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Lana Popovic Harper brings "cozy Halloween vibes" to her witchy rom-com series

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Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

September is coming to a close and the sweet autumn vibes are officially here. All across Seattle, fall girlies are busting out their bulky sweaters and infinity scarves, chugging down pumpkin spice lattes, and searching for just the right spooky book to bring along on all the season's best adventures.

The search can now end, though, thanks to Lana Popovic Harper, who is dedicated to bringing all the fun fall vibes to her readers.

The witches of Thistle Grove
Harper is an experienced author who already had four YA novels under her belt when she decided to make the jump to adult fantasy. Despite now writing for a more mature fan base, Harper said she still makes it a point to include witches in all her work.

"I can't not do witches, even with these books," she said.

Her latest series, The Witches of Thistle Grove, follows the adventures of several young adult witches living in a fun fantasy world where magic and mayhem abound. "It's just straight-up sparkly fun magic. I think at this point it's just wish fulfillment. I love that stuff. I'm on #witchesofinstagram all the time. I just really like kind of using that as a foil for deeper exploration. Everything is just more fun when there's magic."

Images courtesy of Berkley Books  

The Witches of Thistle Grove rom-com series functions as separate stories (the first in the series follows four magical girls seeking revenge on a cheating ex-boyfriend), each following side characters from the other books; they can be read as stand-alone novels for those unable to commit to a multi-book relationship.

"They can all be read on their own," Harper said, "but each of them, chronologically follows the one previous to it. So, you know, it's a fun, easy read if you want a stand-alone, but if you want a deeper story in terms of context, you should read them in order."

Writing for adults
The first book, Payback's a Witch, was also Harper's first time publishing an adult novel. "This was an unusual novel in that it was more engineered than most of the things that I've done so far," she explained.

"So, my agent knew that I was looking to make the leap into adult [literature], so she had been having meetings with editors, and a bunch of them were talking about how they were looking for a witchy rom-com... This happens sometimes — I remember it from my time as an agent. It's like there's something in the water, and everybody wants the same stuff, and it's like, 'Are you all talking to each other?' How does this happen? And so she floated the idea of me writing a witchy rom-com."

Writing a "witchy rom-com" was right up Harper's alley. "Witches are my brand. I have no books that don't contain witches, and so we were talking about what would be the most interesting angle for me to approach that, and both of us felt like it would be — for me anyway — most fun and most authentic to have it be a Queer book. We had been trading ideas back and forth, and one of them was John Tucker Must Die, except everyone's witches and two of the women fall in love with each other. So that was the very kernel of the idea."

Harper began writing the book in March 2020. By the end of the year, she had the first hundred pages and a detailed synopsis done and ready to present to publishers. "Then some really cool stuff happened that I'd never seen happen for any of my other books," she said.

"There was an auction, and seven publishers were involved. It was wonderful. it was the kind of attention I didn't think a book like that was going to get. Overall, it was a four- or five-month process, and then it was published in October of 2021, so it was a very quick timeline. Normally books take about two years to hit shelves, but in this case, the writing itself wasn't very time-consuming, and I knew they wanted it in time for Halloween the following year, and so we all worked super hard to make that happen."

Before publishing Payback's a Witch, Harper already knew the ins and outs of the publishing world. "I had been in YA for quite a while by the time I published Payback. I had been an agent for seven years, and then I transitioned into writing full-time in 2018."

Initially, she decided to write YA books. "While I was agenting, the majority of my represented works were young adults as well. That's why I started writing in that space. I was very familiar with it at the time, but four books in, I was starting to get the feeling that the types of subject matter that I really wanted to explore were not suited to that audience.

"There are always constraints when you're writing [for] a slightly younger audience, and the issues and the obstacles that younger people face are completely valid and very emotional, but they're very different from what slightly older young adults and older adults face, so I wanted to have the freedom to kind of explore things that were more relevant to my current life experience or my recent life experiences."

She also wanted to spice up her writing a bit. "I just wanted to be allowed to freely write sex scenes. You can't do that in young adult literature, for obvious reasons, and I like sexy books. I enjoy incorporating that type of romance as well, so it just made sense for me to try to transition fully to that."

Writing adult literature gave Harper the space to create an authentically Queer series as well. While her YA books also included LGBTQ+ representation and storylines, her newer work is able to explore the sexual dynamics of such relationships as well as the interpersonal. "I have been writing Queer books since I started writing, basically, including my very first unpublished novel. It's just kind of the space that I live in," she said.

