Sasha Peyton Smith: On Exploring Grief in Young Adult Fiction

Debut author Sasha Peyton Smith discusses how exploring her own grief led to the first draft of her young adult historical fantasy novel, The Witch Haven.
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Sasha Peyton Smith grew up in the mountains of Utah surrounded by siblings, books, and one very old cat. She attended the University of Utah and the George Washington University where she studied biology and public health. She is not a witch, though she does own a lot of crystals and always knows what phase the moon is in. She currently lives in Washington D.C. with her partner and collection of porcelain hands. She is the author of The Witch Haven, coming fall 2021 with Simon and Schuster.

Sasha Peyton Smith: On Exploring Grief in Young Adult Fiction

In this post, Sasha discusses how exploring her own grief led to the first draft of her young adult historical fantasy novel, The Witch Haven, why writing poorly isn't necessarily a bad thing, and more!

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Name: Sasha Peyton Smith
Literary agent: Hillary Jacobson
Book title: The Witch Haven
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release date: August 31, 2021
Genre/category: Young Adult
Elevator pitch for the book: The Witch Haven is the first in a historical fantasy duology set in 1911 New York. When 17-year-old seamstress Frances Hallowell is whisked off the Haxahaven, a school for witches disguised as a tuberculosis sanitarium, she’s forced to reckon not only with her growing powers, but with the suspicion that the magical underworld of the city may be related to the mysterious death of her brother four months prior.

Sasha Peyton Smith: On Exploring Grief in Young Adult Fiction

The Witch Haven by Sasha Peyton Smith

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What prompted you to write this book?

I was sitting in my childhood bedroom the summer after graduating college, going through one of those bad end-of-college breakups and feeling completely unmoored, when the first ideas for The Witch Haven came to me. At the time, I was spending most of my day reading young adult novels and watching reality television with my mom, so I had plenty of time and emotional fodder to pour into a first draft. It was a time in my life when I felt adrift and needed a life raft. The project became the thing I clung to because I was so sick of being in my own head.

The Witch Haven follows Frances Hallowell, a 17-year-old seamstress who is taken to a school for witches disguised as a tuberculosis sanitarium in 1911, in New York, after accidentally killing her predatory boss. The sanitarium aspect was inspired directly by my grandmother’s time at a tuberculosis sanitarium in New York in the 1930s. I wanted to write a book that felt like all of the sparkly, action-packed young adult novels I loved so much, but that also included all the things I was interested in: feminist history, an exploration of friendship, and the righteous anger of teenage girls. I took the perennial advice “write the book you want to read” seriously. For so long, I was the only audience of this book and I poured all the things I found interesting and wanted to explore more of right into it.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I began this book in the summer of 2015, but didn’t pursue publication seriously for a few more years. I wrote the book slowly, over the course of the next two years as a project, mostly in secret, just to see if I could do it. Being published one day was a dream, but I genuinely knew nothing about the process. It wasn’t until I was accepted to Pitch Wars, a mentorship program, in 2017 that I began to let myself even consider that becoming a professional writer was an attainable dream. So much of the process to publication was talking myself out of my own insecurity. I signed with my agent in late 2017, we did a few more rounds of edits, and then sold the book almost exactly a year later in late 2018.

The general idea of the manuscript stayed the same throughout the entire writing process, but the plot beats changed almost entirely from the first draft to what the book exists as now. The first draft was a fairly self-indulgent exploration of grief, it was quiet and weird and meditative. From that pile of words, I scrapped almost everything, but kept my main character Frances and her big, beating heart as the center of what became a real action-packed murder mystery. A lot fewer people died in the original drafts!

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I was prepared for failure at every step of the process. I didn’t quite know how to react when instead my efforts were met with success. It still feels like a dream that people in the publishing industry championed this book so passionately. The submission process itself went very quickly. It took me a few days for the reality of the way my life was about to change to settle in. But after things went quickly, they slowed right back down again. Publishing requires patience and the ability to put your head down and put words on the page, even as more and more people are reading over your shoulder. It took a while to get used to that.

Sasha Peyton Smith: On Exploring Grief in Young Adult Fiction

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

Absolutely. When I sat down to write this book, I had such a clear vision of the first scene, of a girl standing over a man who is dying with her scissors in his neck. Beyond that, I knew very little of the plot. It was during the process of writing this book that I truly learned what it means to edit. If you had told 2015 Sasha, sitting alone in her bedroom, that only three sentences of the draft of the book I was working so hard on would make it to the final version, I would have burst into tears. But every word written for this book, every wrong scene and clumsy sentence that were eventually deleted, made the final product better. Having torn this manuscript apart and put it back together half a dozen times, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a wasted word. Even the wrong ones taught me something.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

One of the most interesting things about putting my debut novel out into the world is getting used to the fact that this book no longer belongs to me, it no longer exists only in my own head. I’m honestly kind of loving the freedom of letting this book go. It feels like I’m sending my kid off to college, shoving it out the door, telling it to spread its wings and fly.

The Witch Haven is a book about grief and found family, and the question of who gets to have real power. I hope it makes readers feel less alone in the way books have always made me feel less alone. This book deals with some fairly heavy themes, but I also hope it’s fundamentally a fun book to read. There’s nothing I love more than a book I can’t put down at three in the morning, than a twist that makes me stand up from my chair in disbelief. There’s responsibility that comes with writing books for young people. I’ve tried my best to strike a balance between exploring topics that I think matter, and also providing an experience that is entertaining and heart-pounding and vivid.

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

I think a lot about Ira Glass’s quote about being a creative person. ““Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it's just not that good.” I began writing because I loved books, but the first few years were intensely frustrating. I knew enough about good writing to know my writing wasn’t it. Pushing through that stage of hating your own work, of being frustrated because you know it isn’t good enough yet, is the hardest part of being a creative person. It’s okay to be bad. I wrote a lot of unreadable work before I wrote anything worth reading, but it wasn’t wasted time, it was just part of the process of creation. The ability to be self-critical is what allows for improvement, even though it really sucks when your inner critic knows just how significantly you’re falling short of your vision. So my advice is to push past the messy frustrating beginning, to get comfortable with writing stuff you don’t think is all that good. The magic comes when you keep going. 

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