Find out what happens In The Pines in this new interview with Mariah Stillbrook, where we learn all about her publishing journey and how she came to write this newly-released witchy novel centred on family, with a rural background setting and a curse that must be undone...
Thank you for joining us, Mariah! First of all, could you introduce yourself?
Hello! I’m Mariah. I write fantasy and horror (and sometimes I like to blend the two together). When I’m not writing, I’m reading, and when I’m not doing those things, I’m running amuck with my girls. I have a three-year-old diva and a year-old white German shepherd. I’m also married to a firefighter which makes me a part-time single parent. Also, I love all of it.
Congratulations on the release of your debut novel! Tell us a little bit about In the Pines and what inspired you to write it.
In the Pines is about two sisters with two secrets. To undo the curse that has been following their family for ages, taking out witches in every lifetime they live, they must separate their differences and learn to work together.
I was inspired to write this when I was going through a really harrowing time. Addiction is a common theme in my life; I’ve had my own struggles but it seems those closest to me come with baggage. More than one person in my life was hitting rock bottom when the idea for In the Pines came to me (I’m an open book but their stories are their own, so I will not be disclosing any more info than that). Back then I’d titled the piece Smackdown and made it more about family drama than anything. I should also mention that at this time I wasn’t just admitting that I was pansexual, but I was also setting foot out of a closet made of brooms. It just seemed like I should probably take the magic I was finally accepting as my own and fill my stories with it. That’s how Smackdown became Even Witches Have Bad Hair Days. But that title was far too quirky, so that’s how In the Pines was born.
The book has a lovely rural setting (and a lovely cover to match!). Did you take inspiration from any real or fictional places, and what made you choose this pastoral backdrop?
I did! I cannot for the life of me remember what this place was called, but I must find it again all these years later. Back when I was rewriting the first drafts into something more magical, my mom was staying at a retreat not far from where I lived at the time. I went to visit and realized that this was where Ellie and Olivia grew up. It was in the most magical forest I’d ever experienced and the cabin my mom was staying in was hilarious. There literally was a toilet in the shower. Sound familiar?
Can you tell us a little bit about your characters? Which, if any, did you identify with most and why?
Olivia is pretty tightly wound, but that hasn’t always been the case. She fled the only home she ever knew when her son was taken tragically from her arms. Eight years later, she must return to where she came from to not only end their family’s curse but to find herself again.
Ellie is the complete opposite. She’s broody and a little self-centered. She’s kinda me lol, except I’m a little less cutting. And I can’t play the violin, although I took lessons as a child.
The main characters are sisters, with the plot mostly focused on family, past and present. Was there a reason behind this choice of dynamics?
Yes. Arianna, Ellie, and Olivia are VERY loosely based off of my mom, sister, and me. I took little pieces of our lives and widened them into a very fictional playing field. We have had our differences but in the end we are all very much alike and we’ve all had to move through a ton of obstacles throughout our lives.
What initially drew you to the dark fantasy genre and what do you love most about writing in a magical setting?
Writing about magic comes easily to me; writing without it does not. My sister and I have always found comfort in horror movies because we’re are the creepiest blonde (and brunette) bimbos you’ll ever meet. I guess that’s why I was drawn to it. And fantasy is just so much more fun than reality.
Did you find any challenges while writing this book? How did you overcome them?
Yes, getting picked up lol. Writing it was the easy part. I did get interest from agents over the years, but there was always something in the way. When I would express my frustrations to my beta readers and ask for more critiques (because there must’ve been something hindering me from moving forward) I would often hear that it had to be timing. I’m a witch. I believe in that. But it still sucked waiting to get picked up.
In the Pines is published by a small press. Could you tell us a little bit about how the book found Creative James Media, and why you chose this path over traditional and self-publishing?
I’d shelved In the Pines (and another piece) while I was working through IVF and during my pregnancy. We’d worked really hard, for ten years actually, to get pregnant. When it finally took, I decided I wanted to cut as much stress from my life as possible. When my babe was about two years old, I started putting myself out there, just in time for #PitDark, a popular Twitter event. Creative James Media liked my pitch and it’s all history from there.
Before that I was mostly only querying agents. I’d just started to get interested in going the small press route when CJM liked my pitch. Now that I’m with them I’m very happy that I went this route. They’ve been great to work with and very informative. I’ve learned so much being with them because they hold Zoom workshops for us to further understand the publishing world. I’ve also learned a lot from the other authors at CJM.
You have more projects coming out next year! Can you give readers a hint of what they can expect from you next, as well as anything you’re currently working on?
I write both fantasy and horror for adults and young adults. Next up is my young adult fantasy trilogy. The first one, The Lost Erwain, releases in May 2024. In November of 2024 I have my first young adult horror coming out, The Hall of Shadows. That one is about a cursed deck of oracle cards that leads into thirteen different dimensions of shadow work.
As for what I’m working on now–I’m actually really excited about it. It’s a horror called Betsy. It takes place in the mid nineties and revolves around a closeted teenage lesbian named Roxy and a possessed mannequin..
Have any shows, movies, books, or games influenced your own work at all?
I absolutely love Neil Gaiman, Charlotte Bronte, Robert McCammon, and Chuck Palahniuk. I have a little bit of an eclectic taste (she says with a wink of the eye). I thank all of these gangsters for any and all inspiration I’ve gained over the years.
If you could give any advice to authors who would like to publish in the future, what would it be?
Seriously, don’t give up. I was in the trenches forEVER. I have a very long spreadsheet with more rejections than I’d care to talk about, but writing my stories down is all I’ve ever wanted to do and when I want something, I do what it takes to get there. I mean, I sat down and wrote the best damn essay I could in fifth grade just so I could win a D.A.R.E. bear lol. And I won it. I wasn’t going to stop until someone decided to love me. Also, get your shit checked out. The first few query letters I ever wrote were garbage. I was just lucky enough to meet an agent at a conference that gave me some amazing pointers. She admitted that if my query had come to her inbox she wouldn’t have read it because it was too long.
So to sum it up. Be patient, work hard, and believe in yourself.
Our podcast focuses on media we’re currently loving. Are there any books, shows, movies, or games you’re enjoying at the moment? Any recommendations for our audience? Bonus points if it includes sapphics!
I’m currently reading The Once and Future Witches for my witchy book club and I’m absolutely loving it!
Mariah Stillbrook, originally from Iowa, lives in Colorado with her white German shepherd, husband, and little girl. She graduated from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She spends most of her days writing, reading, and enjoying the occasional hike. In her late twenties she realized that her writing was missing something, magic. She now focuses her writing on horror and urban fantasy in both adult and young adult genres.