Cape Cod may seem like the perfect tourist attraction in summer, but when winter hits, the town settles in and becomes stark, cold, isolated – one of many ideal places for Hekamists to do their work, at least in Maggie Lehrman’s The Cost of All Things. See, Hekamists are like witches. They create edible spells and will sell them to you – for a price.
“You can get all sorts of spells. There’s a spell for anything – one of the characters gets a spell to improve her looks. You can also get a spell for brains or anything about yourself that you want to improve or change,” said Lehrman.
Lehrman is an editor-turned-writer, a nymph-like creature with a pixie cut and large, round glasses. There’s an easiness about her as she talks about her writing, a self-confidence about her work that comes from years of being in the industry. It’s no surprise such a clever story, with such a fascinating world, emerged from her brain.
Her debut novel The Cost of All Things is about a girl named Ari, who buys a spell from a Hekamist to erase all memory of her boyfriend after he dies in an accident. The world of the Hekamists is a world where you have to be careful what you wish for. In this world, “spells have side effects and consequences.” Ari may have forgotten her boyfriend, but the loss of memory affected how she’d learned to carry herself, and so she can’t dance anymore, after years of studying to be on a professional track. “She can’t remember the boyfriend, so she’s not sad about the boyfriend, but she’s extremely pissed off that she can’t dance.”
The spell Ari buys was the start of Lehrman’s story, which takes place in a world almost identical to ours, save for a sprinkling of magic.
“I started thinking, if you could get a spell for something like this, what else could you get a spell for? Who are these characters that create the spell? How do you become Hekamists? What is involved with making a spell? I decided that the spells were made into food, and you had to eat them. I thought a lot about if you change one thing, what are the consequences for that? That, for me, is the only way I can do worldbuilding. Take things to the nth degree. Take one decision and see where it leads you, instead of creating a dozen decisions and building it all at once.”
Ari is just one of four main characters readers meet, and all four are drawn together by spells – Ari’s spell, and other spells they don’t know about, that “have influences over their lives, influence their lives in ways they don’t even know about.”
The decision to have four main characters in a category so dominated by single-character narration wasn’t an easy one for Lehrman, but there was no other way to tell the story.
“I was kinda scared about it. Who’s gonna want to read so any points of view? But because I was writing a story with a girl whose memory is affected, it was really hard to get a full sense of the characters involved, because she doesn’t remember anything. It was really frustrating for me. Then I started thinking about the boyfriend – he’s one of the voices, and I wanted to know his story, and how it led up to his dying. There’s his best friend, who hasn’t forgotten him, and is going through this kind of horrible experience, the worst thing that’s ever happened to him, because his best friend died. There’s another character who feels disconnected from these people, and really wants to be a part of their world. That’s how I thought about each of the four voices – they each have their own arc, but bring something to the overall story, and build something together.”
Building stories is something Lehrman did as an editor. She handpicked stories and walked them through the entire process of fixing the story to be as strong as it can be, selling it, sending it into a bookstore. Knowing the industry certainly helped Lehrman, who still works as a freelance editor, but it was hard to turn the editor side of her brain off. She would wake up to work early in the morning, before the clutter of other people’s stories could enter her brain.
“When you’re an editor, you put yourself into the story. You try to think of it as how to make it the best possible thing it can be. But you don’t have to do the work! It’s like “these things need to be fixed,” and the author will go off and do that. You’re looking at the whole picture. When you’re writing, if you look at the whole picture all the time, you’ll completely lose the details that make up the whole thing. I love the details, and being able to fuss over the little details.”
For Lehrman, editing other people was a great way to think critically about books and to figure out what she liked about stories – what made them work, and what didn’t. But knowing the holes in the story made her want to pick hat her own before she had even started.
“Editor brain is very critical,” said Lehrman. “Editor brain wants to fix everything. But when you’re starting a story, you can’t fix all the problems right away – you don’t even know what the problems are! So a lot of the time, I had to forget about being an editor. I woke up really early in the morning and wrote for an hour or two before going to work, so I could have a fresh brain that hadn’t been making these kind of decisions all day. But on the other hand, once I had the story out there, it was helpful to call upon the editor brain and go, ‘Hey, editor brain, what would you do to fix this? Is it done yet?’ and editor brain would go, ‘No. It needs a lot more work!’”
Work can come in many forms – tightening grammar, streamlining plot, building a better and bigger world. But part of it, too, involves what characters Lehrman chooses to showcase.
“It’s definitely important to me [to include diversity]. I have one character who’s … gay, [one who is]Indian American. I think I can do better. Everybody can do better. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, because I do want to show the actual diversity of the actual world. We’re not all one type of person.”
But sometimes working on a story can be knowing when to let it go.
“My biggest piece of advice is to be okay with letting go of ideas and moving on to something else. I feel like, if you ask any author, they have four or five books in a drawer they’re never going to publish because they’re learning. Same for me. I’m super glad those books aren’t going to be published, and that I did them, because you learn something by doing it, and by letting it go. I think there’s this fear, sometimes – at least I had, when I was younger – that if I don’t complete this idea, I’ll never have another good idea. There’s a million ideas. There’s so many good ideas. You can always write something different or new, but [while]it’s good to complete something, there might be something else that can be even better.”
Editor’s Note: A quote was modified at Lehrman’s request to specify that she wrote one gay character and one Indian American character.