An Interview with Helen Steadman

September 25, 2017

 

Ahead of Helen's event here is a little bit about the lady behind the book....

 

Please tell me a bit about yourself

 

Thank you very much for inviting me along today, Emma, it’s lovely to meet you. I live in the north east of England with my family and two dogs (who have only three ears between them – just the dogs, that is, not the family). I’m currently working on a PhD in English at the University of Aberdeen. My spare time is spent walking in the woods, reading, sitting in the garden (without actually doing any gardening) and learning how to make swords.

 

Have you written from a young age?

 

I’ve written since I first learned the magical art of putting pen to paper. From infant school onwards, I wrote stories, poems and plays, and I used to make little comics and force my friends to read them. I was especially pleased with Glitter Mag at the age of ten. (One edition only as it was hard work writing out six copies and adding the glitter by hand!) My proudest moment was having a poem published in the local newspaper when I was 11 – a feeling not fully surpassed until the publication of Widdershins.

 

What started you off writing?

 

From childhood, I loved reading more than anything else, and I yearned to be a writer. I always loved writing stories, but never seemed to quite get my act together (in other words: I spent a lot of time faffing about). And when I read Peter Carey’s amazing novel, Illywhacker, I couldn’t write for two decades because I couldn’t possibly aspire to anything that brilliant. As a big birthday loomed, I decided to get serious and started writing a thousand words a day, every day. It took twelve years from that decision to getting published. On the way, I studied creative writing with the Open University and Manchester Metropolitan University and this is what really began to hone my writing.

 

What authors influenced you?

 

I could name hundreds, but I’ll try not to: Annie Proulx, Bill Bryson, Dennis Wheatley, Enid Blyton, George Orwell, Ian Rankin, Joanne Harris, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ken Follett, Ken Kesey, Martin Amis, Michelle Lovric, Peter Carey, Phil Rickman, Sylvia Plath, Terry Pratchett, Tom Wolfe, Val McDermid. 

 

Mainly though, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is what influenced me to write a historical novel – the thought had never occurred to me before reading that amazing novel. All that remained then was to decide what to write about. I’m hopeless at making decisions – if I have to choose between two things, I can’t sleep at night and come out in a rash. So, I decided to let the muse make up my mind for me…

 

What inspired you to write Widdershins?

 

I spent a lot of time lurking in the woods waiting for the muse to strike. One day, I followed a strange smell until its source became clear: loggers had cut down hundreds of pines, revealing a natural amphitheatre populated by oozing stumps. Possibly in an altered state on account of the pine sap, I was wondering what might have happened here in the past, when Florence Welch jumped into my head, singing ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)’.

 

Sacrifice! Ritual! Rituals could have happened here, magical goings-on. Witches! Armed with nothing more than an overdose of pine sap, I realised that my book had to be about witches. Strangely, my book’s subject was unwelcome. Why witches? I knew no witchcraft. I knew no witches. Witches would not be easy. This would mean research. Sorry, this would mean Research. And lots of it.

 

How and where did you go to find out what you needed to know?

 

Because I only had a broad idea of what I wanted to write about, the research had to be equally broad until I homed in on my story idea. I started by googling witches to see what came up. Of course, I already knew about the Pendle Witches and also the Witchfinder General from the eponymous Vincent Price film, but that was more or less the limit of my knowledge on the subject. (I have to say, though, that I’m looking forward to finding out more about the Bakewell witches when I visit the Bakewell Bookshop at the end of the month.)

 

In the course of this initial research, I was quite shocked to find out that the nearby city of Newcastle had its own witch trials in 1650. As a result, 16 so-called witches were executed on a single day on the Town Moor. I knew straight away that this is what I wanted to write about. Once I’d settled on the idea, it meant I could focus on a particular point in time and on a particular location. Even then, a huge amount of research lay ahead of me. I researched everything from almanacs to witch-pricking devices, taking in blood-letting, naval medicine, religion and torture techniques along the way. And the whole story had to be set against the seventeenth century generally, which meant lots of broad historical research, not least because the seventeenth century was a rather busy time in terms of witch-hunting, civil war and political strife.

