Burn Mark is as much an East End gangster thriller as paranormal adventure – which came to you first when thinking about the book?
I knew I wanted to write about witches in a way that imagined a primitive supernatural power at work in our own modern, high-tech world. And then it struck me that a witches’ coven is quite like the Mafia: they’re both secret criminal organisations, hunted by the law, a source of fear and loathing to many, but seen as quite cool and glamorous by some. So one thing led to another…
What do you like about crime writing and are there crime thrillers or writers you particularly admire?
Reading thrillers is one of my favourite forms of escapism (as long as they’re not too gory). I tend to read crime novels that aren’t set in the UK, because the genre is a great way of exploring other cultures. So I especially like crime books set in Italy – Michael Dibdin, Dona Leon – or the USA. I particularly admire Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane. They use their books to ask really tough questions about society, the individual and the State.
Though a fantasy set in a different world, Burn Mark includes many details and facts on witchcraft drawn from history. Tell us about the research you did for the book.
I read a lot about the Age of Witch hunts in Europe and North America, which lasted from the middle of the 15th to the start of the 18th centuries. Then I did some even more depressing research about the witch-hunts that are still going on in India and Sub-Saharan Africa today. My best source was “The Hammer of the Witches”, an inquisitor’s handbook published in 1487. It’s basically “Witch-hunting for Dummies”. Very gory and quite pervy, too.
Why do you think the subject of witchcraft continues to fascinate readers?
Witches are the perfect mix of sexy and scary. They make equally good victims and villains. Most of us like the idea of having magic powers, but we also know that power can be corrupting. So there’s a nice tension there.
Burn Mark is also a political thriller – were you consciously drawing parallels with current political situations, do you want young readers to think about this?
I think good fantasy writing is always, on some level, about the here and now. I’m not a cynical person; I think us Brits are generally fortunate to live in the time and place that we do. But I am interested in what the fear of terrorism does to a society in terms of civil liberties and human rights, and how far both individuals and organisations are prepared to compromise themselves for vague notions of “the greater good”. When it comes to moral issues, there’s a lot to be said for looking at the world in shades of grey rather than black and white.
Glory, the central female character in the book, is brave and, in your own words, ‘stroppy’- do you particularly enjoy writing feisty girl characters?
I find it disappointing that in many fantasy novels, the heroine’s story is 90% bound up with her love life. Glory, however, has very different priorities. She’s not the girl-next-door: she’s difficult, prickly and ruthlessly ambitious. It’s a bit of a risk, having a character who isn’t immediately likeable. But both she and Lucas, her male counterpart, do a lot of growing up over the course of the book. They’re forced to compromise, and reconsider some of their dearest beliefs. This makes them more vulnerable in some ways and stronger in others.
Will there be more adventures for Lucas and Glory?
Absolutely! The sequel to Burn Mark, called Witch Fire, will be published this time next year. The action moves between London, Switzerland and South America, so the focus is on international espionage rather than Brit crime.