I’m delighted to welcome Anya Bergman to the blog today. Her book The Witches of Vardø was published by Manilla Press last week and sounds amazing! She’s here to tell us #TenThings about the book and it’s a fascinating read.
- I lived in Norway for six years and travelled twice to the tiny island of Vardø above the arctic circle to research the witch trials. I went once in mid-winter to get a sense of how the island felt at that time of year. Although I was used to ice and darkness living in Bergen, the island of Vardø was on a whole other level! I experienced snowy blizzards, 24 hours darkness, and the otherworldly spectacle of the northern lights. I visited the Steilneset Memorial to the victims of the witch trials on the execution sight. From this place, the sea crashes onto the shore and you can see the outline of Domen Mountain on the mainland where the Devil was supposed to have dwelled. I returned to the Varanger Peninsula in the mid-summer driving through the villages where the accused women would have lived. With 24 hours of daylight and the midnight sun, it was hard to sleep with the never-ending screeching of sea birds. I understood why the women accused of witchcraft were believed to turn into birds and stir up storms.
- I have been researching The Witches of Vardø for nearly ten years. I became obsessed to the point I would have nightmares that I was stuck in the Witches Hole with the other women, and I would wake up in terror. When I felt like giving up, I would recite all the names of the victims to remind myself of why I was writing the book.
- Nearly all the characters in the book are inspired by real people who lived at that time. It was important to me to raise the voices of the accused with tenderness but at the same time I also wanted to point the finger at those to blame such as Governor Orning and King Frederick of Denmark.
- Anna Rhodius was a real Danish women exiled to Vardø for being outspoken and confrontation. She was blamed for coercing the women to confess to witchcraft. But I sniffed a rat. This was all very convenient for the patriarchal historical approach. I decided to reappraise this very unpopular character. At the same time, I noted Anna would likely have been going through menopause when she was exiled to Vardø. This gave me the idea to write from the point of view of a menopausal protagonist and create a real menopausal woman in fiction rather than a stereotype.
- There is good reason for the Scottish Bailiff Lockhart in The Witches of Vardø because Scotland and Norway were closely linked during the period of witch trials. James VI of Scotland was the brother-in-law of the Danish King Christian IV (who was the father of Frederick III.) These two Kings were equally obsessed with witches, and when James VI’s bride Ann of Denmark’s ship was delayed by storms James VI used this as an excuse to inflame witch hunts in Scotland. In 1621, a Scottish Governor was set up in Vardø, and he instigated the first witch hunts in the region. I wanted to highlight this connection between the two countries in the novel as both regions had such brutal witch hunts.
- It was very important to me to include Sámi characters in The Witches of Vardø because they were the indigenous people living in Finnmark and made up most of the population. The Christian settlers were suspicious of their religion and believed they were in league with the Devil. I had to be careful not to speak for the Sámi but at the same time I wanted to highlight their culture and how they had been oppressed by colonisation. This was why I worked with a Sámi sensitivity reader to make sure I didn’t write anything which would misrepresent their rich culture.
- While the subject matter of The Witches of Vardø is about witch hunts, the intention behind the book is one of empowerment. This is why there is a thread of magic realism in the narrative, and old folktales. My purpose was to liberate the women of Vardø from the trauma of the witch hunts through these elements.
- All the ‘confessions’ of those accused of witchcraft in my novel are based on real trial testimony which still exists in records in Finnmark. I was able to read them in translation in Professor Liv Helene Willumsen’s book, The Witchcraft Trials in Finnmark Northern Norway which I would recommend if you wanted to know more about the history of the trials. It blew my mind to read the words of these accused women nearly 360 years later.
- My next novel is about two very different women set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Being Irish, I have always been fascinated by the Great Rebellion in Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century and its links with the French Revolution. Many Irish went over to France to become involved – did you know the first person to storm the Bastille was supposed to be an Irishman? So this story brings together the time of the French Revolution and the lead up to the Great Rebellion in Ireland. While The Witches of Vardø focused on empowerment for its female protagonists, my next book is about independence and sisterhood, with a rich seam of magic realism of course.
- I would love to write a sequel to The Witches of Vardø too. Without giving away any spoilers, there’s one character who has more story to tell. Anyone else want more?
About the book
They will have justice. They will show their power. They will not burn.
Norway, 1662. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. After recently widowed Zigri’s affair with the local merchant is discovered, she is sent to the fortress at Vardø to be tried as a witch.
Zigri’s daughter Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to try to bring her mother back home. Accompanying her on this quest is Maren – herself the daughter of a witch – whose wild nature and unconquerable spirit gives Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family.
Also captive in the fortress is Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark’s mistress, who has been sent in disgrace to the island of Vardø. What will she do – and who will she betray – to return to her privileged life at court?
These Witches of Vardø are stronger than even the King. In an age weighted against them, they refuse to be victims. They will have their justice. All they need do is show their power.
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