Kristen and Layne chat with author Juno Dawson about her new novel HER MAJESTY’S ROYAL COVEN, how to create a truly inclusive magical world, and the eternal power of the Spice Girls.
Mentioned in this episode:
LAYNE: Welcome to Unlikeable Female Characters, the podcast about women who don’t give a damn if you like them. I’m Layne Fargo, and I’m here with Kristen Lepionka.
LAYNE: And today we are speaking with Juno Dawson, who is a bestselling novelist, screenwriter, and journalist. Her books include the global bestsellers This Book is Gay and Clean. She also writes for television, and has multiple shows in development, both in the UK and the U.S. An occasional actress and model, Juno appeared in HBO’s *I May Destroy You—*which we fucking loved, we’ve talked about that on this show before. Her adult debut, Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, is out May 31st. Welcome, Juno!
JUNO: Hello! Thank you for having me.
KRISTEN: We are so excited. This book is fire.
JUNO: Oh, thank you.
LAYNE: Oh my God.
JUNO: Thank you so much!
LAYNE: Yeah, we’re fucking obsessed. We’re going to fangirl pretty hard today, I think.
JUNO: I’m ready. I’m ready.
LAYNE: Okay. I have to say, your publicist sent out the pitch for this, and I don’t think I’ve ever responded to an email so fast. It was like, it’s Spice Girls, but with witches. And I was like, I need to know nothing else. Like, that’s it, I’m sold, I’m in.
KRISTEN: Give to me.
JUNO: Do you know what? People always think I’m kidding. It really was that, when I sat down to write this book, it was beginning of lockdown. I was having the worst writer’s block, I never used to write from home. And my husband was just like, look, what do you want to write about? And I was like, Spice Girls, but they’re witches. And he was like, well, then you should write Spice Girls but they’re witches. And then here we are two years later, so.
LAYNE: The best books come out of that. Like, just writing what you want to write, and not what you think other people want you to write or what the market wants. So tell us about Her Majesty’s Royal Coven.
JUNO: I will. So it is about five very powerful witches, who have been friends since they were children in the 90s. And they have now grown up, their lives have gone in very different directions, but they are about to be brought back together when a prophecy foresees the end of witchkind. And needless to say, these witches have very different ideological ideas about this prophecy, which involves a young transgender witch. And the division within the coven threatens not just their friendship, but also all of reality. Quite high stakes, you know?
LAYNE: Yeah, it’s so epic and cinematic and… oh my God, I could not put it down. I was like, I wanted to savor it, but it was one of those books that you can’t savor, you just have to keep flipping the pages so fast.
JUNO: Well, I think that was born out of lockdown as well. You know, we couldn’t go to the cinema. We could stream stuff, but I wanted something to do during my days that felt cinematic. As big as Wonder Woman, or as big as an X-Men movie. And that was something I couldn’t find in any of the books at that point. I’m a big fan of Leigh Bardugo and Samantha Shannon, and I wanted to really do something that was on as big a canvas as what they do.
LAYNE: You absolutely did, yeah.
JUNO: Thank you.
LAYNE: So let’s talk about the women who are the main characters here, and the differences between them. I thought you did such a great job at capturing that tension of when you’re friends with someone when you’re a girl, and then you grow up and like, there’s love there, but you are not compatible people anymore.
KRISTEN: Yes, you would not be friends if you met now.
JUNO: I’m not going to throw any of my friends under a bus… however. I mean, I’m in more than one WhatsApp group where you do wonder if we would be friends now. There is a line in the book where Neve says, “all we have is years.” And that’s not nothing, though.
With some of my friends, yeah, maybe we wouldn’t make friends now, our lives have gone in very different directions, but we will always have those years. We have shared joy and shared trauma, and there is enough there that even nostalgia can keep you going so far. And that is something that I really wanted to explore with these women. You know, I think they’re women first, and then witches second.
