Thursday 11 October 2018

History, Hearsay and Heresy – an interview with Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham

Folklore Thursday has become a weekly highlight for well over 30,000 'followers' around the world. The twitter feed regularly breaks the internet - well not literally, but it does often hit the limit of 2,400 tweets per day, that is roughly a speed of 100 tweets per-hour… 

It all started back in 2015 and within a year it became one of the fastest growing hashtags, attracting the attention of the national press with articles in The Independent and on the BBC… It is a social media success story built on love, not money, by a small group of friends dedicated to the gathering, sharing and preserving of folklore from around the world. The Folklore Thursday webzine has grown into the hub of a global community and whilst its content may be great fun to browse, it has also become and invaluable repository of folklore wit and wisdom…

So, what is folklore and why are we still fascinating with it in our modern high-tech world? The stories we want to see and hear again and again, in best-selling novels and blockbuster movies, more often than not, have their roots in the traditional age-old tales re-told down the generations. Knowingly or inadvertently, most horror and fantasy writers are drawing upon folklore. Folklore begins as a way of preserving ideas and knowledge but, a little like Chinese whispers, often gets weirder and more interesting through the ages.

In this extended Brought to Book special for The Scrawl, Remy Dean, an occasional contributor to the Folklore Thursday webzine himself, talks to its co-founders, Dee Dee Chainey (above left) and Willow Winsham (right), both popular writers with academic backgrounds and an evident enduring enthusiasm for folklore…

Dee Dee is the author of A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe, which was published by National Trust Books earlier this year, and Willow’s second book on the history of witches, England's Witchcraft Trials, is out now in paperback.

REMY: Hello Dee Dee and Willow! Can you introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your backgrounds?

DEE DEE: Hi, great to talk to you today, I’m co-founder of the Twitter hashtag day, #FolkloreThursday, and the associated website, which we like to call an online magazine. I’m also a writer, mostly working on folklore projects.

Before my work in writing and folklore, I was actually a heritage education manager, working in schools, and also with charities and museums. One of my favourite projects was working with the Liverpool International Nordic Community, a local cultural heritage initiative which involved promoting Scandinavian heritage within Liverpool schools and the wider community, since a huge number of people from all over Scandinavia settled in the region as it was a port, and there’s a long history of Viking links too. The other was as outdoor education manager for a forest school – it was a lovely place, based on the Scandinavian nursery model, so we spent most of our days outside in the forest garden and woodlands looking at all kinds of heritage: tangible, cultural and natural. A good few years ago now, I injured my knee while walking and ended up with a long-term injury, which meant I couldn’t do any active, outdoor work for around two years. All things have an upside though, as this is what led me to refocus on writing – things usually work out in the end!

WILLOW: Writing-wise, I’ve been scribbling down stories and things that caught my interest since I can remember; my first epic written at the age of five charting the adventures of Cat and Dog has been lost to time, which is probably for the best!

Later on, due to some really inspiring history teachers at school, I developed a passion for the subject, but never saw it as more than a hobby, despite taking two history courses at college. I was all set to start a Social Work degree but had a change of heart at the last moment – I took a year out to travel, then enrolled on a history degree programme and, academically, never looked back.

After uni, I worked with adults and children with autism and other special needs, but continued to write and research in my 'spare-time'. After leaving work when my daughter was born, I realized writing was what I really wanted to do, and have spent the best part of the last decade slowly but surely making that a reality!

REMY: What were the first books you can remember reading that really grabbed you and carried you along?

DEE DEE: I’d have to say a group of books: the Ladybird series of fairy tales. I remember reading those, and having them read to me, when I was really small. Two of my favourites were The Tinder Box and The Little Mermaid. I was fascinated by the hidden rooms under the tree in the first, and the ‘Daughters of Air’ in the latter. Strange, the things that grab you as a child and stay with you!

WILLOW: My first favourite reads as a child were the Ladybird fairy tale books, too! Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood... I had them read to me, over and over, and continued to read them when I could do so myself. The illustrations have stuck with me for years, and I’ve managed to track down some of the same editions to share with my own children.

REMY: Do you have an all-time favourite book, or one that you have re-read a few times?

