Hey everyone! I’m delighted that today is my stop on the blog tour for Sunwise, the sequel to Helen Steadman’s Widdershins which I read in 2017 and loved! I have been eagerly awaiting the sequel since I found out that Widdershins wouldn’t be a standalone – especially since I’ve had a fair bit of communication with the author on social media and she is so lovely! So not only am I reviewing Sunwise today but I’m also sharing an interview with Helen herself! I hope you’ll enjoy it 🙂
When Jane’s lover, Tom, returns from the navy to find her unhappily married to his betrayer, Jane is caught in an impossible situation. Still reeling from the loss of her mother at the hands of the witch-finder John Sharpe, Jane has no choice but to continue her dangerous work as a healer while keeping her young daughter safe.
But, as Tom searches for a way for him and Jane to be together, the witch-finder is still at large. Filled with vengeance, John will stop at nothing in his quest to rid England of the scourge of witchcraft.
Inspired by true events, Sunwise tells the story of one woman’s struggle for survival in a hostile and superstitious world.
Straightaway, I was reminded of how fantastic the author’s writing is. There is a real sense of quality to it, in her word choices and sentence composition. I particularly enjoyed the kern supper scene; Helen’s talent for descriptive writing is really displayed well here. It made me so hungry! Honestly, you could probably get away with reading this book as a standalone but I recommend reading the whole duology simply because the prose is such a treat.
Just like Widdershins, the narrative voices in this sequel are distinct and believable. I had no trouble whatsoever switching between the two perspectives; it was an instant shift. The reader goes from sympathising with Jane one minute to incredulous loathing towards John the next, and there is never any confusion or delay.
Once again, I adored the familiar settings of Scotland and North East England. I think part of why I love these books so much is that I recognise the local area and feel a connection with it.
I love witchy stories anyway but what Helen Steadman has created here is one of my favourites. The multitude of herb lore included shows that the author clearly knows her stuff, lending a wonderful level of believability to the story. Widdershins and Sunwise are both fabulous, and I passionately recommend them!
And now onto the interview!
Hi Helen! I’m delighted to be helping promote Sunwise today and I’m so grateful to you for agreeing to answer my questions. Can you tell us what inspired you to write your first book, Widdershins?
I signed up for an MA in Creative Writing to help improve my novel-writing. I had ages to think about what to write before starting. After reading Hilary Mantel’s amazing Wolf Hall, I immediately knew I wanted to write a historical novel (even though I’d not read many and had no real clue about research). I had no idea what to write about, but I wasn’t too worried as I had a considerable stretch of time ahead of me. One day in the woods, I came across loads of felled trees, which revealed a natural amphitheatre. This set me thinking about what might have gone on there. Florence Welch’s song ‘Rabbit Heart (We Raise It Up)’ sprang into my head and I knew I was going to write about witches. So, I started reading widely about witches and was stunned to learn there’d been witchcraft trials on my own doorstep.
I read that despite the witchfinder being accused of fraud, sixteen people were still hanged on one day, making it one of the biggest (and least well known about) witch trials in England. I was intrigued by the girl who escaped the hangman’s noose, and so Widdershins came into being. That makes it sound a bit easy, but in reality, there were six years from having the idea to getting the book in my hand. At the outset, I was terrified of doing the research, and it seemed very daunting, but once I started, I absolutely loved it.
It’s fascinating that Widdershins is based on true events. Did you always plan to write a sequel or was Widdershins originally going to be a standalone?
Widdershins was going to be a standalone, and by the time it was published, I’d begun a PhD at the University of Aberdeen to write my next book. But once Widdershins was out in the world, the characters sprang back to life in my head and I realised they had a lot of unfinished business. The only way to get them out of my head would be to write them out, so Sunwise came along.
Who would you say are your writing influences?
I’ve always loved reading and it’s always hard to answer this question! Hilary Mantel inspired me to write historical fiction – I’ve read all of her books, but I love her historical ones best and cannot wait for her next book. My favourite book is Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and I read this at least once a year. She has such amazing economy of language, and yet she elevates it into something quite beautiful. My favourite author is Peter Carey, and for me, no one does character better. I particularly love Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda, and Theft: A Love Story by him. The book that had the biggest effect on me in my whole life was George Orwell’s 1984. I read this at school, and it exposed me to new worlds of ideas and writing. I’m currently reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck and I’m hugely impressed with how he deals with landscape. And poetry-wise, I love Sylvia Plath.
One of the things I loved most about your first book was the setting; I grew up in the North East of England, so I recognised a lot of the places mentioned. Did you always plan to write a book set in your local area?
I hadn’t really thought about writing about my local area at all, but when I found out about the Newcastle witch trials, it was impossible to write about anywhere else. My third book is set pretty much on my doorstep and the fourth will be a little further up the east coast. What’s good about writing about the local area is that I know it so well – so I have years and years of pictures of plants, landscapes and so on through all the seasons and can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that a particular plant blossoms at a particular time, which is vital in Widdershins and Sunwise, given the number of plant-based references.
It was a brave decision to include some Geordie colloquialisms in your books (though one that I thoroughly appreciated!) Were you ever worried that non-local readers would have difficulty understanding certain phrases?