KRISTEN: And there’s something really beautiful about the way that people who’ve known you forever, they know you in such a specific, deep way, and they can relate to you the way no one else can, they can make you laugh like no one else can. And that’s something that I feel like we don’t really see a ton of in fiction, and I love it.
JUNO: It goes deeper, I think, sometimes than friendship. It does feel like a kind of sisterhood. The word I use in the book is sororia, like a Latin phrase. And it does feel like that. And especially complicated by, you know, my oldest girlfriends knew me before my transition as well. So there’s some real photos that can hold over me. They can blackmail me so effectively. So there’s another reason to be nice to your oldest friends.
LAYNE: Yeah, that’s true. They know everything. Like, too much sometimes.
I thought too, there’s such a great, and so richly deserved, critique of white feminism in this book, especially through the character of Leoni. And, when she’s talking about their friendship, she says the other women look at it through these rose-colored glasses, that they were like the Spice Girls, they were like a Taylor Swift girl squad, Sex in the City. It’s all these very white references, obviously. And for her, it was… not that.
JUNO: Yeah. So that was a choice. Allegorically, I was exploring the coven as kind of a metaphor for feminism. And, you know, previously I’ve been a YA author, and I know those conversations about white authors including characters of color. But if the theme of Her Majesty’s Royal Coven is who gets to be included and who gets to be excluded, and then if I was to exclude a Black viewpoint, I mean what would that say about inclusion and exclusion, and the role that white feminists have of considering the lived experience of women of color?
And that was why I thought, right, this book is in the third person. So I’m not trying to climb inside a person of color. But what I wanted to do is, I wanted to explore feminism. And so it was important to me that one-fifth of this coven was a woman of color, and more than that as well. So, obviously I’m white and Leoni is Black, but some of our life experience is very similar, in that actually we are the two working class characters, so—I stress, I’m not character, I’m a real human—but Leoni grew up on a council estate in Leeds, I grew up on a council estate in Bradford. You know, I was sent off to a grammar school, Leoni was sent off to the coven, where we didn’t really fit. So there is some overlap, and I think that’s a good place to start with characters who are from outside of your demographic. Actually look to the similarities before you consider the differences.
But yeah, it was really important to me to include Leoni, and she offers a very different perspective on the history of the coven as well. When Neve talks about the history of the coven, she starts with Anne Boleyn. When Leoni starts with the history of the coven, she goes way, way further back to the African diaspora, and the way that their magic system originated, like hundreds and hundreds of years before Anne Boleyn put on a crinoline. That was really important for me because the way I was taught history in the United Kingdom was white, and it was flawed, and it was wrong. And it pretended Britain had no role in the slave trade, when of course it very much did.
And so Leoni, she’s a character, and I hope she sings, but she is also a way for myself as a white author to reflect on my whiteness. And I felt it would be really cowardly to not do that in this novel.
LAYNE: It’s so interesting that you come from YA, cause we’re always talking on this show—specifically in crime fiction, but I would say across genre—in YA, there’s so much more intersectionality, representation, and adult has so much catching up to do.
KRISTEN: So much.
LAYNE: So much. So I’m really glad that authors like you are bringing that YA sensibility into adult, because adult readers really fucking need it.
JUNO: And especially genre as well. It’s really interesting, cause obviously I’m a huge fan of Torrey Peters, who did Detransition, Baby. So there are examples. Very often the onus falls on somebody from within that demographic to do the heavy lifting. But I think whether it’s crime fiction or science fiction or fantasy, I think now is the time to diversify the characters. Like, I see no excuse for not doing—Game of Thrones, I see no excuse, is what I’m saying.
KRISTEN: I just love that readers of young adult, like actual young adult readers, are going to eventually become adult readers who expect to see that kind of inclusivity and intersectionality in books. I can’t wait for that to happen fast enough, because for them, that’s what books are. And for the sort of stodgy adult market, there’s this real disconnect. But when young adult readers eventually become readers of adult fiction, they’re going to be like, what the fuck?