WILLOW: Now that is a hard one! If I had to pick just one, it would probably have to be Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It’s the book I’ve read most out of any, and I’ve come back to it over and over again throughout the years. It’s my reading equivalent of comfort food! The message I took from it as a child was that girls and women should strive to be and do whatever they want and shouldn’t be held back by expectations – later on, discovering a little more of the struggles the author faced throughout her life, that central message became all the more poignant, and one I never forgot. I’m Looking forward to my daughter reading it when she’s ready, and the boys too!

DEE DEE: Yes, a really difficult one! A few that I’ve read as an adult come to mind, but I’d be hard pushed to choose just one, since they’re all so different. I seem to keep buying copies of Dolmens for the Dead, and I think Lefebvre’s The Production of Space is just incredible; I also love His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle...

My favourite as a child was The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – I was just entranced by the idea that you could pop your head up at the top of the tree and be in a different land each time. I think I’ve probably carried that idea with me through life, and maybe taken it a little too far – I’ve lived in so many places, and travelled around for such long periods, it does seem a little like living up at the top of the Faraway Tree sometimes! I think books do really change your way of thinking, and can really define so many things about a person and their life. You can learn so much about someone – their dreams and fears – from the books they read.

REMY: What recent books have you read and thoroughly enjoyed?

DEE DEE: That’s also really difficult! I tend to read different types of books at once, at different times of day. One I’ve just finished – my evening and weekend reading – was Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley, a novel set in Suffolk, just before the Second World War. It’s a tale of how a rural community deals with changing times, the gradual disappearance of traditional culture, and how folk culture can be appropriated by certain unsavoury ideologies. Really brilliant stuff. My morning reading is currently Shanon Sinn’s The Haunting of Vancouver Island. It’s a series of ghost stories, written from a research angle and looking at the historical perspective, but the thing I like most about it is how it gives an insight into such different landscapes and cultures from those in Britain, from First Nations history to the colonisation of British Columbia. It’s also surprisingly spiritual.

WILLOW: I’ve recently finished two books. The first was Swansong by Kerry Andrew. It follows a young woman, Polly, who is attempting to escape her demons by taking a trip to the highlands of Scotland. What she doesn’t count on however is becoming entangled in a web of myth, folklore and legend in an increasingly terrifying chain of events that unfolds around her. I won’t spoil the ending, but you won’t be disappointed – my only complaint is I lost a lot of sleep as I couldn’t bring myself to put it down several nights in a row!

On the non-fiction front was Ghosts of Wales by Mark Rees. It is a superb look at tales of ghosts and haunting from the Victorian archives, and Mark’s depth of research and knowledge, along with his passion for the subject, really shines through. Definitely one for anyone with an interest in things that go bump in the night!

REMY: Who have been your favourite authors, and what have you learnt from them?

DEE DEE: I love fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, but also Terry Pratchett – mostly for the magic in their writing, but also their skill with making the language twist and turn in such clever ways. My favourite non-fiction author has to be Aubrey Burl, as he delves into the world of archaeology, something which can be really dry if done badly, and he keeps it all so factual and sensible while still imbuing the world with such magic. So timeless.

In terms of what I’ve learnt from them, I’d say for sure that even facts can have feeling, and need to be put in a social, personal and emotional framework – that’s the only thing that makes writing unique. And to never be afraid to put yourself in your writing – to bend the rules and try new ways of doing things – that’s the only way to find your authentic voice and say something that matters.

WILLOW: Another tough one to call, but Enid Blyton definitely has to be on the list; I devoured many of her books as a child, and I think those instilled a love for adventure and the magical in writing – along with the importance of a good midnight feast!

More recently, Ben Aaronovitch is a firm favourite – as well as writing a cracking series filled with folkloric references, he is a master at peppering seemingly innocuous clues throughout his work that then turn out to be major plot points later on.

Green Man illustration by Joe McLaren
from A Treasury of British Folklore
by Dee Dee Chainey

REMY: Do you have writing rituals, or a tried and tested process?

DEE DEE: I write every day since it’s my day job, but I think the thing I’d have to say is constantly reminding myself that 70% of writing is in the editing, so the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. If you aim for perfection your writing is always stilted, and often never finished.

I tend to write things twice: a dry, factual version just to get down my ideas and the bits and pieces that need to go in – but always read your sources first, and then write; you can check the facts later. This way your writing is more natural, and you emphasise the bits that stuck with you, rather than merely rewriting your sources bit by bit!

Then I go back and rewrite it in a more ‘human’ way, and try to add-in how I really feel about the topic, which I hope brings a little more emotion and magic to my writing – I think it’s important to always try to write with honesty and passion. Who wants to read something that doesn’t really say anything about the world, or why your topic is worth writing or reading about?

