Witch Week Day Five: Author Interview with Kat Howard

kathoward This year, I’m pleased to present an interview with New Hampshire author Kat Howard, whose debut novel Roses and Rot is a refreshing new take on the perennially popular story of Tam Lin. Here, the traditional woman-rescuing-her-lover plot is complicated by the presence of a pair of sisters, both talented and creative in different ways, who must work through some painful choices to conquer the demons of their past and find a way forward. With its interweaving of many fairy-tale motifs into a very modern tale, it’s a rich exploration of the creative process, of female power and relationships, and of the stories that inspire us. (Don’t miss the chance to win a copy in the Witch Week giveaway!)

I asked Maureen, who blogs at By Singing Light, to interview Kat for us, knowing that she would come up with a fantastic set of questions — and she did. Enjoy!

For the Witch Week schedule and linkup, see the Master Post.


Maureen: I loved that Roses and Rot referenced so many folk and fairy tales, even beyond Tam Lin. What stories were you conscious of engaging with, and how did they influence the shape of the book?

Kat: For me, it wasn’t so so much of a conscious choice, necessarily — no “now it’s time to reference “Beauty and the Beast” or anything like that – so much as I wanted the story I was telling to feel steeped in fairy tales, surrounded by them. Fairy tales had made Imogen the kind of person that she was, and they were almost a sort of language for her. So I tried to draw on recognizable symbols and notes and themes, and to include those whenever I had a chance to, so that they built an atmosphere.

TamLinIt seems like Tam Lin retellings often engage with a relationship between artists or creative people and fairies. (I’m thinking of both Fire and Hemlock and Pamela Dean’s version.) Is this something you were engaging with consciously? And if so, was there an aspect you were hoping to draw out?

Well, because of the aspect of the tithe in Tam Lin (in the original ballad, the sacrifice that the kingdom of Faerie paid to Hell every seven years), there’s sort of an inherent need for some sort of contact in the human world, because otherwise the Fae are paying with one of their own. And when I was at Clarion (a writers’ workshop), I wrote a short story where the Fae paid their tithe with artists. The story didn’t quite work, partially because I hadn’t quite made clear why the Fae would choose artists — in my head at the time, it was because I could think of a lot of artists who had died far too young, and it’s nicer to think of someone as just being away with the Faeries, instead of being dead. But I wanted to try to give a better, clearer explanation this time.

You’ve written many short fiction pieces, and co-written a novella with Maria Dahvana Headley. How has writing this novel been different than your previous work?

This is going to sound like I’m being a smart ass, and I swear it’s not that, but one of the biggest differences was that it was longer. I had more space to tell a story. Short fiction, it’s sort of like you have your idea, and you get in and get out. Even with The End of the Sentence, there were bits and pieces that Maria and I both loved, and could have happily spent more time in, and that had to go because they weren’t necessary for the part of the story that we were telling. There’s a different kind of story that you tell when you have three thousand words or thirty thousand, or ninety thousand. And so here, with Roses and Rot, I really got to linger in the story, and spend time with the characters and the world, and that was really a pleasure for me.

rosesrotlgThere are so many different strands running through Roses and Rot, from the fairy tales to Imogen and Marin’s history with their mother, and the reflections on art and creativity. How did you weave them together and create a cohesive story?

This is going to be the most boring answer ever, but lots of revisions. I tend to write very sparse early drafts — like the Grinch’s heart, they grow three sizes before they get finished. And so while I knew from the beginning that I wanted all of those pieces in there, often, the earliest versions of scenes would only hit one theme, or one piece. So I went back again and again and layered the pieces until the story had the weight that I wanted it to.

Beyond fairy tales themselves, were there any writers or stories you were influenced by when you were writing this book?

Obviously, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin was a huge influence on the story. And of course writers who engage with that sort of fairy/ fairy tale sensibility in their own writing — Terri Windling, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman, Holly Black. I’m always influenced by Cat Valente’s extraordinary talent with language. Nova Ren Suma, for making me want to write a book about sisters. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings and Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World.

