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Q. Tell me a little about yourself. Who are you?

This is my moment to reveal myself as an alien from outer space, right? But no, unfortunately, nothing so interesting. I’m Judika Illes, (rhymes with Phyllis), native New Yorker, former Angeleno, long-time practitioner, sometime teacher and constant student of the magical arts, certified aromatherapist and author.

Q. What’s your background?

The influence of just growing up in the New York City area can’t be overstated. I’m the first one in my family born in the United States. My early childhood was spent amongst a community of immigrants, mainly European and North African refugees, in Queens, which has since been labeled the most multi-cultural place on Earth. We lived in a neighborhood that was largely Hispanic and African-American. I grew up encompassed by different cultures, different languages, different ways of doing things or seeing things: it taught me curiosity, tolerance and to pay attention to my surroundings. I became aware at a very early age that different ways of thinking or doing things exist and are valid. That remains a tremendous influence on my magic and on my writing.

Q. Tell me about your training and experience. Are there any anecdotes about your personal journey? How and when did you realize that your spiritual path is the one for you? Was there an event that triggered this response?

No. The magical and spiritual paths have always fascinated me: I can’t remember a time when they didn’t. As I write in my Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, even as a tiny child listening to fairy tales, I always identified with the witch. I wasn’t scared of witches but defamatory stories about witches, stories that made witches appear grotesque really upset me, even as a very little kid. As a child I used to dread the annual television appearance of The Wizard of Oz because they killed the witch. I was six when I first saw a deck of tarot cards and it was lasting love at first sight.

I don’t think that I’m that atypical. I see young kids all the time who have a very powerful calling towards the magical and spiritual arts. Of course, the question is “why”—and I don’t have an answer for that. The things that I fell passionately in love with as a small child—divination, the magical arts, spirits, certain types of music—I still feel that passion and pull even now, so many years later. So why do any of us fall in love with whatever it is we fall in love with? Why do some children demonstrate musical or athletic talent at precocious ages? Past lives? Destiny? You can certainly speculate as to all kinds of causes.

Q. Do you have a personal Vision or mission statement that serves to encapsulate your personal ambitions, drive, or direction?

I believe that we can help create the world that we wish to live in. Recreating, repairing or re-visioning the world: that’s a constant, on-going magical act. You determine what the world should be like and then, even in small ways, strive to achieve this. We’re constantly engaged in cause-and-effect actions except that it’s usually unconscious and often what we create is not what we really desire.

So, for instance, if you think the world should be kinder or more polite, then that’s how you at least attempt to behave as much as you can: because your actions go towards creating that world, that reality. The impatience and super fast pace of current society often annoys me—it’s very detrimental to magical practice among other reasons—so, in response, I try to be as patient as I can, sometimes successfully.

It’s crucial to me that occult practitioners and devotees of traditional spiritual traditions are treated with respect and that vast bodies of traditional knowledge are preserved and also become more accessible. That’s something I try to achieve via my books and my teaching.

Q. What are your goals? What have you accomplished? What's on the horizon?

My goal is to promulgate information, to distribute it and make it accessible and comprehensible. Because so much invaluable magical and spiritual information has been destroyed and lost. I also hope to give readers good value for their money. I’m old enough to be dismayed at how expensive books in general have become. I try to make sure that my work doesn’t just recycle information that’s already easily available elsewhere. I try to pack as much information as I can in my books and not to have a lot of “filler.” On that subject, 5000 Spells, my big spell book, although not out-of-print, has been unavailable in the US for the past three years and I’m aware that people have been paying exorbitant prices for it. I’m very honored that people feel it’s worthy of those prices but it’s unnecessary and the literary equivalent of ticket scalping. HarperOne is publishing a new American edition in conjunction with my newest encyclopedia (Encyclopedia of Spirits) and so it will be soon be easily available at a normal price. I think the cover art will be different and because it’s not being published by Element Books it’s just called the Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells, not the Element Encyclopedia but other than that, it’s the exact same book.

