Stacey Halls grew up in Rawtenstall, Lancashire. She studied journalism and has written for many publications, including The Bookseller. The Familiars is her first novel.
1. Who were your literary influences and heroes as you were growing up?
I discovered my love of reading at Rawtenstall Library in Lancashire, where my parents would take me every week. I started on Jacqueline Wilson, Roald Dahl and Animal Ark and moved on to lots of American series including Amber Brown, the Sleepover Club, Stacy & Friends (because of the name!), Sweet Valley High and Goosebumps before Harry Potter came along. I was addicted to series and couldn’t get enough of them.
In my teens I moved on to Austen and the Brontës, but those well-thumbed books I love as a kid will always have a special place in my heart because I discovered them myself, and finding a new one was like uncovering treasure.
2. You worked as a journalist before you became a writer. How do the two compare?
Writing fiction is different to journalism, but the essence is the same: building a picture using straightforward language and trying to keep people’s eyes on the page. The difference with news stories is you have to get the point of the story across in the first line, whereas in a book it’s usually in the last few pages!
In his book, the former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger sums up what I was taught at journalism school: “If you write for dukes, only dukes will understand, but if you write for the dustman, both will understand. Keep it short, keep it simple, write it in language you would use if you were telling your mum or dad.” I try to apply that to my novels, too, because whether you’re writing 90,000 words or 900, every word should be justified.
3. Your debut novel is The Familiars. Can you give us a preview of what Suffolk readers can expect from it?
It’s reading group fiction set during the Lancashire witch trials of 1612, and follows 17-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth, who is pregnant after three stillbirths, and her midwife Alice Gray, who becomes caught up in the trials. Even though they’re from different walks of life – Fleetwood is the privileged wife of a member of the gentry and Alice is poor and illiterate – they have a fierce friendship and need one another to survive.
4. The Familiars is set at the time of the Pendle Witch Trials in 1612. There must have been a lot of research before you could start writing?
I grew up in Lancashire, and the witches are a huge part of local heritage. In 1612 twelve people were accused of witchcraft, arrested and sent to trial. They were all from local families – a grandmother, mother, daughter and son from the same family were all implicated.
What I found fascinating about the Pendle witches was that in the trial transcripts, many of them admitted their guilt and to having familiars (“spirit animals” which are the devil in disguise), knowing the penalty would be death. As there were so many of them I decided to focus on one, Alice Gray, but tell the story from the point of view of someone who knew her, so you never really get under her skin. Why I chose her is a spoiler, but she leapt out straight away.
The 17th century was a period I knew almost nothing about, but being able to visit Gawthorpe Hall where Fleetwood lives allowed me to imagine life back then.
5. What is on your ‘to read’ list?
The Furies by Katie Lowe, The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal, The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary, Somewhere Close to Happy by Lia Louis, and two members of my writing group also have their debuts published this year - Living My Best Li(f)e by Claire Frost and The Marchmaker, by Kate Innes.
6. Has a book ever changed your life or made you think differently?
But Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn, a Rolling Stone journalist, made me want to be a writer, and I suppose led me to the path I’m on now. And I grew up in a Catholic family, so reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials as a teenager was pretty transformative.
7. Do you have a message for your readers in Suffolk Libraries?
It’s thrilling to me the idea of people discovering my book in the library, as it was such a formative place for me. Suffolk also has a history of witch trials, so The Familiars might pique your interest in researching closer to home (or even writing a novel based on it!).
8. Can you tell us one thing your readers may not know about you?
In 2005, when I was 15, I auditioned for Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter films.