By Allison Stalberg Siebens
Twenty-two-year-old Juniper Harlow has always struggled with social anxiety. Oleander Ambrose, her parents’ ward and fellow witch, is an exception to this rule until he returns from a rite of passage older and now seemingly a stranger.
Meanwhile, Oleander Ambrose wants nothing more than to make Juniper his wife. He wants to court Juniper properly, taking care to exercise patience with her anxieties, but another suitor, one who seeks a meek and subservient wife, has his eyes on Juniper as well.
We spoke with author Amanda Cessor about her young adult historical fantasy-romance, With Love, Juniper. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did your writing journey begin?
When I was thirteen, my friends and I would all create characters and do what’s known as roleplaying. Basically, we would make stories together, sending dialogue and actions back and forth with each other.
I immediately fell in love with this version of storytelling and gradually worked my way up from one line posts to several paragraphs of prose. I never got tired of doing it and continued roleplaying all the way up into my adulthood. Through role playing, I learned about world building, voice, characterization, plot development, and more. Yet, I never considered myself as “real writer” that entire time. To me, it was always a hobby and not something I’d actually be able to pursue as a passion.
How did With Love, Juniper come about?
In November of 2021, I decided I would give NaNoWriMo a try. I’d tried it once before in my teenage years and failed monumentally, but I’d realized that year that my best friend and I had written more than 200,000 words between us in our various roleplays and that there was no reason why I couldn’t write 50,000 words in a month. Many of our posts to each other were close to 2,000 words each and I knew I could easily manage 1,667 words a day.
I chose a plot I had conceived with my friend for a potential roleplay that we never got around to using. I dove into it, kept some things, got rid of some others, and set to work. Roleplays are a bit of a different media than novels are, so I really took some time to figure out what this cozy story was about. Truth be told, there were several near-misses before I landed on the story that With Love, Juniper became.
I learned so much about storytelling through the process. There were times that I worried that the story was too low-stakes, but books like The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith and The Paper Magician by Charlie Holmberg taught me that there doesn’t always need to be an explosive climax in the story. Sometimes the climax can be what the character learns about themselves through their trials.
While the book is fiction, you mentioned that it is also semi-autobiographical. Could you elaborate?
When I was in high school, I struggled greatly with social anxiety and undiagnosed ADHD. I had very few friends and was very lonely. This is very similar to how Juniper, the main character, experiences her life in the beginning of the story.
I knew I wanted to write a story about a character that embodied those struggles from my youth, especially since there are many other teenagers and young adults who still struggle with feelings of not belonging or not being ‘good enough’ to have meaningful connections with other people.
As a thirty-year-old adult who has been in therapy for nearly half my life, I’ve learned a lot about which of my expectations for myself were realistic and which were not. I’ve learned a lot about how to tell when I need to push myself and when it’s okay to lean on others. I wanted to write a story that shared these lessons with other young readers without being overly preachy or toxically positive.
In what ways do your experiences with social anxiety, depression, and ADHD come across in the book?
Throughout the book, Juniper goes from being self-sacrificial and self-loathing to learning that she is worthy of care and respect, regardless of whether or not she’s perfect. I’ve felt for a few years now that the focus of a lot of people when it comes to their mental health is to perfect themselves. There seems to always be this goal of ridding themselves of their depression or anxiety, or whatever it might be. The truth of the matter is, for me and for many other people, these mental health struggles will never go away fully. There will be easier times and harder times, but it will always be there in the backdrop. I know that can sound kind of heavy, but when I learned to accept this about my mental health, I was able to be kinder to myself.
I believe wholeheartedly in doing your best to be the healthiest person you can be. I think it’s important to be emotionally intelligent and mind your friends’ boundaries, but I also think it’s important to have people in your life who can meet you halfway when you’re having a bad brain day.
That’s what Juniper’s friends and family are for her in With Love, Juniper. Her friends celebrate her triumphs and encourage her to be brave and grow, but during the times when she can’t be brave or push herself, they just remind her that she’s okay, that it’s okay for her to lean on them and rely on them for a little bit until she’s back in sorts. Not everyone will want to do this and not everyone will have the resources to deal with her bad brain days. She learns to be okay with that, too, much like I did.
You mentioned that the book is YA historical romance. What is the historical setting and why did you choose it?
I wish I could say something cooler than, “I just liked it,” but that really is the reason! As a reader, and for most media types in general, I tend to be especially drawn to historical and fantastical settings. When I set out to write a book, I was conscientious of being interested in the world I built because I knew I’d be spending a lot of time there and with my ADHD I knew I was liable to forget about my story if the setting and characters weren’t fun for me.
The setting in the book is entirely fictional. It’s a small nation in which almost everyone is a magic wielder. If I were to give you some touchstones for similar places in the real world, I’d say a lot of it comes from European nations in the Victorian era, particularly Victorian England.
Witches, sorcerers, and magic are a big part of the world you crafted. Are there other books that inspired your use of magic in the story? Or perhaps movies, comics, or video games?
This particular story was heavily inspired by Studio Ghibli movies like Howl’s Moving Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service. I knew I wanted to have a visually interesting setting and a fun, jaunty pattern of speech for their dialogue in the story.
Many years ago, I was an art major. Many of my ideas come from images, animation, movies, photos, things like that. For this story, the first idea that came to mind as the “childhood friend goes away for a couple years and comes back hot” trope.
I know that sounds kind of basic, but that’s honestly where a lot of stories start for me, the chemistry between the two main characters. I knew for this story that I wanted Juniper to be too nervous to talk to her childhood friend and I needed to think about why she would be nervous around someone she’s known her whole life.
Anxiety was the obvious answer and as I really explored what that anxiety would mean for her, I realized how similar Juniper’s experiences felt to my own. These story decisions often feel like funny coincidences, but I also think there’s a reason my subconscious landed here. Our “storytelling vocabulary” comes from our lived experiences, and the way those experiences color how we interpret other stories.
Where can people learn more about your book?
Amanda Cessor is a historical fantasy author and ghostwriter living in southern California with her husband, her dogs, and her cat. She has words in Full Mood Mag and drafts the serial The Hollowed Wilds. When she’s not writing, she’s usually either playing table top RPG’s with her friends, or crying over fictional characters in her friend’s books.
Allison Stalberg Siebens is an indie author and foster cat mom. She is in the process of getting a Masters in Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University.