Author Q&A: Lucie McKnight Hardy

Water Shall Refuse them (Dead Ink, £9.99) 

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Following the accidental drowning of her sister, 16-year-old Nif and her family escape to the Welsh borders for the summer. But as the heatwave of 1976 intensifies, the tightknit community becomes a pressure cooker and the family is dragged deeper into despair.   

You’re a debut author on an indie press. Tell us a bit about yourself, your career to date and future writing plans.
I came to writing fiction in my forties, after a career spent writing marketing copy. To test myself, I did a creative writing module with the Open University, and then a creative writing MA at Manchester Metropolitan University. It was the best thing I could have done: I came out having learnt a huge amount, and with a complete novel to boot.

Studying at MMU, I couldn’t help but be conscious of the growing strength of the Northern Fiction Alliance: a powerhouse of small presses based in the north, including my publisher, Liverpool-based Dead Ink Books. Even though I’m Welsh, my studies at Liverpool University and then at MMU, combined with a period spent living near Bradford, makes me feel like I might have gained honorary northerner status, although I’m still waiting for verification.

Future projects include short stories and another novel. Short fiction is a completely different process to writing a novel, and I found the change of pace and intensity satisfying. I am slowly working towards a collection of short stories. I have also started work on another novel, this time set in the 1980s.

Folk horror meets coming-of-age in Water Shall Refuse Them. Who are some of your influences in these categories?
Ironically, I hadn’t read much of either before I embarked on writing Water Shall Refuse Them – I just had an idea for a story and I pursued it. There were a few books that inspired me along the way. Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney came at just the right time, when I was struggling with the voice of the narrator and the overall tone of the book. I was also spurred on by The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks – again, the voice of the narrator was an inspiration. I read The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan to gain inspiration for the heatwave – it’s a short but extremely affecting book. Other writers who inspire me are Sarah Waters, Alison Moore, Sarah Moss, Kate Atkinson and good old Shirley Jackson.

Why set this story in the mid-1970s rather than the modern day?
The idea of the heatwave came first. I was conscious that I wanted to avoid the usual tropes of a horror story – dark, dank castles and windy moors – so a long, hot summer seemed like an interesting place to start. Each of my characters has their own personal demons, and the environmental circumstances puts further pressure on them and exacerbates their torment. The heatwave of 1976 seemed like a good candidate. It is within a lot of people’s living memories, but still distant enough to remain slightly intangible. I was born in 1972 and I remember my sister and I swimming in the stream that ran past my parents’ house, and that heat-induced torpor that made it difficult even to move. We also used to fetch water from a neighbour’s well. These memories have played a part in the book.

The inhabitants of this small Welsh village accuse Janet of witchcraft – could you see the return of this kind of superstition and persecution?
There is the obvious connection to be made between the persecution of women accused of witchcraft that has occurred throughout history and the insidious sweep of misogyny and intolerance that is the result of a resurgence of the far right in the present day. We are seeing, across the world, a clamping down on women’s rights and their ownership of their own bodies, and the persecution of women by patriarchal societies. In that respect, there is a worrying similarity between the witch hunts of history and our own society’s treatment of women. In Water Shall Refuse Them, Janet is vilified by the villagers because she is an independent woman who refuses to be put in her place by the (male) chapel-goers. She becomes an object of suspicion precisely because she doesn’t conform to what is expected of women – to be mute around men and keep the house in order. This is one of the timeless themes of the novel.

When church is no longer part of their lives Nif and her mother find comfort in alternative rituals. Are humans predisposed to search for meaning and what does that mean in an increasingly secular society?
Both Nif and her mother are at a crossroads in their lives: Linda has renounced her Catholicism after her younger daughter’s death, and Nif, who was never really into the Church, still feels she needs something to impose order on her life. Linda adopts her neighbour’s own brand of paganism, while Nif constructs an elaborate set of rituals that incorporate relics and an incantation: aping traditional religions, while also rejecting them. I think it is this adoption of rituals and routines that humans find comforting. Personally, I don’t have a religion, and I think religion is to blame for a lot of the world’s ills, largely because it encourages a blind acceptance of a belief system without further investigation. It’s that empty religion that sits at the core of Water Shall Refuse Them – the unquestioning adherence to a set of values imposed on one by an external force.

Tell us about some of the book’s motifs – birds, water, heat, balance. They’re all elemental. What’s their significance?
Good question. I suppose water is the thing that unites the themes of heat and witchcraft – the heatwave can only be alleviated when it rains, and historically water was used in the ducking of women as a test for being a witch, and so water (and drowning) take on quite a significance in the book. Water also has other relevant connotations: cleansing and the washing away of guilt, baptism and rebirth. The theme of balance is apparent in Nif’s self-constructed belief system, the Creed, which requires her to cancel out a negative action by repeating it. I think this is symptomatic of a child endeavouring to understand something which is beyond their comprehension, and searching for a return to equilibrium after a disruption to the normal state of affairs. As for birds, I think their close association with folklore appealed to me. They play a strong role in superstition and tradition, and each different species has its own symbolism.

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