AUTHOR INTERVIEWS

  • Nicholas Bowling

    Nicholas Bowling

    WITCHBORN

    CHICKEN HOUSE BOOKS

    NOVEMBER 2017


    In this impressive debut, teacher, musician and comic Nicholas Bowling transports us to seventeenth century England, a time when witch hunters prowled and political forces battled unrest.

    WITCHBORN follows Alyce, whose mother has been burned at the stake as a witch. She flees to London after killing the witchfinder, but discovers that there are people who still want to find her - powerful people - but what is their real interest in her?

    This is a brilliantly-realised world of seventeenth century England starring a feisty heroine and enough twists to keep readers guessing... We asked author NICHOLAS BOWLING to tell us more about WITCHBORN:


    Q: Can you tell us a bit about your own teen years and what drew you into writing?

    I grew up near Chester, on the border with North Wales - in fact my house was about 100 metres away from the Welsh border. There was my village on my side of the river, and a village on the Welsh side, and kids from each country would run over the bridge to cause mischief on the other side. It got pretty tribal.

    Most of my teenage memories are of rollerblading and playing lots of computer games and not reading as much as I should have. I loved drawing and painting, too, and wanted to be an artist until I was about 16. Then I had the most amazing English teacher who taught me to love language and to love reading again, and I went on to study English and Classics (Latin) at Oxford. I also did a Masters there in Classical Literature, and then went on to be Classics teacher at Trinity School in Croydon.


    Q: What took you from stand-up comedy to writing about Elizabethan England in Witchborn?

    A: A total lack of direction and decisiveness. My twenties consisted almost entirely of faffing about. But I'm glad I faffed. Faffing is important. I knew I wanted to do something creative with my life, and I knew I didn't want to wear a suit ever or get up early in the morning (failed on both these counts).

    I did some stand-up comedy, and some comedy writing, played some music, and wrote the first chapters of some awful, awful novels. I finally settled on children's fiction because someone said some very kind things about the first draft of Witchborn, and I thought it might get published, so I made a concerted effort to focus on that. And it paid off!


    Q: Why did you set your novel in the Elizabethan era?

    A: I knew I wanted to write a fantasy novel of the kind that I loved when I was growing up, but I didn't want to just create a world from scratch. Proper world-building, of the Tolkein kind, is great fun but a huge amount of work if you want to do it right.

    Where did this world come from? What do you call your characters? Their hometown? Their country? Why call it that? What language do those words come from? How did that language form? I think I'm too much of a perfectionist to ever trust that my world would be fully believable (also maybe I'm lazy..?)

    So I thought: which historical era would be fitting for a story about magic and sorcery? That got me thinking about the witch hunts, and a big what if: what if this supposed worldwide conspiracy of witches had been a real thing?

    I knew a bit about Elizabethan England from my studies at university, and it's such a rich and colourful and dangerous period, so it seemed like the perfect setting. It's also fascinating as a crisis point in history when religion, science and magic all intersect. And I like the idea of a story, or a period of history, that initially feels familiar, but then is revealed to be slightly strange and out-of-joint.


    Q: How much research did you do into sixteenth century witchcraft and how much did that inform the witchcraft in your book?

    A: I did read a lot about witches and witchcraft and witch-hunting, most of which comes out in the first chapter (with the 'trial' of Alyce's mother).

    I also used a fair bit of my own imagination when it comes to the practicalities of the witches' magic. The tricky thing was trying to extricate witches and witchcraft from their associations with the Church and the Devil and the notion of 'evil'.

    In Witchborn, the witches are basically amoral - they can be good or bad - and religion is almost irrelevant (it's also a real can of worms).

    What I also wanted to explore was how different types of magic might interact - the 'natural', 'intuitive' magic of the witches and the 'learned' magic of people like Doctor Dee.


    Q: Did you also do much research into the general Elizabethan age, such as royalty, settings and everyday life?

    A: Yes! I wasn't very methodical about it, I should say - I researched as I went, which meant that there were still some absolute howlers in there even when it reached the final draft. Two great, great books for this: The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer, and Elizabeth's London by Liza Picard. Both really readable and fascinating.


    Q: What were your top three discoveries about Elizabeth life?

    A: Just three?! Well, top of my head... First of all you needed a license to be a beggar. Imagine that! You're already destitute, and then you have to apply for the right to grovel for money.

    Also, you got the same punishment for stealing a hawk as you did for murder. Same if you rented out your pond. Death, by hanging, usually. I don't understand the pond thing at all. Sometimes butchers were asked to stand in for executioners.

    A slightly less grisly one to finish: when tomatoes were first brought back from the New World, they were considered poisonous and used purely decoratively!


    Q: How difficult was it to create your historical characters and to write dialogue for figures such as Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots?

    A: To be honest, I didn't think about them too much as 'historical figures' - as soon as you do, there are certain assumptions that you make, and they become these cardboard cut-outs that conform to what you learned in school history lessons. I tried to just write them as normal human beings, but with a few historical details, or bits of phrasing, to colour them a little.

    It's quite fun to play with such well-known figures and subvert people's expectations. In fact, in an earlier draft I went out of my way to make Elizabeth a real lout when she's in private, gobbling up wine and chicken and burping all over the place.


    Q: How difficult was it to make your main character, Alyce, stand out at a time when women and girls were so overlooked?