A magical Bisexual romance
For Payback's a Witch Harper wanted to explore facets of LGBT+ identities that are often excluded from literary romances. "In this case, it's specifically a Bisexual romance... I wanted it to be a Bi romance because you don't see a lot of those," she said. "I have been looking for those types of books basically since I started reading the genre, and you just see that so rarely."

While there are definitely Bi romance novels out there, Harper explicitly wanted to make sure her story was free from tired tropes that often see Bisexual characters experiencing unnecessary trauma, or depicted as villainous.

"So, I knew I wanted it to be a Bisexual romance, and I also knew that I wanted it to be as angst-free as possible. I didn't want it to be a painful coming-out story. As valid and obvious as that struggle is, I wanted it to be a happy place where the problems arose from other interpersonal or external events, as opposed to ...being Bisexual being the issue. I didn't want that. I wanted it to feel that that was a completely normal and accepted part of the world and something that nobody was going to think twice about. So that was kind of the goal, and I think that's what people have responded to most positively in the book. It's just happy; there are no problems. That was the driving force in shaping this art form."

What to expect from Harper next
Fans of Harper can expect to see much more magic in the near future. The second Thistle Grove novel, From Bad to Cursed, came out earlier this year. "The third one will be out in January of next year. As of right now, there will definitely be four, and hopefully five," she explained.

While each story follows a different character, Harper says the fun, magical vibes remain the same throughout the series. "Thistle Grove is always prominent," she said. "The biggest draw in writing these books for me was creating this kind of perfect Halloween town that was just a lovely place to live and inherently magical, and... mapping out all of the cool places there.

"I think each of the books revolves around a different holiday. It's also just an exploration of how this town revolves around the ...different magical seasons. Anyone who is looking for that witchy, cozy, sparkly feel will definitely get more of that in the following books.

"I am hoping that we get into closer perspectives of all four of the magical families, so if anyone is like, oh, I wish that the Abermoths got more screen time in book one, book two is from their point of view. So everyone should have their moment."

Harper's future projects will all feature LGBTQ+ characters as well as fantastical settings. "I could not tell you [what draws me to fantasy], but that's the only thing I've ever wanted to write. I can't imagine writing straight contemporary; it's just not what I do. I don't even know what would happen. My ideas for more sort of strictly contemporary books still include a speculative twist of some sort; it's just what I'm drawn toward and just what I like to read myself."

Harper's novels are always packed with the kind of cozy vibes that make her readers feel as though they are on a vacation in their own imaginations. "I just hope that [readers] find the same kind of enjoyment in it — the easy, safe, fun Halloween enjoyment — that I found in writing it," she said.

"I really intended it to be just a book for fans of both a certain type of slightly campy magic and really cozy Halloween vibes, and interesting visual depictions of spells being cast, family dynamics, best friendships... I guess a very emotional, millennial coming-of-age story, wrapped up in the fall vibes. That's my particular speed. I don't know what everyone else will take away from it, but that's what I most love about it."

The Queen of Halloween
If anyone knows how to write cozy fall vibes, it's Harper. She loves the season so much, she is spending it in one of the most authentically autumnal places in the United States. "I get to spend Halloween in Salem this fall, which is awesome, and is something I try to do every year," she said.

"Two of my best friends live there, and I used to live about fifteen minutes away. It's a little intense around Halloween, because the tourists are really at the next level, but it's so fun and has a gorgeous vibe, and just a really... cool place to be for the season, so I'm very excited I get to be there again this year."

As for her characters, Harper knows they would also love to spend Halloween surrounded by fall fun, and certainly would dress up, too! "Talia is this very badass necromancer witch but also loves baking stuff, so I think it would be hilarious if she just went as Martha Stewart or something like that," she explained of her Payback's a Witch protagonist.

"For Emmy, I don't know. I think given that she loves books, and she really enjoys reading the same kind of books I do — which was on purpose — maybe she would be a character from one of my personal favorites, maybe someone from the Gideon the Ninth stories, maybe even Gideon the Ninth?"

For anyone looking to indulge in a fun fall fantasy novel, Payback's a Witch is full of delightful magic, a cunning revenge plot, and Queer romance. Who knows, it may just be a gateway book into the fantastical world of Thistle Grove.