Literary Witches: Taisia Kitaiskaia & Katy Horan On Magic, Inspiration, and Collaboration

Literary Witches: A Celebration of Magical Women Writers is a kaleidoscopic grimoire that positions the great literary craftswomen of our time as seers, sorceresses, and sages. Taisia Kitaiskaia’s gripping, exquisitely crafted words are set ablaze by Katy Horan’s haunting images that pulse with primal magic. Their collaboration will not only inspire you to dig deeper into transportive works of fiction and poetry, but to access your inner creatrix, too. And Pam Grossman’s foreword is the perfect initiation into the coven of literary witchcraft that will envelop you once you crack open this gem of a book.

We asked author Taisia Kitaiskaia and illustrator Katy Horan about the inspiration and collaboration behind Literary Witches.

In the foreword, Pam Grossman invites readers to use bibliomancy to decide where to begin reading. Are there any magical practices that went into the creation of Literary Witches — and if so, what were they?

Taisia: Our book insists that art-making is itself a magical practice! Creative acts involve ritual, conjuring, and the transformation of intentions and materials into something new. But none of my writing rituals are particularly glamorous—for Literary Witches, when I sat down to draft a vignette for the book, I’d surround myself with the author’s books.

Katy: Sometimes I get lucky and find those magical pockets of inspiration in my art making, but the majority of my process is tedious labor. I depend on the things I listen to to provide the magic, like film scores and audiobooks. I’ve found that if I distract part of my brain with an engrossing story, the rest of it can focus on the most boring parts of my work, and a sweeping film score can make any mundane thing feel meaningful.

Can you reveal a little bit about your collaboration process?

Taisia: The collaboration was founded on mutual respect and admiration as well as excitement about the core idea, so it was a smooth, easy process. I would write the text first and send it to Katy, who—working off the tone and images in my text as well as her own research and visions—would then create the painting. By the time I sent Katy the text, she’d usually already done research on the author and played around with the author’s likeness. We were under a tight deadline, so sometimes Katy would ask me what kinds of images I was mulling over before I’d finished the text. Once or twice I went back and edited the text prompted by something in Katy’s painting.

We did meet every few weeks to discuss which authors should be included in the book, and the list was always evolving. We had a few long-term debates. For example, we both love the artist and writer Leonora Carrington, and I really wanted Carrington to be in the book, but Katy felt she couldn’t paint Carrington’s portrait without imitating her distinctive surreal imagery. And there were times when Katy wanted to include an author—Harper Lee was the big one—but I just didn’t feel enough of a connection to her work or consider her to be a witch, and I couldn’t write the text without that connection and conviction.

Katy: I have long been intimidated by collaboration and had not done any before Literary Witches. I have just operated on my own for so long, but as Taya said, the mutual respect for each other’s work and a seamlessly shared vision made this a really organic collaboration. Our heads were in the exact same space, so we never had to explain anything to the other.

Yumiko Kurahashi

Taisia: You have written powerful encapsulations of each writer within Literary Witches using shockingly few words, effectively conjuring up entire lifetimes of work in the space of a single page. How much of each writer’s oeuvre had you read before writing about them? Did penning vignettes about any of these writers inspire you to dig even deeper into their work?

Taisia: In writing Literary Witches, I created the perfect literature class for myself. I was familiar with most of the writers in the book, but some were utterly new to me, discovered in the research process (Yumiko Kurahashi, Eileen Chang, Forugh Farrokhzad). Others were writers I’d been meaning to get to know better, like Toni Morrison, Anais Nin, and Leslie Marmon Silko. For existing favorites, like Anne Carson, Emily Dickinson, and Jamaica Kincaid, it was a chance to read a little further into their body of work. It was about nine months total of actively researching and writing the book—a very happy time. I felt sustained and nourished by these witches and their work, a feeling I hope readers experience as well.

Our deadlines, however, meant that I only had about a week to read and research each writer, followed by a week to mull all that over, and then a couple days of writing the actual text. When I wrote the vignette, it came quickly, but the mulling period was crucial. That’s when the unconscious had to get in the mix. Fortunately, I didn’t have a job during the writing of the book, which allowed me to read for hours every day during the research weeks. I read as much as possible, which usually meant about two to three major works per author, sometimes minor works as well, and books and articles about the author’s life and impact.

But it’s not enough, you know. My education doesn’t end now that the book is done. Literary Witches is a reminder to myself to read more deeply into these writers, and to continue discovering and reading other fantastic women writers for the rest of my life.

Katy: What mediums did you favor for creating images of these writers? How much of each writer’s oeuvre had you experienced before creating the visual for their section? Did conjuring images of any of these writers inspire you to dig even deeper in their work?

Katy: I use mostly watercolor and gouache on a cold press watercolor paper. For those who don’t know, gouache is a water-based paint that can be watered down to resemble watercolor or applied more thickly so that it is totally opaque and matte. I usually start off with watercolor, but it inevitably gets covered with the gouache as I make mistakes that need to be covered up.

