Interview with the author of WATERSPELL, Deborah J. Lightfoot

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Interview with the author of WATERSPELL, D.J. Lightfoot

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Frequently Asked Questions, plus Resources for Writers

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Ask about or comment on WATERSPELL or this Web site


Carin, a homeless
teenager, struggles 
to survive when a
wizard decides she’s 
an expendable weapon
in his fight to save his
world from lethal alien
plagues and the
destruction of
all native life-forms.

high YA/crossover)








"The goals of science
and magic are identical:
the unlocking of the
mysteries of Nature."
—Michael Patrick Hearn, Introduction to
The Annotated 
Wizard of Oz.
W.W. Norton, 2000









































Ralph Waldo Emerson said:
"Every writer is a skater,
and must go partly
where he would, and
partly where the skates
carry him."


Deborah J. Lightfoot, author of the WATERSPELL fantasy trilogy and other books

What is Waterspell? Where did the idea come from? How are magic and science linked? How were the books researched? What do they owe to Celtic mythology? How were pivotal plot elements created? How long did it take to write Waterspell? Who are the main characters? What was the writing process like? What is the appeal of fantasy/science fiction? What’s next? How did “Jabberwocky” become a magical incantation? How can Deborah J. Lightfoot, author of Waterspell, be contacted? (Author Bio) (Frequently Asked Questions)


A: It’s a feudal fantasy with a science-fictional, “save the planet(s) from ecological disaster” twist.

That's my one-line summary of an epic story. The longer setup goes like this:

A million people got cholera and 10,000 died of it when a foreign freighter, discharging ballast water, fouled the coastal waters of Peru in 1991 with an Asian strain of Vibrio cholerae—launching the first cholera epidemic in the western hemisphere in more than 100 years. (Segue:) It’s not an alien ship carrying disease that the inhabitants of Ladrehdin need to worry about. Their potentially lethal problem is an adolescent girl who washes up on the shores of their world, shanghaied from her natural home by a wizard who doesn’t grasp the enormity of the ecological damage that the magical kidnapping may inflict upon medieval Ladrehdin.

Q: An intriguing combination of elements! Did you get the idea from the incident in Peru?

A: No. I didn’t hear about the cholera epidemic there until after I’d written WATERSPELL. When I came across an account of that incident, I realized it was a real-life example of exactly the premise I was putting forth in my trilogy. But the underlying ideas of traveling to other worlds or alternate realities have been with me, in one form or another, for years. I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood, and fell under the spell of the fantastic upon discovering C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, J.R.R. Tolkien’s wonderful work and, of course, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I grew up on a farm and always had an appreciation for nature; at one time in college, I studied to become a park ranger or wildlife biologist. But the desire to write won out. I ended up with a degree in journalism—not a fine arts degree, but a bachelor of science—and have since managed to work into my writing both my appreciation for science, nature and environmental concerns, and my fascination with things magical and supernatural.

Q: Isn’t that a bit of a leap, to combine science and magic?

A: Not really, when you consider that—to the unlearned common folk of the Middle Ages, for instance—science was magic. The two have always rubbed shoulders. Alchemy was a blend of philosophy, mysticism and chemistry. The Druids—the original “wizards”—were the intellectuals and learned professionals of ancient Celtic society. I suspect they got their reputation for working magic from their knowledge of astronomy—being able to predict eclipses, alignments of the planets and such—and their skill as physicians, curing the ill with herbal remedies. Such knowledge was potent—revered and feared. They took pains to preserve their mystique by keeping their lore secret. Knowledge was not written down, but was passed orally to new initiates. Druidic poets, for example, spoke “in a dark tongue” so that the uninitiated could not understand. It’s easy to see how and why the ignorant masses would begin to think that these learned professionals were actually working magic.

