‘History always saturates a landscape’: An Interview with Lucie McKnight Hardy — Thom Cuell

Lucie McKnight Hardy’s debut novel Water Shall Refuse Them is set during the 1976 summer heatwave. Nif, a teenage girl, relocates to a Welsh village with her fracturing family, who are trying to come to terms with the loss of her sister. Nif collects talismans which she believes will give her control over her situation if she unlocks the right invocation. However, her relationship with Mally, a young boy with his own set of rituals, threatens to disturb this sense of order. The novel was shortlisted for the Mslexia Novel Award 2017 and longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2018.

Lucie McKnight Hardy grew up in rural West Wales, the daughter of London immigrants. She grew up speaking Welsh and her education was in Welsh. She studied English at the University of Liverpool, studied creative writing with the OU, and has just completed the MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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What drew you to the summer of 1976, and the Welsh borders, as the setting for your story?

I know it’s easy to say ‘write about what you know,’ and sometimes that’s seen as a bit of a cliché, and the lazy option. But for a first novel, it struck me as a perfectly sensible thing to do. I grew up in a small, remote village in west Wales, and when I started writing Water Shall Refuse Them I was living in Herefordshire, close to the border with Wales. It made sense. There was no point me setting my novel in London, or a suburb of Edinburgh. Those aren’t the places I know.

When the idea for the book came to me, it was more of a visual thing than a cohesive plot. It summoned up the hazy days of summer: long days spent languishing in the sun, the torpor of the heat. I could picture the photographs of me and my sister as children, faded now, with that orangey tinge that old photos have.

A heatwave seemed the perfect setting, and what better than to experiment with subverting the usual tropes of the horror story—the cold, dark haunted house, for example—with the oppressive heat of the sun, and the threats and limitation placed on people by a drought?

For purely pragmatic reasons, setting the book in the 1970s  also gave me the opportunity to omit the internet and mobile phones from the book: they can really screw up a plotline.

History resonates through the novel, infusing the landscape and the people who inhabit it. It’s interesting that elsewhere in the country, punk is happening, the Jeremy Thorpe scandal has just come to a head, and there’s a new Prime Minister, but none of this touches on the inhabitants of the village Nif and her family come to, who are more influenced by events of the Great Plague than any current affairs. In the world of social media and 24 hour news, this feels impossibly distant, but did you find it important to present a way of life outside of that internet / big city bubble? And do you think the sense of historical place can linger on in the face of hyper modernity?

History always saturates a landscape. Even if it is invisible and intangible, it never leaves, and I think this is one of the themes of Water Shall Refuse Them: the undeniable influence of history on a place. The story of Mally’s ancestors resonates with Nif, even after several hundred years.

I think if I’d chosen to set the book in an urban environment, it would be (quite literally) a very different story: the outside world would have encroached on the narrative a lot more. It was important for me that the village where the family goes to stay is remote, and practically untouched by the outside world; they have no functioning TV or radio, and just to buy a newspaper requires them to leave the village. I wanted to create a timeless terrain, a backdrop against which human nature could play out. When writing any sort of historical fiction, it’s always tempting to run the gamut in terms of cultural references, but I was keen to downplay this, so the references to the 1970s are ones that Nif, the narrator, would be aware of—the music and TV of the time, for example—rather than the political environment. She’s a naïve sixteen-year-old; she cares more about David Bowie than she does about what’s in the news.

Do you see your novel fitting into the field of folk horror? What does that term mean for you?

When I set out to write it, I wasn’t trying to write a folk horror novel. I had a story I wanted to tell, and the genre was irrelevant at that point. As the story grew, it sort of knew that it was folk horror: it has a rural setting and deals with witchcraft and pagan rituals. It’s also been described as a literary thriller, and I think it possibly sits somewhere between these two genres.

