NYCC 2014: Amber Benson Talks Witches, Writing, and Passing the Bechdel Test

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The multi-talented Amber Benson is best recognized as Tara Maclay from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but recently, she is starring in Geek & Sundry’s new show Morganville: The Series and wrote the Calliope Reaper-Jones series for Penguin. Her newest book The Witches of Echo Park is coming out in January 2015. She sat down with me at New York Comic Con to discuss her life-long fascination with magic and how to make it through the saddest moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

 

First off, could you give me a quick rundown of The Witches of Echo Park? As a reader, what do I need to know about it?

What do you need to know? What are the definitive bits and pieces to The Witches of Echo Park? You know, I wanted to write a series about women and their relationships with each other outside of talking about dudes. I wanted to write something that would pass the Bechdel test, and I thought, well, what better way to sort of create that world than to sort of center it around a covenant of witches.

I live in the east side of Los Angeles, and that’s like my stomping ground and it’s such a magical place. You walk down the street and there are botánicas. You walk in, and there’s saints candles and magic spells that you can buy, and there’s houses perched on these hilltops that you can’t access except via staircases. There’s no road to them, you know. I was so entranced by the neighborhood, so that was sort of like the meeting of the two is women and their relationships with each other set in this environment that I love.

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So much of your writing and acting has revolved around witches. What exactly intrigues you about witches, and why is society threatened by the notion of magically powerful women?

(Laughs) I don’t know why they’re threatened by magically powerful women. I’ve always been interested in the occult. Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated with what happens when you die, is magic real. So I did a lot of reading. I was the kid looking up how to make a zombie when I was like 11. I think the school librarian thought I was crazy. Maybe I am slightly crazy!

And then that sort of led me to world religions and mythology and Joseph Campbell and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and I watched the Bill Moyers special where he talks to Joseph Campbell, and I thought, “Oh, that’s so intriguing to me, that all of these different mythologies sort of come from the same place and are trying to answer the same questions, and there’s a lot of magic in it.” And I thought, I want to be a mythologist when I grow up, and I realized no, I don’t want to be a mythologist. I want to be a storyteller. That’s where the magic is. It’s not in the myths and dissecting them, it’s in creating stories that have power to them.

I guess that leads me into why people would be frightened of strong, powerful women because people are frightened of things they don’t understand, and the idea of magic frightens people. There’s nothing they can see, touch, smell, taste that tells them it is real, and it frightens them.

As far as your mythology with this book, what sources did you draw from?

Actually, the previous series I did for Penguin was called the Calliope Reaper-Jones series, and I actually dealt with a myriad of world religions. We dealt with Hinduism and Aztec mythology and Egyptian mythology. The witches in this new series that I’m doing is less about mythology and more about the psychology of why people do what they do. What is magic? Is it coincidence? When you have an intuitive feeling about something, is it you being Sherlockian and going around connecting all the dots going, “Well, this guy is doing this, this, and this, and this is why I intuitively thought he was going to call me.” Or is there like a magic? Is there something we’re snapping into, some collective unconscious that we’re tapping into? So that’s really what inspired me with these books.

From what I’ve seen of your books, you aim very much at a young adult audience. Banned Books Week happened just a few weeks ago, and there was a lot of discussion about what is appropriate for young readers, what they can handle. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was pulled from bookshelves because parents thought that kids couldn’t handle the notion of death. What do you think young readers need today in books aimed at them, and how do you view your responsibility as an author and a storyteller?

You know, the first series I did wasn’t YA, but it did skew, I would say “new adult.” It definitely skewed to a younger audience, but for me, I wasn’t expecting younger people to read some of the books in the series because there was some sexual stuff in there, and I was like, that’s not really appropriate for younger readers! The first book is fine, but the second and third have a couple of moments that are probably not for 12-year-olds.

But you know, the idea that children can’t handle death is, that doesn’t make any sense to me because it’s out there every day. You can’t turn on the news without seeing it, and there’s a desensitizing of what that means and how valuable human life is. You see people shooting people on the news, or in the media too when you see Sylvester Stallone shooting up a whole bunch of people, and they just cease to have any value. They’re not people anymore, they’re just things to be destroyed.

If you’re going to talk about these big topics like death or sex or any of these things to a younger audience, you have to make it based in reality, do you know what I mean? It has to come from a real place, and I think it’s totally valid to talk about death. The Holocaust happened. You do have to talk about it, because if you stop talking about it, you are doomed to repeat it. For any aspect of these atrocities that happen, whether it is Rwanda or what is happening in West Africa right now with the lack of health care. You have to make children aware. You just have to be responsible about it.

On a personal note, I’ve been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the beginning, and I’m about halfway through a certain episode involving you (Season 6, Episode 19, "Seeing Red") that my husband came running into the room and goes, “What episode are you on?” And he told me to stop and said to watch anything but that because I was already having a bad day.

Ohhhh… (Laughs)

My question is, is there any emotional preparation that maybe you would recommend for the end of that particular episode? Like ice cream or strong drinks or a box full of puppies?

You need some Ben & Jerry’s on one side, a box of Kleenex on the other, and then a strong, strong alcoholic beverage. Just one, only one. I’m not promoting alcoholism in any shape or form, just one! A Mai Tai! You need a Mai Tai!

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The Witches of Echo Park is now available for pre-order from Amazon, Murder by the Book, Mysterious Galaxy, and Indiebound. For more information on Amber Benson’s upcoming show Morganville: The Series, check out the show’s official website here, and check out more Geek & Sundry shows on their official site here. Amber Benson can also be found on Twitter @amber_benson.

Nov
04
2014
Rachel Kolb • Staff Writer

I love movies, writing, and breaking into song in public. You can follow me on Twitter @rachelekolb or check out more of my work at http://rachelekolb.wordpress.com.

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