LAYNE: I mean, we’re definitely coming from the crime fiction perspective. We’re both thriller authors, and it’s a lot of, like, white cishet couples in the suburbs, and like dad thrillers with only one white man can save the world, that kind of thing. So I know in literary fiction, there’s more happening, but yeah. I totally agree, Kristen, I’m looking forward to that day, too.
Why don’t we talk about Helena a little bit?
JUNO: Ah, Helena.
LAYNE: She is like the ultimate gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss character. That’s what I kept thinking when I was reading about her. And it was interesting when we first meet her, she’s like a boss bitch, right? So as a reader, especially a white woman reader, I think you’re like, yeah, she’s awesome, she’s in charge, she’s the head of the coven. And then as the book goes on, you’re like, oh no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.
JUNO: So Helena was by far the hardest character to write, but also I very much enjoyed her chapters. When I knew a Helena chapter was coming up, I got quite excited.
So I am a trans writer, and I live in the UK.
JUNO: It’s been an interesting couple of years over here. And you know, I always say when I speak to Americans or Australians or Spanish or Italian people, that there is something uniquely transphobic about the UK at the moment. We were not called TERF Island for nothing.
And, you know, I have to live here, and during the pandemic, I was trapped here, I couldn’t even leave. And of course that influenced my writing. I couldn’t write any more journalism in which I had to explain why I wasn’t a threat. Editors approach you in the litany of different ways, but they all want you to say the same thing. “Could you just come on and explain why you’re not a rapist?” And I’m like, I’d really rather not. That doesn’t sound fun.
And so I wanted to write my book, Spice Girls with witches. But also I was dealing with all this noise, and all this kind of stuff in the press. I remember even at the height of the pandemic, we were still getting daily, scary fearmongering headlines on the front of some of the papers, including some very liberal—like air quotes, “liberal”—publications as well.
And it just seems that, unlike maybe anywhere else in the world, there’s kind of like a weird legitimacy to this fearmongering in the UK. You know, when you’ve got outlets like The Guardian saying trans rights cannot come at the cost of women’s rights.
So, you know, it was a scary time. And so that did influence my thinking, and I did want to explore, where’s this coming from? I didn’t want to sympathize or empathize, because I don’t think we should sympathize or empathize with prejudice, but I did want to see if I could understand.
And so I was like a little archaeologist. I got my little dusting brush out, and I was digging at these bones. And the big discovery that I made was, oh, it’s just prejudice. Like all this time I was thinking, am I the problem? Is my existence causing a schism in womanhood or in feminism?
But then I thought, even if this fear is real, even if women like Helena are genuinely fearful of trans people, there is a word for an unfounded fear of a minority group—and it’s bigotry! That’s the word. So I was like, oh.
And so actually, some of those chapters from Helena, were difficult, really horrible, ugly things that she says, and the things she comes out with are despicable. But at the end of that novel, I got something out of that, which is: this isn’t on you, it’s on her. And the rest of the women in this book are like my friends. I came out ten years ago, and my mum, my sister, my publicist, my editor, my friends did nothing but support me through what was the most turbulent five years of my life.
But, you know, there are unfortunately also women like Helena, who seem to be scapegoating trans women for patriarchal trauma.
LAYNE: Yeah, that was interesting—I don’t want to spoil anything, but Helena definitely has this mistrust of and fear of men, which I can relate to. But it’s like, instead of focusing on men, she’s attacking other women. And I thought you made the point really well, which is what I have been saying about She Who Shall Not Be Named, which is just like, all you have to do is say nothing and live your life. It doesn’t affect you. Like, why are you continuing to push this?
And you made that point really well about Helena. Some of the other characters, like Neve at one point is like, all she had to do was leave Theo alone. Let Theo live her life. It’s not harming her. That’s it. And she just can’t do that. She has to get involved, in a very epic way.
JUNO: Yeah. This book is about division between women. The word that I’ve been using a lot is coalition. I don’t think all women need to be friends. It isn’t a Taylor Swift girl squad. We don’t always have to agree on everything. But I do think there is a conversation, an urgent conversation, to be had around coalition because women are under threat. Look at abortion, look at bathroom bills. You know, there is an obvious need for women to work together.
