Next week, I will be joining the blog tour for The Witches of Vardø, the beautiful historical fiction novel by Anya Bergman, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it. In the meantime, Anya was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for me, and I can share those answers with you now.
What was it about the 1662 trials that caught your attention rather than the earlier trials at Vardø or similar trials across Europe?
It was when I was living in Norway that I became obsessed with researching the history of witch trials. I was immediately drawn to the history of witch hunts in Finnmark in the far north of Norway where the island of Vardø is situated. The landscape is so extreme with the snow, ice and winter darkness that it felt like a suitable setting for a novel about witch trials. Also it is a region where the indigenous Sámi people live and I wanted to include how they were treated during this period. The trial testimonies of those accused in Vardø still exist and have been translated into English, and it was when I was reading these records I came across the startling testimony of Maren Olufsdatter in 1663. I was immediately fascinated by her fearless confessions. The 1662/3 trials also stuck out because young girls were convicted of witchcraft and denounced their mothers. How could this have happened? I came across the figure of Anna Rhodius who was outspoken and confrontational, and though privileged got into big trouble because of it. She was blamed for the witch panic and I wanted to dig deeper and find out why.
You bring the landscape to life so vividly in your writing that I feel as though I am there. How much time did you spend at the fortress in Vardø and the surrounding area as part of your research?
I lived in Bergen in Norway for six years and had travelled to the north and the snowy interior where I saw lynx before I started working on the novel. But once I began my research I travelled to Vardø twice. Once in mid-winter to get a sense of how the island felt at that time of year. I flew to a town called Kirkenes and then took a boat to Vardø to get a real feel of how it was to approach by sea. Although I was used to ice and darkness living in Bergen, the island of Vardø was on a whole other level! I experienced snowy blizzards, 24 hours darkness, and the otherworldly spectacle of the northern lights. I visited the Steilneset Memorial to the victims of the witch trials which is the most stunning memorial I have ever encountered, and is on the execution sight. From this place, the sea crashes onto the shore and you can see the outline of Domen Mountain on the mainland where the Devil was supposed to have dwelled. I returned to the Varanger Peninsula in the mid-summer flying to Kirkenes again but this time hiring a car and driving along the whole of the peninsula through the villages where the accused women would have lived and staying in the village of Ekkerøy. The landscape reminded me of Connemara in the west of Ireland, wet and marshy, with lots of bog cotton. I ended up again on the island of Vardø with 24 hours of daylight and the midnight sun. It was hard to sleep with the never-ending screeching of sea birds, and in a way it was as eerie as during the winter dark! I drew so much inspiration from visiting the locations of the book.
Ingeborg and Anna are such different characters. Did you find one of them easier to write than the other? Why do you think this was?
In my early draft of the books, I had written solely from Ingeborg’s point of view so I feel I have been with her for a long time. She is very close to my heart because I wanted to create a quiet heroine. I think she is very identifiable because she is holding her whole family together, and though not as dramatic as her mother or sister, is resilient and true. I also love her friendship with Maren, who for me is a pivotal character in the narrative. She is the ‘fuck patriarchy’ part of ourselves, and also invites us to trust in our own magic. I do believe we all have this witchy essence in all of us.
But I also have a special place in my heart for Anna, because she is neither completely bad nor good, and I am drawn to writing from the point of view of characters who are conflicted. I was also intrigued by all the historical documentation surrounding her that she was viewed as insane and hysterical, and was behind the Witch Panic. I wanted to reappraise her part in the witch trials. Anna is going through menopause in the novel, and there are very few representations of menopausal women in fiction. Those that do exist are usually stereotyped as mad, bad and sad. Since I have just gone through menopause myself, I found writing Anna in first person came very naturally. I wanted to present a different image of the menopausal protagonist. So it was possibly easier to write Anna’s story just because I can identify a little more with her experiences.
Do you have a set writing routine that you like to follow?
Not really if I am honest. I just try to write as much as I can as often as I can. As well as writing, I am doing a PhD and I am teaching and lecturing so it’s full on. I have to be very organised with my time to make sure I get enough head space to write. With historical fiction, research is so important too but you can go down rabbit holes so I have to ensure I balance research time and writing time equally. I might spend a few weeks ‘thinking’ about a novel – I do alot of ‘writing’ in my head before I put anything down and this usually saves time in the end. I also do pre-writing in the form of working on characters, and structure but I also remain very open in terms of storyline as this keeps the writing process very alive. Once I get stuck into writing, I can write non-stop for hours (sometimes 5/6 hours in a go) and write up to 5000 words a day. I would not recommend this! It can be very hard on the body in particular (hence I am a yoga fan). But it’s just the way I have always worked. I go into a zone and live in the world of my characters. When I was writing The Witches of Vardø I would have dreams that I was in the Witches Hole with the other women, and wake up in the middle of the night in terror.
I was excited to read that your next book will be set during the French Revolution. How much are you able to tell me about this?
The working title of my next book is ‘The Tarot Reader of Versailles’ which might give you an idea of what the novel is about! It’s inspired by a real historical figure who was a tarot reader during the French Revolution. I have been reading Tarot since I was fifteen, and for a time worked as a professional Tarot reader, so it’s an area I have always wanted to write about in fiction. Tarot Cards are powerful tools of self-knowledge, while they possess a magical quality to them as well. They were incredibly popular during the Reign of Terror as people searched for certainty amid the chaos of the French Revolution.
Thanks so much to Anya, for taking the time to talk to me. The Tarot Reader of Versailles sounds right up my street, and I cannot wait to read it. While I wait impatiently for that to be published, here are all the details of the blogs taking part in the tour for The Witches of Vardø, which kicked off last week.