Caroline O’Donoghue on writing about counter-cultural movements in All Our Hidden Gifts

"[E]very single societal structure in my life says that things have to be THIS way, but what if that's a lie? What if it doesn't have to be? What if I can change things? Create new definitions, new practices, new gods?"


We chatted with author of All Our Hidden Gifts and The Gifts That Bind Us, Caroline O’Donoghue, on why it is important to include and highlight marginalized communities in her fantasy novels.

Maeve Chambers doesn’t have much going for her. Not only does she feel like the sole idiot in a family of geniuses, she managed to drive away her best friend Lily a year ago. But when she finds a pack of dusty old tarot cards at school, and begins to give scarily accurate readings to the girls in her class, she realizes she’s found her gift at last. Things are looking up – until she discovers a strange card in the deck that definitely shouldn’t be there. And two days after she convinces her ex-best friend to have a reading, Lily disappears.

The beginning when Maeve got persuaded by Fiona to set up a secret tarot consultancy reminds me so much of the Netflix show Sex Education when Otis was encouraged to set up a sex ed clinic. If you were a school principal, which clinic would you be more weirded out to find at your school?

On the face of it, I think you’d be more alarmed by the sex ed clinic. But when you really think about it, Maeve’s tarot consultancy sparks a series of events that leads to mass destruction, a missing girl and the deaths of at least a couple of people, so maybe on balance the sex ed clinic is a better idea.

The tarot consultancy is set in a cupboard that is named the Chokey, which I’m sure Matilda fans such as myself all love! What’s the inspiration behind naming it after Trunchball’s torture chamber?

I remember the Chokey being such a uniquely frightening concept, in both the book of Matilda and the film. I wanted something that would instantly relate that it was a terrible punishment to spend all day there. Fun fact, my school had a big scary cupboard and I once had to clean it out as a punishment, too. I didn’t find any cards in there, though.

The characters all have their own secret power. Which character’s power do you wish you have?

Roe’s, definitely. I’m so jealous that Roe takes to driving so quickly, when I’ve had twelve lessons and still can’t remember how mirrors work.

In All Our Hidden Gifts, Maeve found an unsettling card she was not familiar with – the Housekeeper card. The traditional tarot already has all its set rules, names and definitions. How did you come up with the name “Housekeeper” and what the card would look like?

The Housekeeper has been in my mind a long time. I used to be in a band, and my friend Harry and I wrote a song called “The Housekeeper Card”, the lyrics for which are in the book. I was learning a lot about the tarot at the time, and the phrase ‘housekeeper card’ popped into my head. Harry and I came up with an idea of a revenge demon, and the song became a big favourite among our very tiny fan base.

When I developed The Housekeeper for Gifts, I loved the classic idea of a housekeeper: someone who keeps the books for a grand house, who marks the ledgers to make sure the house is budgeted for correctly. I like to think that the Housekeeper does that, but for protecting the vulnerable. She wants things to be fair, and equal.

Let’s talk about Roe. Thank you for including all the details, from the scene where he tells Maeve to call him Roe instead of Rory, to when they decide how to call each other – partner, sweetheart etc. Many readers also pointed out how much they love these scenes. Why did you decide to write about these “normal” but important moments in a fantasy novel?

Queer and trans people are foundational figures within all Wiccan and magical communities, and I think there are two big reasons for that. The first is that I think the LGTBQIA+ experience is so often sidelined by mainstream society, which naturally makes people more interested in more marginal, counter-cultural movements like Wicca. The second – and I find this really interesting – is that magic is about distorting and changing our perceived realities. It’s saying “every single societal structure in my life says that things have to be THIS way, but what if that’s a lie? What if it doesn’t have to be? What if I can change things? Create new definitions, new practices, new gods?” It’s the same mode of thinking that a lot of trans people talk about.

It makes a lot of sense to me that Roe’s exposure to magic also encourages him to pursue and play with his identity. The more powerful the gang get, the more comfortable and curious Roe becomes. Because magic isn’t just about power; it’s also about safety. And for Roe, that means the safety to become who he wants to be.

Following on that, we have a very diverse cast of characters and the books also discussed other issues such as self-esteem, discrimination and mental health. How did you find the right balance between addressing all the important issues vs. not letting all these overshadow an already-complicated fantasy plot?

It’s not easy! I’ve been writing books for a while now and even the kindest reviews all have the same critique, which is: god, she loves a lot of plot, doesn’t she? Even now, I’m like: what are you doing, kid? Why couldn’t All Our Hidden Gifts just have been a straightforward story about a girl who goes missing because of a weird tarot card? Why is there a cult? But ultimately, I have a big curious mind that wants to look underneath every rock and see the bugs underneath – which is very conducive to writing a trilogy. Like, yes, Lily is back, but is she happy to be? Yes, Aaron is the villain, but why?

The end result, in Gifts, is that you have these books where the magic and the fantasy is extremely wrapped up in these characters and how they feel about one another. Their interpersonal drama is just as important as the fantasy stuff, which I hope makes the fantasy feel less like fantasy and more like very heightened reality.

There are currently two books out from the All Our Hidden Gifts series. What do you find to be the most difficult in writing a series?

The system of magic is extremely complicated in Gifts, and it’s also very intuitive to how I think magic works. Like it’s not “wriggle your nose” magic. It’s something that is summoned from a very deep part of the human psyche, which is in turn funnelled from the earth itself. So I often have a lot of scenes that make a kind of sense to me, in a dream logic sort of way, that I can’t necessarily explain. This is when my editors will say – ok, this doesn’t really make sense, this doesn’t feel convincing, this is clearly from a very foggy and weird part of your brain – and the struggle is trying to clear some of that fog so I can let other people see.

Get your copy of All Our Hidden Gifts here.

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