Basically, this book had a lot of fairy godmothers.

Fairy tales are so often about girls in a magical and dangerous landscape–I’m interested in how that’s reflected in Roses and Rot. Were there any particular things you wanted to show in your landscapes and in Imogen’s reaction to them?

I think if you read fairy tales, you know that once the character heads into the woods, that’s when the story really starts happening. It’s where things are allowed to get a little bit strange, a little bit dangerous. I mean, Stephen Sondheim has an entire musical about this! Even A Midsummer Night’s Dream — all the parts with the fairies in happen once the human characters are in the woods. And so really, the landscape choice was just a way of working with this idea.

Oberon, Titania and Puck with fairies by William Blake – source

Witch Week 2015: Interview with Kate Forsyth

Kate by tree smlThis post is part of Witch Week, an annual celebration of fantasy books and authors. This year’s theme is New Tales from Old, focusing on fiction based in fairy tale, folklore, and myth. For more about Witch Week, see the Master Post.

Today, I’m delighted to welcome Australian author Kate Forsyth, who was kind enough to answer some questions about two of her fairy-tale-related novels that were recently published in the US. I highly recommend both Bitter Greens, an opulent variation on the theme of Rapunzel, and The Wild Girl, a historical novel about Dortchen Wild, who told many of the stories collected by the brothers Grimm — click through the links for my reviews. And be sure to enter the Witch Week giveaway for a chance to win a paperback copy of Bitter Greens!

ECBR: Your novels Bitter Greens and The Wild Girl, first published in Australia in 2012 and 2013, took a couple of years to make it into print here in the US. Can you tell us anything about that process – why did it take so long, and how were the books finally picked up for publication here? How has the US reception been?

KF: My books are always published in Australia first, because of a publishing law here that tries to protect the local book industry from cheaper US imports. Books are much more expensive in Australia, and so the government tries to encourage Australians to buy the local products rather than purchasing the cheaper US editions over the internet.

Bitter Greens was even later than usual, however, because the US publishers of my earlier books was a fantasy fiction imprint and was not interested in publishing a historical novel, even though it does have a fairy tale element. That meant we had to find another US publisher, which took a while. This is quite usual in the publishing industry – it can be quite a long and anxious process finding a home for a new work.

The US reception has been wonderful. Bitter Greens was widely reviewed and got some great press, and then it won the American Library Association Prize for Best Historical Fiction, which was the most incredible and exciting surprise. The Wild Girl has only been out for a few months, but I am hoping it will win as much acclaim.

Bitter Greens took you seven years to write and was somewhat different from the books you were known for. What inspired you to make this journey as a writer and what carried you through it? What have the fruits of it been for you?

BitterGreensI am best known in the US for my series of heroic fantasy The Witches of Eileanan but in Australia I am well-known for a variety of different types of books, including a series of historical novels for children called The Chain of Charms. (It was published as The Gypsy Crown in the US and was nominated for a CYBIL Award). I have also written a timeslip adventure for children called The Puzzle Ring, which was published in the UK but not in the US.

So writing a historical novel was not actually a new direction for me. What was new was the combination of a fairytale retelling within a historical setting, but then many of my other books – which range from fantasy to contemporary magic realism to historical fiction – are infused with fairytale settings, symbols and structures. So again it was not a radical departure for me.

I had wanted to write a retelling of Rapunzel for a long time, and the idea became more and more urgent in my imagination. I did not want to write a conventional retelling – I wanted to do something bold and new and surprising – and so I began to wonder where the story came from, and who first told the tale. The research ended up being so fascinating (and difficult), I decided to turn it into a Doctorate of Creative Arts. Altogether the writing of Bitter Greens and my doctorate on the history of the tale took me seven years, which is a long time. However, I loved every step of my journey and grieved deeply when it was all over, and I had to leave it all behind me.

Bitter Greens has been an astonishing success for me, however, and so all the thorns and stones of my road were absolutely worth it.

