For British author Anna Dale, a childhood fascination with witches proved a key ingredient for the imaginative potion that became her first novel, Whispering to Witches (Bloomsbury).
In the book, 12-year-old Joe Binks boards a train from London to Canterbury, to spend the Christmas break with his mother and stepfather. But when he gets off at the wrong stop, Joe finds himself taken in by one of the several covens in competition to find the missing page of a legendary spell book.
"When I was a child, I particularly enjoyed stories about witches," Dale says. "You got to have a cat; you could go on nighttime broomstick rides, cast magic spells." One of her favorites was The Stream that Stood Still by Beverly Nichols, about "a little girl and a horrible, wicked witch.
Luckily for Dale, she also had lots of inspiration for an appropriately spooky setting for her tale. "Kent [where Dale attended university] is a very historical city," she explains. "The building with the crooked door that I describe in the book really exists. And when I rode the trains, I was always worried about getting off at the wrong stop. There were lots of rattly old platforms that were very dark."
But as Dale discovered, even the strongest creative spark often needs some fanning to catch fire. "I have always enjoyed writing stories," she recalls. "And there was a niggling little feeling that kept tugging at me, even as I earned my history degree."
After graduation, Dale began working in a local bookshop, and was particularly drawn to the children's department. She loved the job, but couldn't shake the feeling that she had another calling as well. "When I was 30, I saw a notice about an M.A. in writing for children at a college nearby. It was a fateful thing that I saw it advertised," she says.
During the final eight weeks of her writing program, Dale worked diligently on the story that would become Whispering to Witches. "I first sent my manuscript to a few agents because I had read that was the best thing to do," Dale notes. Her third try was a charm; Caspian Dennis at Abner Stein took her on as a client in late 2002. About six weeks later, Bloomsbury made an offer for her book. "It was nice that I was working in the bookshop at the time [the call came in]," she muses.
Dale praises her editor, Sarah Odedina, as "a very enthusiastic and understanding person who lets me have lots of freedom. When it came to the writing, we didn't have many long conversations and she left me alone to get on with it," Dale says. "I would have liked to work in publishing. It's lovely to have your book published, but to find that it's such a pleasant world, that was a bonus."
These days, Dale supports herself by working part-time in the bookshop and writing part-time. "This is the ideal situation for me," she says. "I need several days consecutively to write to get absorbed in my book. But it's very lonely. I need interaction with people. I've been working in the bookshop for years now and have good friends there."
Now that she has written one of the books stocked in her store, life doesn't seem vastly different for Dale. "It's funny, because I still live in the same place and am still going to the same job every day, so it doesn't feel like anything has changed at all. Last spring I was living in obscurity, then was invited [by Bloomsbury] to go to Italy [to the Bologna Book Fair], which was completely lovely. And I went to Norway last month to visit my Norwegian publisher and meet some schoolchildren. I had to go on breakfast television and it was like being thrown in at the deep end. It was a fantastic opportunity, though, and quite a thrill. It's like having two different identities."
Fans of her first effort will be happy to know that both Dale's identities—the obscure one and the one gaining more notoriety—are joining forces for "a completely different book that hopefully has the same sort of ingredients. It's about a girl who's an old-fashioned spy. I have to finish it before Christmas! I can see the end in sight, but it's like a hill at the end of a long race."
As for a sequel to Whispering to Witches, Dale says, "That's up to my publisher. I've thought about it, but I wouldn't write exactly the same, of course. I'd pull a few of the characters out and take them in different directions." And from the looks of things thus far, there are plenty of readers who would be willing to tag along.