So Is Yours: M.A. Phillips
To commemorate the book's release, I'm sharing the "So Is Yours" interview series in which I share insights from other authors about their creative work as well as the role of family in their own stories.
M.A. Phillips is a writer and fabric artist in Northern NY. She lives with her husband, daughter, and three lazy cats. She fell in love with writing and sewing at a young age thanks to her encouraging, creative family. Over the years, she’s made various plushies and fabric art dolls who have found homes on bookshelves and altars around the United States. Mythology, folklore, and the landscape are her primary inspirations. Her writing has been published in The Ampersand, Oak Leaves, and Stone, Root, and Bone. Her debut novel, River Magic, was released by Shadow Spark Publishing in October 2020, and followed by Hearth Magic and Forest Magic to compose the Rituals of Rock Bay Series. Find her on Twitter @ditzydruid.
MICHAEL CHIN: You and I first met all the way back in high school! I remember that we both participated in the literary magazine staff, in addition both playing viola in the orchestra. We hadn’t been in touch for nearly two decades when we reconnected on Twitter (the wonders of social media!). One thing I remember about you and our interactions is that we were both writers as teenagers. Most of the people I knew who wrote at such a young age wound up not pursuing it much in adult life. I’d love to hear a bit about your own journey as a writer—if you continued writing in those interceding years, or if there were periods of time when you stepped away from that part of your identity? How have you evolved and changed as a writer over time?
M.A. PHILLIPS: I’m so glad we reconnected! During my journey toward publication, I found you on Twitter and was delighted to see all the work you’ve been doing. Seeing other friends publish their writing gave me hope to persevere.
At some point in college, I got a bit discouraged because I wasn’t taking any creative writing classes; I could never fit them in. I worried I was falling behind my other writer friends, and I just stopped. Instead, I turned toward one of my other hobbies—sewing. I threw myself into making dolls which fulfilled my desire for self-expression, but the stories in my head never went away. I thought about them while driving to work, proctoring tests, or lying awake in bed. When I had my daughter, sewing went on the back burner because I was constantly holding her, which does not lend itself to making very precise stitches with a needle or hunching over a sewing machine. I could, however, type one-handed. I decided to bring the story I’d been carrying to life, and I began thinking of myself as a writer once again.
MICHAEL CHIN: Your sense of spirituality permeates the Rituals of Rock Bay series, and I think one of the most impressive qualities of the three books is the way they simultaneously feel grounded in the more secular, more mainstream world, but also incorporate a brand of magical realism that’s rooted in spiritual tradition and a sense of adoration for nature. I wondered if you could discuss how your own spiritual practice informs your creative work, and ways in which your experiences in the world may have seeped into these novels?
M.A. PHILLIPS: Originally, the characters and their romance came first, but Lacey and Cian were going to be in an urban fantasy with an epic conflict between the human and fairy realm. The further I got, the less I liked it. Around this time, I began reading novels by Alice Hoffman about contemporary people with lives steeped in magic. Inspired, I decided to try writing about real Pagans like me, to represent some of our practice without the Hollywood fireballs. There are lots of fun fantasy books about witches and other magical people, but they often contribute to misunderstandings about who we are and what we do. The Druid practices presented in my stories are based on my actual religion. I think it’s important for people to see us living modern lives as animists and polytheists who respect nature, honor our ancestors, and worship our gods.
MICHAEL CHIN: Another defining element of the books is a sense of kindness. There are loving relationships—most notably the relationship between Lacey and Cian that reaches across the full series—but even when there are points of conflict, like the fraught interactions between Cian and Anthony, there tends to be a sense of redemption and that people are good at their cores. I’d love to hear about your approach to plotting and the sort of worldview or thematic concerns you might have had in mind as you crafted the Rituals of Rock Bay series.
When I got to book three, Forest Magic, I decided to dig into the idea that kindness and hospitality have limitations. There’s a character in book three who doesn't have a redemption arc. In wanting to portray the Pagan community authentically, I needed to include a warning: there are rotten apples in every religious movement. A majority of the characters are good-hearted. They look out for everyone and treat others with dignity, but they also know when to insist on boundaries. The festival they organize represents their hopes and optimism for their extended spiritual family and humanity in general. Even though there were antagonists, Lacey, Cian, and the others are able to carry on and create a safer space for the next generation.