WildGirlHow was writing The Wild Girl similar to or different from that process? Did you feel it was a natural continuation of what you had already begun, or did it take you in a different direction?

The Wild Girl was, in one way, a new direction for me, because it was the first book I have ever written that did not have any purely fictional characters in it. Up until The Wild Girl, most of my books have been peopled with entirely fictional characters. The Puzzle Ring had a cameo appearance by Mary, Queen of Scots, and other real life people of her court, but my major characters were all imaginary. In The Wild Girl, all the major characters were based on real people who had once lived and breathed and loved. This was very challenging, and involved a great deal of research to try and make them as true to life as possible.

The Wild Girl is also historical social realism. I worked hard to be as true as possible to the life of my heroine Dortchen Wild, and there is very little that is magical or fantastical in the story. Bitter Greens, however, can probably be best described as historical magic realism – all the spells and curses and superstitions in the book are inspired by real beliefs of the time, recorded in the 16th century witch trials of the Italian Inquisition, but just pushing at the boundary between what was considered possible in their world.

In both of these books the central characters are brilliant female storytellers who have been overlooked by historians and largely forgotten. How can reviving and honoring their memories help us to find our own voices?

The Duchess of Orleans, who mentioned Charlotte-Rose in her memoirs

I was drawn to tell these stories by the desire to – as you say – revive and honour their memories. Most people know the names of Charles Perrault, the Grimm brothers, and Hans Christian Andersen, but the names of the extraordinary female fairy tale tellers has been forgotten. I was hoping to rescue Charlotte-Rose de la Force and Dortchen Wild (among others) from the oubliette of history, and to foreground the importance of women’s lives and women’s voices.

How do you balance your exhaustive research with the creative process? Do you ever find the factual basis of the story threatening to overwhelm its imaginative power, or vice versa?

For me, the story always comes first. No matter how fascinating the fact, it has no place in my novel unless it helps propel my plot forward, deepen the reader’s understanding of, and connection with, my characters, and create a vivid and deeply immersive sense of place. It must do all three of these things.

The research can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly in the beginning, when I am made acutely aware of how little I actually know. However, the more I research, the more I know, and the more clearly I see my story, and so gradually I become less overwhelmed and more excited by all the possibilities.

I actually love the research process! So interesting.

Your new book, The Beast’s Garden, takes place much closer to modern times, being set in Nazi Germany, yet you are still working with themes and motifs from traditional stories (here, the “Beauty and the Beast” tale and its variants). How did it feel to bring these elements into our own day?

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

The Beast’s Garden was a really challenging book to write, and took me much longer than I expected. Right from the very first flash of inspiration, I knew that I was working with the Grimm brothers’ version of the Beauty & Beast tale, which is called The Singing, Springing Lark, but that I intended to only use its structures and symbols to tell a story that was as real as I could possibly make it. The difficulty lay more in the massive amount of research I had to do, and in the harrowing nature of what I discovered. I am interested in using fairy tales in bold and unexpected ways, and seeing how their inner truths and wisdom can enrich a story set in the real world.

Can we look forward to this book also being published in the US?

I hope so! Time will tell …

What’s next for you? Will you continue to weave fairy tales into your novels? Are there any stories that are calling for you to explore them?

I am now working on a new historical novel that tells the story of the passions, scandals and tragedies behind the creation of the famous ‘Briar Rose’ series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones in late Victorian times. Once again I’m interested in the women – the wives and muses and mistresses and daughters of the Pre-Raphaelites circle of artists and writers.

Painting by Edward Burne-Jones

Sounds fantastic! Many thanks to Kate for taking the time to answer my questions and for writing such marvelous books. I hope that Witch Week readers will check out her available titles, and petition the publishers to let us have more of them!

The Vagabond Vicar: Author interview with Charlotte Brentwood

I don’t often read or review self-published books, but Charlotte Brentwood’s debut novel, The Vagabond Vicar, lured me with its charming cover. Inside, you’ll find a sweet and light romance that is unusual in its focus on a young clergyman who has no time for romance; he’s landed a coveted living in England but really wishes to be serving the poor and needy overseas. How he is won over by an unconventional young lady of the neighborhood makes pleasant escape reading for Regency fans.