    A: That's interesting - I don't really think of her as feisty! She's strong, I think, in a stoic sort of way. Some terrible things happen to her. She's also witty and resourceful, and has this underlying darkness to her that was there right from the beginning, both in terms of her moods and her powers. I'm a big fan of ambiguous characters, who make good and bad decisions.

    I'd say the mistreatment of women - and witches - in the Elizabethan age actually allowed me to make her a strong character, because she chooses not to be cowed by the pressures put upon her.

    Also the fact that Elizabeth is on throne throws up some interesting questions about the perception of women, and in particular powerful women, at that time. There's a bit at the end where Mary Queen of Scots makes a speech about how she's been mistreated and mistrusted as a woman in power, and you can't help siding with her (at a moment when you're definitely not supposed to!)


    Q: Alyce also has spend a short time as a 'patient' at Bedlam, why did you want to explore what went on in that institution at the time?

    A: From a narrative point of view, I chose it to set the tone for the rest of the book - it's a very dark section of the story. It also feeds into some of the themes mentioned above about the treatment of women, since the vast majority of the 'patients' were female, being treated for 'hysteria'.

    Bedlam was a sad and pretty horrifying place, right up until the 19th century - I think I just wanted to show how misunderstood mental illness was back then, and perhaps provoke some thoughts about how we approach it today.


    Q: How did the wonderful raven, Master Pecke, come about?

    A: He used to be a fox! In fact, no... He was a raven, then a fox, then he went back to being a raven again. The stories about witches' familiars are great (even if the context of the witches' confessions is pretty bleak), so I had to get one in.

    In the findings of Matthew Hopkins, Witch Finder General (in the 17th century, later than Witchborn) there's a witch who has a wasp as a familiar, and one who has a bear the size of a rabbit. Who wouldn't want a magical, rabbit-sized bear to do their bidding?


    Q: If you could travel back in time to the Elizabethan era, where would you want to go and who would you like to meet?

    A: Old London Bridge, for starters. And one of the playhouses - I'd love to see how an acting troupe responded and interacted with an audience who shouted and interrupted and threw things at them.

    I'd want to go to the countryside, too, because I think there'd be something breath-taking, and a bit unsettling, about an England that's still wild and forested and not covered in roads and houses.

    I'd like to meet Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe. Poet, playwright, spy, forger, atheist, supposed occultist (in a very early draft of the book, he was one of the main characters, for obvious reasons!) He'd have a few stories to tell over an ale, I'm sure. And Elizabeth of course - I'd like to know what she was really like behind the public, almost mythical persona she built for herself.


    Q: You have left the ending open for a sequel - will there be one?

    A: Hopefully! All in all, Witchborn was about five years in the writing so I need a bit of time to wash my brain out and think about something else.

    I'm writing a different book at the moment, but once that's done and I'm refreshed, I'll get back to Alyce and find out what she's up to.


    Q: What are you writing now and where do you write? What are your writing routines?

    I'm currently writing another sort-of-historical-fiction book, this one set in Rome under the emperor Nero. Can't tell you too much, but expect intrigue and darkness, big twists and bad smells. As per.

    I write in my bedroom (or my flatmate's, who's kind enough to let me use his desk when he's out - he has a great chair).

    I live looking out over Bunhill Fields, which is as good a view as you're going to get in Central London. I almost always write in the morning, first thing, before I've done anything else. Otherwise all the white noise starts to scramble my brain cells. I try to start at 9am, and have an absolute minimum target of 1,000 words a day - usually it's a bit more than that, rarely over 1,500. Writing after 4pm is just an unmitigated disaster, usually.


    Q: You have a keen interest in music, does listening to music help you write? What's at the top of your playlist?

    A: No, I need absolute silence when I'm writing! I'm intolerable like that. If I put on music, I just end up listening to it really intently and getting nothing done. All my students ask if they can put headphones in when they work in the computer rooms, and I have no idea how they do it.

    I'm currently listening to 'Drunk' by Thundercat, but I'm not sure that's totally suitable for young readers... It's amazing though. It's jazz and funk and hip hop and virtuosic bass soloing and it sounds like a small universe exploding. It's also hilarious in places, which is very very rare in an album.


    Q: What do you do to relax when you're not writing?

    A: Best thing to blow away the cobwebs is to go climbing, or go for a really cold swim in Hampstead ponds. Sometimes I'll make some music, plunk around on my bass to some jazz I don't understand and can't keep up with. I get completely consumed by videogames - if I don't finish Dark Souls III soon, I may never finish the next book. And I read, of course! All sorts - my tastes are very varied. Last two books I read were Neuromancer by William Gibson and The Explorer by Katherine Rundell. Next up I've got Noam Chomsky eyeing me flirtatiously from my bedside table.


    Q: What are your top three tips for young writers for writing convincing historical fiction?

    A: Firstly, don't get too hung up on the fact that it's 'history' - you're writing about people just like you and me, with the same hopes and fears and strangenesses.

    Secondly, don't cram the story with loads of historical detail. Put it in where it helps the story along, but the characters should be the beating heart. A little touch here and there is all it needs, like cooking. Too much exotic spicing and it'll just be inedible.

    Lastly: when setting your scene, never underestimate the power of a bad smell. Now that's something that doesn't apply to cooking.