I have so much love for These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling, a debut contemporary f/f YA fantasy out today, and while you can find some of that love expressed on the back cover in blurb form, I’m extra excited to help celebrate its entrance into the world by hosting this guest post! But first, here’s some more info on the book:
Hannah’s a witch, but not the kind you’re thinking of. She’s the real deal, an Elemental with the power to control fire, earth, water, and air. But even though she lives in Salem, Massachusetts, her magic is a secret she has to keep to herself. If she’s ever caught using it in front of a Reg (read: non-witch), she could lose it. For good. So, Hannah spends most of her time avoiding her ex-girlfriend (and fellow Elemental Witch) Veronica, hanging out with her best friend, and working at the Fly by Night Cauldron selling candles and crystals to tourists, goths, and local Wiccans.
But dealing with her ex is the least of Hannah’s concerns when a terrifying blood ritual interrupts the end-of-school-year bonfire. Evidence of dark magic begins to appear all over Salem, and Hannah’s sure it’s the work of a deadly Blood Witch. The issue is, her coven is less than convinced, forcing Hannah to team up with the last person she wants to see: Veronica.
While the pair attempt to smoke out the Blood Witch at a house party, Hannah meets Morgan, a cute new ballerina in town. But trying to date amid a supernatural crisis is easier said than done, and Hannah will have to test the limits of her power if she’s going to save her coven and get the girl, especially when the attacks on Salem’s witches become deadlier by the day.
And here’s the post by author Isabel Sterling!
I’ve been writing for three years with three completed novels under my belt. The first was a fantasy novel about a girl with two dads and a bisexual best friend. The second was about a closeted lesbian princess. The most recent story followed a young man who was desperately in love with an accused witch, a girl his sister was also falling for.
Close friends, many queer themselves, asked me with knowing expressions, “What’s your deal?”
“I’m very straight,” I’d say, emphasis included. “I’m just a really strong ally for the LGBTQ community.”
They’d shake their heads and ask if I was sure. I insisted there was no hidden reason for my choice of protagonists, but their question planted a seed of doubt in my mind, so small it was almost impossible to see. I convinced myself I couldn’t possibly be queer. I was in my mid-20s. I should know by now, right?
And then in the early part of 2015, the character of Hannah Walsh walked into my life loud, proud, and unabashedly queer. She was already out and in the midst of a painful breakup when she marched into my head, but as I set out to write, I questioned whether I was the right person to tell her story.
Starting in 2014, with the launch of We Need Diverse Books, conversations about diversity in KidLit were becoming more widely discussed in the online book community, spearheaded by writers of color (for whom this was not a new conversation). Reading those discussions forced me to examine why I was writing this particular story and what it meant for me to write a queer point of view character as a straight ally.
I considered reimaging Hannah and making her straight. I was no stranger to rewriting books–it’s a common part of my process, even now–but something in me rebelled against the idea. The prospect of making Hannah straight, of stripping away her queerness, was painful in a way that was terrifying to look at too closely.
Near the midpoint of drafting that novel, I had my first crush on another woman.
It was an intense and sudden crush, but one that I still tried to explain away. These feelings didn’t mean anything, I reasoned, because I liked men. And though I understood the concept of bisexuality, I didn’t feel like it could apply to me. Without realizing it, I had internalized so many biphobic stereotypes that I couldn’t see myself in that identity. I was too boring. Too plain. I didn’t grow up having crushes on my female friends, and I certainly wasn’t the kind of “cool” I associated with the queer women I’d met in college.
And even if I did–maybe, possibly, probably–have a crush on a woman, it was too late. I’d invested too many years proclaiming loudly that I was straight. It seemed impossible to be anything else.
As my first draft of Hannah’s story neared its end, still in the throes of that first crush and in complete denial, I made Hannah fall in love with a boy.
The choice didn’t make sense for her character, but I couldn’t write the ending any other way. Without realizing just how autobiographical the words would become, I poured every bit of the confusion and embarrassment that was swirling inside of me into Hannah. She had been so vocal about being a lesbian, how could anyone possibly understand that something had changed? She was afraid of having her queerness erased. She was afraid of people claiming her relationship with her ex-girlfriend had been a phase.
She was afraid, because I was afraid.
The characters around Hannah reminded her that being bi didn’t mean you liked different genders equally, that it was perfectly valid to like girls way more often than she liked boys. As I wrote, a tiny voice inside whispered that maybe the reverse was true, too. That maybe it’d be okay if I mostly liked guys and only sometimes liked girls. But my fear was louder than that voice, and I pushed it down where I couldn’t hear it anymore. That truth was for other people. Advice I might give to one of my students. It didn’t belong to me.
I finished the draft. I went on with my life. I started reading essays written by bisexual women about their experiences. Until finally, finally, something clicked. Suddenly, I could see all the ways I had written Hannah’s experience as a fun house mirror of my own. I recognized her loud proclamations of her identity. Her reluctance to let that go in the face of attraction to a gender she claimed to have no interest in. The embarrassment I felt so keenly that it physically hurt to realize I had been so wrong for so many years.
When I finally came out to myself, when I finally admitted that I was bisexual and said the words out loud, my entire world shifted. When I stopped fighting the attraction, I was shocked to find how intense those feelings were. Over time, I realized I actually gravitate toward women more than any other gender.
The Hannah you’ll meet in These Witches Don’t Burn is not bisexual (though her love interest is). That particular character arc was more personal confession than anything else, and Hannah remained the out and proud lesbian who first walked into my head in 2015.
Hannah’s identity may have stayed the same, but writing her story changed everything for me.
Isabel Sterling was born and raised in Central NY, surrounded by cornfields. When she wasn’t mixing potions in her backyard, she was lost in a book. Isabel lives with her wife and their furry children, still searching for magic around every corner. These Witches Don’t Burn is her debut novel.