Q: What was your inspiration for the series?
A: Many years ago I stumbled on a beautiful children’s book by Jane Yolen, a retelling of an old Scottish ballad called “Tam Lin.” The ballad is about a handsome knight who is kidnapped by the queen of the fae and is rescued by a brave mortal girl who has fallen in love with him. The story haunted me. I read all the different versions of it I could find by different authors—and there are plenty! But I couldn’t find a book that told the story the way I thought it should be told, so I finally decided to write my own.
Originally I wanted to set it in 19th-century Scotland and have the hero and heroine be in their twenties. That version fizzled out on me, though, and it wasn’t until I realized it should be a modern-day high-school story that it really took off.
Q: What about the ballad appealed so much to you?
A: For one thing, it tells the story of a brave young woman who rescues the man she loves. I seem to be drawn to that plot (Sea of Secrets, my gothic romance, is another example).
To me the Tam Lin story is about standing by the person you love even when it may look like a stupid or even dangerous thing to do. In the ballad, the queen of the fae turns Tam Lin into a series of dangerous forms, like a bear, a lion, or a snake. The heroine has to hold tight to him even when it means risking her own life. My Tam Lin character, Tanner, transforms in personality rather than outward form, so Joy is always seeing new faces to Tan, and some of them are really off-putting. She has to trust that he isn’t really the shallow person he sometimes seems to be.
Q: Is Ash Grove High School for the Performing Arts based on an actual place?
A: The area of North Carolina where I set the stories is real, including Lake Chatuge and the Hiwassee River, but the real-life Brasstown is actually home to the distinguished John C. Campbell Folk School. In my books I remove the folk school and put Ash Grove in its place.
As a teen I longed to go to a high school for the performing arts, but I was in the wrong zone so I missed out. In some ways Ash Grove is the high school I wish I’d gone to!
Q: Are any of the characters based on people you know?
A: Actually, I try not to base my characters on real people, although in some cases I’ve borrowed a detail here or there from someone I know, like a particular habit or physical trait. Mo, the head of the Ash Grove music department, comes the closest to being modeled on a real person; he’s a kind of loving homage to one of my writing mentors.
Q: So there’s no real-life Tanner?
A: Physically, Tanner was modeled on the dreamy Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd. I took some liberties with his appearance, but he was my starting point.
Q: How did you create the mythology for the series?
A: It’s a work in progress! I’ve loved stories about ghosts and supernatural creatures since I was a kid, so I have a whole lot of “research” to draw from. I’ve always thought that the most interesting supernatural beings are the ones that seem human, because they can be a more insidious and disturbing kind of threat than, say, animalistic critters who can only hurt you physically.
Q: Music plays an important role in the Ash Grove books. What are some of your influences? Why did you write your own songs instead of using existing songs?
A: Unfortunately, getting the rights to quote other people’s lyrics can be a complicated and costly undertaking! And it was more satisfying to write my own lyrics so that they’d really fit my characters’ situations. Traditional folk songs influenced the ballad Joy writes in The Shadow and the Rose–especially songs using the rose as a symbol of love, like the original “Tam Lin” ballad.
Casting Shadows, the sequel, uses music even more. When I was starting to draft the story I kept hearing Snow Patrol’s “Just Say Yes” on the radio, and to me it really captured that breathless, yearning feeling of falling in love. As weird as this may sound, that song influenced “She Says Yes,” a very bitter and angry song I wrote for one of my characters about love turning into feelings of betrayal.
Another song that comes into the story is a real-life song by the Atlanta band The Producers. To name it here would be spoilery, though!
Q: What will your next book be?
A: Among the Shadows, book 3 of the Ash Grove chronicles, was a blast to write–the first time I’ve written alternate realities, and that was really exciting. Now I’m working on a short story about how Gail Brody met her husband, Jim, and how the magic of Ash Grove brought them together–along with a young Joy. I’m also planning to jump back in time to the ‘80s to tell the story of Anna Merridew, Joy’s mother, when she was an Ash Grove student, and we’ll find out what role magic played in her surprising relationship with Steven. I’ll also be departing from the Ash Grove books to write another historical gothic romance in the vein of Sea of Secrets. There are lots more stories to tell, so stay tuned!
Updated March 30, 2013