Writer’s Block with Stacey Halls

Sophie Grenham speaks to author STACEY HALLS about childhood reading, journalism and the Pendle witch trials …

Stacey Halls is the debut author of The Familiars, a captivating work of historical fiction set in Lancashire, England in 1612. As someone who was born and raised in the county, Halls grew up fascinated by the infamous Pendle witch trials that took place during the Jacobean era. The Familiars is a serious page-turner full of genuinely chilling moments of suspense, images of the occult, and ancient medical practices. Time practically stands still on meeting the Device family, whose severe appearance and strange habits do little to dispel rumours of their dark arts. One finds a sympathetic protagonist in teen bride Fleetwood Shuttleworth, as she and her ally Alice Gray battle oppression in an untrusting society. The Familiars has already impressed Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, who said, “This beautiful tale of women and witchcraft and the fight against power was a delight from start to finish.”

Halls is a journalist by profession. She studied the subject at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London after she graduated at twenty-one. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist.co.uk. She has written for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she is currently the deputy chief sub-editor.

Stacey Halls lives in London with her husband Andy. She is working on her second novel.

The Familiars (€14.99) is published by Bonnier Zaffre and available nationwide from February 7.

On home

I live in West Norwood, south-east London, with my husband Andy. You can see the whole city from our doorstep, and on New Year’s Eve we watched the Westminster fireworks from there. My favourite places to go are the Great North Wood pub for midweek pints with my friends, Blackbird Bakery for pastries, and the library and cinema. I’m a terrible library member, though. I borrow books and keep them for months without reading them, racking up fines. I spend a lot of time in the cemetery, which is large, quiet and gothic, and gives me inspiration for names for my characters. West Norwood is pretty suburban, and hilly. It used to be a forest before it was developed, so it reminds me of home. My best friend lives a ten minute walk away.

I’ve lived in south-east London for seven years. We bought our flat last summer, and before that lived a mile further up the same road, in Tulse Hill. We chose the area initially because it was the only place we could afford to rent a flat on our own, but now it’s become home.

On roots

I grew up in the house my parents still live in, in Rawtenstall, which is a small mill town in the north-west of England. It’s always cold there, and usually raining, but I love it. The area was renowned for the textile industry after the industrial revolution. Because it’s so damp, cotton could be kept there without drying out. My parents’ house is on one side of the valley, surrounded by hills and farmland, and I used to walk alone a lot when I was younger, thinking I was Emily Brontë. It wasn’t unusual to see sheep inside our school grounds. The people there are unique – they’re real characters, so funny and friendly. I used to work with my dad on his market stalls in Bolton and Halifax, where he sold shoes and slippers. The most evocative smells from my childhood are probably cardboard shoeboxes, and incense at church. I’m from a large Catholic family – I have about twenty-five cousins. I go home a lot still, and always want to go walking on the hills and moors. I feel like I can breathe properly up there.

On childhood reading

I used to read to myself, mainly. When I was very young I had all the Beatrix Potters, and I must have just looked at the pictures. My dad used to draw my favourite characters for me and leave them on the end of my bed for when I woke up. When I got my own library card, I thought I’d struck gold. The books I loved most and wanted every single one of were Animal Ark, The Sleepover Club, Sweet Valley High and Goosebumps. I remember in primary school our teacher read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to us and I was just enraptured. I asked for the book for Christmas but reading it myself wasn’t the same as being read to, straining to listen to what happen next, and the disappointment when it was home time. I’m part of the Harry Potter generation, too, and would queue for the books at midnight. I gave my entire childhood book collection when I was about 15 to a girl I babysat, and bitterly regret it.

On creating

We bought our flat last summer and it’s on a main road, so when I’m writing I use noise-cancelling headphones and listen to film soundtracks. I like Rachel Portman, Craig Armstrong and Dario Marianelli. I’m not one of these people who can work in cafés or places with lots of noise or distractions. I work mainly in bed or on the couch, even though I spent a fortune on a desk. In my old flat the desk overlooked an overgrown garden that belonged to the man on the ground floor, so at least there was something to look at. Now it’s against a plain white wall in the spare room, which we haven’t really got around to furnishing yet, but I do write there. You just have to get on with it – you won’t always have the perfect environment. I have a corkboard with my storyline on it, and postcards and pictures pinned to it that relate to what I’m writing. If I’m doing research I’ll write at the British Library in the reading rooms, but you can’t take food or drink in there, and I drink a lot of tea when I work.

