Saturday, 8 January 2011

Fifteen minutes with William 'Witchfinder' Hussey - Part One

Gallows at Twilight, the second in the excellently terrifying Witchfinder series came out earlier this week. I bumped into author William Hussey while exploring the caves under the picturesque seaside town of Hobarron's Hollow – where the first story begins. I had lost my way in the endless twisting tunnels, and was beginning to think I would never see daylight again, when William found me. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions as he led me to safety …

1. I made the mistake of reading the first Witchfinder book, Dawn of the Demontide, at bedtime. There are some fairly gruesome moments – what made you want to write horror?
There are three reasons why I think I was always destined to write horror. First, my granddad used to make up bedtime stories for me when I was a kid, and virtually every tale had a supernatural element. Vampires, ghosts, gremlins, Frankenstein monsters and zombies – it was a wonder I ever got to sleep! And so horror was ingrained in me from an early age.

Another factor might have been my summer job. Every school holiday, I worked on my uncle’s rickety old ghost train. It was my job to wheel the cars through the swing doors and, when the ride broke down, to venture into the dark, cobwebbed innards of the ghost train and guide the screaming customers back to the light. My uncle used to roar with laughter as the riders were brought out, and I guess some of that desire to give people a case of heebie-jeebies must have rubbed off on me.

Finally, I used to live in a haunted house! I was five years old when my dad bought a plot of land and started building our first proper family home… right next to a crumbling graveyard! Dad had gone down to survey the work one night when he entered the lounge area and came face to face with a little old lady dressed entirely in black. Dad blinked, and the apparition vanished. Putting the experience down to imagination, he decided to keep the story to himself.

We had been in the house for just over a year when I encountered the ghost. She was waiting at the end of the long corridor that led to my bedroom, her wrinkled face frozen and her black eyes fixed on me. I didn’t feel frightened; her presence was strangely comforting, and I walked straight past her and into my room. Granny Ghost, as she came to be known, was sighted by half a dozen family members before we sold the house and moved away.

So, a grandfather who told me spooky stories before bedtime, a summer job on a ghost train, and a childhood spent in a haunted house. I was never going to end up writing romance novels, was I?!

2. Could you see yourself writing in any other genre in the future? If so, which?
Never say never! The Witchfinder books aren’t just horror stories, they also contain threads of adventure, fantasy, even romance! If you stick exclusively to one genre then you tend to pigeonhole yourself as a writer – the trick is to establish yourself in a certain area but pack your writing with enough variation so that you can branch out if you want to. Stephen King is a fine example of this – in the general consciousness he is viewed as a horror writer, but in fact there isn’t a genre he hasn’t tried. I have this idea for a sci-fi book in the mould of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos crossed with E.T. which I hope one day to write.

3. Did you always imagine Witchfinder as a series? When you started, did you have all three books in your head?
Yeah, it was always going to be a series. The story was just too big to fit into one volume. That said, I’d originally thought that it would occupy four books, but my brilliant editor at OUP (and yours, Dave!) looked at the outline for the complete story and thought that it would be told in a much punchier way in three volumes. As ever, Jasmine was right!

As for the story itself, I had roughly 60% of it planned out – I knew what the climactic scene of The Last Nightfall was going to be, but I didn’t have the route there completely mapped out. There was a lot of mist on the road ahead. And much of what I had planned changed in the writing, as it always does. I do tend to plan my books, but I also leave big gaps so that I can be creative within the writing stage and so that, on occasion, I can surprise myself. For example, in Book 3: The Last Nightfall, I was writing a battle scene when, quite suddenly, I killed a character mid-sentence – a character that I’d never intended to die. That’s the joy of writing, isn’t it? Surprising yourself.

4. Which book in the series have you enjoyed writing the most?
That’s really tricky because I’ve honestly enjoyed writing all of them. But if pushed I’d say it was Dawn of the Demontide. I finished the first draft and I just knew that the book was working and that it was good. That’s a very rare experience for a writer. Most of us are plagued with doubts and insecurities, and no matter how many good reviews we get, and how many times people say they’ve enjoyed our books, we always feel that we aren’t quite up to muster. Dawn of the Demontide was the first time I sat back after a first draft and thought, you know what? This is actually pretty good!

5. What has been the hardest part of the process?
Just keeping all the story in my head! By the time I got to writing the last book, I had over a hundred characters and a timeline that spanned 34,000 years of history! In the end it was like a carefully played game of chess, trying to get all the pieces into the right place and to provide a satisfying and dramatic conclusion to the story. By the time people read The Last Nightfall, they will have been journeying with these characters for something like 250,000 words and over 1,000 pages, so the pressure is on to give them a great denouement that ties up the loose ends in an exciting and unexpected way and that also has a real emotional punch. I’m really pleased with how the last book has panned out, so I hope the Witchfinder fans enjoy it.

6. Do you outline or make it up as you go along?
As I say, I do tend to plot things out, but never the entire story. I use an outline like one of those wooden supports or moulds that medieval builders used to employ when constructing cathedral arches – it’s there so that, in the early stages of story construction, the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down on top of me. As my confidence in the first draft grows, I gradually take that support away and continue building on my own. Many new writers who start out often have a great idea, and get 20 pages into their book only to come to a grinding halt. If you sit down and sketch out a rough plan first then that will never happen. But here’s the important thing – the outline should never be treated as a bible – a sacrosanct text that can’t be challenged or changed. It’s just there to get you started. Character is the god of story, and if you find that your characters don’t want to follow the outline then you should always stop and listen to them. That might sound a bit crazy, but good characters really do direct writers rather than the other way around.

7. What’s your daily writing routine?
I’m not a morning person. I read how other writers work – going out for a brisk walk at 5am and then writing 2,000 words before 10 o’clock. Bleurgh! Couldn’t do it. I get to my desk by 9 and spend an hour answering emails and doing admin work. Doing that kind of stuff gets my brain in gear. Then I grab a cup of strong tea and start writing. My rule is to write 2,000 words a day. I can do more, but never less. Writers are generally great procrastinators, so I think we need that discipline of a daily word target. Sometimes that means I’m done by 4pm, other times I’m still working at the midnight hour. If I’m editing then it’s a completely different kettle of fish. I tend of edit very quickly, just so I can keep the entire story in my head, so when I get notes back from my editor I’m often pulling 15 hour days to get those corrections done. It’s an exhausting but quite exhilarating process.

Part Two 


  1. This is a fantastic interview. I'm a real wossy when it comes to horror (blame Stephen King for that) so not sure if I could read the books, but the writing advice speaks to me. Thank you for this Dave and William Hussey.

  2. Brilliant interview, Dave! And thanks to William Hussey too. Never been a huge fan of horror, but am more and more inclined to read in the genre - will look out for Book 1 and see how scared I get!

  3. Great interview, Dave. 2000 words a day? I wish. See you soon Bill!

  4. Is that bit true about the caves? Really? True?

  5. Thanks for the comments folks. Glad you enjoyed this first part of the interview. All the credit goes to Bill for providing such great answers. My favourite is still to come though, so watch out for part 2!
    Candy – of course it's true! Are you suggesting I make things up?

  6. Great interview! I'm not a morning person either, so I write when I'm still in bed. No early morning jogs for me - no mid-morning, late-morning, or afternoon jogs for me either.

  7. I saved this as a treat after I'd finished work for the day - and what a treat - thanks both - must be more disciplined, must be more disciplined - must make a cup of tea....

  8. Tea's important Kathryn, an essential writer's tool … unlike jogging, Jackie, so don't worry on that count.