Michelle Harrison | 'We’ve still got superstitions all around us and I love playing on that'

Michelle Harrison | 'We’ve still got superstitions all around us and I love playing on that'

A family curse trapped the three Widdershins sisters on the prison isle of Crowstone in A Pinch of Magic. The sequel, A Sprinkle of Sorcery, took them across the marshes and waves to a secret island not found on any map. In February, Simon & Schuster Children’s Books will publish the third Widdershins adventure, A Tangle of Spells, which sees the family move away to a new village.

“Pendlewick is very postcard-pretty on the surface,” Michelle Harrison tells me, speaking on the phone from her Essex home, “but upon scratching a little deeper, the sisters begin to find strange things”. There’s the “hungry tree”, rumoured to devour everything in its path, and standing stones, said to house the grave of a witch with a wooden leg. A curious spinning wheel thrums ominously in the village shop. And yet, the neighbours flinch at the mere mention of magic: “There’s a whole history of witchcraft in this village that people are trying to gloss over.”

The girls find a secret room in their new house and discover the diary of a girl called Ivy, who was suspected of being a witch. This gives Harrison the “story within a story”, a device that she loves to use in her work to add depth and extra layers of storytelling. As the air of foreboding builds, eldest sister Fliss succumbs to a strange enchantment, and it’s up to Betty and Charlie to break the dark hold over the village and to save their sister.

The theme of witchcraft is one that has long fascinated Harrison. “I’ve been steadily getting witchier and witchier with each book,” she laughs. “Those are the stories I love to read. It’s the unfairness, the terrifying things people used to do to these poor women.” From children’s books right through to adult fiction, there’s a current resurgence of interest in stories featuring witches, female power and persecution, and this, she believes, is no accident. “In some ways it feels that women’s rights are going backwards—the abortion laws in America, for example. We think the oppression of women is in the past, but actually you wonder if it could all happen again.”

Fairytales and folklore feature heavily in Harrison’s work, from the fairy quests of The Thirteen Treasures trilogy to the magical objects of the Widdershins stories. Pendlewick’s stories and superstitions reflect the rich tapestry of myths and legends found across the British Isles, stories that Harrison is always looking out for. “I’m a bit of a magpie,” she confesses, “I collect all of these little snippets and weave them into something else.” In A Tangle of Magic, Chambercombe Manor in Ilfracombe, Devon provided the inspiration for the Widdershins’ spooky new house. Repairs in the 18th century uncovered a secret room housing a skeletal woman, disturbing, it is said, a ghostly presence. A tree in Dublin, growing in such a way that it appears to “eat” the bench beneath it, was too good not to include. Harrison is fascinated by how resonant these stories remain. “There is still an element of belief there. We’ve still got these superstitions all around us and I love playing on that, getting the stories behind it.”

Getting schooled
The relationship and dynamics between the Widdershins sisters have proved to be just as strong a lure as the magic itself. Ironically, Harrison never intended the books to be about siblings; her original idea would have followed Betty’s adventures at witch school, and she thought a second title might feature completely new characters in the same magical world. It was only when she came up with the idea of a family curse that the sisters appeared. “I needed to give Betty a family, and because I’m one of three sisters, I thought, ‘I can do that’.”

Much of the charm is in how real these characters feel; their impatient bickering and fierce loyalties recognisable to anyone with a sibling. Do Harrison’s sisters see themselves in the characters, I ask? “Yes,” she admits, a little sheepishly. “I’ve just stolen their personalities really. It’s very much us.” Her biggest surprise in writing the Widdershins books is just how strongly readers have responded to Charlie, Betty and Fliss. “In my books, it’s always the plot that comes first and I work on the characters after. But I think I’ve learned how important the characters are, and I’ve tried to develop them.”

A voracious reader in childhood, Harrison resolved to become an author by the age of 12 or 13, learning her craft by penning short stories inspired by teen favourites such as Point Horror and Christopher Pike. “I was heavily influenced,” she recalls, “lots of best friends of serial killers.” Following a degree in illustration, she worked as a bookseller for Ottakar’s and Waterstones, and then as an editorial assistant at Oxford University Press, writing her début novel over seven years.

Her dark fairy tale adventure The Thirteen Treasures was published in 2008, and won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. Our industry is notoriously obsessed with shiny débuts, but I’m always interested to hear about what comes next in authors’ careers. Harrison wrote two sequels and several standalone titles, and although published to critical acclaim, sales were quieter. When she began work on A Pinch of Magic, her expectations were not particularly high. “You hope that every book is going to take off, but I was starting to feel like a bit of a one-book wonder,” she remembers. The book was hard work, involving several extensive edits, but it paid off.

Strong support
Simon & Schuster backed A Pinch of Magic heavily from the off, with an ambitious marketing campaign and beautiful design featuring Melissa Castrillon’s artwork. The book secured the influential Waterstones Children’s Book of the Month slot and was an instant hit, selling strongly across the whole trade. It became one of 2019’s bestselling children’s fiction titles, and was shortlisted for a British Book Award. Writing A Sprinkle of Sorcery was, she says, much more straightforward, but a combination of lockdown and the subsequent home-schooling of her children have made A Tangle of Spells a lengthier project. This autumn sees the launch of Harrison’s début young fiction
series Midnight Magic, published by Stripes in time for Halloween. Born out of her love for often unwanted black cats, it’s a spooky delight of a tale, starring a small girl called Trixie, her magical kitten Midnight, and Twiggy the broom. Written in rhyming verse and illustrated in purple hues by Elissa Elwick, two further titles are planned
for 2021.

And as for those Widdershins sisters? “Three books, three sisters... it would round it off,” she says, so hesitantly that it’s clear leaving this world and these characters behind will be no easy task. “I don’t know if I’m ready to finish it yet.”