By Leslie Lindsay
A chilling tale set on a remote Scottish island, THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES has suspense, supernatural elements, and historical references for a delicious fall season of reading.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK|FICTION FRIDAY
Leslie Lindsay & C.J. Cooke in conversation
CJ Cooke grew up on a council estate in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She started writing at the age of 7 and pestered publishers for years with manuscripts typed on her grandparents’ old Remington typewriter and cover notes written on pages ripped from school notebooks. Her debut, The Guardian Angel’s Journal, was an international bestseller. She has published two poetry collections, a creative anthology (Writing Motherhood) and her sixth novel, The Lighthouse Witches, published October 5 2021 in the U.S.
ABOUT THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES:
A spellbinding read about witches, mother-daughter relationships, folklore, and even the human impact on nature, THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES by C.J. Cooke is an exploration of reinvention and what it means to be a family.
One of PopSugar’s “10 New Books About Witches Are Utterly Spellbinding”
Traversing several time periods and perspectives, THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES delves into a dark, mostly unknown past in Scotland, beginning with single mother Liv (Olivia) in 1998, when she relocates to the East Highland island, Lon Havenwith her three daughters. Liv is an artist commissioned to paint a mural on the inside of a crumbling lighthouse. It just might be the opportunity she and her daughters need to start fresh. But when two of her daughters go missing, she’s frantic. Plus, the place has left a lot to be desired. Liv learns of a dark past of supposed witches being tortured in the basement of the lighthouse, a prison of sorts for women. Locals warn Liv about wildlings, supernatural beings mimicking human children created by witches for revenge.
‘Right from the start, I was hooked on this eerie, cryptic novel. I don’t know how C.J. Cooke does it, but every time I pick up one of her books, I can’t stop reading until the last page’
–Samantha Downing, Sunday Times bestselling author of My Lovely Wife
Over twenty years later, Luna has been searching for her missing sisters and more information about their presumed dead mother. She receives a call that one of her sisters has been found and of course, she’s ecstatic, but also wary. The child they have discovered is only seven years old; she should be twenty-nine. But she seems so much like the sister she once knew and loved…unless she’s a wilding?Together, Luna and and her sister return to Lon Haven to discover the truth.
One of BookRiot’s “8 Horror Books About Witches That Are Truly Scary”
I found the story fascinating, incorporating so many of my passions and interests: art, folklore, Scotland, lighthouses, history, and the added creepiness of a witch hunt. Cooke does a marvelous job of sharing setting in such a warm, tactile manner. Her descriptions of the island, while bleak in content, were fully formed and tangible, from the cuppa to scones, the fireplaces and crashing waves. I was immediately intrigued with the area and found myself googling imagery and curious if there was an actual lighthouse she based this on.
Readers will need to know there is a bit of suspended belief in THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES and the story doesn’t flow linearly; I found this part of the puzzle and that it added to its charm.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented C.J. Cooke to the author interview series:
C.J., I am so taken with the setting of THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES. I love the craggy rocks, the blistering wind, the roaring waves, but also that crumbling old lighthouse, the crofts and bothies. In fact, I had to look some things up so I had a good visual of these places. First, is Lon Haven real or a fictional island? Also, how do you see setting as shaping the overall narrative?
Thanks so much for having me! I love creating fictional landscapes that combine elements of places that have left an impression on me. Lòn Haven is a fictional island, but I did visit several of Scotland’s 900 islands to help me imagine what it would be like. I spent time of the Isle of Bute, which actually isn’t too far from where I live, and where I stayed in a lighthouse cottage. I also visited the Isle of Skye and the Isle of Arran – where I got stranded! It was actually quite a good experience, as Arran is absolutely beautiful, and it helped me gain an appreciation of the realities of island life. I’m attracted to super remote islands, such as Foula Island, where only 30 people live and they follow a different calendar to the rest of us. I’m very curious about the potential such islands hold for a different, and perhaps better, way of life. With each book I become more dedicated to finding a way to utilize the setting as another mechanism to drive the narrative forward, and also as a way to achieve the emotional and psychological tone of the book. I also love the histories and psychogeographies a setting can achieve – as a writer, place offers me a palette to work with, and a way of forging connections with different registers to create not one but many different stories.
