L. Jagi Lamplighter - A Magic School Like No Other
L. Jagi Lamplighter is the author of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, as well as the Prospero's Daughter Trilogy (Prospero Lost, Prospero In Hell, and Prospero Regained).She has also written a number of short stories, articles on anime, and is an author/assistant editor in the BaddAss Faeries series. She is a graduate of the St. John's College in Annapolis, MD. When not writing, she switches to her secret identity as a stay-home mom in Centreville, VA, where she lives in fairytale happiness with her husband, author John C. Wright, and their four darling children, Orville, Ping-Ping, Roland Wilbur, and Justinian Oberon. For more information see: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/. As our Author of the Day, she tells us all about The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin.
Please give us a short introduction to what The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin is about.
When my son was small, I worked out a roleplaying game in which one could play a character at popular magic school. Just for fun, I peopled the dorms with characters from books and stories we loved. My friend Mark Whipple liked the game and made up a version of his own, peopling his version of the door with the teenage version of his favorites, TV characters, superheroes, etc.
My husband and I fell in love with his game. It had so many intriguing ideas and themes that we had not come upon before. I liked it so much, I decided to write it up as a series.
Part of the game was played by email, so I have the original drafts. This both makes writing easier and much harder, as the emotions for the scene in the game are often very different than the same scene when it makes it to the novels, and I have to figure out how to retool.
This means that many of the conversations Rachel has with other people, such as Gaius or Vladimir Von Dread, were written in part by Mark Whipple or, with Sigfried or the Princess, by the original players. The overarching plot came from the game. The rest, the background, location, interaction with local fey, etc. are all original to the books and come entirely from my imagination.
The series follows the adventures of Rachel Griffin and her blood brother Sigfried Smith the Dragonslayer. In the same way that the Wise hide from the Unwary—the magical folk hide from the ordinary people—they began to realize that there were other, even more secret things hiding from them. Rachel Griffin wants to know everything, so she cannot resist looking into these mysteries, and what she discovers changes everything.
What inspired you to create the Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts?
The original game that the books are based upon took place at a popular magic school from another series. When I sat down to write this series, I had to invent a whole new magic school—and I had to make it something
My son, who was then about nine or ten, had come up with the idea that the colony on the Island of Roanoke had disappeared because the whole island vanished and that there was a school of magic upon it.
I loved this idea, but I didn’t really know much about the area of the country where Roanoke Island is. So I decided it was a floating island that could wander. Then I put it in the Hudson River, near Storm King Mountain, because that is a place I happen to love. I found out there was a small island in that spot that actually has a ruin of a castle on it. I made that island (Bannerman or Pollepel Island) the part of the island that was visible to the mundane world of the Unwary (us.)
I spent hours on the internet looking at photos of all sorts of places—forests, buildings—that I loved. Then I put those photos together to create the island and the school. So Roanoke Island has many things I think are beautiful, paper birch forests, boardwalks by a river, Oriental gardens.
Then I needed to design the school itself. I noted that there were series where the magic school is like a British boarding school and series where the school is like an American boarding school. I wanted something different. So I decided to model Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts after the college I attended. St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland is quite different from most other colleges. Students sit around one large table. They have core groups, other students who are in all your classes. They have tutors instead of professors. They have an unusual system of intramural sports—so strange that every time I put part of it in the book, my editor tags it as too extraordinary to be believable.
I took my experience at St. John’s and spun it into the world of the Hudson Highlands, creating a marvelous place that is delightful to write about and, God willing, a joy for the reader, too.
Tell us more about Rachel Griffin. What makes her so special?
Rachel Griffin is a thirteen-year-old British girl with a perfect memory who attends Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, situated in New York’s Hudson Highlands. Her best friends are crazy orphan boy Sigfried Smith who has a pet talking dragon named Lucky and Nastasia Romanov, the Princess of Magical Australia. Together, they undertake to discover the things that are hiding from the magical world in the same way that the magical world hides from mundane humans.
Another way to put it might be, Rachel is a very short girl who wants to know everything. This makes her very curious. She is always trying to discover more.
She is helped in this quest by her perfect memory, which not only helps her recall any piece of information she learns, but also allows her to see through certain kinds of invisibility, so that she glimpses things she was not meant to see.
This leads to even more questions: If you see an omen of the Doom of Worlds when it thought it was invisible, is your world doomed?
Readers have described this as "Supernatural meets Narnia at Hogwarts". Are you a fan of those authors? Who would you like to name as influences?
The original description was “Fringe meets Narnia at Hogwarts.” This was a perfect description, because Fringe dealt with the weird things that were hints of other worlds, and that is a large part of Rachel’s world. But Fringe hasn’t been on TV for a few seasons, and people are already forgetting it. Supernatural is similar enough, and similar enough to some of the themes that are built upon later in the series that it seems like a good match.
Also, Mark had characters from Supernatural and Fringe (and Narnia) in his version of the game. A few of them have come onstage in their re-imagined version in the books.
There is definitely a Narnia-like quality to it, in a number of ways, but what I love best about this description is that it says “at Hogwarts.” It doesn’t say “Fringe and Narnia meet Harry Potter.” The story takes place at a magic school that, like Hogwarts, seems like a place we might want to go, but it is not like Harry Potter’s stories. Rachel’s experience starts a bit like Harry’s, coming to school for the first time, but quickly goes of in very much its own direction.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
Hmm. I am a mom. I take ballet classes along with my mom and my son. I can knit. Last year, I knitted Christmas stockings for my four kids. I love hiking and walking and the anime One Piece.