WILLOW: One thing I have learned over the years is that waiting for the “right” moment to write really doesn’t work for me! Especially since becoming a mother I’ve really had to hone the ability to snatch any little moment that presents itself, for instance, while my toddler naps, and my big two are doing their maths work. I’ll often email ideas or rough paragraphs to myself on my phone when on the bus or the kids are at a class. I’m a firm believer in the throw words at the page approach. If you have something down – anything – you have something to work with and mould and tidy later. There is nothing more daunting than the blank page!

REMY: What motivates you to write?

WILLOW: It sounds utterly cliched but it’s true – I don’t think I could not write? If I had no way of recording them, I would just write the words in my head! Some people knit, or make cards, or paint – my creative outlet is - crafting words - which is lucky really, because I am utterly terrible at making anything with my hands!

There are days, obviously, when it’s harder to get those words down on the page than others. At those times, the satisfaction of seeing a piece of writing grow and take shape as it edges towards completion spurs me on – being able to fashion the words into something that is meaningful and enjoyable to other people is a lovely motivation when things are tough.

DEE DEE: Hmm, difficult! I’m one of those people who is always thinking a million things at once, I often say I have 8 different thought tracks running in my head at once (although I’ll admit at least track 8 is gibberish!) I tend to constantly analyse things, and make connections, while also thinking about some sort of myth or strange place I read about, with a whole track dedicated to cake and what I’m having for dinner. I’ve always told myself stories as I‘m walking, or even pottering round the house, whether it’s about the landscape I’m in, or just watching ideas lead on to the next like tree branches. It’s probably just a natural thing to put those down on paper, to capture them, and also to take some of the things out of my head – once I’ve written them down I can file them away to be used later and then forget about them. I actually have tens of Trello boards with different themes for snippets and ideas that I come across. It’s a great way of mapping the ideas, and physically dragging them round to make different patterns and connections. I used to use post-it notes, but I can’t always read my own handwriting! Did that even answer the question? I’ve probably jumped from track three to six without realising – it tends to happen a lot!

REMY: What are you working on at the moment?

DEE DEE: Are we letting the cat out of the bag yet Willow? I’m assuming we’re not! What I can say is that we’re working on a project together at the moment, and we’re very excited about it, so watch this space!

WILLOW: As Dee says, we’re keeping quiet on our joint endeavour for a while longer!

DEE DEE: I’m also putting something together myself about folklore and landscape. Again, it’s too early to say too much, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, and I’m finally getting round to it!

REMY: Can you tell us about your involvement with Folklore Thursday and how that came about?

DEE DEE: I think it probably came about from Willow and I spending too much time thinking about folklore in all honesty! We were on Twitter, joking about running off to the Efteling fairy tale theme park. That got us thinking about how, while there were quite a few existing hashtags to share general tales and writing, there was no central place to share or find out about folklore. We just decided to create that place, as we knew a lot of people on Twitter were already passionate about it. We were surprised how much it took off, but pleased, obviously!

WILLOW: Founding #FolkloreThursday with Dee Dee was one of those happy accidents that you look back on years later and can’t imagine things being any different. As she’s already explained, the idea came about from an initial conversation, and since then the project has developed and thrived in a quite thrilling fashion. It still amazes me daily how many people take part and the huge show of enthusiasm and support the hashtag has received over the last three years – we are looking forward to hopefully many more to come!


You have written A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe for the National Trust – how did that come about?

I did! They actually emailed me, and asked if I knew anyone that might like to write it. I replied with: I would! Luckily, they didn’t see that as too churlish, and seemed quite happy with the idea, so the project went from there.

A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Cainey
(click image for preview or to purchase)

Why do you think people are so interested in folklore? …and becoming more interested, it seems!

I think folklore really taps in to something primal in all of us. We are often told stories from when we’re tiny, so I think hearing folk and fairy tales can be quite comforting in one sense. I also think the symbolism and tales really tap in to something that we all share, and teach us the social norms of our own cultures and humanity as a whole – it’s a way of learning the do’s and don’ts of life, and we all like a bit of drama with that!