Maybe we should back up a bit—I always want to know what haunted authors into their manuscript. And THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES definitely has an element of haunting. What inspired it?
‘Haunted into their manuscript’ – I love that. I think we all are haunted by certain things, or at least certain things remain in our subconsciousness whilst others slip away. First and foremost, I’m dedicated to writing about women’s lives, and I think that when I moved to Scotland and heard about the Scottish Witch Trials I felt compelled to find a way to write about it, and the more I researched, the more I found that the histories of the women affected by the witch hunts here were filled with silences and erasure. I also found myself over and over drawing comparisons between the events of the 1600s and the 21st century. For example, the word ‘witch’ is still gendered, and still used to disparage women. Of course, the book isn’t just about witches, and I suppose the themes of motherhood and sisterhood and loss emerge from my own hauntings.
What a very eerie and topical time of year for witches. Are they real, in your opinion? What is it about the idea of witches that either fascinates or repels?
It would be wrong to say that the people who were accused of witchcraft were witches – of course, they were just ordinary men, women, and children, tortured and held in prison, sometimes for five years, until they ‘confessed’ to witchcraft, for which they were executed. I like to believe in a little bit of magic, though – witchcraft is having a lovely revival, and I’m fascinated by the connection between humans and nature, which feels ancient and full of benevolent wisdom.
I found some odd similarities between the witch trials of the 1600s and well…today. In fact, much of Amy’s story sort of echoes with current events. Can you talk about that, please?
Amy is named after a woman who was executed for witchcraft on the Isle of Bute in 1662. There isn’t much more than her name recorded in the Highland Papers, but other historical data indicates that she most likely met the same fate as the other four thousand men, women, and children who were accused of witchcraft during that era. 84% of the people killed in Scotland were women, and indeed King James VI – who saw himself as an enemy to Satan – perceived women as more ‘susceptible’ to demonic possession. I find it striking that, in the 21st century, society continues to blame and punish women for crimes committed by men. For instance, when a woman is murdered by a man while walking alone, women are told not to walk alone, as though we are somehow responsible for being murdered. When I was growing up, I remember being told how to avoid being raped. The blaming of women is part of a perpetuating narrative that I’m keen to change. I also found it interesting that the social context of Amy’s time echoes in the present. We’re seeing a revival of the cries of heresy that underpinned the witch trials back in the 1600s. If history is to teach us anything, it’s that we must champion freedom of speech, and freedom of thought. The alternative leads to witch hunts.
‘A gripping modern gothic thriller that is also a haunting depiction of witch trials, it is a wonderfully atmospheric and compelling novel’
Rosamund Lupton, Sunday Times bestselling author of Three Hours
There’s a line or two in THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES that really struck me…about limpets and how they leave a mark on a rock that they ‘know’ and return to time and again. It’s called a ‘home scar.’ Can you talk about that, please? And also, do you mind elaborating on this nebulous concept of time, how we move to exactly where we are needed, maybe without even realizing it. [Here in the U.S. there’s a new TV show, ORDINARY JOE, exploring this concept).
Oh, I’m so glad you asked about this. My friend, the wonderful Shetland-based poet Jen Hadfield, taught me about the home scar. She collects limpets and writes about them in her poetry collection Byssus. We used to share limpets that we collected on our respective beaches, when I lived in Whitley Bay (north-east England). Limpets have no brain, or eyes, but they move around during the day and can always find their way back to their original position on the rock, which they carve with their shell so that they can fit tight to the spot. This spot is called the ‘home scar’. It’s a mystery and a beautiful concept wrapped in one – the mystery of the limpets being able to locate their home, and their ‘home’ being a place that they have scarred into the rock for themselves.