I have four published works and a new one on the way. These books include an instructional guide—an at-home course, if you will- to practical magic; a small book of magic spells; a huge book of magic spells, and an encyclopedia of witchcraft. The forthcoming book, which will be available at the end of January, is an Encyclopedia of Spirits including hands-on information about working with spirits. I have a packed sixth house in my natal chart and so my work tends toward the detailed, the practical and the hands-on.

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Q. Tell me about your book(s).

The Encyclopedia of Spirits includes descriptions of over one-thousand named spirits and types of spirits coming from all over Earth and representing many spiritual traditions. It’s another big book like 5000 Spells, over one-thousand pages. There are some spells and rituals but my primary goal was to enable the reader to get a feeling for the nature of these different spirits, their powers and interests. To me personally, working with spirits is one of the joys of life and so I envisioned it a bit as being similar to on-line dating sites: enabling readers to locate spirits who are interesting, compatible, and serve their needs.

But I think the book works even if you’re not interested in personally contacting spirits. Similar to 5000 Spells, it also works as entertainment or as a source of information, if that’s what’s most important to you. I’m very aware that different readers have different needs and desires.

Q. What makes it unique?

The scope: I made sure that spirits from every inhabited continent were represented. It was also very important for me to incorporate spirits from traditions that are little known in the United States like djinn, Nats, Zar, and Bori. There’s a lot of information in the Encyclopedia of Spirits that’s otherwise unavailable outside of academic sources.

That’s another way this book is unique: it’s written by an unashamed practitioner. I try to write very frankly, honestly and unpretentiously: my goal is for readers to actually understand what I’m writing. Too many books about obscure spirits are written by academic authors solely for other academics. Often the authors have difficulty accepting the reality of what they’re writing about: there’s a lot of psychological analysis regarding why their informants believe in spirits.

I think the hands-on aspect is also reasonably unique. I write assuming that many readers will want to put the contents into practice so it contains a lot of practical information: what sort of offerings are appropriate for particular spirits, what kind of altar should one construct, when or how should offerings be made and so forth.

Q. How would one benefit from it?

At the very least: entertainment. Spirits have fascinated us literally since Day One. There is no culture worldwide that lacks mythology or ghost stories. Spirits are inspirational: the newest comic books, video games, anime are filled with ancient spirits. So I hope, at the very least, that my book serves as a source book for the creative and I hope that it provides reading pleasure.

But—it’s also a source of practical, clearly written information for those who already work with spirits and potentially a portal for those who would like to enter that world.

Q. What was your inspiration for writing your book(s)?

This particular book, the Encyclopedia of Spirits, gestated for a while. I’ve been playing with something I called “The Care and Feeding of Spirits” for years, which eventually became the introductory chapters. But the actual moment of conception came during a workshop I taught for Gaia’s Womb (www.gaiaswomb.com), which is a wonderful organization devoted to women’s spirituality. They are among my favorite people, if I wasn’t teaching, I’d be attending, and I spent a great weekend with them in 2006. I like doing weekend workshops and festivals because it gives you an opportunity to actually meet people and socialize.

During that weekend, I joined a discussion in progress regarding someone’s problems. It was suggested to her that she try spiritual intervention, at which point she looked at me and asked “but how? Is there a book that details how one asks spirits for assistance? That helps you locate your own personal allies?” I couldn’t think of a book to recommend but I realized that I could write one, that I could bring her desire into reality. If I can “see” a book in my head, then I can write it.

Q. What is your favorite part of the book?

The Encyclopedia of Spirits enabled me to write about some of my own favorite spirits and also gave me the opportunity to spotlight some now obscure goddesses who really deserve wider renown. For instance, there is this incredibly vital goddess spirituality in Vietnam right now that so few people know about. Or the Greek goddess Menthe who is now most famous as Hades’ mistress. Her one surviving myth describes how either Persephone or Demeter, outraged at discovering the liaison, transformed her into a mint plant. Menthe is a plant goddess, the goddess of mint and she demonstrates all the erotic and healing powers of that incredible plant.  If you have ever had a healing experience involving mint—and in herbalism and aromatherapy, mint has many therapeutic uses—then you have felt the power of this goddess.

