Friday, September 23, 2011

Practical Magic Party Favor: Interview and Giveaway with Judika Illes

Witches peek from greeting cards and advertisements, and they dig twisted roots from the ground. Witches dance beneath the stars and lurk around cauldrons. Witches heal, witches scare, witches creep, and witches teach! A compendium of witches through the ages, from earliest prehistory to some of the most significant modern practitioners, The Weiser Field Guide to Witches explores who and what is a witch. From such famed historical legends as Aleister Crowley, Marie Laveau and Elizabeth Bathory to the popular literary and cinematic figures Harry Potter and The Wicked Witch of the West, Illes offers a complete range of the history of witches. Included also are the sacred--Isis, Hekate, Aradia--and the profane--the Salem Witch trials and The Burning Times. The Weiser Field Guide to Witches is appropriate for readers of all ages and serves as an excellent and entertaining introduction for those fascinated by the topic.


When I first received this book from the publisher, I was enchanted. Page after page of fun things about witches. What could be better? An interview with the author, that's what! Judika Illes has agreed to talk with us and answer a few questions...

Here we go...

1         1.      What is a witch?
For me, a witch is a person of power who is conscious of the mystical forces in the universe; someone who can avail herself of these powers or commune with these powers as she or he desires. Witches are seekers of sacred knowledge. Spell-casters are witches, although not all witches cast spells. That’s my definition.
I must add, however, that as the author of two reference books specifically devoted to witches and witchcraft, (The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and The Weiser Field Guide to Witches), I am well aware that there are many definitions of the word “witch.” One person’s witch may not be the same as another’s and my books describe alternative and sometimes conflicting definitions.
2        2.   When did you first find yourself interested in witches?
When wasn’t I interested in witches? I have always been interested in witches. I genuinely cannot remember a time when I wasn’t interested in witches. In fact, some of my earliest childhood memories involve being absolutely besotted with witches.
I was raised on an extensive diet of fairy-tales, folk tales, and myths and even as a tiny child it was the witch I identified with, even when she was intended to be the villain. Although I could not have articulated this so clearly when I was younger, I sensed that witches were being defamed, in the same manner as goddesses like Medusa and Lilith.
For instance, I found Hansel and Gretel to be a terrifying story—not because the children were menaced, but because the witch was killed. I retain very ambivalent feelings toward the Wizard of Oz for similar reasons. I write about this in my book, the Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft.
3        3.    Who is your favorite witch? Fiction and nonfiction
Don’t get me started. We could discuss this all day. It’s impossible for me to limit myself to one. In general, what characterizes my favorite witches is that they are unrepentant. Among the historical people I admire most are—in no particular order-- Agrippa, Sybil Leek, Marie Laveau, and Mary Ellen Pleasant. I have a very deep affection for Helena Blavatsky, Paschal Beverly Randolph, Dr. John Montanet, and Charles Godfrey Leland. I consider the Witch of Endor to be a role model, an example of grace under pressure.
    4. What is your writing day like? Do you balance your writing around another job?
I have so many favorite fictional witches, it’s hard to choose, but let’s start with Jennifer from the movie I Married a Witch. I really love Bonnie Bennett on the Vampire Diaries television show. Her role on that show is so interesting because—at least up until now—she’s been portrayed as an unequivocal heroine. There’s no ambivalence toward her witchcraft powers. As a child, I adored Samantha from Bewitched; as I’ve aged, I’ve really come to appreciate Endora. I really, really like Dr. Orpheus on The Venture Brothers. I love the witches in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And then there are all these comic book witches I love: the Scarlet Witch, Magik, Madame Xanadu, and Zatanna. Yuuko from xxxHolic is my favorite manga witch.

It depends on the specific book I’m working on. My encyclopedias are all-consuming. For those who are unfamiliar, I’ve written four encyclopedias devoted to mystical traditions—they’re very large books containing very detailed information. The smallest is over seven-hundred double-columned pages.  They’re written on fairly tight schedules and so when I’m working on a book like that, it’s pretty much all I do. I basically work around the clock—days and night merge. Then, when I’m finished, I have a lot of catching up to do, in terms of other commitments. In recent years, my other work has been balanced around my writing, rather than the other way around. But I do all kinds of other work, too: I teach and I edit. My true love is divination: I’ve been a card reader for decades and I offer private spell consultation and spiritual advice as well.