In fact, the English language still reflects this connection in the words grammar and glamour. I read in David Crystal’s fascinating Encyclopedia of the English Language an etymology of the two words that shows the close ties between science and magic. Grammar had come into the language by the early 14th century. To the illiterate, the word came to be identified with the mysterious world of the scholar, and therefore developed the sense of “learning” in general, and then of “the incomprehensible,” and even of “black magic.” Later, in 18th-century Scottish English, a form appears that is spelled with an l—glamour—which retains its magical sense. Mr. Crystal points out that the Scottish poet Robert Burns links the two words in referring to gypsies who “deal in glamour” and those who are “deep-read in hell’s black grammar” (1781). Glamour developed the sense of “enchantment” or “charm.” Katharine Briggs, in An Encyclopedia of Fairies, defines “glamour,” in terms of fairy-lore, as “an enchantment cast over the senses, so that things were perceived or not perceived as the enchanter wished.” By that definition, I can certainly claim that there’s a good deal of glamour in WATERSPELL—and good grammar, too!

Q: And quite a lot of research, it seems. Aren’t there echoes of Scottish and Irish English in the books, and many references to traditional folklore?

A: Yes, I made a deliberate effort to pay my respects to those great old Irish and Scottish storytellers who are a link to the Celtic mythology that underpins much of the genre. Readers who are familiar with Irish Fairy & Folk Tales (1892, edited by William Butler Yeats) may recognize some of the uses I’ve made of the vernacular and common sayings or figures of speech. For instance, at one point my melancholy sorcerer, Lord Verek, tells Carin: “It's a long lane that has no turning.” That’s an adage taken from “The Kildare Pooka,” by Patrick Kennedy—one of the selections Yeats included in his anthology. Sharp eyes may also notice that I’ve adapted to my purposes that old saying: “Rowan, amber and red thread / Puts witches to their speed.”

Q: Does WATERSPELL take its inspiration from Celtic mythology?

A: Broadly and indirectly, yes. When I started reading the early Irish legends and Celtic myths, I was looking mainly for “the telling detail”—authentic figures of speech, colorful descriptive terms, gritty background textures. But as I read, I noticed that aspects of the mythology had their counterparts in this fantasy I was writing. Or vice versa. For instance, water often has mystical qualities in the legends—Irish rivers like the Boyne were held sacred. It’s pretty obvious from the series title—WATERSPELLthat water has magical properties in my story, too. The traditions tell of quests, leading into the Otherworld and back. “Other worlds” figure prominently in WATERSPELLthe premise that what’s harmless in one world or reality may prove deadly if it arrives, whether innocently or by skullduggery, where it doesn’t belong. Also central to my work is the heroic quest, undertaken to gain information or wisdom, to bring healing, or to find or restore lost objects.

I am by no means an expert on Irish legends. Given the huge number of books that have been produced on the subject and the very few of them that I’ve read (see “Books”), I can barely claim a nodding acquaintance. My sole aim, in working into my writings details from the legends, is to make WATERSPELL “fit” into the world of Celtic mythology the way Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings fits with traditional Scandinavian mythology. Katharine Briggs said of Tolkien’s work: “The whole was not decorated but deepened by the use of traditional folklore which gave it that sense of being rooted in the earth which is the gift of folklore to literature.” That’s what I’m after: to create a fantasy world that’s rooted deeply in an ancient tradition.

While I’m giving credit where it’s due, I must mention The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom (Caitlín and John Matthews) and The Druids (Peter Berresford Ellis). From the latter I gained a much better understanding of why the modern-day view of Druids makes them out to be powerful magicians and soothsayers, “supplying magic potions from mystical cauldrons,” and how it was the Christianizing of Ireland that made this class of intellectuals into “wizards.” And the Matthews book was the inspiration for the two narrative “lays” or poems that figure in Books 1 and 2 of WATERSPELL. The Matthews encyclopedia contains lots of excerpts from incomprehensible Celtic poetry. After reading enough of it to blur my brain, I decided to write my own incomprehensible poems—though I hope that, by the time the reader has reached the end of Book 2, both poems will make perfect sense.

Q: How hard was that to do—to write poems which contain clues to the mystery but don’t give the whole thing away?

A: It was eerily simple. I think Stephen Hawking is right with his theory of “alternate universes.” At least, I think that’s Hawking’s theory! Anyway, it’s been treated in enough episodes of Star Trek that I expect everybody reading this will know exactly what I’m talking about: the notion that everything that could have happened, has happened, with the result that all these “other realities” are playing themselves out in alternate universes. As an example, think of the forks in the road of your own life. Haven’t you wondered how your life would be different if you’d taken the other fork? Well, the alternate-universe notion suggests that some other “you” is in fact living the life that would have resulted from making that choice.

