One of my goals in the New Year is to revive my attempts at Witch Lit Wednesdays. I’d like to post, at least once a month, anything having to do with fiction appealing to modern witches and Pagans. Book reviews, of course, but also an occasional cover reveal or, in this case, an interview with the author! I’m starting out with Undiscovered.
Full disclosure, Ashley Anglin is a fellow Shadow Spark Publishing author. Since I’m also a writer enamored with aquatic legends and Celtic lore, I’ve been intrigued and increasingly excited about her debut novel since she signed her contract. Ashley is not a practicing Pagan, but I think her story will appeal to anyone who walks an Earth-centered path. Keep reading to see what I mean!
Sometimes truth is stranger than folktales.
Bilingualism and plate tectonics were the only kinds of shapeshifting Arden Araujo’s troubled geoscientist dad prepared her for. But it turns out, the outlandish prediction that wrecked his career–a devastating North Sea tsunami–might not be the unlikeliest truth he took to his grave.
In the 2097 tsunami’s aftermath, environmental first responder Arden expects her mission in hard-hit northeast Scotland to involve the usual grunt work, maybe a little freediving if she’s lucky. Instead, she stumbles upon a critically endangered species of Orkney and Shetland legend, hiding in plain sight among the refugees.
They trust that she can help restore their kind, despite storms, aftershocks, and policy decisions way beyond her pay grade. Increasingly at home on the shores of their life-giving sea, she may have found her calling; true love might not be a mere children’s story either. Yet the deeper she’s immersed in their tale, the less sure she feels that she’s the right hero to protect the hidden treasure of their existence.
UNDISCOVERED is a unique sci fi/fantasy fusion: climate fiction, hopeful fabulism, and a feminist hero’s journey, told in lyrical prose (and occasional Spanglish).
MAP: How has folklore influenced both you personally and your writing in particular?
AA: The first real novels I ever read were by CS Lewis and Tolkien, who were scholars of fairytales, folktales and myths, and I was hooked forever. I love the way folklore evolves and endures, and how certain figures and tropes appear across different cultures. They feel bigger than other kinds of stories. So, even though my work is generally set on Earth and in the present or near future, there’s always a mermaid, selkie, phoenix, dragon, and/or Indigenous mythical figure in there somewhere.
An early spark for Undiscovered came when I saw the Marvel series Jessica Jones (quite the non sequitur, I know). Before her superhero origin was revealed/explained, she appeared to be an almost-regular person walking around doing a normal job, hiding her inhuman abilities in plain sight. I reflected that although I’m not superhuman, I’ve always felt I’m a shade or two off from other people–too eerily akin to that fantasy-reading little girl in my speech, interactions, and worldview. Like, instead of a super-strong private investigator, a fairytale creature who happens to be a professor and suburban mom. I wanted to explore telling that kind of story, but with a climate fiction angle. I still have the very early “idea dump” document I wrote, before I even knew what kind of creatures or where they lived… it’s called “They kinda walk among us,” haha.
MAP: Your story explores concepts of energy and our connections with nature. These ideas are central to certain branches of Paganism. Could you expand on that without spoiling the plot?
The story is set in 2097, when people and nations have chosen strategies to mitigate and minimize the damage done to the environment between the industrial revolution and our present day. The restorative “magic” left in the world, if we want to call it that, remains only in places where nature remains relatively untouched. Arden, the protagonist, has always felt a strong connection to the ocean; nearly everywhere she ever works is coastal. When she arrives in the Shetland Islands, that connection amplifies in a big way. (I mean, look up some photos. That’s no ordinary seawater!)
MAP: Stories of selkies come from Irish and Scottish culture. Have you been able to visit these places? What other research did you do to respectfully portray these beings?
AA: The setting I first saw in my mind was an island on a crumbling edge of civilization–which, during a deep and twisty-turny initial research and brainstorming dive, turned out to be Shetland after a tsunami. Only then did the nebulously magical people I’d been envisioning reveal themselves to be selkies. So, the setting chose them for me! I haven’t been to the British Isles yet, but someday when I get to set foot on Shetland, I will probably tear up with joy. Meantime, I did a lot of research, reading as well as re/watching all the lovely selkie movies I could get my hands on. (Dozens of hours on Google Earth, the BBC Shetland series, and other photo galleries/videos as well, trying to immerse myself in the feeling of the place–because their kind of magic is so tied to their habitat.)
One thing I find striking is how versions of ancient oral stories such as these, which were never set down in anything as culturally permanent as the Mahabharata or Metamorphoses, will contradict one another. Orkney finfolk legends often seem darker than Shetland ones, for example. So I felt it was okay to make an informed choice of my favorite elements. I also reimagined some things. Many selkie tales are honestly patriarchal and depressing–about trapping the woman in her human form, or creepy ugly finmen who impregnate human girls and abandon them. Without giving too much away, you won’t find anyone’s sealskin hidden in the rafters in Undiscovered. These ladies have agency (and don’t get me started on the gently sexy lads).
MAP: I know you’re coming from a different religious perspective, but what would you like potential Pagan readers to know?
AA: Someday I might write open-minded, trippy, woman-forward Christian speculative fiction, à la Madeleine L’Engle (whom I consider one of my literary fairy godmothers)–but today is not that day. Still, writing climate fiction for me is a kind of faithful act, as someone who believes we should care for the world we’ve been given. I’ve learned from interacting with you and your characters that Pagans also treasure the Earth! The organization where Arden works is a Star Trek-like mix of people from all over the world, coming together for a common cause. Although she’s not of any particular religion, her friends and coworkers represent a variety of cultures, faiths, and walks of life. Undiscovered is a hopeful story of interconnectedness, humility, and respecting nature (or creation) and the planet we share. So I hope it’s approachable to readers of all beliefs, and not too environmentally preachy either.
MAP: I love that response. I think it’s good to find bridges of commonality and work together to help others, human or otherwise. It’s a major theme in some of my work as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions! I’m even more excited to dive into the special world you’ve created and see beloved legends expressed in a new, exciting way.
Currently, you can pre-order Undiscovered in eBook format. Paperback will be available on the release date: February 4th. You can also find some of Ashley Anglin’s short stories and poetry here.