Karen Maitland joins me this month to talk about her new novel, The Vanishing Witch, published by Headline this month. The novel is set during the troubled reign of Richard II where the poor are becoming poorer still and landowners are lining their pockets.
And when people start dying unnatural deaths and the peasants decide it's time to fight back, it's all too easy to spy witchcraft at every turn.
Headline are also publishing a short e-book, Liars and Thieves, featuring characters from Maitland's second novel, Company of Liars.
Karen Maitland travelled and worked in many parts of the United Kingdom before settling for many years in the beautiful medieval city of Lincoln, an inspiration for her writing. She is the author of The White Room, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse and The Falcons of Fire and Ice. She is one of the authors of the Medieval Murders series. Their latest is called:
She has recently relocated to a life of rural bliss in Devon. All her books are available on Amazon. You can find more information about Karen on her website:
What made you choose the Peasant’s Revolt for the focus of this novel?
When selecting the setting for my novels, I like to take a modern issue and try to find a medieval parallel. I’d been watching the news coverage of the London Riots in 2011, and how it spread to other towns across England. The similarity to the Peasants Revolt of 1381was remarkable, though of course the modern rioters didn’t chop off the head of the Chancellor of the Exchequer as they did in the Peasants Revolt. But both riots happened in an usually hot summer. Both riots involved many people who were normally law-abiding and in both cases the rioters expected to be stopped quickly and weren’t. Social media was blamed for the rioting spreading in 2011, but there was no social media in 1381, yet it spread almost as fast. I wanted to explore the terror people felt and also the exhilaration when the old certainties start collapsing around them both.
Most of your novels are in late medieval England—is there something in particular that attracts you to this period?
It was a period of great advances in science, fantastic building works and exploration, but also one in which magic and superstition were part of everyone’s lives. Even when they were building a great cathedral or going into battle they would look for signs and omens before they began. It was a period so like our own – of wars between different religions, climate change, floods, sea-level rise, new pandemics, and yet the way they looked at the world was so different, they didn’t separate science and religion, or astrology and medicine. Angels and ghosts were as much a part of their everyday lives as pease pottage and public hangings.
All your books reflect an extensive amount of research of the places but also the customs and dress of the time period. How do you approach your research?
I take every opportunity I can to visit museums, churches, old sailing vessels and craft workshops to look at the objects from that period, which allows me imagine what they would be like to use and what it might have felt like to work there. Objects I see often inspire scenes too. I stumbled across tiny gold boar’s head studded with garnets in Retford Museum in Lincolnshire. That little object inspired several sinister episodes in The Vanishing Witch.
Of course, I use a mountain of academic books to research facts such as which plants grow where, but sometimes you have to think laterally to find out what you need. Books of fashion about the period are based on paintings and effigies, so they don’t show you how garments were kept on. For Company of Liars I had to track down a group of nuns who still wore the wimples of that period, to find out how many pins it took to keep it in place.
Was there any particular fact or custom that you found the most interesting or peculiar in this novel or in any others?
For The Vanishing Witch I did a lot of research into the charms people used to protect themselves against witchcraft or the evil eye. We still do some of these things today without knowing why, like using a stone that has a natural hole in it as a key-ring or hanging a holed stone by a door. This was done because they believed the holed stone prevented evil and mischief entering through the keyhole.
If you were erecting a building you built the shadow of a person into the foundations either by tricking some unsuspecting stranger into standing in a certain spot so their shadow fell on the place where you were going to put the foundation stone, or by secretly measuring their shadow with a rope and burying the rope. The nasty side of this was that they believed the person whose shadow you’d used would die within the year, because you had stolen their spirit, which would be compelled to guard the building ever more.
I found your novel, The Owl Killers, fascinating because it centred around a lay woman’s community, something unique in England but fairly prevalent enough in France. How did you ever come across information about it?
I first came across the beguinages on a weekend trip to Bruges in Belgium and became so intrigued I started to research these communities when I returned home. There are quite good records held in the city archives of towns in Belgium and also ecclesiastical records, because these women were often investigated by the Church and some were brought to trial for heresy.
We also have some books written by the women themselves, such as Mechthild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch of Brabant. I suspect there may be many more hidden away in places like the bowels of the Vatican library. But one of the most exciting things for me, is that local historians in England are uncovering references to beguinages in records of English towns and cities. These communities disappeared without trace and these are perhaps the most intriguing, especially as you can sometimes find chapels which have all the hallmarks of having once been beguinage chapels, but that part of their history is missing in the church records.
The novel, Falcon of Fire and Ice, contains two powerful characters who are conjoined twins held in a cave in Iceland. Were those characters based on some historical evidence, or was that from your fertile imagination?
Those characters were inspired in part by a legend I read about when I was a teenager when twin women appeared to William the Conqueror when he was arguing with his council about whether or not to launch an attack on England. He took their appearance as a sign he should invade England, and it changed the course of British history. That image of these women stayed in my head and was the starting point for those characters in this novel which was set at the time of the Inquisition and Reformation.
What brought you first to writing?
Originally it was telling inventing stories at night in bed as a small child, when I was supposed to be asleep. Then years later, having had fairly traumatic experiences with civil war and terrorism in the Nigeria and Northern Ireland, I wrote my first novel, a modern thriller, based on those experiences, really to get them out of my head. I think historical novels now have the greatest attraction for me in that they allow me to tell stories as I did as a child, combined with being able to share the historical facts I get excited about.
Can you tell me what books you have on your bedside table?
Currently I'm reading Deborah Harkness’s trilogy -- A Discovery of Witches -- brilliant and so funny. I’m in awe of her imagination. I’ve just finished Joanne Harris –Blueeyedboy, a very clever and chilling modern murder-mystery written in the form of blog entries posted by members of a bizarre internet group. Another in the pile is Peter Goodwin’s When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, a heart-breaking true story about his parents trapped in Zimbabwe. And last, but certainly not least, a collection of short stories, poetry and flash fiction written by the talented members of The Black Dog Writing Groups in Lyme Regis, which I am thoroughly enjoying. I always have a stack of books on the go at once, because I like reading different books in different moods.
Can you say anything about your next project?
I’ve just sent my editor the redraft of my next novel The Raven’s Head which is a dark thriller set in France and England in 1224. The Raven’s Head is the symbol of death and putrefaction in alchemy and alchemy is the central theme of the book. It is due to be published in spring 2015. The moral of the story is never try to blackmail an alchemist or you could end up as part of the experiment.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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