On favourite bookshops

It’s a gift shop as well as a bookshop but Bolthole in Rawtenstall, where I’m from, is a gorgeous shop, and Jane who owns it stocks lots of local interest titles and authors. I work as a journalist and the nearest indie to my office is Riverside Books on Tooley Street, so I’m always popping in there for presents. Foyles on Charing Cross Road is magnificent – it’s a palace, all gleaming and cathedral-like. I could spend many hours in there. Just down the road is Goldsboro, on Cecil Court, which was apparently the inspiration for Diagon Alley.

On her “TBR” pile

I’m currently reading What Red Was by Rosie Price, who is a debut author. I love Sally Rooney, and it has echoes of Normal People. There are lots of debuts I’m excited about this year, like The Doll Factory, The Flatshare. Two of the women in my writing group also have their first novels out this year – Living My Best Li(f)e by Claire Frost, and The Matchmaker by Catriona Innes – so I can’t wait to read them! I’m also chuffed there’s a new David Nicholls coming, and Kate Atkinson.

On escapes

I don’t really go anywhere to escape. I’ve never had the travelling bug and prefer holidaying in the UK. I wrote part of The Familiars in a cottage in the Peak District that belonged to my friend’s parents. It was wonderful – I was alone but not lonely, and there was a little gas fire and no Wi-Fi. I probably did less work there than I should have done because I was always walking on the hills and buying chocolate from the shop and watching DVDs. I’m a dreadful procrastinator. It takes me ages to get going, and when I’m finally writing I always think: “This isn’t so bad, I should have started ages ago.” Sometimes I worry it’s a sign that I don’t like what I’m working on, but you have to push through it and just turn up at the desk. The first draft is a numbers game – you can’t think of it as anything other than hitting the word count. I didn’t escape anywhere to write my second novel, which I’ve just finished the first draft of, but I wish I had.

On journalism

I began working as a journalist for The Bookseller magazine straight out of university, and it was a great first job. I got to meet some of my favourite writers. I bumped into Kate Atkinson in the reception at her publisher’s, and went to the literary festivals at Bath, Cheltenham and Hay. I’ve seen J.K. Rowling speak, and Philip Pullman, and I’ve interviewed dozens of authors. I suppose at some point working there I thought I’d have a go at writing a novel myself. I moved over to women’s magazines through my work reviewing books for them and began sub-editing, which is very much desk-based and a lot less glamorous, but it freed up some creative time as I wasn’t writing anymore. But I actually enjoy the editing process more than the writing, which often feels painful. Editing is all about sharpening and polishing and making it gleam, and looking for holes and filling them. It’s odd now to be on the other side, being interviewed and writing the sort of pieces I used to commission.

On The Familiars

I went with my mum to Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire, and realised that from the window you can see Pendle Hill. In 1612, a dozen people from the Pendle area were accused of witchcraft and sent to trial at Lancaster Castle, and ten of them were executed. Growing up in Lancashire, everyone knows of the witches, as it’s a big part of local history. It was one of the most notorious trials in UK history, as most of the accusations were based on the word of a ten-year-old girl. I had the idea to write a story about them, told from the point of view of a young woman living at Gawthorpe Hall. When I started to research the family that lived at Gawthorpe, I found out the mistress of the house in 1612 was a seventeen-year-old called Fleetwood Shuttleworth, and felt like my character had arrived ready-made. The Jacobean period was one I knew nothing about, so I enjoyed researching the period, and of course visiting the house for inspiration. I wrote the first draft in seven weeks, so it was a very intense period. But coming from the area and basing the novel on real people gave me confidence, I think, and anchored me in what I was doing. Writing a book without an agent or a book deal – just for yourself – is a real act of courage. At the same time, it can be tough to feel motivated. And of course when you’ve spent so much time with something, working on it over and over, you genuinely can’t tell if it’s any good or not, so that’s when it becomes necessary to give it to people you can trust for feedback.

On what’s next

I’ve finished writing my second book, which is due to be published in 2020. It’s set in Georgian London, and is about a missing child. I always said I’d never write anything set in London, yet here I am!

@SophieGrenham

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