Interview: Stacey Thomas, author of The Revels
Buy The Revels here
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: The stage is set and the witch-hunt is about to begin…
‘I am no witch. I have not sold my soul to the devil for powers. What I am has never openly been whispered of, yet it is enough that people would hang for it.’
After his half-brother dies, aspiring playwright Nicholas Pearce is apprenticed to Judge William Percival, an infamous former witch-hunter who is under pressure to resume his old profession.
In a country torn apart by civil war, with escalating tensions between Catholics and Protestants, Royalists and Roundheads, and rumours of witchcraft, Nicholas hides a secret: the dead sing. He hears their secrets, but will he find the courage to speak up to save innocent lives, even if it means putting himself in great danger?
Hi everyone, my name is Stacey Thomas and I’m a civil servant by day and a writer in whatever spare hours I can find. The Revels is my debut novel. I’m also a serial hobbyist and have tried everything from taxidermy to Renaissance dance. I’ve just started archery and I’m hoping this will be the one that sticks.
Witchy, wintry and gothic.
In a country torn apart by war and rumours of witchcraft, a young man hides a secret: the dead sing.
I’ve always loved history and studied it at university. If I’m being honest, I find the research more enjoyable than the writing. Or at the very least less painful!
I had the idea for The Revels during lockdown and would have been lost if it wasn’t for my library which posted down the books I needed for my research. I spent about six months reading everything I could about 17th-century England, including the witch trials; witch-hunters of the day, including Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General; clothing; medicine; the English Civil War and biographies of leading figures from King Charles to Oliver Cromwell.
I also read pamphlets and plays published in the 17th century. My protagonist is an aspiring playwright and I wanted to tap into the rhythm of the language of the time. I also read a biography about John Taylor, The Water Poet, who was a rare example of a working-class writer who was able to live off his writing, despite the disdain he received from the literary elite. Even while writing my story and going through edits, I continued to research the period and would watch historical dramas and listen to history podcasts. Looking back, I can see I probably did too much, but I wanted my story to feel as authentic as possible in a world where my main character can hear the dead sing.
The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 is probably one of the most well-known historical events in The Revels. The testimony of nine-year-old Jennet Device was used to secure the convictions and deaths of her family and neighbours for witchcraft. Least known is the witch-hunt that followed twenty-one years later when Edmund Robinson claimed to have been abducted by witches. His father took him on a three-month tour of the local areas to point out his kidnappers. Their search ended in the imprisonment of seventeen people. Fortunately, a growing scepticism led to the case being reopened. Edmund confessed to making the whole thing up and his father was found to have blackmailed women for money in exchange for ensuring his son wouldn’t denounce them as witches. I think people would be shocked to learn that the accused weren’t automatically released from prison. In the 17th century, you had to pay for your time in prison and many of the accused were too poor to pay the fee. Years later, some of them were still languishing in the dungeons of Lancaster Castle, including Jennet Device who played such an integral role in the infamous witch trials just two decades before.
I also think people will be shocked by how commercialised witch-hunting was. In the 17th century, there was a huge profit from selling accounts of alleged witch trials. They were written in English, rather than Latin – the language of the educated elite, and cheaply priced to ensure a wide readership.
It might just be me, but I was very shocked by the story of Christian Caddell – Scotland’s only female witch pricker, who earned a living identifying the devil’s mark on accused witches. The devil’s mark was proof that a witch had sold her soul to the devil and people believed it wouldn’t bleed if you pricked it with a pin. Of course, what was kept quiet was that Caddell and other witch prickers used a retractable blade to condemn as many witches as possible in exchange for a high fee. There’s an inherent misogyny in witch-hunting and it can be easy to define the witch-hunts in terms of men vs women. My research showed me it was more nuanced than this and I was inspired to explore this in my debut.
The heated first-person, present debate! In the past, I’ve played around with different viewpoints, but the first person has always felt the most natural for me. My personality is quite contained (ok, introverted) and the most common critiques beta readers have shared are that my characters can be a bit emotionally closed off. Writing in the first person helps me to go more method. I can tear down the walls between myself and the story and react to events as though it’s happening to me. This helps the narration to feel more immediate and personal.
I hope so! When I first started writing The Revels, I wanted to explore the witch-hunts from the perspective of the villain. But as the story evolved, I became more interested in exploring the vulnerability of my protagonist who’s both a witch and a witch-hunter as opposed to an all-out villain. But anyone who’s read Ronald Bassett’s Witchfinder General will find nods to his wonderfully menacing depictions of witch-hunters in my villains John Rush and Clements.
This might be presumptuous considering how amazing their books are, but I hope that readers will see the influence of Bridget Collins and Maggie O’Farrell in the sense of atmosphere I try to invoke in my debut, along with the yearnings my characters feel for a sense of connection with people. Although The Revels is told from a male perspective, I hope that readers will pick up on how much Stacey Hall’s depiction of strong women inspired my female characters Althamia and Grace.
I also hope readers will pick up on my love of Clarke’s speculative approach to history in my debut where King James who instead of becoming jaded with the witch persecutions set up a commission for witch-hunters.
The best historical fiction effortlessly transports you to the past. I had no idea how hard this was until I started writing The Revels. It’s a constant balancing act between making the period come alive, but also wearing the research lightly so that your story doesn’t read like a textbook.
How I read historical fiction has changed since getting a book deal. I still get lost in the story, but I find myself paying more attention to the period details and how authors use it to set the scene. I also tend to re-read books a lot more. The first time as a reader and the second as a writer trying to uncover the writer’s tricks.
The lead up to publication has been amazing, stressful, strange, surreal! On one hand I’m fulfilling a lifelong dream. But the other side of that is realizing that publishing is a business with a mix of highs and lows. I’ve dealt with this by being more kind to myself and not getting too caught up in things I can’t control.
When I first got my publishing deal a well-known author advised me to enjoy the process as I only get to be a debut once. I’ve been following their advice with a vengeance these past few weeks and have been having fun interacting with readers, bloggers and booksellers. I’m also part of a debut group and have really enjoyed becoming friends with other writers and cheering them on as their debuts launch.
I’m currently working on my second book at the moment and if I’m honest I had a crisis of confidence as I was so worried that my agent and editor would think my idea was terrible. Luckily, they’re very excited about it and this, plus deadlines, is helping me to plough through my draft. The working title is The Debs and it’s set in London, 1958 which was the last year the English debutantes curtsied to the queen. I’m very much inspired by the real-life figures who shaped upper-class society such as Isaac Brown who created a role for himself as a society fixer. I’m having a lot of fun creating a story that explores the allure of high society and the lengths people will go to reach the top of that world.
I recently visited the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth where I spent a few days researching the Brontës and immersing myself in their stories. I read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, etc at school, but it’s only now that I’m older that I can appreciate how wonderful their books are. Mr Rochester’s proposal scene gets me every time.
I love Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and I can’t wait to read Silver Nitrate when it’s out. I’m also looking forward to Anna Kopp’s graphic YA The Marble Queen.
After putting it off for years, I read Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life a few weeks ago. It’s beautifully written, but emotionally devastating and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m therefore trying to self-medicate with something whimsical like Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries.
I just wanted to say thank you for having me on your blog. If readers are interested in learning more about the European witch persecutions, I highly recommend the Witches of Scotland podcast where the hosts interview a range of experts about the witch persecutions, including historians, authors, midwives, etc.