I was curious to know more about how these characters came to be and about Charlotte’s path to self-publishing, so she was kind enough to answer some questions from me. Welcome, Charlotte!

ECBR: Everyone who sees your book is wowed by the cover. How did you find that painting? Do you know anything about the artist?

CB: I can’t remember exactly what I was looking for when I found the painting online – it was some sort of research/procrastination. I stumbled across it (Planning the Grand Tour by Emil Brack) and instantly fell in love with it. The characters are exactly as I imagined them, and my vagabond is enthusiastically showing his potential lady where his travels may take him. It also gives the reader a sense of this being a traditional, sweet regency. I hope you like it as much as I do!

Emil Brack was a German artist who worked in the late nineteenth century. He is a “genre painter” in that he focuses on capturing domestic details of life — in this case, from the regency period. I’m very glad to have found him!

Within a short space of time I also found art for the covers for book two and three — coming soon!

Getting into what’s between the covers, how did you start writing this story? What was your inspiration?

I created a vicar character for another book, but he wasn’t very interesting and I soon gave up on that book. While writing something else, the character of William began forming in my mind. He kept telling me tales of his mercy missions in the seedy parts of London. He told me about how he was given a living in a small village, but that he would much rather be sailing the seas to adventures in exotic lands. I was moved by his compassion, his earnestness, and his heart. I knew I had to give him his own story.

I love your main characters, William, the earnest young vicar, and Cecelia, the impetuous painter. What was the process of developing these characters like? Did they spring into your mind fully formed, or did it take you a while to find out who they were?

William’s character was already well-established in my mind when I began to seriously write the book, but it took me a while to find out about his past and figure out what his motivations were. I set out to create a vicar who was not only true to his convictions and compassionate, but also heroic, bold and downright swoon-worthy. I think this quote from a reader sums it up nicely: “I’ve never been one to ‘fall’ for a religious man, but William Brook is likely to get fans fluttering and cheeks flushing. Dare I say he’s a strong contender against the famous (and my literary love) Mr. Rochester?”

Cecilia came to me almost fully formed as well. I knew she had to be the bright, shining foil to William’s serious, intense existence. They both dwell in other realities – his focus is on helping the undercurrent of society, while she lives in an imagined world of colour and light. It seemed obvious she would be an artist. She is pulled back down to earth by the need to marry, and her mother’s determination to see her settled within a titled family.

After reading a number of different Regencies, I have the feeling that they exist in a sort of parallel universe rather than trying to exactly reproduce the social conditions of the era, which are admittedly very limiting for an author. What are some of the ways that you perhaps stretched the bounds of historical accuracy, in the interest of a good story?

I haven’t changed any major historical facts (as far as I know!) but I did invent the setting of Amberley and all of the surrounding area, based on other villages in that corner of Shropshire. In regards to every day activities and social interactions, I have again tried to be faithful but I haven’t dwelled on some of the nastier aspects of life two hundred years ago — things like the lack of sanitation. I’d like to think that the hero and heroine smell good but chances are that might not have been the case! Where, after exhaustive research, I couldn’t find a particular detail about society or domestic life I have had to fill in the gaps.

On the other hand, part of the fun of a historical romance is that it does give the feeling of being in a different time and place. What historical details did you most enjoy incorporating in your story?

The restrictions which society placed on the respectable classes make for great romantic subject matter. Then there are entertaining events to incorporate such as balls and card parties, and I had great fun creating a harvest festival (fete), during which pivotal events play out. Of course, I love imagining all the clothes and hairstyles — I love the thought of a heart in turmoil beneath an elegant cravat and waistcoat.

You had a hard time getting an agent to take on the book to sell to a traditional publisher, although you received a lot of praise for your writing. What do you think was really going on there?