The idea of home is very important to me – I grew up in a violent household and was generally scared to go home, so now, as an adult, I never, ever take my (peaceful, love-filled) home for granted. The home I have is not the place where I was born, but a place I’ve adopted, and that idea of carving yourself into a place that ‘fits’ you is very resonant. And without giving too much away, time is a very important concept in the book, in various ways.
In general, I like to think there is an order to time, that it does heal, and that perhaps we do manifest or attract our fates somehow.
Before we go, I am so intrigued with your work at the University of Glasgow, where you research the impact of motherhood on women’s writing and creative writing interventions for mental health. In my first career, I was a child/adolescent psych R.N. and have a very strong interest in maternal mental health. I’d love to know more about your research.
How fascinating! I’ve researched ways that writing can be both beneficial and detrimental to mental wellbeing – long before I was conscious of it, I was writing to process trauma. But I did so within a fictional framework, which is to say that I wasn’t writing directly about my trauma, but was utilizing the tools of fiction to work things out in a way that felt safe and controlled. I was writing my own narrative, so to speak, which felt empowering, and so I kept at it for years, until I became good enough to be published. Conversely, research shows that if, for example, a person struggling with trauma is encouraged to write about it, their trauma might become compounded. In short, it’s important to ensure that writing is facilitated in such a way that it empowers the writer and allows them to feel safe. Fiction and poetry are good frameworks within which to allow the subconscious to say both what it wants to say and how it wants to say it. This applies to mothers, too – birth and pregnancy can be enormously traumatic, and because both are usually portrayed socially as celebratory, joyful experiences, a new mother can easily feel uncomfortable expressing anything that seems unjoyful or celebratory, even if the birth has been traumatic. Writing can provide a safe space in which to express these emotions, and so it’s an important tool to offer to anyone to work through trauma. There is another benefit, which lies in perceiving oneself as a writer, or as someone who creates. You don’t have to be published to be a writer. Anyone who writes is a writer! And it’s astonishing how simple this fact is, and yet how significantly this new identification can alter one’s self-perception for the better.
C.J., this has been so delightful and I learned a ton. Thank you! What should I have asked, but may have forgotten?
I’m glad to hear it. Thank you for having me, Leslie. Your questions were fantastic.
For more information, to connect with C.J. Cooke, or to purchase a copy of THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES, please visit:
- Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
- This title may also be available through other online sellers.
You might also like:
I was reminded, in part, of Carol Goodman’s THE OTHER MOTHER meets with a touch of Chris Bohjalian’s THE HOUR OF THE WITCH , THE PATRON SAINT OF PREGNANT GIRLS (Ursula Hegi), and LITTLE DARLINGS (Melanie Golding). For further reading, Jen Hadfield’s BYSSUS.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
CJ Cooke, also known as Carolyn Jess-Cooke, grew up on a council estate in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of the Troubles. She started writing at the age of 7 and pestered publishers for many years with manuscripts typed on her grandparents’ old typewriter and cover notes written on pages ripped from school jotters.
Since then, she has published 12 works in 23 languages and won numerous awards, including an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors, a Tyrone Guthrie Prize, a K Blundell Award, and she has won a Northern Writer’s Award three times. In 2011, her debut novel, The Guardian Angel’s Journal, was published by Little, Brown. The novel was an international bestseller. Her second novel, The Boy Who Could See Demons (2012), is now a cult classic. Her sixth novel, The Lighthouse Witches, is published in September 2021, and her third poetry collection, We Have to Leave the Earth, is published in October 2021. CJ’s work is concerned with trauma, motherhood, grief, and social justice.
CJ holds a BA (Hons), MA, and PhD from Queen’s University, Belfast, and commenced her academic career in 2005 as a Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sunderland. Shortly thereafter, she published four academic works in swift succession on Shakespearean Cinema and Film Sequels, before establishing her career as a poet, editor, and novelist. Now Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, CJ convenes the prestigious MLitt Creative Writing and researches ways that creative writing can help with trauma and mental health. She is also the founder and director of the Stay-at-Home! Literary Festival, which is dedicated to providing people with accessible, inclusive, and eco-friendly ways to access literature. She has four children and lives with her family in Glasgow, Scotland.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.