And just before we started recording this podcast, a story broke into the UK about a butch lesbian, who was barred from entering a toilet in Marks and Spencer’s, which is a department store. So, you know, this transphobic rhetoric is already having a knock-on effect for gay cisgender women. That’s what I’m hoping Her Majesty’s Royal Coven does. I’m hoping it’s a real argument for, not blind friendship between all women, but actually just coalition.
LAYNE: Let’s talk about Theo, the transgender witch character, who for most of the book, she is only communicating—
LAYNE: Telepathically. I was curious why you made that choice.
JUNO: I mean, the telepathy is not the subtlest metaphor that I’ve ever written, which is what really—am I allowed to say boils my piss? What really boils my piss is that, so much, on both sides of the Atlantic, so much is written about trans youth. Nobody ever speaks to trans youth. So much chat about being silenced, but when do you ever see a young trans person on the news, on television, in the press, talking about, “this is why I want hormone blockers.” “This is why I’ve made the choices I’ve made.” It’s all with these adults around them. We’re always listening to someone else, we’re listening to a politician or a sort of feminist expert academic. We never hear from the trans people themselves. And that’s why Theo is silent, because I truly believe that trans youth have been silenced. It’s not a subtle metaphor.
LAYNE: I mean, it works, though. Then it just makes—again, no spoilers—but when Theo is able to speak ultimately, in the way that she does, it’s even more impactful.
JUNO: Yes. Thank you.
KRISTEN: So this book ends with quite a gasp. There are more books coming. Please tell me they are coming quickly.
LAYNE: Yeah, when’s the next one out? I need it immediately. Did you write it yet? Hurry up.
JUNO: There are two more, and the second one is finished. I sent it to my editor at Penguin last week. The plan is that it will come out this time next year. So we’re going to release them one a year. That’s partly to do with the release schedule in the UK. So if Book One deals with division among women, Book Two looks at men and women. And I think about two men speak in HMRC.
LAYNE: I loved that. I love a book where the men are, like, these very sidelined characters.
JUNO: Yeah. I mean, bless Luke, Luke is very attractive to myself. But it’s like in any film in the 80s, you know, there was a woman, and she was just there to be the girlfriend. Like I watched Predator for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and they literally just find a woman, and she kind of follows them, and then they send her away.
LAYNE: She had nothing better to do.
JUNO: Yeah. And she’s not, like, a commander. She’s just a woman, a forest woman. And so there’s something quite deliberate about the fact that Luke is just there to be the love interest. Cause I think it’s about time, actually, that men are serving this quite decorative role.
But in Book Two, men are much more present. Cause obviously there is the mysterious character of Dabney Hale, who is a warlock who is kind of a men’s rights activist. He’s a warlock rights activist. And Dabney Hale in Book Two takes on a much more significant role, as does Luke, the boyfriend.
And then Book Three, I haven’t written yet. So who knows? I know where it’s heading. The third one more looking at the role of women under patriarchy, when it all gets apocalyptic. But yeah, there’s definitely going to be three books. And then after that, we shall see if there is a desperate hunger for more.
LAYNE: I would read like 50 books set in this world. I’m in.
I mean, the worldbuilding was so incredible too. A lot of it is related to a world that’s familiar, but you just plunge us into the magic system and don’t really overexplain it. I love that kind of worldbuilding in fantasy. It’s like, just figure it out. You’re here now.
JUNO: I mean, that goes back to, I grew up on Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books. I know Pullman has become a bit of a grumpy granddad, but those books, they blew my mind. I mean, I will never forget, I think I was about 16 when I read Golden Compass, and yeah, just mind blowing that, you know, page one, there’s this girl called Lyra, and she has a daemon. And you’re like, what? A little talking animal just follows her around?
And then you are either with it, or put the book away. You can either choose to accept that we all have a little talking daemon, or you need to go read Sweet Valley High or something. Something where nobody has a fantastical animal spirit. And I wanted the same thing with Her Majesty’s Royal Coven. You know, from page one, you either accept these women are witches, or you’re welcome to go find something else to read.
