Magic school books have carved out a place in the hearts of many young readers, often becoming lifelong favorites. Recent stories like Dhonielle Clayton’s The Marvellers are bringing a more inclusive vision of the classical fantasy setup to life. Aislinn Brophy adds another dynamite offering to the magical school canon with How to Succeed in Witchcraft. Her YA debut introduces us to a wholly imagined world that echoes ours but with one small change: magic exists.
In How to Succeed in Witchcraft, we meet Shay, who dreams of getting a prestigious scholarship through her elite school. But to do it, she’ll have to team up with her beautiful school nemesis. Plus, catch the eye of the cool young teacher who runs the school musical. But when her teacher begins to show her too much attention, Shay has to rethink her vision of success. She has to protect herself.
As huge fans of wonderfully cozy stories that don’t shy away from tough topics, we were very happy to chat with Brophy. We discussed their debut YA, its backstory, and the joy of queer romance.
Nerdist: What are the origins of How to Succeed in Witchcraft.?
Aislinn Brophy: I’ve been going through a period of my life for a long time where I’ve really loved writing about women and I think I wanted to write something that pulled together a lot of experiences that I’ve had in my life. I grew up in South Florida, so I really wanted to write something where I grew up. A lot of the places in [the book] are actually places I spent a lot of time in. So I think I was really inspired by that.
I also just wanted to write a book about power and navigating academic spaces as a mixed person. So I think that that’s kind of where a lot of that came from. Also taking from some negative experiences that have happened in academic spaces, and also theater spaces. Like, who has power? Who’s able to be in charge of what’s happening? And whether or not you feel like you have the power to actually do anything about that.
The book definitely deals with a lot of pretty heavy stuff—particularly in terms of the way authority figures use and exploit their power in academic spaces. But you also build this incredibly cozy, lovely world. Could you talk about balancing those two aspects?
Brophy: For me, as a person as well as as a writer, I’m not one to be really in the hard stuff for a long period of time. I really like to balance it with joy, laughter, and jokes. So humor was always a really big part of the book. I think that people who can just write sad books are incredibly beautiful. But I am not one of those people. So I knew I couldn’t write this book to be really sad. It just doesn’t work for me because then I’ll get really sad!
I always wanted there to be this balance of fun things in the book with difficult things. To me it makes looking at difficult things a little easier, if you know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. There are going to be scenes where you can feel happy and you can enjoy what you’re reading. So the magic in the book was always kind of a foil to the difficult content. When it’s talking about authority figures abusing their power and grooming, I think that the magic was always present as a way to make that a little bit more digestible.
That’s why I also wanted the romance to be a pretty meaty part of the book. The relationships that Shay has are really what provide her the ability to—even beyond a romantic relationship—have the bandwidth to do something about this really difficult thing that’s happening to her. Also because that creeping nature of [grooming] is so important because she doesn’t necessarily notice what’s happening. So she needed to have something else that she was focusing on, to allow it to blindside not just the audience but also her.
Another thing that immediately struck me about the book was how organic and whole the magic system felt. How much work went into creating that part of Shay’s world?
Brophy: That took a lot of work. I think that was one of the hardest parts of developing the book. I started the book and initially it was a magic book with almost no magic in it! And that did not work! That was the thing that I kept getting notes on throughout the process of developing the book. So eventually I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a really big handbook on what this world is and answer all these questions that my incredible editor gave me.” So I wrote up a 10-15 page document that was a history of generally where the history of our world diverged at the sort of “discovery” of magic in this world.
That was really helpful. I knew that I needed to have class and race in America function roughly similarly. So I had to pick a point in history where history could diverge so it would be close enough to the modern day where things would be slightly different, but not so far back in the past that things just seem unrecognizably different. Then I had a lot of fun trying to grab historical moments and see how magic would have made them slightly different or perhaps the same but with some magical nuances. So I had a lot of fun trying to develop that. In our world Shay would be a stem person, so it feels like magic has a lot of rules. It’s about manipulating matter, so I really had to spend a lot of time thinking of how functionally that would work!
Speaking of Shay, she’s such a likable and lovely entry point into this world of magic. What made her the perfect lead for your story?
Brophy: I didn’t have a lot of difficulty coming up with her. She’s very much a love letter to the person that I was when I was in high school. Both the really strong qualities of that person and also my flaws from that time period. I wanted a character who was intensely driven, who really deeply wants to succeed and has very rigid ideas of what success is. But who is then forced to challenge those ideas because things aren’t working out, which is frustrating for her because she’s following all the “rules” for how to succeed.
You have a lot of fun introducing Ava and playing with the enemies to lovers trope. Is that a trope that you love? It’s one of my all time favorites.
Brophy: I think it’s my favorite trope! I do also like academic rivals to lovers. Then I put them on the page and they didn’t do exactly what I wanted them to do because I found that I don’t actually enjoy writing to people being nasty to each other. So then I just thought it would be really hilarious to have characters who just had really different perspectives on what was happening. So the base of the whole thing is a strange misunderstanding based on this sort of insecurity that you get from being two women of color in a very white environment and pitted against each other. I really enjoyed that. I also just wanted to write like a really cute, sweeping queer romance book because I enjoy that sort of thing!
How to Succeed in Witchcraft is available now.