Q. If you could only offer one piece of advice to would-be spellcasters, what would it be?

Think before you act. Clearly define what it is that you really want because you may receive what you ask for.

Q. Do you have any advice or tips for those about to get started in this stuff?

Have fun. Seriously. I see too many people who approach spells as if it were a chemistry assignment. In the beginning, when you’re learning to cast spells, have fun with it. This is something I explore in Pure Magic, which is a good book for a beginner. At their best, magic and spellcasting are sensual and pleasurable. Don’t wait until you have a crisis to start casting spells. There’s this huge font of spells and information: go discover what you like, what pleases you, what works for you. Find materials that you trust and that give you a sense of security. You can’t go wrong with money spells or protection spells because everyone can always use some more money or protection. The absolute worst-case scenario if your spell doesn’t work is that you will be left exactly where you were when you attempted the spell. If you’re ambivalent about spells for “personal gain” then do money spells with the goal of donating to charity or worthy causes. In the meantime, you’re exploring and expanding your personal power and developing your magical skills. Because someday you may need to cast a spell, when nothing else is working for you and when the outcome really does matter. As with anything else in life, it will be easier to accomplish if you actually have some experience and know what you’re doing.

Q. What should we watch out for?

If you consistently approach from a position of love and respect, you will never have any problems. Have respect for yourself, your materials, your goals, and the spellcasting process. Be conscious of your fears because fear tends to attract the less pleasant aspects of magic. If you’re aware of your fears, that can be controlled. And don’t be impatient: many assume that casting spells is like baking a cake. You put it together, stick it in the oven and after a specific amount of time, you either have a cake or it failed. But that’s not how magic spells work. By definition, spells aren’t completely predictable. Sometimes you get immediate results, sometimes it takes longer and sometimes the results are not exactly as anticipated. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: sometimes spells work better than expected.

Q. Are there other places people could find out more about you (e.g. your blog, a series of articles you wrote, your website, etc.)

I’m currently in the process of updating. When I’m working on these encyclopedias, they end up taking precedence and so everything else becomes neglected. My website is www.judikailles.com. I have blogs on Amazon.com and on Live Journal: there’s a link to both on the Appearances page of my website. One of my goals for 2009 is to become a more consistent, reliable blogger.

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Q. Did you always enjoy writing?

I don’t know that I enjoy writing. I enjoy reading. I love teaching. I like the personal interaction that comes in a workshop or classroom situation. Writing is something that I can do, not unlike a skilled laborer. I come from a family full of writers. It’s something that comes very naturally to me but it’s definitely work. My goal is to share information that I personally think is fascinating and valuable and shouldn’t be lost, forgotten, or distorted. Writing is the way I know how to accomplish that. I used to be a disc jockey in the days of free-form radio. What I miss about it to this day is the opportunity to share great music.

Q. How did you get started writing?

Writing is my skill. It’s what I know how to do. Those are two distinct facts about me: my interest in the metaphysical and my ability to write. When I was a kid, I had no athletic ability but writing comes naturally to me.