What all of this has to do with the poems in WATERSPELL is this: It’s become simple for me to think that this story has actually happened, to real people, in some “other universe” because, in the course of writing it, none of it has felt contrived. Each scene or episode has fallen into place with what seems very little nudging from me: I’ve been the scribe, taking down what the characters are saying and recording the action. Each of the poems came in a flash of inspiration, as the cliché goes. And they both “arrived” well before I had reached the point in each book where they were to be included. I mean, it wasn’t a matter of writing “up to” the point where the poems went, and then crafting them line by line. Each of them came all-of-a-piece at an unexpected moment.

WATERSPELL Book 1: The Warlock by Deborah J. Lightfoot

WATERSPELL Book 2: The Wysard by Deborah J. Lightfoot

WATERSPELL Book 3: The Wisewoman by Deborah J. Lightfoot

“I was very impressed with the tautness of your writing—your avoidance of clichés, your fresh similes, your strong verb choices. You also seem to have an innate sense of rhythm, as well as a solid sense of when to employ intentional repetition and when to avoid it. And I love the way you drew readers immediately into the story with your opening line. It definitely hooked me and made me want to keep reading.”

—An Agent who critiqued the first few pages of Book 1, at a conference


Continued --->
















Writing in Inside Borders
magazine, Chitra Banerjee
Divakaruni, author of
The Unknown Errors
of Our Lives, said:
"Like heat-resistant
gloves, imagination
gives us writers the
ability to touch subjects
from our life, or the lives
of those we love, that
would otherwise be too
painful to handle. Often
this happens at a
subconscious level, so
that the writer is
convinced that what
she is writing is pure
fiction. It is only
afterwards that she
realizes that, through
her understanding of the
character she created,
she has learned
compassion for those
who were the
unrecognized models for
the character—and
hopefully, for herself as


"It's lovely to know the
world can't interfere 
with the inside of 
your head."
—Frank McCourt, 
Angela's Ashes


"It has always been a
tenet of writing that 
in order to write well 
and powerfully, you
have to descend into 
yourself, look honestly into your black heart,
write what you see 
there and thus know 
to be true."
—Bruce Weber, 
The New York Times


"The foundation of
good fiction is character-
creating and nothing
else. ... Style counts,
plot counts; originality
of outlook counts. But
none of these counts
anything like so much
as the convincingness
of the characters. If the
characters are real the
novel will have a
chance; if they are not,
oblivion will be its
—Arnold Bennett

"Storytelling reveals
meaning without 
committing the error 
of defining it."
—Hannah Arendt, 




















"In steelmaking, a blast
furnace must be heated
for weeks before it is hot enough to forge steel.
Getting yourself into the
writing mood is like that
furnace—you're better off
not to let it cool down."
—Ayn Rand

"Process is the great
happiness. It takes us up
and the time passes
like the wind and we
still have time for
consideration and
reflection. It is the great
bargain in satisfaction,
while the highly 
advertised Achievement
brings a certain
emptiness since it is
very hard to experience
or even believe." 
—Mike Nichols, director


"An affinity for risk,
danger, mystery, a 
certain derangement 
of the soul; a craving 
for distress ... the
predilection for
describes a writer,
according to
Joyce Carol Oates in
The Faith of a Writer:
Life, Craft, Art



I don’t remember the exact circumstances of the first “arrival,” but I recall grabbing a notepad and locking myself in the bathroom to make sure I wasn’t disturbed. I sat on the toilet (lid down) and scribbled out the first draft in longhand. What appears in the book is very little altered from that longhand version. The second poem came to me one morning while the maid was at work in my house. She had the vacuum cleaner going; the stereo was on—it was quite noisy, and I’m a writer who generally likes it VERY quiet when I work. But in the midst of the racket, I wrote the second “lay,” again getting the poem down in longhand, in a form that was essentially final in its first incarnation. It was a pretty weird experience—almost as if the poems actually existed “out there,” and I was just writing down somebody else’s words. That’s been among the most gratifying aspects of this years-long effort: getting better in touch with my subconscious mind, learning how it works and learning to make good use of it. Because, of course, for all my talk of other universes and writing down what the characters are saying, I know that what’s really going on is my subconscious creative mind creating, and my conscious mind getting it down on paper.