5. Tell us something funny about how you prepare to write. (a special cup, cheese doodles, a box of twinkies by your side...) Me personally, if I don't have two bottles of water, a vanilla zinger, a container of salted cashews and a Godiva and my little dog Tadpole sitting next to me, I am lost.
I wish there was something funny about how I write—instead it’s pretty much just nose to the grindstone. I’m pretty low-maintenance. I hide myself away in a corner of wherever I am, don the psychic equivalent of a horse’s blinders, and forge ahead. I do have a pretty severe caffeine dependency; I drink tea all day, cup after cup.
My one real book-writing ritual involves a Daruma doll, which is a Japanese papier-mâché representation of the bodhisattva Bodhidharma who is, by the way, credited in folklore with the invention of tea. Daruma dolls are painted, except for the eyes. You paint in one eye when you start a project and then the second one, only when the project is totally complete. I describe this ritual in more detail in the Encyclopedia of Spirits. I position my Daruma doll where I can see him. Daruma looks very stern and he keeps his one fierce eye on me while I write, making sure that I’m diligent and that I finish.
6. How did you get started writing your encyclopedia series? Tell us a little about the different books you have written.
The first book I ever wrote remains unpublished. It is a book devoted to traditional methods of healing infertility: herbal, magical, spiritual, and so forth. I had been researching that topic for years—well, decades now—when I decided to turn it into a manuscript. A publisher read it, turned down the whole book but liked the chapter on magic spells and asked whether I could transform it into a more general book on spell-casting. I agreed and that became my first published book, which was originally called Earth Mother Magic, but has since been re-titled Pure Magic. That book led to another book of magic spells, Magic When You Need It (previously called Emergency Magic!)
The publisher who worked with me on those two books knew that I collected spells. It was his idea for me to write a really large, comprehensive spell book. It was not originally envisioned as an encyclopedia. The original plan was for it to be about 450 pages, but once I began the manuscript, the book that became the Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells just took on a life of its own. It morphed under my hands into this huge thousand-page book. In response, the publisher was inspired to inaugurate a series of encyclopedias, the Element Encyclopedia series—I wrote the second book in the series, The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft.
I then wrote the Encyclopedia of Spirits, which was originally intended to encompass saints and angels as well as Pagan spirits. The manuscript grew too lengthy: the easiest way to cut it down to size was to eliminate those categories in the hopes that someday they would have their own books, too. The Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, and Sages is the newest book. No plans yet for the angels, but you never know.
In between the Encyclopedias of Spirits and Mystics, Saints, and Sages, I wrote two smaller books, which are basically mini-encyclopedias: The Weiser Field Guide to Witches and The Weiser Field Guide to the Paranormal, which was written under the alias Judith Joyce.

7. Do you write with music on or in silence? If with music-what?
It depends on the book. Writing is kind of like being pregnant—each pregnancy has its own character and impulses. Some of my books have demanded silence, others demand music. I wrote Pure Magic to the sounds of Walela and Taj Mahal. Magic When You Need It was written mainly to the soul music compilation, Beg, Scream, and Shout!
My encyclopedias require a lot of organization, so I have to really focus. I tend to listen to instrumental music or songs in languages I can’t really understand, so that it nourishes me psychically without distracting me. With my most recent book, the Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, and Sages, however, I listened to music that directly touched on the topic. I listened to Leonard Cohen’s Joan of Arc endlessly. There is a CD called La Ghriba by DJ Cheb I Sabbah, which takes its title from a Jewish folk saint; I listened to that one fairly endlessly, too. Various singers and musicians are venerated as saints and I listened to their music, especially while writing about them: Carlos Gardel, Elvis Presley, and John Coltrane, for instance.

8. Will you ever write fiction?
I hope so. I do for my own pleasure and may publish it one day. The fiction I write is witchy-themed. But I also have lots of non-fiction works buzzing around in my head. I currently have several non-fiction manuscripts in various states of completeness, so it’s difficult even for me to predict exactly what will be published and what won’t be.

9. What are some of your hobbies?
I’m a compulsive reader. Given the opportunity, I’d just read all day. I really enjoy the researching aspect of my work. Even though it is work, I do it for pleasure, too. In addition, I love to cook. I used to do a lot of beading, needlework, and folk art—I make amulets and candles. My books have taken time away from that but I hope to return to it. I’m a typical Cancer in that I enjoy collecting things: my daughter and I share a doll collection and I collect all sorts of other stuff: amulets, dragonware, old black cat pottery, postcards. . .  

10. What is your latest project?
My newest book is called the Encyclopedia of Mystics, Saints, and Sages. It’s another large 

encyclopedia, this one devoted to saints and holy people of many spiritual traditions; not only well-known 

Christian saints but also Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Pagan saints as well as many, many folk saints 

and spells and rituals associated with them.

Thank you Judika for your wonderful answers!

Now for the giveaway...

*One entry per person.
*Winner will be notified by email and have one day to respond before the next winner is chosen.
*The publisher will be providing the prize. One copy of the Weiser Field Guide to Witches.
*Contest is US only.
*Giveaway will be open from September 23rd-October 1, 2011.
*I am not responsible should the prize be lost in the postal system.
*You don't have to be a follower, but it is appreciated.


  1. You really put a lot of work and effort in all your party posts.

  2. I agree - I wonder how you found all the time to write up all of these!

  3. So sad I can't enter because I'm in UK! :(

    Love Judika's work!!!!

    Many blessings xx

  4. Love your books Judika!! Keep them coming!

  5. Thanks everyone. Not sure how I found the time, either, but this was so much fun!

  6. Terrific interview, Dana!!! Thank you so much for all your hard work in putting these posts together!!!

  7. Dana, you always open my eyes to new and interesting things, the thing was I just saw this at Barnes & Noble the other day and was like hm..maybe I should look at it and I didn't. Now I might have to!

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