Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Interview with Mary Sharratt

Mary Sharratt, author of Daughters of the Witching Hill, has been kind enough to stop by Reading with Tequila to answer some questions.

Mary Sharratt is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. The author of the critically acclaimed novels Summit Avenue, The Real Minerva, and The Vanishing Point, Sharratt is also the coeditor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules.

Reading with Tequila: I had never heard of the Pendle witches before reading Daughters of the Witching Hill. What drew you to this topic?

Mary: In 2002, I moved to the Pendle region of Lancashire, Northern England. This is a very beautiful and rugged Pennine landscape that borders the West Yorkshire Dales. My study window looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received the ecstatic vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652. But I arrived to this region knowing nothing about the Pendle Witches. However, once you live here, their legacy and lore are impossible to escape. Everywhere you go, you see images of witches: on buses, pubs signs, road signs, bumperstickers. Visiting American friends found this all quite unnerving. “Mary, why are there witches everywhere?” they’d ask me.

In the beginning, I made the mistake of thinking that these witches belonged to the realm of fairy tale and folklore, but no. They were real people. In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged at Lancaster on witchcraft charges based on “evidence” provided by a nine year old girl. I was so moved by this tragedy, I had to write a book about these people and do what no nonfiction author could do—turn the tables around so that these accused witches could tell their own story in their own voices.

RWT: Have you written other historical fiction novels or is Daughters of the Witching Hill your first book based on people who lived long ago?

Mary: All my four novels are historical fiction, but Daughters of the Witching Hill is my first novel based on real historical figures. My novel is told through the voices of accused witches Mother Demdike and her granddaughter, Alizon Device. Writing this book was quite a different experience than writing about wholly invented characters. I already had the story with its tragic outcome, but I needed to let these dead women speak, let my writing put the flesh back on their bones.

RWT: Did you approach the book with any preconceived notions that proved untrue?

Mary: My preconceived notions about historical witchcraft were shattered to pieces. The most surprising thing I discovered was that Mother Demdike’s charms and spells, recorded by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical witchcraft, were Catholic prayers. These can be found on my website:


In Protestant England, Mother Demdike, healer and accused witch, drew her mysticism from an older faith that had been literally demonized by the Reformation.

RWT: You created a rich back story for Demdike and the others in Pendle and made them come alive again. When writing fiction about real people, does it limit your ability to shape the characters and their actions or does it provide an interesting starting point in which you can go where the writing takes you?

Mary: The magic of this book was that I had such a rich cast of characters to draw on. When you write about real history, you uncover people so incredible, you could never have invented them yourself.

Mother Demdike is absolutely unforgettable. When interrogated by her magistrate, she freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman, even bragged about her powers and her familiar spirit, Tibb, who appeared to her in the likeness of a beautiful young man. She was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly.

In contrast her granddaughter Alizon, who appeared to be a teenager at the time of her trial, seemed to view her own powers with a mixture of bewilderment and terror. Her misadventures in struggling to come to terms with this troubling birthright unleashed the tragedy which led to the downfall of her entire family.

The secondary characters are no less colourful, ranging from recusant Catholic Alice Nutter to Puritan magistrate Roger Nowell to Jamie Device, Alizon’s volatile and mentally handicapped brother.

RWT: Demdike is a witch, but her craft seems to lean more towards a mixture of Catholic prayer and "alternative" medicine than the evil she was accused of. After doing the research for this book, did you find that much of what was thought to be witchcraft was more based in religion or early medicine?

Mary: Mother Demdike would not have called herself witch, but she was very proud of being a cunning woman. Cunning folk were men and women who used charms and herbal cures to heal, foretell the future, and discover the location of stolen property. The trial records tell us that her neighbours called on her to heal both their children and their cattle.

It appears that Mother Demdike, born in Henry VIII’s reign, on the cusp of the Reformation, was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been fairly common in earlier generations. The Old Church embraced many practices that seemed magical and mystical. People believed in miracles. They used holy water and communion bread for healing. Candles blessed at the Feast of Candlemas warded the faithful from demons and disease. People left offerings at holy wells and invoked the saints in their folk charms. Some rituals such as the blessing of wells and fields may have pre-Christian origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it seems difficult to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief, which had become so tightly interwoven. Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.

As part of my research, I took a course at Lancaster University on Late Medieval Belief and Superstition to better acquaint myself with this pre-Reformation mindset. I discovered some very surprising things, such as charms invoking Saint George to both heal horses and protect them from the nightmare, which was perceived as a hag who would come by night and ride the horses until they were exhausted or even dead. (In the 1612 Pendle Witch Trial, Margaret Pearson was accused of bewitching a horse to death in this manner.) I also learned about a cunning man named Henry Lyllingstone who appeared before a church court in 1520 on charges very similar to those Demdike was later accused of: using a combination of herbs and ecclesiastical charms to heal the sick. Interestingly, he wasn’t accused of witchcraft or sorcery—far from it—but for appropriating the role of a priest! His punishment was to make a barefoot pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Mary of Walsingham.

RWT: Do you have a particular writing routine?

Mary: Generally I like to write first thing in the morning. I’m very fortunate in that I can work from home.

RWT: Are there any authors that influenced you or that you find inspirational?

Mary: I really admire Louise Erdrich for the way she can evoke an entire landscape and cast of unforgettable, interrelated characters that appear book after book, each time revealing a different level of nuance. I’m in awe of people like Hilary Mantel for raising the bar of historical fiction and writing so convincingly from the period mindset as she does in Wolf Hall, and I adore Sarah Dunant for her commitment to rescuing women from the margins of history and writing such vivid novels about the Italian Renaissance we thought we knew.

RWT: What are you working on now?

Mary: My current novel-in-progress Know the Ways will reveal the life of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Benedictine abbess and polymath. She was a fascinating character, a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance, who composed an entire corpus of music and wrote books on subjects as diverse as natural science, medicine, and human sexuality—she’s credited as the first person to describe the female orgasm. A mystic and visionary, her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Her story arc is amazing. Born in an age of deep-seated misogyny, her parents offered her as a tithe to the Church at the age of eight, yet she triumphed to become one of the greatest voices of her age. And she’s not so far removed from my historical cunning women as one might think. She healed with herbs and gemstones, and was guided by visions. I suspect that if she had been born a few centuries later, she might well have been burned as a witch.

Mary's Website
Mary's Blog
Daughters of the Witching Hill on Facebook
Mary Sharratt on Facebook
Buy Daughters of the Witching Hill on Amazon
Buy Daughters of the Witching Hill through Indiebound

About the Book

In Daughters of the Witching Hill, Mary Sharratt brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching novel of strong women, family and betrayal inspired by the 1612 Pendle witch trials. 

Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow, lives with her children in a crumbling old tower in Pendle Forest. Drawing on Catholic ritual, medicinal herbs, and guidance from her spirit-friend Tibb, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future in exchange for food and drink. As she ages, she instructs her best friend, Anne, and her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft. Anne ultimately turns to dark magic, while Alizon struggles to accept the power she has inherited and dreams of a simpler life. But when a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate tricks her into accusing her family and neighbors of witchcraft. Suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights as friends and loved ones turn on one another and the novel draws to an inevitable conclusion.


  1. WOW!! This book sounds awesome. I have added to my wish list.
    Mary, I was fasinated by the info you gave us on your book. Your interview was one of the best I have ever read. Thanks for stopping by to chat. I may have to move your book up on my wish list. lol

    Tequila, I love your blog and stop by almost every day.

    misskallie2000 at yahoo dot com

  2. Thanks for this great interview. I found it very interesting!

  3. I love the sound of this book!
    Great interview, it was really interesting.