And there’s such a lot of history to play with as well. There have been questions about, will we go back and spend some time in Anne Boleyn’s court? Will we see that first ever coven? Will we see Queen Victoria’s coven? So there are endless directions that you could go in. It’s whether or not there is an appetite to explore the world further.
LAYNE: Yeah, I’m here for it. Like full cinematic universe, prequels, sequels, merch.
JUNO: The Juno-verse. Let’s get into the Juno-verse, yeah.
LAYNE: Yes. I’d love to talk to you about the research that you did on witchcraft, and what your personal experience with that is. I always say I’m witchy, but I’m not super serious about it. I want to know more.
JUNO: I think I’m right there with you, would definitely score myself as witchy. And I think there is something about the feminine divine. When I come together in female-only groups, whether it’s on my hen do—bachelorette party, for the American audience—or whether it’s when I’m at Trans Pride or Brighton Pride, there is a certain kind of magic that comes from when women come together.
I can’t really put my finger on it. I can’t describe it. I’m not so arrogant as to think that I know the infinite mystery of the universe. I truly believe that we all need to respect and be more in awe of the natural world. Like last night in West Sussex, we had the most extraordinary thunderstorms. And so I kind of turned my pillow around and slept at the other end of the bed so I could see straight out of the window. And I just watched the lightning and I was like, how could you not feel dwarfed by this and not feel like we’re part of something much more powerful and something that we’re never going to fully understand?
My husband was just asleep. And I kept pointing, “Max, Max, look at the lightning!” And he’s like, oh. And I was wide awake watching the storm. And so I think I don’t want to sign up to anything organized, you know, that’s the reason that I never got on board with Christianity either, which is, I didn’t want somebody to tell me I was doing it wrong.
So I’m always kind of mindful of anyone who’s telling me I’m doing witchcraft wrong. That’s not what I’m doing with this novel. Yes, it suggests a magic system, but I’m not saying it’s the magic system. Goodness me, I’m not trying to start a cult. There’s enough of that on Instagram. Like, there is enough. There is the wellness-to-crazy pipeline. I’m not participating in that.
LAYNE: Yeah, for me witchcraft is—I was raised evangelical Christian, and I’m still dealing with that. And I went really hard for a few years, like I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in anything, kind of nihilistic almost. And then it is through community with other women, like people I’ve met in creative circles, that I’ve gotten more involved in the witchy side of things.
And there is something really, like, healing and empowering about it. But I definitely don’t have any particular rituals or practices. I don’t know, I’m like somewhere between really believing it and being in it for the aesthetic, and I think that’s okay.
JUNO: All about the vibes.
KRISTEN: Vibes, yes.
JUNO: It’s all this shit, and it should be about the vibe. How are you feeling, yeah.
KRISTEN: Yeah, for sure. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic school for 12 years, which definitely did a lot of damage that I’m still sorting out as well. But it’s like, you know, you sort of grow up thinking, these things, these types of beliefs are evil and bad because everything gets sort of lumped together, like believing in the power of nature is the same thing as worshiping Satan. It’s wild the way these generalizations get made. So it is very empowering to realize, oh, you can actually find what works for you, take it with you, and that’s enough.
JUNO: Yeah, I fully, fully agree. I think that would be a nice way for a lot more people to think. That’s putting it mildly, isn’t it? But yeah.
LAYNE: A little less conflict in society. But speaking of empowering, we’re getting towards the end of our time here, but I would be remiss if we did not ask you more about the Spice Girls. We gotta talk about the Spice Girls. Because that pitch was incredible, but then I thought it was just like, okay, they’re a group of friends, but there are so many deep cut Spice Girls references in this book. It’s delightful.
JUNO: For me, a lot of it made sense when—speaking of deep cuts—when Adele went on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, and I will never forget what she said. She said, “there were these five working class girls who got out.” And Adele said, “I don’t even know what it was that I wanted to get out of, but I knew I wanted to get out.” And I feel exactly the same.
