The hotel witch by Jessica Miller

Jessica Miller is creating highly original middle-fiction. Her previous books were Elizabeth and Xenobia and The Republic of Birds. Jessica’s books are fantasies with a dose of black intrigue.

Jessica writes about her new work, The Hotel Witch, for Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords blog.

It’s funny how things creep into a story, after you start to write it. And often it’s only when you finish a story that you can fully see how all the threads of your long-standing obsessions, your recent interests, your favourite words, the stories you read so often in childhood you could probably still recite them verbatim, your formative memories, and that one intriguing conversation you once half-overheard on a bus, have tangled through the Extremely Clear and Very Logical synopsis you wrote[1] and turned the story you thought you were writing into something altogether different.

And yes, when I say ‘you’, I do mean me.

Unusually, for me, I know exactly where the first spark of the idea for The Hotel Witch came from. In the summer of 2014, I was in Riga, and I woke up very early to take a walk. It had rained in the night and the cobblestones were covered in wide glassy puddles. The historical centre of Riga is filled with astonishingly beautiful art nouveau buildings, barnacled with porticos, pillars, scrollwork and statues[2] . Walking past an especially large, still puddle I saw the perfect reflection of a grand, art nouveau hotel. It looked magical. Magical in the sense that this reflection in the puddle was a very beautiful thing to look at, but also ~actually~ magical, in the sense that it looked like something that was the effect of an actual spell, from an actual book of spells. I remember thinking, when I saw the puddle, that I would like to write a story about a magical hotel one day.

But while the story started with one uncannily clear image, it didn’t really feel story-shaped until all those other threads – those fascinations, and obsessions, and favourite stories – started to creep in[3]. Here are some of those inspirations (doesn’t “inspirations” sound much nicer than “things that have been rattling around in my head, in some cases for literal decades”?):

  1. Stories set in hotels. If a book is set in a hotel, I will read it. If a movie is set in a hotel, I will watch it. I am very reliable in this way. I like frothy, but affecting, hotel stories like Vicky Baum’s novel Grand Hotel and the subsequent 1932 MGM movie adaptation (Greta Garbo! Joan Crawford!) and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. I like tragicomic screwball hotel novels like I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal. And I like melancholy hotel novels like basically anything by Jean Rhys.

2. A sub-section of stories set in hotels is stories where children live in hotels. Kay Dick’s Eloise series is non-pareil. Judith Rossell’s Withering by Sea is a delight. My personal childhood favourite was the film Dunston Checks In, about a young boy whose dad is a hotel manager and the friendship he strikes up with an orangutan (Dunston, obviously) who may or may not be a trained jewel thief. I thought I might have dreamed this movie, but imdb confirms it is not only real, it stars Jason Alexander and Rupert Everett. Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations is decidedly not a children’s story, but its young protagonist moves from hotel room to hotel room with her parents in interwar Germany, and it is exquisite. On my list is the charming-looking Front Desk series by Kelly Yang.

3. Liminal spaces. The stories I liked best as a child were the stories where one world slips into another. And while wardrobes and rabbit holes work well – as thresholds between reality and fantasy, they are very efficient – my favourite stories featured worlds that properly mingled with each other and started to seep together. Diana Wynne Jones writes these kinds of worlds so well, in novels like Howl’s Moving Castle and The House of Many Ways. I hope the Grand Mirror Hotel, the setting of The Hotel Witch is a little like Jones’s delightfully liminal settings. The hotel is located in the (made up) country of Merovingia and sits on the shores of the Mirror Lake. In Merovingia, magic does exist, but it’s functional and unremarkable. On the other side of the Mirror Lake are the Black Mountains, where magic is wild and untamed and dangerous (the Black Mountains are also where Sibyl’s adventurous mother lives). The hotel is a place on the border between the two realms, where guests from Merovingia mingle with guests from the Black Mountains: where duelling warlocks might be interrupted by the bell for afternoon tea, and where an unattended hatbox might be scorched by the sneeze of a stray pet dragon.

4. Shadows. I think most people who were a. keen readers in childhood and b. grew up on a steady diet of Disney movies have had, at least once, the experience of opening a book of fairy tales and finding stories inside that were far darker and more disturbing than the stuff of 90’s era animation. For me, one such tale was ‘The Shadow’ by Hans Christian Andersen. In this story, a man’s shadow separates from his body (creepy!) then returns but can control the man’s every movement (really creepy!), then finally kills the man (cue me not sleeping for a week). Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated, in a slightly terrified way, with shadows, and reflections, and doppelgangers…All of which is to say, that when shadows start disappearing, one by one, from the Grand Mirror Hotel, it’s not a good sign. To make matters worse, Sibyl’s Grandma, the Hotel Witch has gone missing in Last Tuesday and it’s up to Sibyl, apprentice witch to get to the bottom of it. Which brings me to the last item on this list[4]

5. Apprentice witches. As a young reader, I loved any book with magic in it. But more than the books that featured spectacular magical feats performed by witches and wizards in full command of their powers, I loved books about young characters struggling to master simple spells – these were characters who felt like me, except for the fact they could talk to cats, and ride brooms, and (potentially, if they could figure out the right spell) turn their enemies into toads. Mildred Hubble, of Jill Murphy’s ‘The Worst Witch’ series was one of my favourites, as was Mary Smith, from The Little Flower by Mary Stewart, who follows a cat into the woods and finds herself at Endor College, a witchcraft academy hiding a sinister secret. More recently, I’ve loved Kiki’s Delivery Service and James Nichol’s ‘Apprentice Witch’ series. The Hotel Witch first started to feel like a real story when I came up with the protagonist, Sibyl, who longs to do advanced magic but can’t concentrate well enough to accomplish even simple spells. In the tradition of fictional apprentice witches, Sibyl isn’t serene, or competent, or fully self-possessed. She’s a bundle of nerves, prone to making mistakes. She gets flustered and feels embarrassed. Stories about apprentice witches tend to be pitched at middle grade readers. This makes perfect sense to me. Like the readers their stories books are targeted at, witches like Mildred and Mary and – I hope! – Sibyl are on the cusp of all kinds of magical possibilities. Their stories understand just how exciting, and overwhelming, that can feel. 

I didn’t set out to write a book that is, however indirectly, about a Latvian puddle, a children’s movie featuring an orangutan, or a terrifying Danish fairy tale, but in a way that’s what I did. Some of the The Hotel Witch’s influences may seem readily apparent to plenty of readers, and some of them will probably only seem obvious to me, but I think the story Is better for all of them.

[1] Or at least definitely tried to write, and almost certainly got two-thirds of the way through.

[2] In fact, there are so many beautiful statues in Riga that the city reportedly once held a beauty contest to determine the best example of art nouveau statuary. This lady won.

[3] And it was in no way A Story until multiple drafts had made it past my writing group and extremely multiple drafts had been patiently shaped by my editor.

[4] The list I am writing here, that is; I have left at least several dozen items, like “the history of desserts” and “the mystical significance of caves in pre-modern Europe” off it. 

The Hotel Witch at Text Publishing

Jessica Miller (Text website)

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