Home   Whats On   Article

Books: Warboys witches spark new Dawson novel

What her many fans have avidly been waiting for – the new Jill Dawson, The Bewitching, is in bookshops now. Here Jill talks to Velvet’s Sarah Ingram

Jill Dawson CREDIT Joanne Coates (58228872)
Jill Dawson CREDIT Joanne Coates (58228872)

A new Jill Dawson is always hotly anticipated by your many fans and The Bewitching is no exception! What drew you to this particular story?

Twenty years ago when we moved to the Fens from London I first heard of the witches of Warboys in a novel by a friend, Kate Pullinger, called Weird Sister. Hers tells it in a modern setting – a ghost story – but I really wanted to set mine in the sixteenth century. I went to Warboys to look at the pond, the church of St Mary Magdalene, even the manor house where the story of the girls accusing their neighbour of being a witch happened, to try to really capture the atmosphere of the time and place.

Your novels have drawn from a wide range of subjects (people and events) - do you think there's a common denominator in the sorts of stories/people that snag your attention?

Yes! I often write about overlooked, powerless people, such as nannies (The Language of Birds tells the story of the nanny who was the victim of the Lord Lucan murder), servants (as in this novel, where it is the servant Martha who tells the story), the poor (the Littleport rioters in The Tell-Tale Heart), the uneducated (Nell in The Great Lover) the deaf (Wild Boy and The Bewitching)– not politicians or kings and queens, but the ones who are not usually given the centre stage.

Is it story or person that first piques your interest?

I usually start with place and then character. Those things together make the narrative for me. The person vs their environment, a classic theme from the Thomas Hardy novels I loved as a girl, or American novelist Willa Cather.

The Warboys pond where action unfolds (58228873)
The Warboys pond where action unfolds (58228873)

Does using real-life people as the basis for your characters create special difficulties? Do you feel you have to be (relatively) true to the real person or do your fictional characters take over?

Yes, it throws up all sorts of problems, so many in fact that I often wish I hadn’t started! (But I also feel unable to resist). Problems of not offending descendants or family members. Problems of research and things which are hard to discover (did Rupert Brooke have a daughter for instance, I went all the way to Tahiti to try and find that out!) Problems of stepping on toes of others such as biographers for instance, using the same material, who might feel territorial about it.

But I feel drawn to doing this. I’m not interested in simply imposing my novelist’s version of the world on things, I want to uncover something or dig about and reveal a truth. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway, when I’m writing.

You've talked elsewhere about how much you enjoy doing historical research: what sort of things do you research? Where do you look? What are you looking for?

I’m always looking for first hand documents: letters, diaries, accounts which are contemporary with the time I’m writing about. For The Bewitching there is one long pamphlet published in 1593 which tells the story and is pretty much exactly as I tell it. However, historians believe it was written by the girls’ uncles and father, so there is a huge element of bias, and unanswered questions.

Jill Dawson's fascination with the Fens feeds into The Bewitching (58228722)
Jill Dawson's fascination with the Fens feeds into The Bewitching (58228722)

Why did the girls accuse poor Alice Samuel?

Why did the family take the accused witch in, even allowing her to sleep in their bed? Why did Lady Cromwell also accuse Alice and come to their first meeting prepared to cut off a lock of her hair (to take away her powers)? These questions are where my narrative comes from. A sort of logic of imagination or emotion. I do feel a great deal of fidelity to the truth and want to show you what I’ve found, not what I was looking for.

Readers are fascinated by a writer's process. How do you work? Are you a 'plotter' or a 'pantser'? Can you tell us a little bit about your method, about what a typical day in the writer Jill Dawson's life looks like?

I am not much of a plotter and I don’t write every day. But I use lots of tricks to keep me at my desk and make writing fabulously enjoyable. I call my method diving in. I run a course – called DIVE IN, where I share all. I know it is an idiosyncratic method, but it has worked for me for eleven novels! The course is run on zoom and starts each September, and is suitable

for people anywhere in the world and there are still some places on it [see gold-dust.org.uk/divein].

And finally, have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes, since the age of nine. Because I loved reading and losing myself in my own made-up world. Aged twelve I sent my first novel to Hodder and got my first rejection. But they have been my publisher now for 24 years...

The Bewitching by Jill Dawson (58229450)
The Bewitching by Jill Dawson (58229450)

The Bewitching is out now. Learn more about Jill Dawson and her life in books at jilldawson.co.uk

Read more

More by this author