Music is life. Other people need oxygen—I need music.
So… more than a decade ago, I watched a random indie movie called Teenage Dirtbag. While I loved the movie, Iadored the soundtrack. One song in particular hit me really hard. It’s called You’re not Gonna Save Me by Geno Lenardo (sadly, it’s not on Spotify but you can find it on YouTube and SoundCloud). The lyrics of this song captured my imagination and immediately started filling my head with all kinds of imagery and story ideas—but this was still before I considered writing anything more than a casual hobby. Back then I was still prone to writing the sort of angsty Gothic poetry I had written as a teenager. So, I left the images to compost, hoping something would eventually germinate…
“And I can’t see
With everybody looking at me”
This particular line struck me a near-fatal blow. It captured, so succinctly, the way I had felt growing up. I was a good student who followed the many rules laid down at my Catholic school, indulging in only the most minor acts of rebellion (like secreting pictures of The Crow into my pencil case). I won awards for academics and music, and it felt like everyone ‘saw’ me as this diligent, well-behaved, well-adjusted kid who didn’t need any help, all while I was dying inside: struggling with depression, dissociation, and what I didn’t know then was gender dysphoria. Point is, when I heard these lyrics they immediately transferred me back to being 15 and that turbulent state of trying to figure myself out while everyone was looking at me and seeing a different person. The image in my head? A forest of disembodied eyeballs, staring, following my every move, me no means of escaping leaving.
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This image remained in my head as I began drafting what would become My Name is Magic. My agent at the time encouraged me to develop my story idea as an MG novel, an age group I had never written for and didn’t feel I could pull off since I tended to write pretty dark. learning, I wrote the first iteration of Magic and it included a forest of disembodied eyes.
While drafting I felt weirdly disconnected from the book. Despite drawing from my own experiences as a teacher at an international school and delving deep into the mythology of my adopted homeland, something didn’t feel quite right; I just couldn’t bring Taika’s story to life the way I wanted to. After the MG version didn’t sell and I parted ways with my agent, I abandoned Taika for a few years, not really knowing what to do with this story that meant so much to me but ultimately left me feeling numb every time I opened up the Word doc.
Then the pandemic happened and my already fragile faith in humanity became even more eroded. I’d had it with climate change deniers, with the Trump administration, with the rise of right wing fascism in the world, with Covid conspiracy theorists—basically, I was not a fan of human beings and honestly wouldn’t have minded had an asteroid wiped out the entire population. It was while feeling totally nihilistic and misanthropic that I tentatively dipped back into Magic. I quickly realized the problems:
This book should never have been forced into the constraints of MG.
I’d gotten Taika’s gender wrong.
Their world was not the kind and gentle one I’d been trying to make it.
Over the course of a few months, I first revisited the mythology that had originally so excited me about this story, becoming immersed once more in pre-Christian Finnish folklore and the old pagan beliefs I loved so much. Re-inspired, I gave Taika’s story the major overhaul it needed.
Other lines of You’re Not Gonna Save Me Were still in my mind, and always had been, but I’d had to avoid them because I’d been trying to keep my MG book more about friendship and not first love.
“I’m waking up slowly to the dark side of love
You’re dancing softly through my head
You barely noticed when I gave you my heart
But will you see my ghost when I’m dead?”
I wasn’t prepared to deny what I already knew to be true. My now 15-year-old Taika was in love with their best friend and I needed to explore all the messy emotions that conjured. I needed to let them make mistakes the same way I had at that age, and to let them feel the pain of heartbreak without trying to sanitize the devastation, a perceived rejection could cause. This strengthened the story and made the fact of Taika’s haunting all the more gut-wrenching while also adding another layer of urgency to the plot.
Finally, I was starting to emotionally connect to my character and to the story in the ways I hadn’t been able to before. I had finally excavated the truth at the heart of the story I had been struggling to tell and could now do Taika justice.
While a lot of the original book survived the rewrite, I had to embrace the darker side of both Finnish mythology and Taika’s reality, which reflected our own. In Taika’s world, mages have depleted natural magic with devastating consequences, the same way we’ve ravaged our planet in search of fossil fuel. Taika is bullied and goes unseen in some of the same ways I felt ‘unseen’ when I was their age. While trying to write what I thought MG needed to be, I’d denied both Taika’s trauma and agency. By embracing these darker aspects of my story-world, I actually enabled Taika to take control and become the hero of their own story, fighting back in their own unique way, which ultimately—and ironically—not only made for a better story all- round, but also rejuvenated the book with a sense of hope I didn’t think I could muster.
Rewriting Taika’s story was the catharsis I needed and gave me the strength to get through the pandemic. My Name is Magic He also taught me the incredibly important lesson that in order to be true to the story and characters I’m creating, I have to be true to myself.
Meet the author
Climber, tattoo-enthusiast, and peanut-butter addict, Xan van Rooyen is a non-binary storyteller from South Africa, currently living in Finland where the heavy metal is soothing and the cold, dark forests inspiring. Xan has a Master’s degree in music, and–when not teaching–enjoys conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. You can find Xan’s short stories in the likes of Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Daily Science Fiction, Apparition Lit, and The Colored Lens. They hang out on instagram, twitter, and facebook so feel free to say hi over there.
About My Name is Magic
Taika Turunen has no magic.
Despite coming from a long line of powerful Finnish mages, and their name literally meaning magic, Taika can’t perform the simplest of spells.
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Forced to attend Myrskyjärvi International School for the Magically Gifted on account of their mom being principal, Taika has a hard time fitting in. Sometimes, they wonder if not having magic has something to do with the fact they’re neither a girl nor a boy and if they’re fated to be “Taika the Talentless” forever.
Life goes from bad to worse when Natalie, Taika’s former BFF, is mysteriously absent from class, only to appear to Taika as a liekkiö, a spirit begging for their help. As more students go missing, Taika must take the lead in a race against time to save friends old and new before a powerful group of chaos mages can unleash the legendary Sampo, an artefact capable of either saving the world’s waning magic or destroying everything Taika holds dear.
To rescue Natalie, Taika will have to journey to the liminal space between worlds where they’ll be forced to battle mythical monsters and their own dwindling self-esteem. In doing so, Taika might just discover that magic-and love-comes in many different forms.
For fans of witchcraft and wizardry looking for a new, inclusive magic school to attend, My Name Is Magic, is a story about finding strength from within and potential where you least expected it.
Publisher: Tiny Ghost Press
Publication date: 09/27/2022
Age Range: 13 – 18 Years
Filed under: Guest Post