There are also many other types of folklore too, like foodways and crafts, and I think people still love those. Often recipes are something that are passed through families, or are specific to a region or town. Because of that they really tie us to other people, and even bring back memories of ‘our gran’s pies’, or ‘granddad’s stew’, and when we cook them for ourselves it’s an opportunity to share that cooking with other people, and then share the food we’ve prepared (my favourite bit!) In essence, I think folklore gives us a sense of belonging: to a community, both local and global, but also a sense of place – it locates us in the world, and helps us negotiate our identity, as well as giving a sense of how to navigate the world.

What gave you the confidence to write as ‘an authority’ on the subject?

To be honest, I think for a lot of my younger days, I thought people were better skilled than me, better equipped, more prepared. One of the major things I’ve learned as I got older is that’s just nonsense!

We are all just as able as everyone else if we put our minds to doing something; that’s the only secret to confidence – choosing to have it! And I think that with that realisation also comes the awareness that since we’re all able, we all have a responsibility to contribute and give our voice to the conversation, in the areas where we have something to offer.

Heritage is something I’ve always been passionate about – I remember making labels for my ‘museum’ and charging people an entrance fee when I was about 6 years old, and I’ve been obsessed with it, in all its forms, since then. I studied archaeology at university, along with aspects of mythology, theology and cultural heritage, and ended up specialising in two things: how landscapes are linked with the creation of personal and social identities, and how heritage should be ‘presented’ and interpreted for the public –community education, to sum it up more simply. In essence, this is at the root of my approach to heritage in general, and probably why #FolkloreThursday came about, as it’s about trying to get people involved in their own cultural heritage, and share that with other people. Writing a book on the cultural heritage of Britain – from tales to traditions and beliefs – is really just putting down what I’ve always worked with on paper. The biggest challenge was actually trying to be comprehensive enough to make everyone feel included in the book, and find something relevant to them and the places they know with such a small word count!

It was also quite difficult to summarise some of the more complex mythologies and debates into something bite sized, without ignoring the fact that folklore morphs and changes over the centuries, and there’s often more than one version. I feel that, in the end, the book isn’t telling a story of Britain, it’s there to draw people in to their own story, and do something with the things within the pages – folklore is never static or done with, it’s a living thing, so the book should be seen in that way: as a resource and a starting point.

illustration by Joe McLaren from A Treasury of British Folklore

What is folklore?

Gosh, there’s a question! We’ve asked a lot of different people to write articles about this for us for, as there’s no one definition to rule them all, unfortunately. Many people interpret it differently, but it basically covers tales, beliefs, traditions and practices passed on from one person to another throughout a community. So that can mean fairy tales or folk tales, but also myths and legends – including sacred stories.

What folklore definitely doesn’t mean is that something isn’t true, or is just nonsense – calling a sacred story or religious text folklore is in no way taking away from its value, validity or sacred nature, it’s just saying it’s a shared belief that is passed on.

Folklore also covers things like folk art, traditional crafts, dress, and recipes, also urban legends, and even things like ghosts and internet memes. It’s so many things! I’d recommend taking a look at some of the articles on site written by some folklore academics like: Lyne S McNeillPaul Cowdell and Jeana Jorgensen 

Folk Horror is a genre that really seems to be taking hold again (after its 1970s heyday) what would you say are defining features of that genre and do you have any tips for what to read or watch to get an idea of what it’s all about?

I think when people talk about Folk Horror people automatically look to films and books, but I think there’s so much more than that now; it’s pervading so many areas of art, music, and there a whole new depth to it – it’s almost becoming an identity. There’s a huge conversation about what people are calling ‘the English Eerie’, and Robert MacFarlane wrote a great piece on this a few years ago. Melissa Harrison definitely needs another mention here.

Adam Scovell is the go-to guy for this, he’s the folk horror film expert, for sure, and has written the defining book: Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Also Folk Horror Revival is a main hub, obviously – do check out Andy Paciorek. Thom Burgess creates amazing graphic novels, and you should definitely rate John Reppion and Leah Moore’s work as part of the genre, and John’s Spirits of Place project. David Southwell’s Hookland is just amazing, you can find a lot out about that from his Twitter account. And of course Paul Watson for photography and art. Hare and Tabor too. The music from the scene is quite amazing, like The Hare and the Moon, The Heartwood Institute and Revbjelde.

It’s very much linked to psychogeography, which some people prefer to call ‘landscape punk’ – check out Gary Budden and Influx Press, also Cat Vincent, and Gareth E. Rees.

I’ve probably missed out loads of names, and I’ll kick myself later! I’ll just end with saying that if you haven’t watched The Wicker Man, you haven’t lived!

