Interview With an Author: JJA Harwood

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author JJA Harwood and her debut novel, The Shadow in the Glass
Author JJA Harwood and her debut novel, The Shadow in the Glass

JJA Harwood is an author, editor, and blogger. She grew up in Norfolk, read History at the University of Warwick, and eventually found her way to London, which is still something of a shock for somebody used to so many fields. When not writing, she can be found learning languages, cooking with more enthusiasm than skill, wandering off into clearly haunted houses, and making friends with stray cats. The Shadow in the Glass is her debut novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Shadow in the Glass?

I’ve always been interested in fairy tales, but Cinderella never really grabbed me until I came across a version where the Cinderella character is tricked into killing her own stepmother by the woman who goes on to become Stepmother number two. I’d always thought of Cinderella as a pure, sweet character up until that point, so I was fascinated by the idea of what could have pushed her to the point of murder. Add one terrifying nightmare into the mix and I was all set!

Are Ella or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

Definitely not! I’m pleased to say that the people in my life are much nicer than the characters in my book. Although there’s definitely a part near the end of the book where you can see my own frustration with Eleanor as a character start to bleed through into another character’s speech. It was a lot of fun writing her flaws, but it was even more fun to let my other characters point them out!

The Shadow in the Glass is a decidedly dark story inspired by traditional fairy tales. Is Cinderella your favorite fairy tale story or is it a different story?

Cinderella has never been one of my favorite fairy tales, which I think is why I felt so comfortable turning it upside down. I’ve always been drawn to fairy tales where the protagonist gets to travel around in more of a quest narrative. East of the Sun, West of the Moon, and The Snow Queen are probably my favorites!

Do you have a favorite version/retelling of the Cinderella tale (novels, film, or television)? A least favorite? One that is so bad it is fun?

Definitely Giambattista Basile’s version from the seventeenth century, where sweet little Cinderella gets tricked into killing her stepmother. But I won’t lie, I have a soft spot for the 2015 movie as well!

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how original/traditional fairy tales continue to be a source of inspiration continue to artists centuries after they were first written down?

I think there’s something very comforting about fairy tales. Their familiarity can be very reassuring, and it’s nice to come back to something that you know is going to be emotionally satisfying. But I think the reason why writers and artists keep coming back to them as opposed to readers is that at their core, fairy tales are quite simple stories, and that encourages storytellers to add something of their own in the retelling. Whether it’s character or setting, the simplicity of the fairy tale structure leaves a lot of room for storytellers to make the tales their own!

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’ve just started The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell. She’s one of my favorite writers and I’m really enjoying it!

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Number one is always going to be Terry Pratchett—I devoured the Discworld novels as a teenager and I’ve never looked back. Daphne du Maurier is definitely up there for me as well, I love the wonderful sense of atmosphere in her novels. I’m also a huge admirer of Sarah Waters’ work, and Laura Purcell’s too—and of course, I can’t leave Bram Stoker off the list!

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

It’s a very strange experience. I write alongside a full-time job, and so I’ve had to fit everything around that, including editing and publicity commitments. It makes for quite an odd combination because the whole situation feels both more normal than I was expecting it to and also a lot more exciting. It can feel a little like whiplash going from an ordinary daily routine to something that I’ve been working towards for so long!

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I was one of those kids who had a new favorite book every week! The ones I really remember are The Witches by Roald Dahl, which was my favorite book when I was about five, and Dracula by Bram Stoker, which I read when I was about twelve or thirteen. I’m sure that tells you quite a lot about what kind of child I was!

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

When I was a kid my parents wouldn’t let me read any scary novels. I had an extremely overactive imagination and a tendency towards incredibly vivid nightmares, so I think they just didn’t want to have to get up in the night to reassure me that zombies weren’t real! Of course, like any kid who’s told they can’t have something, I immediately went out and read all the scary books I could get my hands on. Luckily there was a really good horror section at my local library!

What is a book you've faked reading?

I faked reading a lot of the books for my History degree—we had an enormous reading list that got changed every week and I only had so much time on my hands! In terms of fiction though, I’ve definitely faked reading a couple of Dickens books. Luckily it’s easy to fake those—thank you, Sparknotes!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I actually don’t impulse-buy a lot of books, so probably not! I’m one of those people who treat every book purchase like a real commitment, so nine times out of ten when I walk into a bookshop I’ve already read multiple reviews of the things I want to buy. There are definitely a few books on my shelf which got there because of their covers though—The Blue Salt Road by Joanne Harris is one of those gorgeous books I just can’t stop looking at!

Is there a book that changed your life?

Definitely! For me, it’s either Dracula, which I read at a very formative age, or Twilight. I didn’t really enjoy the Twilight series but it was the first book I read which made me sit down and think about what I would’ve done differently if I were to write a book like that. The book might not have been for me but it still ended up being a really positive experience, because it set me on a journey where I ended up learning a lot about writing itself.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, hands down. That twist completely blew me out of the water—it was incredible!

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The last piece of art I experienced was watching a few different versions of The Phantom of the Opera musical online, with a close friend of mine who recently moved to Australia. We’d both settle in across the different time zones and start the movies at the same time, then message each other all the way through. I’ve really missed watching movies with friends during the pandemic and making silly comments about them, so this was exactly what I needed!

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

For me, the perfect day would be somewhere in the woods. I’d get something going in the slow cooker and then head off on a long walk in the morning, just wandering around looking for spooky things in the trees (some ruins that I could climb on would be perfect). Then I’d come back home for lunch, write all afternoon, and have a delicious hot meal ready for me in the evening. Then I’d snuggle up with a good book or a film and some wine. Also, there’s a log fire in this scenario which I manage to light perfectly on the first try.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Is it cheating if I say: “Would you like a million pounds?” Because the answer to that one is obviously yes!

What are you working on now?

I’m working on something new at the minute but it’s all under wraps for now, so I can’t say too much about it. I’m really excited about this one though!

Book cover for The Shadow in the Glass
The Shadow in the Glass
Harwood, JJ A