Oh, I teach writing. And I edit.
Which of your characters was the most challenging to create?
The hardest part has been inventing new backgrounds for the characters that my friend borrowed from other copyrighted material. I had to figure out what about the original character was important to the Books of Unexpected Enlightenment and then invent new backgrounds to support those qualities while removing some of the other qualities of the characters.
And, since part of the plot dealt with people coming to Roanoke who had actually been adults on other worlds before they were turned into teenagers, I had to invent entire worlds for many of these characters. God willing, some of those places will come onstage in later books of the series.
Joy O’Keefe has also been a bit of a challenge. She was original to Mark Whipple’s game, but sometimes I worry that I haven’t done her justice.
Vladimir Von Dread can be challenging, too, as he is cool and imperious but also a bit unexpected, and I want to do him justice. And, of course, Leander. I pray a lot before daring to write his scenes.
Sigfried Smith, on the other hand, is easy. He was my husband’s character. When I have trouble with him, I just call across the room and ask my husband for advice on what crazy think he should do next. (We call that process adding “Siggification” to the story.)
This book also explores more serious issues. Why do you take this approach?
That is my favorite kind of writing, a story that is light and amusing on the surface but has a deep current running underneath. The characters and the amusing situations make the story enjoyable to read, but the deeper currents make it worth reading.
Greatness requires a backdrop upon which it can play out. A character cannot demonstrate noble qualities, courage, kindness, perseverance, unless there are situations where these qualities are required.
A mix of light and serious things allows for an enjoyable story but also gives the characters the challenges they need to prove their inner worth.
How is your book different from other school fantasies?
I mentioned the school. Roanoke Academy is based on a different model of school than many other school fantasies. This immediately gives it a different feel.
But it is more than that.
This is volume 1 of a series. Can it be read as a standalone? How do the books in the series tie in with each other?
I wish I could say yes, but, truthfully, I had to cut the first story into two parts, so Book Two starts an hour after Book One and continues the story.
You can read Book One and just stop there, but many, many questions will be unanswered.
The books follow Rachel’s experience at Roanoke. Each one starts between a minute and a day after the book before. For the most part, the books can be read on their own, but many elements of the story weave between the books, and they really build on each other.
Tell us more about the cover and how it came about.
I have a wonderful cover artist, Dan Lawlis. He used to work for Marvel and DC drawing comics. You can find pictures online that he has done of Superman, Spiderman, etc. He does a splendid job.
The cover actually depicts a scene from the end of the first chapter, the moment Rachel first discovers that the world around her is bigger and more mysterious than she had previously thought.
It is a depiction of this scene:
Ahead, a single large sunbeam fell upon the face of a statue that stood otherwise in shadow. Rachel flew closer. A strange sensation overcame her, as if her heart was suddenly too large for her chest. The statue was of a woman with her head bowed. She wore robes that demurely draped over her. From her back sprouted wings, like the wings of a dove.
Flying on a broom was the most wonderful thing Rachel knew of, but…
As if in a dream, Rachel landed her broom and walked forward. Coming to stand directly before the statue of mossy stone, she reached up and touched its cheek. It felt cold and smooth beneath her hand.
“What is it?” she whispered. “It’s not an elf—it can fly. It’s not a fairy—no butterfly wings. It’s not a pixie—too big. And pixie wings look more like a dragonfly’s. What could it be?”
The air was still, but the bough above her head bobbed in the silence. Rachel stood before the statue and traced the moss that streamed like tears down its cheek. A hush had fallen over the glade, a feeling of expectation. She felt as if she had forgotten how to breathe. For the second time that morning, a tremendous sense of foreboding came over her, but what it foretold, whether good fortune or ill, she knew not.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
I wish I did.
I live in a townhouse with my husband and four kids who are now teens and young adults. My days are…very busy.
So I write at night, between 9pm and 3pm.
This doesn’t work if I have things to do in the mornings, but often I can get away with it.
What are you working on right now?
I am officially writing Book Six, to be called Guardians of the Shadowlands, but I am actually writing a short story for an anthology. It concerns a girl at the Roanoke Lower School (elementary school) and Od (Odysseus) Rune, a boy who someday will become a friend of Rachel’s blood brother, Sigfried Smith.
The girl is in a wheelchair due to an accident at the circus where her family worked, an accident which killed her parents. This story is about the effect a brief encounter with Od Rune has on her life. The story will probably be called “See you down the road,” which is a phrase circus people say to each other.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I help run three websites, Superversive SF, Fantastic Schools and Where to Find Them, and Superversive Inkling. The second has a list of every magic school series we have been able to locate.
Superversive SF: http://www.superversivesf.com/
Fantastic Schools and Where to Find Them: https://www.superversivesf.com/fantasticschools/
Superversive Inkling: https://www.superversivesf.com/inklings/
I also have my own website, though I have not been keeping it up. It does have a nearly complete list of my works:
If anyone is interested in what Superversive means, you can find a free ebook on the subject called Holy Godzilla of the Apocalypse, which is free here: https://dl.bookfunnel.com/sjwfemf1za
I am also on Facebook as L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright and on Twitter as @lampwright4