When I first started writing the book, I thought it was going to be a haunted house story, but as it developed, it became clear to me that what I was writing about was people who were tormented. There’s a quote from the writer Joe Hill which really resonated with me, along the lines of, ‘It’s not the house that’s haunted, it’s the people,’ and I think this applies to Water Shall Refuse Them. Each of the main characters – Nif, her parents, Mally and his mother, are carrying some sort of grief or burden. They are all haunted by something which torments them and this is what drives the narrative.

It struck me that there were similarities between Nif’s primitive witchcraft and her father’s sculpture – both are attempting to create something which will give them a sense of control over their situation. Do you think that reflects how we use art and stories, to help us understand traumatic events?

I think that’s probably true. Nif creates the Creed in order to cope with her grief at her sister’s death and to impose some sort of order on her life; Clive’s obsession with the bust of Linda is suggestive of his need to halt the deterioration of his marriage. In both cases, they create something which is theirs alone, something they possess, and I think to some extent, this is part of the healing process.

Both Nif and Mally show signs of trauma, alternately developing coping strategies and acting out. Was the way that children deal with grief something that you wanted to address from the start?

To be honest with you, no it wasn’t. It’s not something I have very much experience of and there are people much better qualified than me to address this. The strategies that the characters developed, and their acquisition and conducting of rituals, came about organically during the writing process—it was a result of me trying to grasp how a child would attempt to understand something beyond their comprehension.

In the novel’s subplot, we see the way that Mally’s mother Janet, as an outsider, a single mother, unconventional and extremely visible in her bright clothes, is singled out for hostility by the village. Did you see parallels between the treatment of figures like Janet, and historical witch hunts against unconventional or independent women?

Absolutely. Historically, women who were in control of their own sexuality, and who didn’t allow it to be subjugated by men, have been ostracised, victimised and worse. I don’t claim to be an expert on witchcraft (in fact, it was important that I didn’t come to the book with any great knowledge base, as Nif’s Creed had to be her own creation), but in mediaeval times some (male) academics believed that women were more susceptible to assault by the devil because of their increased sexual appetites, and that lustful and libidinous behaviour made them more prone to evil thoughts and actions, and ultimately the practice of witchcraft. One mediaeval scholar posited the theory that there were physiological reasons for this: the womb was cold and therefore craved the warmth of a man’s semen!

In my book, Janet is strong-willed and independent. She is flagrant in flaunting her sexuality, and refuses to be dominated by the male villagers (the ones who wield the power). As a result, she is branded a witch. The epigraph for my book, taken from The Hammer of Witches – ‘All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable’ – is included as a slightly tongue-in cheek suggestion of what is to come.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that you’d been drawn to independent presses when you were looking for a publisher. What was it that made you look towards smaller publishers?

Independent publishers are, by their nature, freer to take risks with new authors. They don’t have thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of pounds to spend on a marketing campaign for a new book, so they have to be more innovative and nimble on their feet. Dead Ink, who are publishing my novel, are forward-thinking and unconventional: their slogan is ‘Publishing the underground’. While the big five publishers must all keep an eye on their shareholders’ profits (largely by following and predicting trends in publishing), independent presses have more freedom to publish less mainstream fiction. As a debut author, it seemed to me like the perfect fit.

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

An eternal pot of coffee. Cats, dogs, chickens. And husband and children, of course.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

Not that long ago, I mentioned to Nicholas Royle that I’d lived in Zurich for a few years in the early years of the new millennium. Nick is a celebrated writer and translator of short stories and novels, and I was very lucky to have him as my supervisor on my MA. He sent me a copy of the short story ‘Zurich’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, and I thought it was amazing. It is a portrait—not only of the city, but also of the people—that depicts it in all its antiseptic glory. There is also a deep fondness there that I share for Zurich: it describes in brilliant intimacy the streets around the main station—Hauptbahnhoff—and the churches, and the Alps peering over the end of the lake. All in all, an affectionate and detailed portrait of a city I love.


Featured Image: Curlews by Strion, used under Creative Commons license