Naturally Precocious with Shea Ernshaw | YA Author Interview
Interview by Gillian St. Clair
Written by Juliet White
Last year, The Wicked Deep swept readers away, submerging us into the watery world of Sparrow, a town haunted by the legacy of its past. Now author Shea Ernshaw is back with Winterwood. New evocative setting. New nuanced characters. New shadowed romance—complete with all the creepily addictive atmosphere you’ve been craving. If you haven’t yet immersed yourself in one of Ernshaw’s tales, don’t wait any longer to take the plunge. Already a fan? Then you’ll want to position Winterwood on a bookshelf right next to your copy of The Wicked Deep, to fully appreciate the lush, complementary covers in a Bookstagram no-brainer.
Since Ernshaw’s first novel surfaced as a New York Times Bestseller, it’d be easy to assume her route to publication was a sprint, not a marathon. But the truth is far more interesting. Ernshaw was unfathomably precocious. She began writing in childhood and sending her work into the world when she’d barely scraped her way into double digits.
"I received more rejections, and I wrote maybe three more novels with my literary agent before The Wicked Deep, which was originally called Waves and Wonders." - @SheaErnshaw #wickeddeep #yaauthor #yafantasy
“When I was ten years old, I began querying literary agents, if you can believe that,” Ernshaw said. “My very sweet mother would take me to the library—because back in those days you couldn’t find literary agents online, since online didn’t exist. We would go through these massive books that listed literary agents, and I queried with my post-apocalyptic novel. I would then ride my bike down to the mailbox to see if I got a response.
I received quite a few rejections. But every rejection was a fuel for the fire. It proved there was a way to reach out to the publishing world. I could send them my novel and they would write back, telling me that it was terrible! That did nothing but encourage my drive to be published.”
“In my twenties, I was querying again,” Ernshaw continued. “I received more rejections than I care to remember, but for some reason it never discouraged me. I was just excited to see what somebody thought of my work and to know that they were reading it. I do think that querying from such a young age may have been the reason I was numb to those rejections; it was braided into the framework of my childhood— dealing with literary agent rejections! My parents are probably the biggest reason that I made it to this point, because they instilled in me a ridiculous amount of confidence that I could eventually do it, if I stuck with it.”
Finally, Ernshaw snared the attention of not one, but three literary agents, putting her in the enviable position of choosing her representation. Still, the trek to publication proved longer than a Starbucks line of indecisive people. “I got my agent eight years ago on a novel titled Sparrow,” the author said. “I later used the title to name the town in The Wicked Deep—an homage to that novel. It was a witchy story and we sent it out to editors; I received more rejections, and I wrote maybe three more novels with my literary agent before The Wicked Deep, which was originally called Waves and Wonders.
“I had that gut instinct. It felt like there was actual magic woven into the sentences and the margins of that story. If I could just get it published, I knew that readers would love it. Thankfully, the book ended up going to auction and there were multiple editors that wanted it. Thinking back on the journey I had to get here, it was an awful long one. This has been the dream, the thing I have been working for most of my life.
“People often ask, ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ For me, it always comes from atmosphere and setting. Once I decide the place that I want to write about, then my characters appear and share the tale they want to tell. I could honestly write an entire book describing the way a tree looks; it would be the most boring novel in the world, but that’s what I feel connected to, describing the natural world around my characters.”
ural world around my characters.” Just as the ocean becomes a character in The Wicked Deep, Winterwood centers around a menacing forest. This premise launched a cascade of questions for Ernshaw. “What does it mean if you live in a town where there’s folklore around this dark wood, and it’s a place that you cannot enter? How does that shape the people around that setting?”
"People often ask, ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ For me, it always comes from atmosphere and setting." - @SheaErnshaw #winterwood #yaauthor #yafantasy
Her protagonist, Nora Walker, is perceived as a witch in her home of Fir Haven, not because she’s an outsider—far from it—but because her roots extend a little too deep. The women in her family are known to have an unsettling connection to the woods. “The town then not only fears the forest but then fears these women. Nora recognizes that she’s bound to this thing that maybe isn’t all good, but that doesn’t mean that she has to be all bad.
“I am fascinated by the idea of, is your character a villain or a hero?” Ernshaw admitted. “I probably have to stop writing that because my readers are going to be on to me, but I love posing that question. Humans are complicated creatures and we all have a little bit of villain and a little bit of hero in us, depending on the moment.
“With The Wicked Deep, I still have readers who are upset that I ended [it] that way, but they also appreciate that I couldn’t have ended it any other way. My main character had to make a sacrifice if I didn’t want her to be 100% villain. I’m writing an adult novel right now, exploring German folklore, and it’s been one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever written. It’s forcing me to grapple with that idea of villain or hero. It’s following these very flawed humans, making some really terrible decisions, and that’s what makes writing so fun!”
“Authors often say that writing every book is different and Winterwood taught me that in a very brutal way,” Ernshaw confessed. “My characters were elusive. They kept changing their minds about what they wanted to do and how they wanted to do it. I felt like I was chasing them through a deep, dark wood for most of that writing experience. Ultimately, I pinned them down and made them tell me what their story was. That book will always feel like the unruly little sister to The Wicked Deep. And I love it just as much, but it was mean to me. It broke me into a thousand pieces and only put half of me back together again.”
"I am fascinated by the idea of, is your character a villain or a hero?" - @SheaErnshaw #winterwood #yaauthor #yafantasy
With Winterwood, “I started out wanting to talk about moon phases and also connect with historical elements generationally—so mother to grandmother to great-grandmother—and look at how the elements in our family history are passed down to us. A big theme was looking at my main character and seeing the choices that her ancestors made, and how that affects her today.”