The common thread with the agents was that they were unable to pigeon-hole my book clearly into a genre. Apparently it’s not straight historical romance, nor is it a literary historical. They said they wouldn’t be able to tell editors what shelf it would sit on in a bookstore. The funny thing is that there other books like mine sitting on the shelves — most often in general fiction. An agent even said to me that she agreed there is an audience for the book (herself included) but editors are being so picky that she just couldn’t take a chance.

It seems that if something doesn’t fit nicely into the wider commercial genres, it doesn’t get a look in. I would say my book is a traditional regency romance, but as that’s apparently not “fashionable” right now, they pretend the genre doesn’t exist.

Once you decided to self-publish, what were some of the challenges you faced? How did you meet them?

Obviously there is the challenge of doing all the work a publisher would have done for you — getting people to edit your work, designing a cover, formatting for the various different platforms and figuring out taxes and payment (which is a challenge for someone outside the US). And then the biggest challenge, which is not unique to indies: marketing.

You also have to take the huge leap of faith required in order to launch your product into the world without the sanction of the literary powers-that-be, hoping it will be well-received. It’s scary!

I’ve just done the best I can, with the help of my friends and the writing community. I hope the book is just as good as something which would come from the big five, but readers will be the judge of that.

Are you writing another book? Based on your experience so far, what have you learned? What might you try to do differently next time?

I am working on the two follow-up books to The Vagabond Vicar in tandem, as the stories of Amy Miller and John Barrington are related (though separate). I already have a lot of scenes drafted for each and I’m about to knuckle down to plot out all the details. I hope to get these stories out in the coming year.

Now that I know the processes involved, I hope to be more organised in terms of planning all the elements required before and after release. I hope that I am also a better writer than I was three years ago when I began the Vicar, so hopefully the process of writing these next books will be quicker and the stories just as good if not better.

What are some of your favorite books, inside or outside the Regency genre? What authors do you admire, and why?

Unsurprisingly, I like books which are similar to mine — set in history with strong romantic elements but with a focus on character development and overcoming personal obstacles, rather than artificial conflict and lust. I have been an Austen fan since I was a teenager (that’s where this all started really) and I also love Elizabeth Gaskell, Georgette Heyer, Louisa May Alcott, Carla Kelly, Catherine Marshall, George Eliot, and LM Montgomery.

Authors I admire who have lived more recently (or producing today) include Patricia Veryan, Sarah M Eden, Candice Hern, Jennifer Moore Donna Hatch, Julie Klassen, and some Austen-related literature such as Abigail Reynolds.

Thank you for hosting me Lory!

And thank you, Charlotte, for stopping by. It was very interesting to learn more about how this book came to be.


New Zealand author Charlotte Brentwood developed serious crushes on a series of men from age fifteen: Darcy, Knightley, Wentworth and Brandon. A bookworm and scribbler for as long as she can remember, Charlotte always dreamed of sharing her stories with the world. Upon earning a degree in communication studies, she was seduced by the emerging digital world and has since worked with the web and in marketing. When she’s not toiling at her day job, writing or procrastinating on the Internet, Charlotte can be found snuggling with her cat Sophie, warbling at the piano, sipping a hot chocolate, or enjoying the great outdoors. To learn more, visit her website: http://www.charlottebrentwood.com.

The Masque of a Murderer: Author interview with Susanna Calkins

In my recent interview with mystery author and historian Sam Thomas, I asked if he had recommendations for any other books set in seventeenth-century England, and he mentioned a series by Susanna Calkins. Almost immediately, the chance came up to host a blog tour stop for the third and latest entry in the series, The Masque of a Murderer, and I was happy to take this opportunity to learn more about the books and their author.

The Masque of a Murderer takes us into the heart of a turbulent time. London is recovering from the devastations of plague and fire. Social norms are being overturned as women take on new roles in the wake of death and destruction. New religious groups, such as the Quakers, are challenging deeply ingrained conventions. Making her way in all of this turmoil is former servant turned printer’s apprentice Lucy Calkins, who hears a deathbed confession that leads her to search for a murderer. As she goes further into danger, Lucy also must try to solve some knotty problems in her personal life, including that of her relationship to Adam, the son of her former employer.

