Syd, I am delighted to interview you for Mystery People readers and look forward to learning about you and your writing. I will start by congratulating you on being short listed for the Crimefest Short story award. That is terrific news. And may I say that I particularly like your choice of place names, such as Adder’s Fork as the village where most of your stories are set (perhaps not the ideal choice for a holiday), and the sinister Hades Hall.
Radmila: I have really enjoyed your Essex Witch Museum Mysteries and also your talk at the 2019 Bristol Crimefest. You are, as you described yourself, a proud Essex girl and you also obviously have a great interest in witches, especially those of your home county. Could you tell us more about your interest and how was it awoken?Syd: That’s a good question Radmilla! Funnily enough it’s always been an interest of mine. Though nobody calls me Samantha anymore, I was named after Elizabeth Montgomery’s character in the TV show Bewitched. I don’t know if that had an influence on me as I grew up, but I can tell you for sure that I was always interested in what happened to the witch characters in fairytales, and constantly plaguing my parents with the child’s perennial ‘why?’. Why was she a witch? Who said she was a witch? Did she think she was a witch? And if she was a witch, did that mean she cast spells? So, did that mean magic was real? I think I must have been vexing. But witches just seemed so much more interesting than the passive vapid princesses waiting to be rescued or married. Witches were active, they did stuff, and they had respect, even if that translated into fear. As I got older, I began to realize that the real witch trials had been full of nuance and hidden agendas. Ironically, I discovered witches often had no power at all, temporal or otherwise. In my twenties I became interested in the Essex witches and also the re-framing of witches by feminists and started investigating the witch trials. I was shocked by the injustice there and it became a bit of a mission to expose some of the terrible stories I uncovered.
Syd: When I wrote The Drowning Pool, about the legend of a local ‘sea witch’ in my town I uncovered some damming statistics about the Essex witches. We had at least four times the number of indictments for witchcraft than any other county. As I drilled down into this, I discovered the Witchfinder General and the horrific witch panic that he orchestrated I also looked into the detail of the ‘witches’ confessions and was struck by how ludicrous they were and how, really, the whole thing was a massive frame-up. To demonstrate this through fiction, however, I felt that, perhaps ironically, I needed to be as accurate and authentic as possible. As such I often go back to the primary sources and, if it’s appropriate in my fiction, relay the judgements and accusations as they were announced back in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. We’re really lucky in Essex that we’ve got such an amazing Records Office. The staff there are very helpful. I want to work a lot more with them actually. I have an idea about creating a Pop-Up Essex Witch Museum and they’ve been extremely supportive. But that’s another story. I’ve also been to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle. Those guys are amazing. Joyce Froome, who is the assistant curator, has a mighty and encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. And she is extremely generous with it too. She and her team have helped me out with various details about magic for which I am very grateful. Without giving away any spoilers, in Strange Fascination I needed a spell that had Eastern European magical paraphernalia woven with hints of British folk lore and which might have been used for protection during the 1950s in rural Essex! Joyce promptly wrote back to me with some hugely useful ideas! She’s great. The museum is awesome – literally. Very much worth a visit.
Radmila: You also describe yourself a feminist. To what extent has the evidence that you have uncovered of the victimisation of impoverished elderly women in the past contributed to this?
Syd: I embraced feminism in my twenties before the I got into the nuts and bolts of the historical witch hunts and their atrocities. But yes, what I learnt about the European witch hunts has affected me and confirmed my conviction. Unfortunately, the persecution of witches is not a thing of the past. Attitudes to women have not changed globally. In Kenya right now many older women are being killed because they are thought to be witches, whereas in fact many of them are displaying symptoms of dementia. Witch hunting is absolutely rife in Papua Guinea where older women are also targeted. But it’s not exclusive to age. Young women are frequently accused of using witchcraft to kill and, last year, a six-year-old girl was tortured by a group of men after being accused of sorcery. Witch hunts have always gone after the most vulnerable in society to stigmatize and scapegoat them. Today the vulnerable vary in different cultures. In Nigeria at the moment, for instance, witchcraft accusations are very focussed on young children, toddlers and babies.
Syd: I still work in the arts part time. At the moment I am consulting for Metal, an arts organisation, who support emerging artists. I’m also very very excited to be assisting the curation on a massive exhibition which, I’m afraid, at the time of writing, is all top secret. However, I can talk about the other exhibition which I’m curating, and which opens in November about challenging the stereotype of the Essex Girl, another subject close to my heart. When I’m not writing the next Strange book, I’m developing a follow-up screenplay to Witch West, which has been optioned by Hidden Door Productions. I like all the work. It’s important for me to have variety so I don’t get bored! In the past I had all sorts of jobs from bookselling to lecturing, to a marketing, go-go dancing, publishing. I even had a stint as a performance poet. Back in the late Nineties/early Noughties, I presented three series of Channel 4’s book programme, Pulp. That was a lot of fun.
Syd: I love travel and yes, am often inspired by the places I tour. It’s impossible for me not to lap up local
Radmila: What is likely to happen in the series as it develops? What about Rosie’s so far unfulfilled yearnings for Sam, the alluring curator of the Essex Witch Museum? And will her wonderful boots continue to be endangered in forthcoming titles?
Syd: I don’t think Rosie is ever going to get tired of cowboy boots. There are so many different varieties out there. But, you’re right Radmilla, she does have a habit of getting into scrapes and getting her boots scraped. Her current adventure has her poor gold cowboy boots covered in mulch and decomposing leaves. The horror!
Strange Sight (2017) Strange Fascination (2018)
The Strange Casebook (2018) Strange Tombs (2019)
The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas (2019)