Thursday, 18 February 2016

Review and Interview: Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

Witch Light by Susan Fletcher

Had I seen this book while browsing I would have dismissed it as witch/vampire genre and of little interest to me. And then I would have missed something. I’m thankful to my book group for choosing it. It contains some of the best nature writing I have ever read.

Product DetailsThe heroine, Corrag, is a witness to the Glencoe Massacre. She is condemned as a witch and awaits death by burning. Charles Leslie, a Jacobite priest, arrives seeking her testimony. Corrag’s biography is interwoven with her account of the massacre but for me the narrative soon became secondary to Corrag’s voice. In a previous post I wrote about voice as a distinctive taste that lingers. The taste of Witch Light is exquisite.

The priest is a good but staid and limited man. Corrag increasingly affects him. He comes prepared to protect his soul from contamination and leaves with his doors of perception widened. Corrag is soul-kin to Leslie’s wife, winter to her summer. He is bewitched by Corrag, but only in the sense of learning to live from his heart, and so he becomes a better man and husband.

Corrag exists in a bubble of profound beauty. She lives like a wild thing and speaks like a poet. This is literary laudanum. Mind loses its boundaries not in the way of madness but with compassion and delicacy. The author gives words to the quiet rapture of sub-linguistic perception. And then she does it again. Living simply in nature, Corrag accepts daily gifts of psychedelic clarity, sensual immersion and mystical imagery. The distinction between spiritual and material is lost. As you read you will shape shift. You will stand in a waterfall with moths in your hair.

Corrag’s love affair with nature extends to Alasdair, a male extension of the land. His passion for place is actively custodial. Hers is passive, surrendered, grateful.

The relationships in the book are softly drawn. Interactions are barely physical: more concerned with the subtle transmissions that occur between souls.

I have often wondered why history stands so near for the Celt. The book helped me see why this is so. I can vouch that Rannoch Moor emphatically broods and holds its history. It is easy to hear battle murmurs and to feel a metallic flood in the back of the throat. The clans are of a piece with their land and each other. The mist sits on them as on rock without discrimination. The brutality and treachery of the Glencoe Massacre is personalised. Naturally it would be transcribed into the DNA.

The book group view

Much praise for the quality and lyricism of the writing.
The voice and character of Corrag was particular and affecting.
Many of us felt inspired to visit the locations in the book.

Took a few chapters to get into as an expectation of a stronger narrative drive.
One person struggled with the intensity of the voice.
Some would have liked more historical background.

Discussions and digressions

Minority groups, conformity and its evolution, caste systems, school uniform, religion, herbalism.

There are some staggeringly lyrical passages in the book. Do you write poetry?

Thank you for finding a poetic feel to my book. I do try for that - above all I want to tell a story, but secondly I want to tell it (always) in the most beautiful way I can. Yes, I write poetry. I always have - although never, I feel, to an extent that I'd feel confident enough to try to find publication. But poetry was always my first love, and I read it regularly. During the writing process of my books, I find poetry a wonderful distraction and inspiration combined.

I haven’t read your other books yet so I can’t judge where Witch Light stands in comparison. Quite often authors write one stand out book that contains their own essence. It’s the book they were born to write. Witch Light has that feel. Is it your favoured child?

Is Witch Light my favourite child ...? Hard one to answer! But it was certainly a novel that poured of me without too much pause for thought, which felt as if I was tapping into something inside me that had been waiting to be found. It is essentially a novel about goodness, and I suppose in that respect its themes and overall message make it my favourite, yes. But each book took me on a journey in which I discovered new things about me as a writer, and me personally. It's a trite answer, but I love them all!

 Witch Light was written instinctively while your earlier books were carefully plotted. Most writers have a strong preference for one method over the other. Have you reverted to planning or is the pantster out of the bottle for good?

I think I now combine the instinctive way of writing with the planned ... I need, without doubt, a gut reaction to an idea before I can turn it into a novel; I need an instinctive response to it, almost something visceral. But I also have deadlines (I didn't have one, with Witch Light; I was writing out of contract and therefore had as much time as I needed) these days, which mean that a degree of planning is needed. I try to fuse both, these days.

If a group of evangelical Pagans wanted a bible I’m sure Witch Light would bring them converts. I live near Glastonbury and have friends who wear flowers in their dreads, have pet crystals and walk the fields at dusk theatrically reciting poetry. Would you fit in?

I love Glastonbury! I am not sure whether I'd go so far as have a pet crystal ... But I love its sense of freedom - people being as they choose, living as they want to - and the heart of paganism seems to be, for me, a celebration and awareness of nature. That part is certainly something I recognise. Corrag talks of the 'betwixt and between times' - dawn and dusk - and I certainly feel there's a special feeling to those times. And the passing of the seasons, the phases of the moon ... I'm not a dedicated follower to either, but I am aware of them. And I love the wild places - or a garden, if not. I've been to Glastonbury several times and each time I've felt at ease there.

 Corrag has a worldview to shame many sages. To what extent do you share it? Is it possible to bring that sensibility to modern life?

Bringing Corrag's sensibilities to modern life ... In small ways, it's certainly possible, I think. I like to believe (hope!) that I have always been well-meaning and keen to ensure the welfare of others. (I was raised that way - and toyed with nursing as a profession, for a while). The simple notion of being friendly and empathic makes so much difference, to everyone involved. On a larger scale, Corrag's sensibilities might be trickier to realise, perhaps. I think she'd watch the refugee situation with horror. I think there is violence going on in the world that she - like me, and so many others - couldn't fathom or bear; but I think she'd try to counteract it in her own small acts. Lifting a snail off a pavement, for example. That would be her way - the little gestures - and those are always possible to do.

I’d love to know what your literary influences are. If you had to choose one favourite book from each decade of your life what would they be?

Literary influences! Poetry, both in the beginning and still. Seamus Heaney and Robert Frost were two inspirations, and Heaney remains my true north of writing, perhaps. He fuses the human heart with nature - essential to good writing, for me. Also Margaret Atwood, the Bronte sisters, Michael Ondaatje, Elizabeth Smart ... One book from each decade of my life is a hard one! I'd say, instinctively: 0-10 was The BFG by Roald Dahl; 11-20 was both Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Heaney's Death of a Naturalist; 21-30 would be The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje and 31-36 would be ... too many to call. Anything by Donna Tart, Marilynne Robinson or Barbara Kingsolver, perhaps. And reaching over all of these books is, and always will be, Shakespeare.

Also check out this magical link from @sfletcherauthor new archaeological find in Glencoe.