When “Wannabe” dropped, I think I was 14, and I didn’t know what a trans person was. I felt so sad that I wasn’t going to grow into a woman like all my girlfriends were doing. And I knew I wanted to get out, I wanted to get out of Bingley, I wanted to get out of West Yorkshire. I wanted to make it in the way that they made it, in that, you know, they were briefly the most famous women in the world.
And if you weren’t inside that bubble in 1996, you’re not gonna understand it. My mum didn’t understand it then. Like she would look at them and be like, “what, these? This is what you want to build your life around?” And then, you know, and I saw it again with One Direction, and I understood that. I understood that it wasn’t for me, and that was okay, and that this wasn’t my bubble, but because I’d had the Spice Girls, I completely understood the hysteria. In the same way that some people got really into BTS, or are really into YouTube celebrities, you know? And so fandom, you need to have been in one to understand one, I think.
And so, you know, I say very earnestly, yeah, the Spice Girls massively changed my life. And I feel very lucky that I’m at a position now where people calling the shots in film, television, and publishing were in that bubble as well. And so when you write a book like Her Majesty’s Royal Coven, my editor, who is also in her late thirties, it’s like, “Yes! This is what I was like!” And so now the good news is that decision-makers came from my bubble. We don’t have to pretend like the Beatles anymore, it’s fine. We’ll just say we like the Spice Girls. It’s okay.
LAYNE: Who’s your favorite Spice Girl? Or can you not choose, because they’re all so magnificent.
JUNO: Oh no, I absolutely can, it’s Victoria. Without a second of hesitation. And that’s because she was the outsider within the outsiders. My favorite meme ever is from the reunion at the 2012 Olympics where the other four are kind of like jumping around and climbing all over each other, and about five meters to their left is just Victoria standing. And I’m like, yes, hello, my childhood. Four meters away from anyone else, standing.
LAYNE: The resting bitch face. That’s why I always liked her.
LAYNE: I’m like, this is what I relate to. What about you, Kristen?
KRISTEN: Oh my gosh, can a person choose? That is the question.
I’ve just finished watching—well, not finished, but—the show The Circle is very Spice Girls-focused this season. And I absolutely love Mel B so much. It’s very top of mindm because her personality is just so glorious on that show.
LAYNE: Like, her little dog that she dyes pink?
KRISTEN: Oh, yes. Her little dog.
LAYNE: That surprised me watching The Circle, because a lot of the contestants are pretty young, mid/early twenties. And I would have thought they wouldn’t really even know who the Spice Girls were, but they were all really excited. I don’t know, it surprised me. I thought that was kind of just our generation. I’m glad they’re enduring.
KRISTEN: Yes. They changed the world.
JUNO: And you know, what blows my mind about the Spice Girls is they had 18 months that they did all this. In 18 months.
LAYNE: Wait, what really?
JUNO: So “Wannabe” landed in July ’96. Geri left, I want to say, February ’98?
JUNO: So Geri was active in that band for less than two years, you know? And then obviously when she left it fell apart. Well, it did. You need five for the Power of Spice, they said it themselves. I’m sorry. They said it, and it’s true. And that’s something that’s true of this book as well, which is each witch brings something to the summoning circle. So yeah. Spice Girls forever.
LAYNE: Forever. Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for chatting with us today. If we could just end by you telling everyone where they can find you on the internet, if they want to know more about your book, and wait for the sequel with bated breath like the rest of us.
JUNO: So Her Majesty’s Royal Coven comes out on the 31st of May—2022, cause obviously podcasts last forever. And I am @junodawson on Instagram and, for now, Twitter. Let’s see what happens, shall we?
LAYNE: Elon Musk’s Twitter. We may all have to leave.
JUNO: Well, that’s when we’re all leaving, right? We’ve all decided that’s the step too far.
LAYNE: Alright, thank you so much!
JUNO: Thank you for having me. Thank you!