary Witches, how would you advise of the book’s purpose, and the best way to read it?
All of that sounds good to me. I think it depends on the reader. If you are methodical and enjoy order, then start from the beginning and move through it page by page. If you want a more organic experience, find a random place and consider what the witch you land on is trying to tell you. No matter how you approach it, though, I hope you get lost in Taisia’s bewitching and beautiful words and enjoy deciphering all the symbols and hidden meanings I put in my illustrations. Most of all though, I hope you discover a new writer, put down our book and and go get lost in their magick.