MICHAEL CHIN: I consider Lacey the primary protagonist of the Rituals of Rock Bay series, perhaps because we start with her point of view in River Magic, and get a lot of her perspective packed into Forest Magic as well. The middle book of the series shifts the point of view, though, to Anthony and Cian. I’m curious about the choice to switch up the “camera’s lens” at that point in the series. Moreover, I’m interested in what you found to be the advantages, as well as the challenges packed into using an alternating point of view between two characters in each of the latter two books (besides shifting between points of view across the series).
M.A. PHILLIPS: As I said, I knew I wanted to follow Anthony and learn more about how he redeemed himself, and Cian needed to learn more about himself too. At that point in the series, I felt Lacey needed a break. In Hearth Magic, she’s busy studying and preparing for a wedding, but she’s not experiencing a lot of plot-related growth. She’s still there to support her loved ones, but book two became Cian and Anthony’s story. Lacey opened a door for them in River Magic, but the guys needed to step through.
Switching back and forth certainly brought some challenges, but my outline kept me organized, and the approach allowed me to better explore the dynamic between the two men. I enjoyed swapping back and forth in Forest Magic too! Lacey and Cian each had some issues to explore, and structuring the story that way provided organic balance to their union.
MICHAEL CHIN: From your website and social media presence it’s clear that in addition to writing, you’re invested in sewing and gardening as well. I’d be interested to hear about how these other interests—particularly of a creative persuasion—might intersect with or impact your writing (or if you might truly keep these endeavors separate).
M.A. PHILLIPS: I mentioned my sewing above. I want to get back into stitching dolls, but that’s mostly on hold until we shuffle things around at home and I can make a dedicated sewing space. In the meantime, I often keep my hands busy with little projects while I watch shows. There’s something fun about making tiny dolls and plushies. Making whimsical characters is a different form of storytelling.
Gardening is an increasingly important part of my life. My family instilled a love of the natural world in me, and I’ve been gardening since childhood when my dad built me a miniature raised bed. When I feel too overwhelmed to focus on writing, I can always tend to my plant friends - indoors or out. Gardening helps me deepen my relationship to the land and my spirituality. The experiences also inform my writing. Whether it’s plant lore, divination, or herbalism, there’s a lot I’ve incorporated into my novels. The character Margaret, Cian’s big sister, reveals an interest in gardening, and my current project’s protagonist is a professional plant lady.
MICHAEL CHIN: My new book is called My Grandfather’s an Immigrant, and So is Yours and as a tie-in to that project, I’m asking other authors about their relationships with family. I’d like to start with grandparents—what kind of relationship you had with yours and how that may have influenced you as a person, or even as a writer? I’d be interested to hear about ways in which other family (be it biological, adoptive, chosen, etc.) may have impacted your identity and your work as well.
M.A. PHILLIPS: I was very close to my paternal grandparents, in part because they lived down the road, but also because they outlived my mother’s parents. Her mom passed away when I was eight, so hers was the first human death I experienced, and my maternal grandfather died when my own mom was four. Their deaths had an impact on me in that my mother keeps what I consider a shrine for them. I grew up watching her speak to her deceased parents. I firmly believe that my earliest spiritual experiences stem from my mother, and it’s no wonder I went on to build a little altar for my ancestors in my home!
My dad’s parents often watched my sister and me right up through adolescence. We helped a lot around their home, and that included the garden. My Grandma B shared lots of her knowledge about plants. Before her health took a turn, she was an avid artist who often contributed her watercolor paintings and pressed flowers to art shows and the gift shop at the local museum. She also encouraged me to sew and took me along to vend with her at art shows. My late grandfather, who I called Papa, dabbled with photography, but I will primarily remember him as a mechanic, genealogist, town historian, and published non-fiction writer. He wrote about local history but urged me to follow my passion for writing, especially after I shared a short story I wrote for a school project about one of our ancestors who fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. I had interviewed Papa and utilized his research in my first attempt at historical fiction. It’s not something I would ever pursue publishing, but the way he talked about it, you’d think I’d won an award!
I could ramble on about my family; how my mother taught me compassion and tolerance, how my father taught me to be thrifty and observant, how my sister and I went from rivals to co-conspirators. And of course, there’s my best friend, my husband, who is my anchor.
I did not follow in my family’s footsteps when it came to religion, but I often contemplate how they all laid the foundations of my identity with their appreciation of nature, respect for the dead, interest in history, and value of creative pursuits. The rest of my family was also very impactful and supportive. Having read drafts of my earliest attempts at writing novels, they always asked about my writing, even during that lull in college. I’m glad they kept reminding me about it. I sometimes see other people in the writing community share that their families don’t condone what they’re doing for whatever reason, and I find that very sad. I realize I’m privileged to have grown up surrounded by such loving people who nourished my interests.