One of the questions people always ask me when I do talks or interview is: why witches?
I’ve given a lot of different answers – the one I cite most frequently is that I didn’t choose witches, witches chose me, in the sense that the seed of the idea that became A Witch in Winter came to me as the idea of a spell: a girl casts a love spell over a boy, and then can’t take it off again.
I didn’t sit down to write a story about witches (in fact, if I had thought about it coldly I probably wouldn’t have picked witches, because for a while there it felt like JK Rowling had said everything that could possibly be said about witches and magic!) But like a seed that floats into a bit of fertile waste-ground and is soon rampaging over every bit of unoccupied ground, the idea that lodged in my brain was stubbornly magical and took root.
But the “witches chose me” answer is only half the truth, because although it’s true, it doesn’t explain why the idea took root so strongly, and why I enjoyed writing about witches so much that I did another four books on them. And it doesn’t explain why that seed was floating about there in the first place.
Maybe the question should be; why, as human beings, are we so fascinated with witchcraft? Because there have always been stories about people with more-than-human powers, from Homer’s Circe, to Malory’s Morgan le Fay, Russia’s Baba Yaga, Grimm’s fairytale hags, through to Alice Hoffman, Ursula le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones and all the modern stories of witchcraft and wizardry in the bookshops today.
Perhaps part of the reason is that witchcraft is a very naked and easy way to talk about power – and power is something that’s inherently quite interesting, and important to us as a society. All witchcraft stories are, at bottom, about power and the abuse of power; from the Magician’s Apprentice with his unwise spell that gets way out of hand, to Merlin’s mastery of the art in Le Morte D’Arthur.
With power – of any kind, but particularly with magical power – comes choices, and novels are all about choices. Do you take the high road, or the low road? Do you follow your heart or your head? Do you succumb to the temptation of the black arts? Do you make mistakes along the way?
And finally of course there are those on the other side of the fence; those without power (or without magical power, they may have other kinds). How do they react?
Magic is a fascinating way to explore all these questions – and to shake it up a bit. It gives power to the powerless in unexpected ways – to the young girl, to the skinny boy, to the orphan sitting in a cupboard under the stairs. What will they do with those powers? What mistakes will they make along the way? And – most enticingly – what would do in their shoes?
Why do I write about witches? I suppose because it’s just another way of writing about human beings – with all our faults, foibles and fascinating quirks.
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