BackStory: Five Questions with Michelle Hemstedt

Illustration from The Devil in Britain and America (1896)

BackStory: Five Questions with Michelle Hemstedt
Author of The Essex Girl

What inspired you to write ‘The Essex Girl’?

I grew up in Witchfinder General country close to the Essex/Suffolk border. I went back to that part of the world recently for the first time in many years and was inspired to re-read some East Anglian history, including accounts of witch trials during the English Civil War. I found myself wondering what factors might tip a simple grudge against a neighbour over into a full-scale accusation of witchcraft.

Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?

Hilary Mantel, because I defy anyone not to fall in love with Thomas Cromwell as she depicts him and Ken Follett for his wonderful description of the construction of a great cathedral in The Pillars of the Earth and for his extraordinary Century Trilogy.

Were there any interesting facts, details, or turns of phrase that didn’t quite make the final piece?

I refer to this obliquely, but, in 1644, Christmas celebrations in England were officially cancelled. It was a hard winter, food supplies ran low, and the Civil War was showing no sign of ending. It must have felt like the bleakest of times, and that is what I have tried to convey.

If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?

My forebears were tailors who emigrated from Germany along with many others towards the end of the 19th century. I’d be fascinated to live through that period with them, to understand the thinking behind their journey and to experience the ups and downs of their new life in a foreign country. (It’s said that some people set out from the German coast thinking that they were going to America and never got further than north Essex…come to think of it, there has to be a short story in that idea alone).

What, if anything, do you have in common with your main character?

With the narrator – nothing. With Sarah – well, I like to think there is a bit of witch in all of us Essex girls!

Michelle Hemstedt lives on the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border and works in publishing and events. She is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and began writing flash fiction in 2018. She was shortlisted for the Bath Flash Fiction Prize in June 2018 and longlisted in October 2018.

Audio recording read by Ross Norman-Clarke.

Image from The Devil in Britain and America, 1896 from the Wellcome Collection, (CC-BY-4.0).  Caption: ‘In March 1644, he had some seven or eight of the horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree…’