Weaving words and worlds of magic by Madelaine Empson
In October last year, Jessica Jayne Webb published her debut novel The Secrets of Wilderfort Castle via Vanguard Press, an imprint of Pegasus Elliot MacKenzie Publishers in the UK. A historical fantasy set in the Victorian era, the book follows Agatha, who is pulled away from city life in London when her aunt’s sudden death sees her inherit the family manor in the sleepy town where she grew up. She arrives at Wilderfort Castle to find it in grave need of repair and a local nobleman, Lord Caspian, sniffing and snooping around. Agatha soon learns that her aunt wasn’t just a well-off spinster… she was the guardian of a secret world. That world is now Agatha’s responsibility.
With magic, adventure, goodies and baddies, and even a hint of romance, The Secrets of Wilderfort Castle is an exciting teaser of what’s to come from this Wellington-based author and teacher-in-training, who’s already finished book two! Not to mention a third book, a standalone horror based on a fairytale we all know and love, but with a dark, sinister twist.
Jessie will be hosting a book launch of The Secrets of Wilderfort Castle at Schrödinger’s Books in Petone on the 18th of November from 5pm to 7pm. Come along to the soirée to eat, drink, and be merry, hear excerpts of the book, and take home your own copy – plus special limited-edition bookmarks Jessie made herself.
You’re closing in on completing your Bachelor of Teaching (Primary). What made you want to become a teacher?
What I really get drawn to is the fact that when you introduce something new to a child, you can just see it in their face. It’s this whole new world and a whole new perception that you’ve just brought into their life. With me having my two children – both are high-functioning neurodiverse – we have a lot of challenges. But through the journey with them, I’ve really found an interest in their progression, development, and learning. Every child is unique and different. There isn’t just one way, there are many, many avenues and many ways to get to the endpoint.
I read that your family go on all sorts of cool outdoor adventures. Is that alternative learning for the kids as well?
I guess so, in a sense! We do lots of hiking, fishing, foraging. For a while there we were hunting for porcini mushrooms. They’ve learned about death caps, amanitas, mycelium, and a whole bunch of other stuff as well. Now, they’ll be going for a walk or something with their class for an activity and they’ll be like, ‘Ah, there’s a waxcap!’ The teacher’s just like, ‘Oh! Okay!’
I love that. When was the seed for your first book planted?
I was previously at university doing English literature as one of my majors. We had to write an introduction for a story, so I did the introduction for The Secrets of Wilderfort Castle. My lecturer was like, ‘This is really cool, have you got more?’ So I wrote the first chapter and it kind of set the seed in place. I actually wrote four chapters almost a decade ago now. It got shelved until about three years ago. I had a back injury so I was almost bedridden for a year, and I was going down a very deep dark path and actively trying to find ways to keep me out of that area. I was clearing out my laptop to try and keep busy, and that’s when I found it. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do’. So while I was lying in bed, I wrote this book. I finished it and then plotted for the other books.
After applying to over 100 publishing companies, how did it feel to finally hold the first copy in your hand?
You have no idea. It was just so exciting. I’m quite an excitable person, I had a little squee! I was like, shoving it into my kids’ faces. They were just like, ‘Whoa, this is cool!’
And you’ve already written book two!
Yeah! Book one was released online in October last year, but there were quite a lot of challenges and drawbacks to getting it into the country. It’s all a learning journey, and I came into this not knowing anything. I’ve learned so much and this time around, I know where I’d like to go for book two and how I want to progress with the rest of the series. I’m gonna indie publish the second one. I’m getting the editing process done, I’ve gone through and done my own few edits. I have a programme that I’ve brought in because I am slightly dyslexic. Not hugely so, but I have a rare form and had lots of trouble with learning. It wasn’t until university, the second time I was there, that they were like, ‘Hey, let’s squeeze you in this area, because we think you might be dyslexic’.
And that wasn’t until university?
Yeah, so no one picked it up. I think it was about four months out from my exams at college, and I asked my English teacher, ‘Can you help me, what do I need to do?’ She turned around and was like, ‘There’s no point, don’t even bother’.
That’s really disheartening. Is that something you would be on the lookout for now as a teacher?
Oh yeah, that’s why I love it so much. I’ve seen so many children while growing up in New Zealand, and as a child myself – a very long time ago [laughs] – get kind of locked into this path. Maybe because of your socio-economic standpoint, the community that you’re in, the family structure. You feel that you’ve only got this one path, like a horse with blinkers. Especially with teenage kids, they come in and they’re like, ‘I’m not going to be anything, I’m just going to be troubled’. But why? Who says? Is that what you want to do with your life? So it’s about continually pushing the narrative, pushing that question, and always checking in and having that relationship, the whanaungatanga with the children so that they feel valued.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Start what you finish, always. Make sure you plan it because that will help. For publishers, if you try and go the traditional route, it’s incredibly hard. I’m trying this other way now because that doorway didn’t work for me. Make sure the editing is good and is finished properly. As difficult as it is, Google and write a synopsis if you want to. If you want to go the indie route, that’s okay. Speak to other authors online, create that online book community, because they’re the ones that will help you along your way.