Myth and Magic in Young Adult Fiction - Talking to Anna McKerrow

Why are you drawn to myth and magic?

Always have been! Fairy tales were my favourite stories as a child. Then, as I got older, I was looking for stories that had that deeper resonance. So I loved Narnia and The Neverending Story. With both of those I felt like there were deep answers in there and they were just out of reach.

Now, I have the experience and education to understand the meanings in myth and am old enough to be fascinated with the cultural connections between them. How is it that the basic story of Red Riding Hood exists across so many cultures over many thousands of years in the past? Does it contain some kind of essential human experience? Are those stories being expressed via a collective unconscious, or were trade routes so well established so long ago?

I'm a pagan and I was brought up by my mum who was very au fait with spiritual thinking, so it's a no-brainer that magic in fiction appeals to me - because it's a reality in my life, and it always has been, rather than a make-believe thing. So I'm always looking for those deep resonances of truth in accord with my own experience in books. And in fact the books that treat magic as ridiculous and silly and completely fictitious just really annoy me. To me it's like listening to a creationist. Why would you ever believe that evolution wasn't real? When all the evidence is there.

How do myth and magic influence your writing? Tell me more about your books!

Crow Moon is the first in an ecopagan utopia/dystopian trilogy. Red Witch comes out in March. Slightly in the future, the UK has divided into the Greenworld - the peaceful, utopian ecopagan community based in Devon and Cornwall, ruled by pagan witches, and the Redworld, the rest of the UK, which is corrupt, crime-ridden, rapidly running out of fuel, dystopian. There's a war for fuel in Russia. Crow Moon is entirely set in the Greenworld, a magical setting with a strong ecological focus (which is the reality - pagans and witches are green, you have to be when you worship the Earth as divine) which I have rarely seen in other fiction. 

Usually, witches are either caricatures - warts and hats (a basic indictment of the ridicule you enjoy if you're an older woman with any expertise or knowledge - no, you're not allowed that); they're based around Salem and the witch trials or UK witch trials - reasonably interesting but overdone, and unfortunately there's a morality message there, intended or not - this is what happens when you're a powerful woman and want to be assertive, want to be independent or sexual or provide a challenge to the status quo in any way; or there's a more recent move to thriller-based drama using medieval and historical ideas about witches in modern settings (YA novels Half Bad and Burn Mark both used that idea). But even there, it's still the idea about witches being supernatural in origin or 'just having' magical powers that then need to be controlled by some kind of stentorian medievalesque devices. That's not how I wanted to represent a witch. 

I wanted to present the reality-based pagan approach where witches are made, not born, out of hard work, in the main (and therefore that anyone can achieve this - a dangerous idea! Anyone can step into their power! No! surely not); where witches are deeply devoted and spiritual people that work closely with divinities and nature, and that, once you understand that a witch has to know the natural world intimately to make magic - understand the natural rhythms of the world we live in - then you realise that the link between witchcraft and ecology/environmentalism and often activism is irrevocable. When you worship the earth as a Goddess, living and breathing, then you kind of care about what happens to it. And also, actually, the witch is a profoundly feminist statement to make, too. A woman (when she is a woman, not all witches are women) that has the ability to vision and create her own reality, be in her power, be empowered, be centred in and proud of her body and sexuality. This is precisely what the patriarchy has been attempting to suppress all these years.

But, as another layer to all that, I also wanted the POV character in Crow Moon, Danny, a mixed race boy, to not be particularly on board with the pagan culture of his community. So this is a utopia, but it's not perfect. The book couldn't be an evangelical poem to paganism. It would have stuck in the throat a bit I think.

What does this mythical element add to contemporary YA?  

It adds diversity, in a way. More widely, I think magical realism and magic as real (which are two different things) have an enduring place in fiction. There's lots of magical realism. Not so much sincere insistence on alternate realities of perspective.

How do you modernise or blend in the mythic elements? 

The Greenworld is a modern setting in the sense that it's gritty and real and not a fantasy setting. The characters are real people and down to earth and take seasonal rituals in their stride as part of their normal, everyday lives. It's not sensational that they're chanting around bonfires and meditating and making poppet dolls. The rest of the world is real with real concerns about a lack of fuel. People speak normally. No one lives in a castle. And the teens are very teen-y in the way they speak. They're informal and irreverent and funny. I think all that helps.

What is your favourite mythical character and why? 

Morgan Le Fay, I think. Because I love the Arthurian myths and Morgan is a goddess cipher, Mistress of Magic, Queen of the Fae, representing the priestesses of Avalon, adepts of the mysteries, the wisdom of the ancient celtic traditions. Some people have drawn parallels between her and The Morrigan, one of the Irish goddesses I put in Crow Moon and Red Witch. There's an existing Priestess of Avalon sisterhood in Glastonbury, so her legacy lives on today both in fiction and in spiritual reality. I loved her in Le Morte D'Arthur, I loved her in The Mists of Avalon, in the Mary Stewart Arthur books, in Daughter of Tintagel by Fay Sampson, in Moon Magic and The Sea Priestess by Dion Fortune and also masked as so many beautiful witch type characters in fiction, like Melisandre in Game of Thrones, Titania, the list goes on.

Why does myth, fairy tale and magic continue to be relevant for contemporary teens? 

It's relevant to us all rather than particularly to teens, I think; most, if not all of us, seek a deeper meaning and pattern to our lives at some point. But your teenage years may be the first time you come to that instinct. It's certainly the first time most of us come up against that existential ennui, that realisation, ugh, we're going to die, what does anything matter? This can be the time when you start to consider magic or spirituality as a counter to that.

What advice would you give to an emerging writer who is drawn to use myth, magic or fairy tale in their own writing?

To pursue it! And to journey into your own unconscious; record your dreams; research myths, follow the ones you are drawn to, connect with your guides, go for healing or meditation or shamanic journeying and drumming and trust what comes into your mind apparently at random. It's all deep in the subconscious already. Be open to it. Try not to rationalise, write freely.

Thank you, Anna! Red Witch is released on March 10th. You can read more at; or by clicking on the titles here for Anna's Pinterest boards for Crow Moon or Red Witch.