A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Ruth Warburton has a brand new trilogy that begins with WITCH FINDER, and it’s out today! Go buy it. Obvs. But first, read this interview, because this will make you want to buy it even more.
Also, the cover. Look at the cover. The pretty.
London. 1880. In the slums of Spitalfields apprentice blacksmith Luke is facing initiation into the Malleus Maleficorum, the fearsome brotherhood dedicated to hunting and killing witches.
Luke’s final test is to pick a name at random from the Book of Witches, a name he must track down and kill within a month, or face death himself. Luke knows that tonight will change his life forever. But when he picks out sixteen-year-old Rosa Greenwood, Luke has no idea that his task will be harder than he could ever imagine…
It’s almost like we’ve gone back in time from the world of the Winter trilogy as I spotted a few names and story connections there. Had you always planned to do the historical version of your story world, or was it an idea that came after you’d finished writing the contemporary books?
No, I didn’t really think past the end of the Winter books while I was writing them. But I loved doing all the historical research into witch history and folklore for the Winter books, and a lot of the world building for that series was spent around inventing a credible alternative history for the witches, running alongside “normal” history. Much of that didn’t make it into the Winter trilogy so when I was thinking about follow-on projects from the Winter books, it felt like a natural thing to go backwards, rather than forwards, and explore some of the back story I’d already created.
The historical world of WITCH FINDER is so incredibly evocative and real – how much extra work does it add on to do all the research you must do?
Well I love doing research, and I had already done a lot of the spadework with the Winter books in terms of creating the system of witchcraft and spells that they use. So although there was a fair amount of extra work in terms of finding out about Victorian London, I already had a headstart with the witchy aspects, and the whole thing was a labour of love rather than duty!
I do love finding out technical details – some of the most trivial stuff is the hardest to find out, like how many farriers (this is a blacksmith specialising in horses) were there in Victorian London? Could you just rock up with a shoeless horse or did you have to make an appointment, like with a dentist? Would a farrier have had a permanent assistant, and was it credible for two farriers to work side-by-side?
I was incredibly lucky with two aspects of research – I have a friend who works at the Museum of London who helped with some of the details and gave me reading suggestions, and via another friend, I made contact with a blacksmith called Paul Binns who specialises in historical bladework, and he was able to give me a lot of useful technical information about the types of fuels and the process of starting up a forge from cold, and so on. Any errors are all mine, needless to say!
Following on from that, how do you choose just how much historical detail to put in, as I imagine it’s quite a hard balance to get right?
It’s really hard – I find all the detail fascinating so my instinct is always to cram as much in as possible, but the story is the most important thing – you have to keep remembering that you’re writing a novel, not a research paper! I tend to think if you know all that stuff in your own head, it will seep onto the page via osmosis – you don’t actually need to consciously put it there.
Who was your favourite character to write? (I have a personal reader’s bias towards Sebastian Knyvet – he seems complex and rather slippery and you never knew quite where you were with him, which I thought was brilliant.)
I did have great fun writing Sebastian – I love writing baddies! I like writing morally ambiguous characters, so I enjoy characters like Leadingham: he is a good man by his own lights, doing a dangerous and necessary job. But in fact, his moral compass has become so skewed that he can’t see that what he’s actually doing is morally and legally criminal. The Malleus is really a sort of terrorist organisation – a bit like the IRA. But of course, one man’s terrorist is another man’s heroic resistance fighter. It’s fascinating to hop back and forth across that line inside someone’s head.
The sequel, WITCH HUNT, is out in only 6 months time, and you had 6 months in between your first books as well – is that a hard schedule to keep to?
Well I had a head start with the Winter books because I had written one and half books before I was even signed. My natural rate is more like one a year – I don’t think I could keep up a six-monthly schedule indefinitely.
Are there any easter eggs or little in-jokes in WITCH FINDER readers might not spot right away?
Well, I “read myself into” the period by reading a lot of classic Victorian books – Dickens, the Brontes, even a bit of Austen although she’s considerably earlier than my novels are set. Some of the scenes definitely pay homage to characters and settings in those novels. Sebastian, for instance, owes quite a bit to Bentley Drummie, the dissolute man Estella marries in Great Expectations, and the sequel, WITCH HUNT, has a scene with definite echoes of Jane Eyre! I don’t know if they count as Easter Eggs though – they aren’t really hidden – more an overt acknowledgement of how much Dickens et al have shaped our image of Victorian London.