Saturday, September 8, 2018

Incantations -- by Jane Kelley

Writing a novel can be like an archeological dig. You pick a likely place to search for artifacts and other treasures with stories. If you don't find anything interesting enough, move your shovel.

It helps to be curious. And it helps not to know exactly what you're looking for.

Midway through draft three of a novel (with the working title of "Mau" after the feral black cat who linked the main characters), I went to visit my daughter at the University of Chicago. While she studied at the library, I wandered into the Oriental Institute--a museum for objects taken from the Near East.

I was searching for examples of early writing. (I love thinking about what inspired that great leap from reality to symbols.) The Institute does have some lovely cuneiform clay tablets. But in another glass case, I discovered precisely what I had been looking for––even though I didn't know what it was or even that such things existed.

An Incantation Bowl.

These terra-cotta bowls were found buried upside-down near houses to trap any evil spirits lurking nearby. The bowls were often particular protections to a certain member of the family, presumably whoever was most at risk. In the center of this bowl, you can see a depiction of the demon, who has been tied down.

Writing spirals from the bowl's outer edge to where the demon is bound. This is the incantation, the invocation, the charm, the hex. This one is in Aramaic and ends with these phrases:  May god rebuke you, Satan. . .  Is this not a brand snatched from the fire?  

In the modern era, we have better explanations for madness or risky behavior than demons. So what could this artifact possibly have to do with my story about a girl Lanora whose desire to reinvent herself endangers her?

Her loyal friend Val doesn't really think Lanora is under a spell. And yet Lanora is acting so unlike herself that Val is worried. The cat Mau leads Val to Tasman who lives in an antiquities store. Tasman offers to help save Lanora with a book of spells. Val quizzes Tasman whether he really believes ancient spells have power. Tasman's answer is: "I believe in the power of believing."

I do too. That incantation bowl certainly helped me cast a powerful spell in my novel, which was eventually titled, The Book of Dares For Lost Friends. (Although the title I preferred was "Incantation For a Lost Friend.")

"What gives the material its otherworldly power is the way these three very different children (and a quartet of classmates that almost acts like a chorus) use ritual and magical thinking to find the faith they need to persevere and mature." -- said Kirkus in a starred review.

One final thought -- I need to give credit to Blackberry who inspired Mau.


  1. LOVED your book Jane. Thanks for sharing this story of it's origins.

  2. This is awesome. And you're so right--ideas to help flesh out our stories are all around us!

  3. I'll never tire of hearing stories about what inspired each of your novels, Jane! Speaking of finding things I didn't know I looking for, I recently happened upon a copy of Italo Calvino's "Six Memos For the Next Millenium" in a Little Free Library. This quote struck me: "Around the magic object there forms a kind of force field that is in fact the territory of the story itself. We might say that the magic object is an outward and visible sign that reveals the connection between people or between events... We might even say that in a narrative any object is always magic.”

    1. What a wonderful quote, Maria! Thank you for sharing it. I love that you found it in a Little Free Library!

  4. This gave me goosebumps - that moment when the magic happens....