When we started making the book, I had read only a few of our writers. I was familiar enough with Toni Morrison and Shirley Jackson’s work to know what their image should be before I even received Taya’s text for them, but many of the others were new to me. Capturing the tone and common themes of each writer’s work was important to me, so I tried to read as much as possible in the short time I had. Poets were obviously the easiest—I could absorb more of their work in less time. Reading Audre Lorde was a wonderful experience as was getting into Sylvia Plath’s poetry. I had read the Bell Jar in college (of course), but I came to understood Sylvia much better through her poetry. With short story writers, I couldn’t get through as much as with poets, but I was usually able to read enough. I finally read some Flannery O’Connor as well as Octavia Butler, whose stories I am still reading. She might be my favorite of all the writers I was introduced to.

Octavia Butler

What do your workspaces look like? What kind of talismans do you require nearby when you create?

Taisia: I have a big, heavy, black typewriter on my desk that I used to write Ask Baba Yaga as well as early drafts of poems and a novel. It sits ominously to one side like a grim black toad. To its right is a wonderful American Heritage dictionary with full-color illustrations. Looking through it before I start to write is always a great adventure. Strangely, every page I open to seems to contain some fact about worms and the digestive system. I’m lucky to live in a magical house, and the walls are covered with what inspires me: a print of “Vasilisa the Beautiful” by Ivan Bilibin; pages from Frog and Toad; photographs of Anna Akhmatova and Stravinsky and Leonora Carrington and Jack Gilbert and my parents; images from Dougal Dixon’s crazy future evolution book, After Man; a painting of a ghost moose.

Katy: My space is really messy, but strangely organized. I work in a converted garage behind my house. It’s not very big, but somehow holds my work tables, supplies, computer desk and a whole lotta books. My walls are covered with bits of unfinished work, sketches on tracing paper and many handwritten lists: lists of words I like, lists of ideas for pieces, lists of folktales and ghost stories I want to reference. I do have some strange objects: a demon baby I made for Halloween a few years back, some paper mache witch heads, a folk doll from an estate sale, bones, a post mortem photograph, and paintings by my grandmother (more special than strange). I think the books are the most magical, though. I use many of them for reference, but there are some that just live in the space. Of course, I have the obligatory books about witches and art, but I also collect books about Appalachian/Southern folk magic, costume history, dolls and all manner of books of and about folklore.

Toni Morrison

You two met through the internet. Who are some other #witchesofinstagram that have inspired you?

Katy: I’ve followed Bill Crisafi @billsafi for years now. He is a true star of the Instagram goth/witchy art scene. I love his drawings and really want to get up to Salem sometime to visit his shop, Burial Ground @burialground. I am really fascinated by the “lifestyle witches” (for lack of a better term) on Instagram. Their feeds are curated so it would seem they live in a past time, usually in a mysterious wood. Most are witches, but some are more like mournful ghosts. Some favorites are @light_witch, @thistlemilk and @familiarspirits.

Were there any Literary Witches who didn’t make the cut but you feel still uphold the aesthetic and ethos of the book?

Taisia: Yes, so many! Here are a few names from our old lists: Leonora Carrington. Margaret Atwood. Bessie Head. Joyce Carol Oates. Barbara Comyns. Sylvia Townsend Warner. Helen Oyeyemi. Gwendolyn Brooks. Clarice Lispector. Daphne du Maurier. Susan Sontag. Ursula K. Le Guin. Marianne Moore. Christine de Pisan. Mariama Ba. Joyce Mansour. Lois Lowry. MFK Fisher. Rosario Castellanos. Siri Hustvedt. Christina Rossetti. Djuna Barnes. bell hooks. Anne Sexton. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. Lady Murasaki. Carson McCullers. Simone de Beauvoir. Jean Rhys. Chika Sagawa. June Jordan. Marina Tsvetaeva. Patricia Highsmith. Joy Williams. Adelia Prado. Alice Walker. Maria Louisa Bombal. Mina Loy. Edwidge Danticat. Mary Gaitskill.

How has your collaboration changed you and the way you approach your own work and the creative process?

Taisia: The collaboration has enlarged my sense of artistic possibility. Previous to this experience, I suspected that going solo was the best way to manifest my ideas. But the collaboration has made me more excited to make different types of work, and more trusting that others can meet my ideas and take them somewhere wonderful. Together, Katy and I created something that I would never have been able to make on my own.

But I certainly lucked out with Katy. She is brilliant, easy to work with, and our aesthetics are so compatible. Every time she sent me one of the finished portraits, it felt like Christmas. I’d think, Yes, that’s MY Sylvia and Yes, that is Toni goddamn Morrison. What a gift to see my favorite writers come to life through Katy’s perfect vision.

Sylvia Plath

Katy: I understand the relationship between words and images better as well as the potential that exists in that relationship, how they can inform and activate each other. The true portraits in Literary Witches aren’t just the art or the text alone. It’s the combination of the two that reveals the whole Witch.

I was just as lucky to have Taya as my collaborator. Her words are beautiful, weird, and sometimes grotesque, all things I want my own work to be. I resonated with every piece of text she wrote and would marvel at how her mind could string words together in such a unique way. Most importantly, though, this collaboration challenged me to illustrate actual text. In my work prior to the book, I illustrated stories and ideas from my head. This experience made me a proper illustrator and gave me confidence that I can make images for any text I am given.

Image Credits: Katy Horan; Text Credits: Taisia Kitaiskaia