'I thought I was an introvert... I'm not' - author Stacey Halls
Stacey Halls's debut novel set around the Pendle Witch Trials, was the subject of a nine-way bidding war. She talks to Emily Hourican about power, magic, and anxiety
'Writing this book made me question what witchcraft is," says Stacey Halls, 29-year-old author of The Familiars, a debut novel that has been one of the big hits of 2019 so far, the subject of a nine-way bidding war, won by Zaffre with a six-figure sum. "In the context of this book, magic is just power; women trying to achieve some power or agency in their lives."
The Familiars is set in 1612 in Lancashire, at the time of the Pendle Witch Trials, and is the story of two young women, one, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the 17-year-old wife of a gentleman, pregnant for the fourth time with no living children. The other, Alice Gray, is a young midwife who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. The book is an absorbing, elegant exploration of friendship, need, power, love and the place of women. And, of course, witchcraft.
If magic is simply a way to hold your own in a world with very limited opportunity, this is something Stacey perfectly understands; before she was a writer, she was a teenager dabbling in magic."You're so unpowerful as a teenage girl," she says. "You don't know where your life's going to go, you're insecure about lots of things - so you're doing little love potions, or making a spell to stop someone from bullying you. It's a way of trying to take some power back in your own life. You don't put yourself out there at that age," she points out. "You wait, you hope, you wish to attract - but you hand it over to some elemental force, instead of going up to him and saying, 'do you fancy going to get a milkshake?' The thought of rejection is destroying."
So how witchy did she get? "It was a thing for a few years, when I was aged 13-14, with friends. I have always had really strong female friendships." And indeed, she rightly says that, for all the obsession with love and romance, "the real relationships you have around this isn't with the guy, it's with your girl friends. You're kind of up against it together."
And yes, she says, "you are up against it as a teenage girl. And as a woman historically - persecuted left, right and centre for everything you can imagine. And even now, that hasn't really changed. Women are still persecuted."
Stacey grew up almost within sight of Pendle Hill. "It's something I had known about my whole life. Growing up in Lancashire, everyone knows about the Pendle Witches. The tourist shops sell witches with crooked noses and cauldrons; the local bus service is called the Witch Way."
But it wasn't until she came to write her second book (of the first, never published, when I ask what it was about, she says with a laugh, "I don't even want to say, it was that bad), that she came to consider the event as something beyond a colourful piece of local history. At which point so many pieces of the final jigsaw fell into place with such ease, that she began to think, "this is so serendipitous that it's almost weird".
Did she ever get a sense of something, a presence of any kind, back in her teenage witch days? "When we used to do Ouija boards, I fully used to believe there was a presence. I believed more in bad forces than good ones at that age. It was a bit of fun, but there was an element of spirituality to it. I was brought up in the Catholic Church. I'm from a big Catholic family, my mum still goes to Mass every week. Growing up around spirituality and believing in some kind of a higher power, there was a part of me as a teenager that did want to give myself over to something; almost like you believe there is a path that life is going to take whether you want it to or not."
Stacey's parents were market traders. "They had stalls on two local markets, selling shoes and slippers, in Bolton and Halifax. My mum looked after us and my dad would do the market stalls. I grew up on the markets," she says, "helping my dad out. There was always lots of activity, you meet a lot of strangers, I think it made me a little bit of an observer at a young age - getting to meet people and chat and engage with them. I've always loved that. Unofficially I started working with my dad when I was about eight, right through 'til I was 21."
She was always a reader - "I'd come home from school, go straight up to my bedroom, at teatime I'd still have my blazer and shoes on, sat on my bed, reading. But I don't think I realised that being a writer was a job, even though I did write stories from a young age. I didn't know any writers, that's not what people from where I grew up did - my family were shopkeepers, or nurses or hairdressers. At one point I thought that all writers were dead, because I would just go to the library and I thought every book was old."