Q: You said a “years-long” effort. How many?

A: I stopped counting at ten! In self-defense, let me say that in the first few years of my work on WATERSPELL I didn’t get much done—just a few chapters. I tell myself it was because I was busy making a living and didn’t have time to write an epic, but deep down I know I was procrastinating for fear of failure. Self-doubt must be a writer’s worst enemy. I’d already published three books, all of them award-winners, all of them well-received by readers and critics. And one of them was over 100,000 words, so I’d demonstrated that I had the persistence and patience to keep going on a project of that length and see it through.

My first three books, however, were nonfiction—history and biography—and so there wasn’t as much of my own heart and soul in them as appears in the WATERSPELL books. Beyond the obvious differences between fiction and nonfiction, the distinction that’s perhaps the most important is: When you’re writing nonfiction, you’re writing about a person or a subject outside yourself, and you’re expected to keep yourself out of it as much as possible. I studied journalism, remember; it was pounded into me to “be objective.” Writing fiction is truly “sitting down at the computer and opening a vein.” Even if your story is the wildest flight of fancy, you can’t help but put a good bit of yourself into it. Your likes and dislikes, your attitudes and opinions, your sensibilities and personal traits will all be reflected, at least to some extent, in your characters and your story.

Certainly I relate strongly to the viewpoint character in WATERSPELL, teenaged Carin. I have her—or she has my—innate suspiciousness of others and mistrust of authority, my pride, self-reliance and desire for self-determination, tempered (I hope) by a sense of honor, justice, and compassion. In many ways I’m still her age—and, no, I can’t say just what her age is. I deliberately left it vague, for two reasons. First: There’s really no way to say for sure, because she doesn’t remember her childhood. She knows only that she came to the world called Ladrehdin (pronounced LAD-ruh-din) as a “half-grown child.” When we pick up her story, it’s five years later. What’s a “half-grown child”? Age 10 or 11? That would make her 15 or 16 now. But she exhibits traits both younger and older than that. She’s impulsive, not entirely logical sometimes, and so boyish in her figure that the sorcerer’s housekeeper likens her to an elf, and the sorcerer himself decides she can pass for a servant-lad instead of a serving-maid.

On the other hand, she’s articulate, an analytical thinker, self-possessed when she needs to be, and uncomfortably aware of hormones stirring. She most definitely notices that Lord Verek is all man. So I think of her as being at that awkward age—neither child nor woman. She's a teenager on the cusp of womanhood. And different girls mature at different rates.

Which brings me to the second reason for leaving her age vague: I want readers of all ages to be able to identify with her. Those of us who haven’t been teenagers for a while can still vividly remember what it was like, and hopefully we’ve all got some of that youthful impetuosity and curiosity still inside.

But getting back to the notion that writing fiction is like opening a window into your soul for readers to peer within: Of course there’s also a lot of me in the tormented, moody wizard, Verek. We’re both short-tempered and impatient, can be brusque in our speech, do not suffer fools gladly, and tend to be secretive. He has more grounds for secrecy, however, than just his creator’s temperament. Besides the reasons treated in the book, there’s traditional precedent. As Katharine Briggs discusses in her Encyclopedia of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures, most magical beings jealously guard their privacy and deeply resent those mortals who infringe it. (Go to sidebar.)


Here's a nutshell presentation of Waterspell's characters and plot:

Teenaged Carin has no memory of her childhood, no home to go to, and nothing to rely on but the whispered advice of a village wisewoman. When Carin takes that advice and goes searching for her past, she falls captive to a quick-tempered wizard named Verek.

Verek subjects her to a series of tests—some mundane and some magical—to discover who and what she is. No natural creature of his world could defy his enchantments as Carin does. What gives her the power to resist him? Where is she from? Did somebody send her?

As the answers come to light, Carin discovers that Verek plans to use her as an expendable weapon in a battle to save his world from plagues and pestilence. If Verek's scheme fails, a lethal epidemic will overrun his world. If his plan succeeds, the dangerous wysard who stole Carin from her childhood home on Earth will die.

So will Carin.