 

Because I wrote this book for an MA in Creative Writing, I had access to academic reference resources, which was an enormous help. But I didn’t restrict my research to poring over archives and books. I also took courses in herbal medicine so that I could identify trees, herbs and flowers, grow my own herbs, harvest them and prepare herbal remedies of my own. This made a major contribution in terms of creating authentic characters for Widdershins. And to this day, elderberry linctus remains a house speciality!

 

Witches are a very popular subject at the moment. Do you think there is a reason for that?

 

In these days of advanced science and technology, we’re so far removed from the natural world that it seems there’s little mystery left to life, which perhaps draws us to notions of magic, mystery and ritual. As our planet begins to decay around us, the idea of people living close to earth and using the power of nature for healing has considerable appeal, which perhaps attracts us to ideas such as astrology, witchcraft and natural magic.

 

I’m very interested in the idea of persecution, and there are distinct parallels between the persecution of the so-called witches of yesteryear and many people today. In chilling echoes of the European witch hunts, people are still persecuted (and tortured and executed) due to intolerance and reluctance to share scarce resources. It’s an important lesson to remember because anyone considered to be an outsider is still at risk, whether because of sexuality, religion, country of origin, gender, age or health status.

 

Do you know if any of your family were witches?

 

Not to my knowledge! My lineage is a mixture of English and Irish, with a bit of Welsh and a smattering of Vikings. There are family myths about a certain Scottish poet – but I’ve never seen any evidence of this with my own eyes! One day, I’d love to shake my family tree and see who falls out. Many moons ago, I visited an astrologer who claimed that my having a 12th hours Mars conjunct the ascendant indicated I’d been executed as a witch in a former life. The astrologer offered to regress me so I could relive the experience. I declined. If I was ever executed as a witch, once is more enough for me. Still, you have to wonder…

 

What is your favourite part of the novel?

 

My favourite part of the novel is the 48,000 words I cut out! Originally, I wrote a novel of 128,000 words, and I had several point-of-view characters. After many edits and rewrites, I whittled it down to three points of view, but eventually decided that the plot would benefit from having only two points of view. So, I chopped out my favourite bit. This was quite painful, but they say you have to slaughter your darlings…


Are there any characters that you would like to include more, and who is your favourite?

 

Ah, well. This is a bit like asking a parent if they have a favourite child (I love you equally by the way, in case you’re reading this). Tom Verger is my favourite character, and he was the third point of view. But I decided the novel worked better without his point of view being shown to the reader. This was a very hard choice for me to make, but I think it was the right one.


What are the plans for future novels?

 

I’m currently writing a sequel to Widdershins. I wasn’t planning a sequel and thought I’d drawn a big line under it once I’d sent it off for my MA in March 2016. But then, in the middle of trying to write something else this year, the characters kept waking me up in the night. Now, I’m trying to write them out of my head so I can get a good night’s sleep occasionally! I’ve started a novel based on Grace Darling, and I’m also researching some seventeenth-century Lutheran swordmakers who fled Germany for England (either on grounds of religious persecution or for economic gain – or possibly a bit of both).

 

If you could go anywhere, fantasy or real life, where would you go and why?

 

I’d love to go to the moon, or any other planet really – Saturn looks especially lovely. Not sure how I’d cope with space flight though as I’m gripped with terror on quick hops to Europe. More realistically, I’ve always wanted to go to New York. I’m waiting until they start doing flights where you can be heavily sedated and kept in the hold nailed in a box for the duration.

 

Favourites:

 

Food – toast and marmalade

Animal – dogs

Colour – red

Film – Chocolat

Book – The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (I read it once a year as a treat)

Writer – Peter Carey (especially Oscar and Lucinda, Illywhacker and Theft: A Love Story)

 

 

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