The novel takes a wide range of elements that are fascinating on their own — Quakerism, early printing and bookselling practices, London’s recovery after the Great Fire — and weaves them into a narrative that will keep you guessing. Although plot-wise it can certainly be read on its own, I found that I regretted missing out on the character development (particularly for Lucy and Adam) that must have taken place in the earlier volumes, so unlike me you might want to start with the first book in the series, Murder at Rosamond’s Gate, and its sequel, From the Charred Remains. There, I’m sure you’ll find even more fascinating historical details wrapped up in an engaging mystery.


Author Susanna Calkins describes herself as an educator, historian, and faculty developer by day, writer by night. She says, “I’ve had a morbid curiosity about murder in seventeenth-century England ever since grad school, in those days before I earned my Ph.D. in history. The ephemera from the archives — tantalizing true accounts of the fantastic and the strange — inspired my historical mysteries. Born and raised in Philadelphia, I live outside Chicago now, with my husband and two sons.”

Welcome, Susanna, and thank you for sharing your perspective with us! I’d like to start with the same question I asked Sam Thomas: You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction?
What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your

I enjoy Sam’s Midwife Mysteries! My interest in writing a mystery set in seventeenth century England came from when I was doing research as a graduate student. I came across a collection of murder ballads—people used to sing, literally, about murder—and I knew I had to turn some of those ballads into a story.  I am always very happy to hear that people learned something about the time period from my books; my intention wasn’t to educate, but rather to entertain, so it’s always a thrill. (And by the way, Sam and I have talked about a cross-over: his midwife would deliver one of my characters!)

This novel starts with a murder that takes place within the Quaker community in London. Today, most Americans’ associations with Quakerism are probably vaguely benign: pacifism, Benjamin Franklin, oatmeal. But as you make very clear, in the seventeenth century this new religious group was a hotbed of controversy and persecution. Can you describe some of the reasons for this?

Ha! That’s funny. When the Quakers first emerged—along with other radical groups like the Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Anabaptists etc—they were challenging the established religious and social order enacted by the Church of England (Anglicans). They likened themselves to Old Testament prophets, and saw it as their godly duty to protest against the King, Parliament, and other authorities who sought to constrain their religious views. So they dressed in sackcloth, shouted from street corners, “quaked in the presence of the Lord,” and “ran naked as a sign” to demonstrate their conscience.

Why did you choose to set a mystery within this community? What intrigues you most about it?

My doctoral dissertation focused on the political activities of Quaker women. As a group they were the most prolific of writers; they published thousands of tracts and other penny pieces, which was quite amazing. I was always intrigued by the way people in this time period would gather around while someone was dying; the Quakers in particular would make sure they recorded someone’s last dying words for posterity; I always wondered what would happen if that dying person said that he or she was murdered, and that the murderer was nearby. That is the premise of this book.

Several of the characters in your story have left lives of wealth and relative luxury to become Quakers, giving up many pleasures and indulgences to follow the strict rules of the sect. Were you following a historical precedent in this? Why do you think people would make such a choice at that time in history?

Many Quakers actually came from the ‘middling sort’ or even the noble class. Indeed, the founders of the Quakers–George Fox, Margaret Fell Fox and William Penn–were all fairly wealthy and used much of their money to fund Quaker causes. Deep religious and spiritual values were much more pervasive and meaningful in early modern England as well; for many people, obeying one’s conscience was far more important than blindly establishing an established institutionalized religion.

Your main character in this series is a former chambermaid who becomes involved in investigating crimes. Is there a relationship between her two roles of servant and detective? Do you believe that one informs the other, or are they antithetical?

As a servant Lucy is able to move in and out of different environments, listening to people, paying attention to things, and she is often able to pass unnoticed. As a printer’s apprentice and bookseller, she has increased access to the outside world, and can move about a little more freely.