While I wanted to use some vernacular language to make the characters’ speech authentic, I tried to have a light hand. During my MA, we studied Lewis Grassic Gibbons Sunset Song, which made me think about dialect and how much is too much. In the end, I pared it right back, because what works in real life can quickly become overwhelming on the page. What I tried to do was to keep the Geordie dialect primarily with Tom and Meg. Likewise, I tried to be light-handed in the Scottish chapters. I hope what I’ve done is given a flavour, without bogging the reader down too much, or sending them off to dictionary corner too often.
Your two main characters, Jane and John, both had very distinctive narrative voices in Widdershins and Sunwise. How easy do you find it to write from different perspectives?
I found this quite easy, really, and I like trying on new people for size. In the original draft of the book, which ran to well over 120,000 words, there were seven different points of view. If memory serves: Jane, John, Tom, Rev Foster, Meg, Lambert Hobson (the ship’s surgeon) and Annie. A few people in my critique group complained (vociferously, in some cases) that this was too many and so I cut it down to three: Jane, John and Tom. This was still a very long version. Slightly before I submitted the novel for my MA, I worried that it was still over long, and I rewrote it without Tom’s perspective. This was a bit of a shame as he has quite an adventure at sea, and I really enjoyed all the medical and nautical research.
I love all the natural remedies featured throughout your books. Are you a believer in these practices yourself?
I suffered from terrible allergies for many years (face and head would swell up alarmingly, huge lumps all over me) and nothing helped – it just kept getting worse and worse. My GP insisted on sending me to the NHS Homeopathic Hospital in Great Ormond Street. I protested, saying I’d tried homeopathy, and it hadn’t worked, but she asked me to trust her. I chatted to a lovely homeopathic doctor for about an hour and she prescribed three vials of Calc. Carb. along with a list of what not to do while taking them (no strong-smelling food or drink like coffee, mint toothpaste, etc). After I took them, I had one of the worse reactions in my life and thought I was about to die, but as promised by the doctor, each subsequent attack was less violent until eventually I had no further problems. So that converted me!
Once I realised that many people accused of witchcraft were just healers quietly going about their business, I decided to learn more about herbal medicine. So I signed up for a course in Tree Medicine at Dilston Physic Garden and I can highly recommend it for courses, herbal remedies and just for a lovely day out. I learned to identify different trees and plants (probably the single most important skill to learn in herbal medicine) and then gathered various barks, leaves, berries and flowers and turned them into a variety of linctuses, tinctures and powders. I then bought lots of herbs and set up a herb patch at home. This really helped me to understand the plant lifecycles, smells, tastes, properties and so on. My cupboard is still full of various herbs, spices and essential oils! That said, sometimes all else fails and I get a bad chest infection and then I’m usually to be found begging the GP for antibiotics.
How do you switch off and unwind when you’re not writing?
In the past, I would unwind by reading and writing, and by taking occasional walks, but my sedentary lifestyle is catching up with me, so, I’ve recently bought a bike. I must confess that this is an e-bike as I live in a very hilly area, and between my dodgy knee and my asthma, I wouldn’t make it up some of the steep hills without a bit of battery assistance. I haven’t been out over the winter, but I’m looking forward to getting back out in the spring. I was really pleased when I managed to get all the way to Newcastle Quayside and home by myself. I’ve also changed my office into a home gym to try and get a bit fitter and I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoy this – especially the cross-trainer and weight lifting. Otherwise, I take my dogs for walks in the woods and on the moors, and I still spend a lot of time reading and writing, because that’s what I love. I would have added drinking red wine at the weekend, but I’m on the wagon for a bit (we’ll see how that goes)!
Are there any aspects of your work that you find particularly challenging?
The thing I struggle most with is just not having enough time. I work full-time, I’m doing my PhD, writing and researching novel 3 and currently promoting novel 2. But I love writing and researching, so these are lovely problems to have really. I sometimes find social media a bit overwhelming. I had to get to grips with Twitter and Instagram quite quickly when Widdershins came out, but it feels like sometimes it can take over your life if you let it. I’m trying to limit the number of times per day I look at email, social media and so on to try and get back some control (and much-needed time)!
I think you do very well with the social media side of things! Can you tell us anything about the projects you currently have on the go? Anything exciting that we might get to see in the future?
I’m currently writing book 3, whose working title is Running Wolves. This is about a group of Lutheran swordmakers who left Prussia in the late seventeenth century and came to live in the north east of England. The research for this has been very exciting as I’ve carried out some blacksmith training. So far, I’ve made a (badly burned) pendant, a rat-tailed poker, a firesteel and – best of all – my very own sword! I also have a substantial chunk of book 4 written, but to keep myself relatively sane, I’ve banned myself from doing any work or research on it until next year. I must confess, though, there is a sparkly notebook next to my bed (bought by a kind friend with excellent taste) and bits of book 5 keep finding their way into it…
How exciting! I look forward to the day we get to read more of your work. Thank you so much, Helen, for your wonderfully eloquent answers; it was fascinating to learn more about you and your writing process.
Thanks very much for having me along to talk about Widdershins and Sunwise today, Alex, I’ve really appreciated it, and thank you for being such a champion of my writing.
Well I hope you all enjoyed that! Helen is genuinely such an interesting and lovely person to chat with; I could have gone on all day! If you’re a fan of historical fiction, particularly stories about witches, I highly recommend Widdershins and its sequel Sunwise.
You can find Helen at the following social media links:-
And don’t forget to check out the other stops on the tour! x