When the opportunity to go to university arose, Stacey thought hard. "My parents didn't go to uni, my family didn't go, so I had to really think about it. I thought 'I'll go and do something vocational, and hopefully get a job out of it at the end'." She chose journalism, and learned shorthand, how to produce a radio show, "all these practical things".
She got a job on industry bible The Bookseller, "That immersed me in the publishing world, and at some point I thought, 'I'd like to have a go at writing a book…'
And so she did. And even though that book was never accepted by the agents she sent it to, she wasn't particularly downhearted. "I thought, 'I'll just write something else…' Working at The Bookseller made me realise, it is a business decision, ultimately. It's not a personal rejection, it's a practical rejection."
She met her husband, Andy, also a journalist, at university. "I've been with him since I was 21, we got married in December 2017." Life in a rush, I say. "I'm probably heading for a breakdown in my mid-30s!" she laughs.
Stacey began The Familiars in 2016, "and kept getting stuck on the first three chapters, so I asked my work if I could take an unpaid sabbatical. I took two months off, and I wrote the first draft in seven weeks. I wasn't being paid, I used my savings, so I couldn't afford to do anything else. I worked out that to write 90,000 words, I'd need to write 2,000 words a day, five days a week."
A punishing schedule for someone who is, she says, "an awful procrastinator! I'll do anything - put on a wash, watch eight hours of lowbrow reality TV, thinking 'I hate myself, I hate myself, just get to the desk…' Some days it would be 6 o'clock in the evening before I'd get there. I think I drove myself a bit mad. I barely left the house for two months."
So did she expect anything like the response to The Familiars? "I had a good feeling that someone would want to buy it, but I never dreamed this stuff would be happening. Nine publishers were interested. It went to auction. I was back at work by then, and it was this really incongruous time where I was sat at my desk, getting calls from my agent, then going back to sub-editing copy. It was really crazy."
So crazy that, she says, "I had a bit of a breakdown halfway through. I completely freaked out. When people started to talk about the amount of money involved, that's when I realised that this was going to, not change my life, but drastically affect it. It was a huge deal."
What does she mean by 'freaked out'? "I thought, 'what am I signing over here?' What is going to happen? Am I going to be public property? I think it was the money that freaked me out. It was, for me, such a huge amount… a six-figure sum, for two books. And then sold for the same amount again in America. What I freaked out about was the idea that me sitting in my flat, making something up in my head, had this monetary value attached to it. Ultimately," she says, "it's fear of the unknown".
In general, she is, she says "a catastrophist," and has suffered with anxiety. "I was always an anxious child. I hated staying away from home, I hated sleepovers." This may be, in part, she reckons, why she always loved reading. "It takes you out of your head a bit." A few years ago, her anxiety got so bad "that I couldn't read for quite a while, and that was probably the worst period of my life. I couldn't get out of it, I couldn't escape. I couldn't immerse myself in anything - there was just the constant white noise of anxiety."
She tried CBT, "which helped me immensely, it just seemed to get quieter and quieter. Having CBT gave me the tools to deal with it. I can recognise it for what it is now and tell myself - 'you're not going to faint, you're not going to die, it's just anxiety'. That's usually enough to switch me back. I don't suffer from it any more, and I'm not sure if that's because I got a grip on it, or if it went away." Ultimately, she says, "it's about control - being out of control, that's where mine came from. But I realised, you're in control of very little in your life, and that helped me get a grasp of it."
Even so, for all her wonderful success, Stacey is still working at the day job. "I'm not really a risk-taker," she says. "If I quit the day job, I think I'd freak out that it was all going to go down the plug hole. And I do love my job, I do love going to my workplace. If I hadn't done my sabbatical, I could kid myself that working from home is the dream, but I know, in reality, that's not the case. I've seen the reality of it and it's ugly, in every way possible," she laughs. "I like being around people. I thought I was an introvert, but that made me realise I'm not, I'm actually an extrovert."
'The Familiars', by Stacey Halls, £12.99, published by Zaffre
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