Another thread in your series is the rise of the popular press, as Lucy becomes an apprentice in a printer’s shop. You mention that “ephemera from the archives” inspired your fictional writings — what are some examples in this field? Are the tracts and pamphlets that you write about real? Did they prompt some of the events in your fiction?

I spent a lot of time poring over these old tracts, pamphlets, broadsides and ballads when I was a graduate student (still do, actually). Since the paper quality was so cheap, most of these printed pieces have not survived. What remains are usually from the collections of individuals, who may have enjoyed certain types of stories—like stories of murders, “monstrous births,” as well as jokes and ribald tales. They are very helpful to draw upon when I am writing. A few of the tracts I reference are real, but most of the ones I mention in the books are made up by me.

You’re already working on a fourth Lucy Calkins book, Death Along the River Fleet. Can you give us a hint of what is in store next for your heroine? 

In this one, Lucy is making an early morning delivery, walking along the burnt out area of London. As she crosses one of the now-lost rivers of London—the River Fleet—she comes across a woman, clad only in an underdress and covered with blood that is not her own. The woman has no memory of who she is, and so Lucy takes her Dr. Larimer, a physician of her acquaintance. Without going into too many more details, the woman appears to be a noblewoman, and Lucy is asked to serve discreetly as her companion while she recovers. When the body of a murdered man is discovered, suspicion will fall upon this woman, and Lucy will seek to unearth the truth of the matter. . .

Thanks for having me today!

And thank you, Susanna! Your answers made me even more interested to learn more about this time and place, and appreciative of the research that went into your fictional creations.

This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Masque of a Murderer. Please visit the tour page for additional reviews, interviews, giveaways, and more.

Review copy source: ARC from publisher. This book will be released by St. Martin’s Minotaur on April 14, 2015. 


The Witch Hunter’s Tale: Author interview with Sam Thomas

Today, I’m pleased to welcome author Sam Thomas to talk about his latest “Midwife Mystery,” The Witch Hunter’s Tale, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in January, 2015. This third installment in Sam’s series about a mystery-solving midwife in seventeenth century York, England, follows The Midwife’s Tale and The Harlot’s Tale but can also be read on its own.

In this thrilling novel, Sam takes us deep into the dark streets of the ancient city, unfolding a tale of the terrible witch hunts that flared into fanaticism during an unstable era in history. By centering on a midwife as his main character, Sam also illuminates the frequently overlooked stories of the brave and compassionate women who struggled to bring healing into the lives of others during this turbulent time, as well as those who would use their position in a more unscrupulous way. With its combination of deep human interest and dynamic real-life events, The Witch Hunter’s Tale is a great read for lovers of historical mysteries, and especially for those who, like me, have a special interest in the history and literary associations of Yorkshire.

Sam Thomas is a former professor of history at the University of Alabama and currently teaches secondary school students at the University School near Cleveland, Ohio. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the
Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy, and has
published articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to
colonial Africa. Sam kindly answered some of my questions about the history behind the mysteries, and I hope you’ll find his perspective as fascinating as I do.

You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction? What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your books?

The jump into fiction came at the same time I quite college teaching to move to an independent high school. (Long story there!) The problem was that as a historian I’d become fascinated by the history of midwives and could not bear the thought of abandoning them entirely. I knew that no high school would give me a year off to write a history of midwifery, so I thought a novel might take its place. And it seems to have!

My goal when I write fiction is more or less unchanged from my non-fiction days. I want to write about the past in a way that is true and engages the reader’s heart and mind. The past is full of amazing stories, so there is no reason at all for it to be dry.

What do you find most intriguing about your the era and place of your series — northern England in the time of the battles between Royalists and Puritans?

I was originally drawn to this period because of its religious diversity. (My own family is a mix of Quaker, Jewish, and Catholic. Paging Dr. Freud.) You had the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers, all running about at the same time. I wanted to know how these groups related to each other: when did they fight, when did they get along, and why?

Then you throw in the Civil War, the trial and execution of the King on charges of treason…really, what more could you want?