The novel is set in current times, but is also anchored in the past and in society’s attitude towards women and witchcraft. “As women we’re looking for how we can step into our own and claim some of that power. Calling yourself a witch is a great way to do that. It’s a big middle finger to everyone who was killed all those years ago. If you reclaim that, it’s the ultimate empowerment to say, ‘You didn’t win.’”
Even in a world where technology provides instant access to everything from dating to dining, our fascination with magic persists—or possibly even grows— in response. “We all had folklore growing up, wherever we’ve lived, and that’s what helps build a town,” Ernshaw said, “these
legends about things that happened in the past. Oftentimes, they’re warnings meant to teach us a lesson. We want to believe that behind some secret door, behind an old church, or inside that dark wood, you might find a doorway into a little bit of magic. We’re all searching for that in some way. I’m always looking for that secret portal. When you slip into a story, you can lose yourself in that world—at least long enough to stop checking Instagram and Twitter!”
The idea of magic is closely tied to ritual and Ernshaw brings the latter into her writing process. “Rituals don’t have to be something that’s been around for centuries. In the morning, making my tea has become a special ritual. When I sit down to write, I have crystals; I light candles. Lemongrass is supposed to be a good scent for creativity and so I’m always spraying that in my office.
"I started out wanting to talk about moon phases and also connect with historical elements generationally—so mother to grandmother to great-grandmother—and look at how the elements in our family history are passed down to us" - @SheaErnshaw #winterwood #yaauthor #yafantasy
“Creatively, you’re meant to face east or north, so I’ve situated my desk to somewhere in the middle. I can be very superstitious and then it can turn into OCD, and I get nothing done. I start thinking, ‘I can’t sit in this chair because it’s facing the wrong direction.’ If I’m on a plane and have to get words on the page, I can’t ask the pilot to fly a certain direction just until I finish a scene.
“Sometimes it takes me an hour before I can finally sit down. ‘Okay, everything’s perfect. Slide very carefully into your chair. Don’t disturb anything. Now you can write and all the inspiration will come to you.’ If I feel blocked, I always go outside. Sometimes it’s a brief walk—enough to reset my brain. My ideal writing place is in the garden, which isn’t easy to do when you’re working on a laptop. I grew up in the woods and that’s where I feel most grounded and centered. Come up with your own things that make you feel connected to nature.”
“One thing I get asked a lot is what advice I have for aspiring authors. You need to read like a writer,” Ernshaw explained. “People set book goals for the year and I don’t do that because I read so tragically slow. But I read to understand story structure and plot. Why is it good? Why is this setting so captivating? Why are these characters people I am rooting for? Everything you need to know about writing is in the book you’re currently reading. If you pick it apart, you can figure out how to write by reading any book that you love.
"People set book goals for the year and I don’t do that because I read so tragically slow. But I read to understand story structure and plot. Why is it good? Why is this setting so captivating?" - @SheaErnshaw #winterwood #yaauthor #yafantasy
“I grew up in home surrounded by books. My parents were artists and we sat at the dinner table discussing books, art, philosophy, and the universe. From a very young age, I was reading adult books and then, when I became an adult, I began reading more young adult fiction. When I was younger, the book that changed everything for me was Watership Down by Richard Adams. I have the original copy that I read on my bookshelf; I adore that book. Alice Hoffman was the other big catalyst author.”
Not coincidentally, Ernshaw’s work has been compared to Hoffman’s. “To have anything I write mentioned in the same breath with anything that Alice Hoffman writes is a dream,” the author said. “I read everything that she’s ever written. She writes with a sense of magic and whimsy, but it’s not straight fantasy. It’s magical realism. Maybe you can’t always tell where the magic begins and the real world ends and that gray area has helped influence the type of fiction that I write. I met her [Hoffman] once at a meet and greet, and I was a blubbering fool. It was such a fan girl moment and afterwards, I was just mortified. I’m sure if I met her tomorrow, I’d do the exact same thing [and] repeat it all over again.”
In terms of upcoming and freshly released books, Ernshaw has several recommendations. “There’s Woven in Moonlight by Isabel Ibañez—such a great title. I haven’t read it yet, but the ARC is on its way and I’m so excited; it comes out in 2020. Adrienne Young, who is a dear pal of mine, I love what she writes.” Young is known for her fantasy novels, Sky in the Deep and The Girl the Sea Gave Back, and has a new duology in the works.
Aside from those authors, Ernshaw remains devoted to her source of inspiration. “Honestly, it does go back to Alice Hoffman. Whenever anyone asks, ‘What inspires you?’ or they’re looking for stuff in the same vein as what I write. I always say, ‘Go read Alice Hoffman.’” To which we would add, go read Shea Ernshaw! Winterwood was released on 11/5/19.
Which is your favorite enchanted literary setting?
Let us know in the comments down bellow!
"I grew up in home surrounded by books. My parents were artists and we sat at the dinner table discussing books, art, philosophy, and the universe." - @SheaErnshaw #winterwood #yaauthor #yafantasy
This article was originally printed in the Winter 2019 issue of Curiositales. If you would like to receive a free digital copy of the magazine, sign up for our newsletter at the top of this page! Then, confirm your email address (be sure to check your spam folder). Once you click the link in your welcome email, you'll get regular news from Curiositales, including notifications when the latest magazine is published. You can unsubscribe whenever you like. Or, you can read it for free here.
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