I never intentionally set out to become a professional metaphysical author. There were already so many books and so many other authors; it never occurred to me that anyone would want another. However, I had trouble conceiving and was frustrated with the medical choices offered to me. I was aware that there were spiritual, magical, and traditional folkloric approaches to infertility. I knew exactly what information I wanted from a book—I could actually see the book I wanted in my mind’s eye and so I went to a bookstore to buy one and found nothing. (This was years ago, before infertility had become a hot topic.) So I began researching the topic for myself and eventually became so fascinated that I kept researching even after my own children were born and I didn’t need it for myself any longer. Eventually I had amassed all this information and didn’t know what to do with it. I knew I could write—I was an English major—and so I wrote up this huge manuscript with all kinds of disparate techniques for getting pregnant and enhancing fertility. I sent it out to publishers: it’s never been published; the primary expressed objection is that it encompasses too many topics and so it’s difficult to know where to place it in a book store. However, a publisher, the original Element Books, saw it and liked one chapter, the chapter on magic spells and asked whether I could enlarge it into a book. That became Earth Mother Magic, my first published book, which is now out-of-print but was republished last year by Weiser Books under the title Pure Magic. And one book led to another. My next book, Emergency Magic!, now also out-of-print but reissued in a new, improved version by Weiser under the title Magic When You Need It grew out of one line in Pure Magic. Magic When You Need It is a small spell book, really an emergency handbook of 150 spells for when you don’t want to spend a lot of time searching for the right spell. 5000 Spells grew out of that: the publisher knew I collected spells. I’m a collector at heart; I probably collect too many things. The publisher asked whether, having written a book with 150 spells, I could write one with a lot more. I was still attempting to have my fertility manuscript published so I kept saying “sure, sure” whenever he’d ask whether I could write a book with 3000, 5000, even 10,000 spells. Eventually I was hooked on the concept and that’s how that book came into being. With 5000 Spells, I found myself frustrated that I wasn’t able to pay more attention to the various components of spell-casting, botanicals, for instance. That frustration eventually lead to the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, which enabled me to focus on different facets of witchcraft: plants, trees, and animals associated with witchcraft, for instance. Different definitions and understandings (or misunderstandings) of witchcraft.  And that leads us to the Encyclopedia of Spirits, which also serves as a companion to 5000 Spells. Because many of the most powerful spells incorporate the assistance of spirits. It is much easier to cast these spells successfully if you actually understand what you’re doing.

Q. What is the writing process like for you? Was the creation of this book typical or radically different?

The smaller books can be fun to write. The big books, the encyclopedias, are simultaneously wonderful and harrowing experiences. Wonderful because they are spiritual experiences for me, spiritual journeys. I learn so much from writing those books because, as encyclopedias, I know that they must encompass more than my own personal experiences or interests. They force me to broaden my horizons. But also simultaneously harrowing because writing those books really overwhelms my life: I’m a single mother: all I do is take care of my kids and write those books, nothing else. I stop speaking to people, stop answering correspondence—and normally I’m an enthusiastic correspondent—I spend all my time indoors writing or researching. I joke that I enter  my cave and I can’t come out until the book is done but really it’s no joke. In some ways, it’s a very shamanic process. I immerse myself in my topic completely. The year I wrote the witchcraft encyclopedia, people would ask whether I’d seen this or that new movie and I’d ask whether there was a witch in it. I didn’t see or read anything that wasn’t tangentially related to witchcraft until after that project was complete.

Are you familiar with NaNoWriMo? National Novel Writing Month? It’s an annual challenge that occurs in November. You try to write a 50,000 novel in the space of one month. It doesn’t have to be good: you just have to achieve 50,000 words in a month. My kids have done it for the past couple of years. You have to keep up this mad pace and intense focus: that’s the pace and focus I maintain until my encyclopedias are done.

Q. Do you do research? What are your sources?

That’s my true love. I love to research. It’s a good thing I have deadlines because otherwise I’d never stop researching and start writing. I’m so blessed because I’m actually paid to write about subjects that I love and that fascinate me. I try to maintain a balance between researching from books and learning directly from people. By nature, I’m pretty shy but I email strangers if I think they have information necessary for my books.

Metaphysical people are wonderful. So often our traditions are disrespected so once people realize that you’re genuinely interested and respectful, they are eager to share information and incredibly generous with their knowledge. I’m also a bibliography reader: if I read a book I like, I’ll then go through its bibliography to try to discover more information. I try to find untapped sources where I can. With this new Encyclopedia of Spirits, I have a good friend who located Chinese language books published in the People’s Republic and she personally translated them for me. So I was able to include these powerful Taoist goddesses like Bau Gu and Ma Gu who are unfortunately little known in the West.