Your central mystery-solving midwife character is based on a real person, Bridget Hodgson. You go into her fascinating historical record in detail on your website, but can you briefly describe who she was and how you found her?

The ‘historical’ Bridget Hodgson was a midwife in York during and after the English Civil War. I stumbled across her will entirely by accident, and immediately fell in love. I had this image of midwives as elderly crones of dubious reputation with their neighbors, but there she was, wealthy, well-born, and proud of her work as a midwife, and the more I learned, the more I loved.

She was from a gentry family, the Baskervilles (she had a coat of arms and perhaps a hound), married the son of the Lord Mayor of York, and – this is the great part – named all her god-daughters after herself.

It is one thing to give your own daughter your name (she did this too), but to name other people’s daughters after you? That takes some confidence.

Why did you choose to make a midwife the focus of a series of mystery novels?

It actually was the other way around. I knew I wanted to write about midwives, and mysteries seemed the way to go.

First, it made it easier to find a plot. You start with one dead body, and you end with another one. Easy as pie!

Second, it made sense. Midwives were a part of the criminal justice system at the time, investigating crimes ranging from infanticide and rape to witchcraft. And if a female prisoner were sentenced to death and claimed to be pregnant, the midwife was the one who checked out her story.

Literally, midwives decided who lived and died!

It seems that there is a fair amount of mystery about midwives themselves — historians don’t really know much about their lives and work in the pre-modern era. What are some of the questions that are being researched?

Man, great question. I think the one key question focuses on the relationship between midwives and mothers. So little is known about this, but it obviously was key to many women’s lives. How did mothers pick midwives and what criteria did they use? What made a midwife good at her job?

The other – even bigger – question was how men took over childbirth. The curious thing about this is that it is unlikely that the male midwives were forced on unwilling mothers. Rather, mothers sought out male practitioners. The question we can’t answer is why? What happened in English society that made this change possible?

In this particular book, the terrible phenomenon of witch hunting, which was at its height at the time, is central to the plot. What do think fueled this hysteria? How do you hope your fictional treatment can help us understand it?

Between 1400 and 1800, approximately five hundred English women were executed as witches. Of these, nearly three hundred were killed in a single decade, the 1640s. So there is no question that the witch panics were a product of a very specific time and place.

The best book on this is Malcom Gaskill’s Witchfinders. I can’t do his thesis justice here, but in short he argues that the chaos of the civil war drove people to violence. Misfortune was a sign of God’s anger, and hunting witches was a way to please Him.

Add to this the collapse of government authority, which ordinarily kept accusations from getting out of hand, and the conditions were just right for this sort of thing.

I think the key idea is that witch hunters thought they were doing God’s work, and often were terrified of the women they put on trial. Obviously I’m not defending them, but it is important to understand the past.

If a reader is so lucky as to have a chance to visit the city of York, what sites do you recommend for getting a sense of the past?

The great thing about York is that it’s small and compact. See the cathedral, and pay for the extras. (You have to pay to get into the Chapter House, walk on the roof, and go down into the crypt, but do it!)

Walk the city wall – it’s amazing – and then get lost. There are old churches everywhere, and each one is a marvel.

And, do you have recommendations for further reading about your novel’s time, place, and subjects, either fiction or nonfiction (not too technical for us non-historians)?

Witchfinders is good, I think, and available in paperback. For fiction, I’d recommend Susanna Calkins’s Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, the first in her series. She’s also a historian, we have the same publisher, and we each have two sons of the same age. Had we not met, I’d think we might be the same person. Except I’m taller.

If you want to go a bit earlier, there’s C.J. Sansom’s series about Matthew Shardlake. One of these (Sovereign?) takes place in York, at least in part. They are quite good!

Thank you, Sam! Your decision to write a “midwife mystery” now makes perfect sense, and I for one am very glad you did. I look forward to reading more about Bridget and her adventures.

This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Witch Hunter’s Tale. Please visit the tour page for more stops with reviews, interviews, and other great content.