It is with great pleasure that I welcome
14th August 2014
Karen ~ A warm welcome to Jaffareadstoo and thank you for taking the time to chat about your latest book.
What inspired you to write The Vanishing Witch and how many rough drafts did it take before you were happy with the story?
There were three elements that came together to inspire the novel. The first was years ago I came across the records of a wealthy medieval woman accused of murdering four husbands by witchcraft. She never came to trial, and I always wondered was she wicked, or entirely innocent and falsely accused?
The second element was watching the news reports of the London riots of 2011 which shared many elements of the Peasants Revolt of 1381, when thousands of ordinary people started looting, killing and burning buildings in towns all over the country. People claimed the London riots of 2011 were fuelled by use of social media, but there were no mobiles or even telephones in 1380’s, yet word somehow spread nearly as fast.
The third element came from going on ghost walks in Lincoln. Lincoln is a city of ghosts, almost as if a parallel world has burrowed in and hidden among the living. But what do the ghosts think about the living?
I redrafted The Vanishing Witch more than any other novel, probably about 20 times in total, because as the novel evolved the character I thought was going to be the at the heart of the story convinced me that they weren't, and it was another character’s story. So only about a quarter of the original novel remains in the published version. I have a very patient editor!
Your writing is very atmospheric – how do you ‘set the scene’ in your novels and how much research did you do in order to bring The Vanishing Witch to life?
I was able to walk the streets of Lincoln in the daylight and after dark which still contains many medieval buildings and imagine where my characters walked and tried to picture what they would have seen using old maps and records. Back in 1381, the Brayford harbour, though inland, would been filled with sounds of men shouting, sawing and hammering as boats were repaired and paggers unloaded fish, wine and spices from the boats and loaded great bales of wool and cloth.
The Prologue of the novel takes place in the sinister marshes that bordered the river, shrouded in mist. These marshes have long been drained, but I spent time writing in a cottage on the marshes in Norfolk, so I could describe the eerie sounds of the marsh at night and how dense fog distorts voices.
I think it is important to actually visit the places where the novels are set. When you’re there you notice smells or sounds you’d never get from seeing it on google-earth, but also you can act out what your characters are doing there. Could they hear the river from that point? Where would they have hidden on that staircase? The Greestone Stairs is said to be the most haunted street in England and coming down that lane at night in the steady light of modern street-lamps can be unnerving, but if you stop and try to imagine what it would be like coming down those uneven steps by the light of flickering torch-flames with a murderer behind you …
In your research for The Vanishing Witch did you discover anything which surprised you?
I was amazed that the rioters were able seize and slaughter such important people like the Archbishop of Canterbury so easily and to break in places that you imagine should have been well-defended like the Tower of London, the Savoy Palace owned by John of Gaunt and the great prisons of London. Obviously the guards had fled or were helping the rebels, but it was fascinating how quickly such fortified strongholds could fall. Also the sheer bravado of King Richard who aged only 14 years was able to convince an angry mob of thousands of adult rebels to follow him into a trap and the sheer scale and horror of the bloody and brutal revenge the boy-king ordered afterwards. Today, we call 14 year olds ‘children’.
Another aspect of the research I found fascinating was the witchcraft. There is an assumption that the Church always condemned divination, and summoning of spirits and demons, but I was interested to discover how many clergy wrote instruction manuals on how to summon spirits and demons or on varies forms of divination and regularly practised these on behalf the Church. Equally how often laity or so-called ‘witches’ when they were casting evil spells would either use things stolen from the church such as holy water or would invoke the names of saints and the Holy Trinity in the spell, using the very things you would have expected to counter the evil they were planning.
Your book covers are very distinctive - do you work in collaboration with the cover designer, and if so how much input do you have in choosing the final design?
I love the book covers, but I can’t take any credit for them. I don’t have any input, which is just as well, as I don’t have any artist talent at all. The editor and artist collaborate over the covers, so they are always a surprise to me. I was delighted when one reader pointed out that the runes on the tongue of the wolf on the cover of Company of Liars spells out the name of murderer.
I am also in awe of how much thought goes into the cover detail when the publishing team ask for a subtle change in the shade of one of the colours or the lettering made bigger or smaller by a tiny fraction. I can never spot the difference until I put the two covers side by side and then realise it makes all the difference in the world. But you do have to have real design talent to spot what adjustments to make, which I could never do.
When do you find the time to write, and do you have a favourite place to do your writing?
My first novel was written in the evenings and weekends around a full-time job, but now I write full time. Deadlines mean I try to start at 9am and finish at 6pm with half an hour for lunch. That time is solid writing. In the evenings I research those questions that have cropped up while I’ve been writing, because I can’t break off in the middle of a scene to research them, it destroys the atmosphere. So in the evenings I look up things like – Was it the fashionable in that year for a man to wear a belt round the hips or round his waist? If you poisoned someone with dwale (deadly nightshade) how long before they start to feel the effects. Weekends often involve a trip to a museum to look at medieval objects or to a location or a building of the type in which I plan to set a scene.
I have converted a small derelict workshop in the tiny garden to write in, which means I can go away from the house even if it’s only a few yards. I sit facing a blank white wall, so that I can almost project the scene I’m watching in my head onto the wall. My writing hole has all kinds of replica medieval things in it which I can handle as I write, no phone so I can’t be interrupted, and if I want an internet connection I have to sit with the door wide open even in mid-winter, but at least that stops me being tempted to look at dancing ferrets on you-tube.
And finally for fun –
If you had your own time travel machine, at which event in history would you like to be a fly on the wall, and why?
There are lots of mysteries I’d love to go back and solve -- Who was Jack the Ripper? Were the princes in the tower really murdered? Did any of the Tsars children survive the slaughter in Russia? But I’m not sure I would like to have been a fly on their corpses to find out.
So I’d really like to go back to see if King Arthur ever really existed at all and if he did, was Merlin a kindly, elderly wizard or a foul, smelly old witchdoctor who wandered around half-naked, slicing open the bellies of living slaves to read the oracles in their intestines.
Karen - Thanks so much for giving so generously of your time and for the fascinating insight
into the background to The Vanishing Witch.
into the background to The Vanishing Witch.
Jaffa and I have loved hosting this interview and wish you continuing success with your writing.
Find more about Karen on her website
The Vanishing Witch is published 14th August and is available from all good book retailers.
Karen is offering one lucky UK winner the chance to own a copy of
The Vanishing Witch in this fabulous giveaway.