 

Q. Who, or what, has influenced your writing?

I read a lot. I’m a compulsive reader. So I pick up influences all over the place. Probably the strongest influence is music reviewers from the nineteen seventies, a time when there was this great music journalism. I read Creem magazine, Crawdaddy, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Peter Guralnick whose new books I also love, many other writers. Because they wrote with wit and passion about subjects they openly felt powerfully about. They expressed their love for their subject while writing intelligently. They are the closest thing I have to role models. In my teens, I thought writing about music would be a viable profession but, as with free-form radio, the venues for that type of writing faded away.

Q. Is there one aspect of writing that you particularly enjoy? Dislike?

I dislike the isolation. I’ve written three big encyclopedias in seven years. I’m proud of the accomplishment but I’ve essentially been locked away in solitary confinement during the process. The paradox is that my favorite part is just the privilege of being able to write these books. I marvel sometimes that I’m actually paid to write about what I love. I’m very blessed and privileged. I’m also very honored and humbled that I’m able to write about these topics—spells, witchcraft, spirits—from the perspective of a practitioner, an insider’s view. Because historically that has not been the case. Historically, people from outside the metaphysical community have written about us and judged us and determined the tone of how information would be disseminated. I’ve also met so many wonderful people via my books. Either through workshops I’ve taught or people who’ve e-mailed me.

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Q. Are there any future projects you care to mention?

I always have a dozen books in my head. One book inevitably inspires another. I have a partial manuscript devoted to Black Madonnas: some are featured in the Encyclopedia of Spirits but there’s a lot more to say. The Encyclopedia of Spirits was originally going to incorporate saints and angels but the manuscript grew too huge. They deserve their own book. I’d like to write more spells: I have lots that haven’t been published in any of my spell books. And of course, someday I’d really like to publish that original fertility manuscript that put me on this path.

Q. Do you have any personal appearances you’re planning on making? A book tour?

Oh, I hope so! I need to get out of the house and see some human beings! I did one appearance last year at the Chesapeake Pagan Festival, which was great. In these hard economic times, I know that people are cutting back but I would really recommend to anyone with an interest in traditional spirituality and the magical arts to try to attend personal appearances, whether in bookstores or at festivals, whether my own or any author or teacher you find interesting. Books are wonderful but there’s no substitute for actual human contact.

The only definite day I have in my schedule so far is at the Illuminations store in Plymouth, Massachusetts in early May but my goal is to spend 2009 traveling. As dates become firm, they’ll appear on the Appearances page of my website.

Q. Are there other lines of business you’d like to plug?

Not my own. I literally have done nothing for the last couple of years but write: I have no other lines of business. I hope to go back to teaching classes, probably in the spring in New York City. If anyone is interested, they can email me at my website.

But I would like to plug other people’s businesses: specifically the many independent Pagan and metaphysical store owners. This has always been a difficult business: there has never been a lot of money or financial stability in magic but until recently there wasn’t a lot of competition either. You bought your magical, spiritual, and metaphysical supplies from an independent merchant or you didn’t buy them at all. But now, there’s all kinds of competition from big box stores and from merchants who have no commitment to our community. It is crucial to support independent merchants. They can’t exist without that support. I’ve already seen so many go out of business or be reduced to only an on-line business. And yes, often these independent merchants can’t afford to give the same discounts as larger chains but what they offer for those few dollars more is profound and invaluable. They offer us a community; many are actually staffed or owned by practitioners and so can offer advice along with their wares. They offer venues for classes and demonstrations. I spent my teenage years and early twenties hanging out at Weiser’s and Magickal Childe in New York City, neither of which exist anymore as well as many, many Latino botanicas. Maybe without them, I wouldn’t have become the author that I am. If you don’t know where to find independent sellers, I have a list on my website, at the bottom of the Magical Marketplace page. And if you are a brick-and-mortar store, please take a look at the page and e-mail me your information and I would be honored to include you.

Q. Is there anything you wish I’d asked about?

I’ve probably talked too much already. I think people should read Magic When You Need It because that alone proves that I’m capable of writing short, terse, and lean.

 

 

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