After I moved from the US to England to follow my then boyfriend (it was planned, not stalking), we lived in a story-book cottage on the edge of a village next to a farm. There was a huge, skinny, balding black and white cat hanging around the periphery of our yard, who bolted every time I stepped outside. I thought it was feral. Then one day, when I was weeding, he came up to me, then wouldn’t leave my side. In this village, where everyone gossiped about each other’s cats (really) no one knew who’s he was, although they all had stories of his stealing food—even taking a bite of an unattended Christmas turkey. He decided to stay with us. With no other explanation, my husband decided he must have fallen off a witch’s broom as she flew over the field next door.
During this same time, I was working as a child psychologist for the National Health Services in outer London, including with a number of kids in foster care, as I had in previous jobs in the US. Getting to know kids in foster care is always moving. Imagine knowing the people taking care of you can toss you back, if you become too much. Or going to a meeting with a room full of grownups deciding your fate. Or being at school and someone telling you, you are going home to a different foster family, and you don’t even get to say goodbye to the people you left that morning. Or at eighteen, aging out of the system, with nowhere to go for holidays, or advice, or company.
Rachel Hollingsworth (Ratchet) is fictitious, as are the details of her life. The heart of the story is her journey from shunning human bonds, given how painful attachments have been in the past, to her slowly letting some plates of armour slip away, letting love in.
This all happens within an historical fantasy, with a fast paced plot, and that is funny in places. Ratchet thinks she wants her independence and runs away. But she doesn’t know she’s a witch, and with her powers out of control she accidentally travels back in time to 1645 England, in the midst of the Essex Witch Trials when hundreds of poor, disenfranchised women were executed for ‘witchcrafte’. With her spiky hair, jeans (women didn’t wear pants, and zippers weren’t for another 250 years), and having a cat with her (Oscar was transported with her), she’s thrown in jail. There she awaits trial with other real life historical victims. You get to know these unlucky souls, along with what life was like during the English civil wars through the eyes of this stroppy fourteen-year-old.
We had been visiting friends in Turkey when I was in the midst of writing the novel. Although I had a full outline of the plot, as is my habit, I wasn’t happy with it. I thought it needed more zip. Then one morning when I woke up in our friends’ apartment overlooking the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul, it clicked. While facing execution, but with her powers still out of control, instead of coming back to modern London, she remains in 1645, but transports to Istanbul.
I promptly inhaled material on Ottoman history. This presented a fascinating comparison to life in the rest of Europe during this time which was a fear- and disease-ridden backwater. Women, and most men, had few if any rights. Xenophobia was codified in law, and half the population did not live past sixteen. But in Istanbul, there was hot and cold running water, all sorts of social nets for the poor and hungry (they had free hospitals for people and animals), and women could own business and bring cases to court. In fact, quite a few women fled Europe for a life in the Ottoman Empire, often on their own.
Life in Istanbul is great. Maybe running away was the right thing after all. She’s gaining control of her skills, and she becomes a sought-after fortune teller. She’s not sure she wants to return to modern London. She’s offered the chance to read the Sultan’s wife’s future. How could she resist—a poor foster kid now invited to one of the worlds’ most amazing palaces? But it turns out the Sultana has another, deadly job in mind for Ratchet. And if she doesn’t do it, the very people she started to let in, to become attached to, will be killed. Talk about a rock and a hard place.
Writing Ratchet was an immense joy. I love the combination of developing the characters, plot and applying information from research, which I also adore (I used to work in neuroscience research). My next book is out now, too—a middle-grade novel set in suburban Washington, D.C., Oswald, the Almost Famous Opossum. Other novels are in the works, too, both for kids and adults.