Q: Tell us more about the process of writing WATERSPELL. Did you work on it every day?

A: Every day that I could, and every night that I could squeeze some hours out of, too. Writing WATERSPELL became an obsession. I couldn’t let it alone. I’d be up until 2 or 3 in the morning, then spring out of bed after a few hours’ sleep and start pounding the keyboard again. It was an exhilarating experience. There’s something mystical about being awake in the middle of the night, hearing voices in your head as the characters talk to each other—or shout at each other, as is often the case with Carin and Verek—and typing as fast as you can to get the whole confrontation down on paper in “real time,” while the characters are speaking.

Q: Sounds like a lot more fun than writing nonfiction.

A: Absolutely. What I always wanted to do when I “grew up” as a writer was to write science fiction and fantasy. But I had such respect for the genre that I put those sorts of books up on a pedestal and feared to approach them, except as a reader. I was afraid of failure. What if I tried to write a fantasy, and failed utterly? Could I bear the disappointment, if I discovered I wasn’t capable of it? I had to do other sorts of writing until I got enough self-confidence and maturity to tackle “the big one,” the fantasy saga I’d always dreamed of producing. Now that I’ve given it my best shot, there’s no going back. I intend to write more in this genre, and maybe I’ll inspire some new writer to give it a try—as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Lewis Carroll inspired me.

Let me also mention some of my other favorite writers, in no particular order: Frank Herbert (Dune), Anne McCaffrey (The Dragonriders of Pern), Ursula K. LeGuin (Earthsea), Edgar Allan Poe and Andre Norton (anything they ever wrote), Nathaniel Hawthorne (Twice-Told Tales; I only recently discovered these short stories of his, and they’re wonderful—like genteel, deceptively mild-mannered versions of nightmares as bad as anything Poe conjured up), Barbara Hambly (Darkmage; The Rainbow Abyss), Roger Zelazny (The Chronicles of Amber), Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy), Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), Ellis Peters (any and all of the Cadfael mysteries—a rich source of medieval vocabulary and great fun to read), Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Carl Sagan’s nonfiction as well as his novel Contact, and a few dozen others I can’t call to mind just now.

Q: What’s next for you? Do you have a book or two in the works now?

A: Yes. I’m planning a YA novel that will be a little shorter than the three books of WATERSPELL. Maybe I’ll produce a regulation length 200 pages! The novel that's percolating is a story of the paranormal set in the American West of the far future. I’ve got the characters and the plot sketched out.

But first there may have to be a WATERSPELL Book 4. Careful readers will note, by the end of Book 3, The Wisewoman, that subtle threads are leading toward new developments in the characters’ lives. I can’t go into detail without giving too much away to those who haven’t read it yet, but you won’t be very far into Book 1, The Warlock, before you realize that the “Jabberwocky” poem from Through the Looking-Glass possesses some rather odd properties when transplanted to Ladrehdin. Why? That's a question which begs to be explored further, and digging into it will require a Book 4.

Q: Glad you mentioned that. How did you get the idea of turning “Jabberwocky” into a magical incantation?

A: Well, it reads like one, doesn’t it? “’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves ... ” The language is as strange as any of the “real” magical incantations that I read in books like Irish Fairy and Folk Tales or The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Wisdom. And it fit beautifully with the overall theme: That things which are harmless or even benign in one setting may cause great harm and injury in an environment where they are alien. But that’s enough of that! I want people to read the books!

Q: Fair enough. Is there anything you’d like to add?

A: Just that I’d love to hear from people with their comments or questions. E-mail me,, and I’ll do my best to answer, either by private e-mail or, for the questions or comments that I think would be of general interest, on my blog, A Little Light Blogging by Deborah J. Lightfoot. So check in from time to time, here or there, and see what’s new.

Q: We’ll do it.

Author Bio

Deborah J. Lightfoot has been writing since childhood and seeing her work in print since college. Her first sale to a paying market was in 1980. A few thousand news stories, a hundred magazine features and three books later, she’s come back to the genre she loves and reached a personal best with her new YA/crossover fantasy, the WATERSPELL trilogy. (For more biographical info, please see Frequently Asked Questions and see her “main” website,

© 2009-2011 Deborah J. Lightfoot / All Rights Reserved

Questions? Comments?

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