Author Q&A: Hester Fox

The Witch of Willow Hall (HQ, £7.99)

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Growing up, Lydia Montrose knew she was descended from the legendary witches of Salem but was warned to never show the world what she could do and so slowly forgot her legacy. Now, in 1821, the Montrose family have fled scandal and come to Boston’s Willow Hall. It seems an idyllic refuge from the world, but a subtle menace haunts the hall, with strange voices and ghostly apparitions in the night, calling to Lydia’s secret inheritance and leading to a greater tragedy than she could ever imagine. 

Tell me about your background in history and how it has informed your novel.
I have a background in historical archaeology as well as collections work in museums, so artifacts and objects have always been very important to me in understanding the past. Historical texts are a great way to learn history, but so often the written record excludes women’s voices. Working in historic house museums is the next best thing to a time machine, as they’re filled with details and objects that wouldn’t necessarily be in a history book. I want readers to feel like they’re there, to feel as if Willow Hall could be their home.

Your story takes place 100 years after the witch trials in Salem. Why was this an interesting period to write about?
The witch trials may seem like ancient history by the turn of the 19th century, but the truth is that witchcraft and witch hysteria persisted well into the 1800s. In rural areas, especially in New England, folklore and superstition were used to explain bad harvests and diseases such as tuberculosis. If you want some really interesting reading I recommend looking up the Great Vampire Panic of New England. The 1820s was a fascinating time to write about because you are on the cusp of widespread industrialisation of mills and manufacturing, but you are also in an area steeped in folklore and dark history. These tensions informed a lot of my story and how the characters would have understood the world around them.

As someone who lives near Salem today would you say the history of the trials still lives in New England?
Definitely. Salem has embraced its legacy, and today it’s not only a popular attraction for tourists, it’s also become an important place for modern witches. Even outside of Salem there are a lot of historic sites around the area that are somehow related to the trials, and these have been preserved as museums and historic sites. Growing up, we were exposed to a lot of that history in school, and we learned about the dangers of mass hysteria by reading The Crucible and going to the museums in Salem.

Margaret Atwood likened the guilt by accusation nature of the #MeToo campaign to the Salem Witch Trials, while Donald Trump is insistent that the ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is a witch hunt. What do you make of these modern comparisons and do you draw parallels between the witch trials and any current events?
Traditionally, the people most likely to be accused of being a witch are the poor, the marginalised, or anyone who threatens those in power and the system that keeps them in power. There’s a big difference between uncovering conspiracies from the kind of hysteria surrounding historic witch hunts. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible in the 1960s in response to McCarthyism because of the parallels he saw between the witch trials and the government accusing people of communism. So there are definitely modern examples, but I don’t believe the 2016 election investigations or the #Me Too movement are in the same category. These are centred around legitimate concerns where the perpetrators, for the most part, are men in power.

Do Halloween representations of witches do the real women of the witch trials a disservice?
I don’t think so. Like most imagery we associate with Halloween, witches are just one aspect that has survived from the pagan origins of this holiday. Many modern-day witches and pagans still celebrate it as Samhain or other harvest holidays. Witches and Halloween are entwined.

Do you enjoy Halloween and how will you be spending it?
Yes! I love decorating the house, going to Halloween parties, and greeting trick-or-treaters. Last year I went as Marie Antoinette, but I haven’t decided on a costume for this year yet. Maybe one of my characters?

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