I think rather than give you a quick definition I’ve just pointed you in different directions, haven’t I?

Plenty to be going on with - thank you!


You have written two books about witches can - Accused: British Witches Throughout History and England's Witchcraft Trials – can you tell us a little bit about how you approached the subject?

My interest in history has always stemmed from a fascination with the characters within – the details of their lives, whether dramatic or ordinary. As a reader, I cut my teeth on historical biographies and so I guess it only follows that would influence my approach in my own work. From the outset, where the witch trials were concerned, the lack of focus on the individuals became glaringly apparent – these deeply fascinating women and men were being shown in flashes to illustrate wider trends and themes in the history of the witch trials, but very rarely presented as central to the text. I wanted to turn that around, making the accused and the accusers themselves the focus of my books.

Why do you think people are interested in witches?

I think people are drawn to witches for a number of different reasons. The tragedy of so many of the cases holds an undeniable fascination, as does the dramatic nature of some of the better publicised trials. The lure of magic and mystery also draws people in. A lot of people also identify with the plight of those persecuted, I’ve had several people tell me they feel a connection with these cases in one way or another. I think, ultimately, once you strip away the glamour, what you have is ordinary people, living ordinary lives, caught up in situations and events beyond their control – that is going to speak to people and draw them to the subject.

Did you have a ‘mission’ when you set-out to write the books? (I’m assuming you may think that witches have been much maligned and misrepresented in some accounts.)

As a historian, the facts and getting it “right” are hugely important to me; striving for that, even if I don’t always achieve it, is at the centre of my work. As an extension of that, in these two books, I wanted to address the huge amount of sensationalism that has been written about witches and witch trials over the years. Such grossly over-inflated figures and claims really muddy the waters, doing the individuals involved a great disservice as they are obscured behind assumptions and exaggerations. I wanted add something to the steadily growing body of work out there that attempts to redress the balance.

I also had a personal curiosity to satisfy, to see if my concept for the books would work, to see if I could pull off writing a whole book, if I could pull it all together. I like to hope that I have been mostly successful in that aim, but only time will tell!

(click cover images for previews or to purchase)

What makes your two books different from each other?

Accused focuses on the stories of 11 different women who were accused of witchcraft across Britain’s history, from the 14th century through to the 20th. Each chapter acts as a telling of her story, not just the accusations made against her and the outcome, but also an exploration of her life as a whole. By extension, it allows comparisons and contrasts to be drawn across several centuries of British history, between beliefs in magic and witchcraft, and also society and communities as a whole.

England’s Witchcraft Trials looks at five of England’s major witch trials from the 16th and 17th centuries, the ones people are most likely to have heard of, such as the Pendle Witches and the atrocities committed under Matthew Hopkins. There’s still the biographical element though within each case, exploring the backgrounds of the main players. This books is, due to its subject matter, a study of a shorter period of time, looking more closely at the main period of witchcraft prosecution in England.

Is there a third witchy book on the way?

Personally, I’d love to do something with the growing collection of accounts of 19th century witchcraft accusations I’ve been amassing over the last couple of years. People tend to assume that all that stopped with the passing of the 1736 Witchcraft Act, but belief in witches and accusations went on well into the 20th century, and the material out there makes for fascinating yet harrowing reading. It’s definitely something I want to explore more in the near future.

Media – particularly movies – seem saturated with witchcraft and witches. Which witch flicks would you say have got it ‘right’, or closest to?

To be totally honest, I tend to avoid media portrayals of the subject! If I do watch, I look at a film or show for what it is – if its primary aim is entertainment, I try to go along for the ride, not sit and pick it apart – and if I can’t, I quickly switch off!

I’m also an utter wuss and easily freak myself out – I’m fine when I’m watching something, but that night is another matter. I still can’t look in a mirror after dark thanks to an episode of Supernatural – I’ve learned my lesson!

One exception however is The Witch. It was a really gripping movie that has stayed with me months later and is definitely on my re-watch list. It operated on so many different levels, taking the viewer on a journey through a blend of history, folklore and belief – one that I’m happy to break a habit for and sit and dissect!

Sounds a bit like a description of Folklore Thursday!

- Thank you, Dee Dee and Willow!

Huge thanks to you for inviting us!

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Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham were talking with Remy Dean 

if you enjoyed reading this interview, you can...

and you can read Remy's contributions to Folklore Thursday - HERE

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