I’ve always found the idea of historical fiction a little daunting. The sheer scale of research means that I’ve shied away from writing it myself, which makes it all the more impressive when I come across one that is fabulously written on a very interesting topic. Catherine Fearns’ book All The Parts Of The Soul is set around the time of Reformation in Geneva, and is a thoroughly engaging account of the witch trials that happened in Satigny, Geneva.
With the interesting choice of seeing events through the eyes of a magistrate who is condemning witches, we are given an insight into the ideas and teachings that were used to excuse the horrific events of the time. With an interesting mix of real, historical figures and invented characters, Fearns creates a tense and compelling narrative that is at times shocking but also very human and relatable. Many of the ideas and themes are in fact sadly all too recognisable to current society and could perhaps serve as a warning from history as to what happens when scapegoating for terrible events is coupled with a rich minority holding the majority of the power.
I wanted to find out how she created this inpressive novel, as well as why she chose a male point of view and what she felt were the most important messages of the book. Read on to find out more.
How did you have the idea of writing a book about the witch trials in Geneva?
I have always been fascinated by the Reformation, and when I moved to Geneva I became aware of how much the severity of Calvinism has shaped Swiss culture. I spent a lot of time walking around the Old Town and reading books about Geneva in the sixteenth century. One of these was called ‘Plagues, Poisons and Potions’ by William Naphy, and it was about the sinister and possibly mythical concept of plague-spreading.
Plague-spreading accusations were often entangled with witchcraft, and I became fascinated by this link, reading case after case. The city archives are incomplete for this period and many cases are confused and fragmented, but it was clear that something big happened in the village of Satigny in 1545. So I began to piece together a story for myself.
Switzerland is a lesser-known corner of the European witch craze, but thousands of people were executed here, and the last witch to be executed here was as late as 1782.
Choosing a magistrate as the main point of view is really interesting and I thought it would be difficult to read like that, but you’ve made him sympathetic as well as unsympathetic, and used him to raise so many interesting ideas about the time. Why did you choose this POV and where did the character come from?
It would perhaps have been more natural, and definitely more fashionable, to write the book from the female perspective. But I was very interested in the motivations of the witch-hunters themselves – what did they really believe? What did hypocrisy mean in the sixteenth century, at a time when people were being made to change everything they believed about the world, and to stake their lives and souls on it?
I used the unreliable narrator of Henry Aubert to write the book as a morality play, to show that all of us are capable of evil.
The study of history has changed so much since I was at university, and it’s wonderful that voices are now being given to those previously silenced. But the history of women is also the history of misogyny, and I wanted to examine the voices of those who did the silencing – so we can hold them accountable and understand their motives.
Henry Aubert is a fictional character, but he is based on the real magistrate who would have been sent by Calvin to investigate the case.
You use your other characters to bring in more modern and sympathetic views on the witchcraft trials, although it never feels contrived. You also use some real people. How did you decide who to use in the book and how they would bring in different perspectives?
It’s true that there are modern parallels to be made. Five hundred years after the witch craze, violence against women continues at epidemic levels, and religious hypocrisy continues to justify all manner of intolerances. Human nature still seems to require scapegoating. However you have to be very careful about anachronism, because five hundred years ago people were operating under different belief systems.
I wanted to explore this using the character of Calvin – he was ambivalent about witchcraft, but he certainly used it to his advantage. What did he really think? I enjoyed writing the character of Calvin, and it was very easy to find his voice – although I made him into quite a baddie, and I always feel a bit guilty now when I walk past his grave in Plain Palais!
I used several other prominent figures from the time – for example Anton Froment (a Protestant reformer who taught the children of Geneva to read), and his wife Marie Dentière (the only woman to feature on the Reformation Wall). She was a very useful character to illustrate different aspects of how women were silenced. And the character of Louise de Peney is based on Jeanne de Jussy – one of the Catholic nuns who was hounded from the city during the Reformation. She wrote a beautiful text called The Short Chronicle, which was a very useful source.
Several other minor characters are based on people I found in the city archives and trial documents – I wanted to make it as true as I could.
There are obviously dark elements in the book. How did you find writing them and why were they important to use in the book?
Yes this book is super-dark. First of all, the acts of torture and violence. I didn’t write anything gratuitously; if anything I toned it down to make it palatable, and I only describe a tiny snapshot of the terrible things that were done. But I felt it would be dishonest, and a disservice to the victims, to gloss over it. We have to acknowledge what humans are capable of.
And then the character of Henry. There is the potential for good in Henry, but there’s also the side that is turned on by the subjugation of women, the side that follows the crowd, the side that will do anything for success. I think that’s why he makes the reader so uncomfortable and angry; because we all see something of ourselves in him. We are all capable of doing the wrong thing. The book’s title comes from a sermon by Calvin in which he talked about holding up a mirror to our souls.
I had to go to a very dark place emotionally to write this book. I was writing it in 2019, after the MeToo movement had happened and when women were starting to experience a sort of backlash. I was angry – I still am.
I definitely had to pull myself out of a hole afterwards, and to remind myself that there are good people in the world!
What was your route to publication and do you have any writing advice?
It took several years to get this book published. I wrote it in 2019, and I secured an agent on the basis of the manuscript; however the agent was unable to find a ‘big name’ publisher and after a year she gave up applying. As soon as I was un-agented I was free to apply independently, and I immediately contacted the US gothic publisher Quill & Crow. I had had my eye on them for a while and I felt it could be a good fit. I was absolutely thrilled when they said yes. It’s been a joy to work with them – the editing process was so thorough and professional, I felt in very safe hands. And they do a lot to help with the marketing.
But of course, this is indie publishing, and the market is brutal – it is very difficult to get noticed and to sell books.
I’m not sure I feel qualified to give writing advice but here are my top tips:
1) Get your manuscript professionally and independently edited before you submit, and/or get together with trusted beta readers. Ultimately you cannot edit your own work.
2) Develop a very thick skin! You are going to be told ‘No’ over and over again, often in no uncertain terms. It’s brutal.
3) Keep learning your craft. I am learning all the time, and even though I have had several books published, I still regard myself as a beginner.
4) If you write, you are a writer! It doesn’t matter if you are not published yet. The moment I started to tell myself, and other people, that I was a writer, I felt stupid but that was the moment that things started to happen.
Catherine Fearns is a writer and musician from Liverpool, UK. Her Amazon-bestselling Reprobation series of crime fiction novels is published by Northodox Press, and her first historical fiction novel, All The Parts Of The Soul, was released in October 2023 by Quill & Crow Publishing House. She has also been widely published as a music journalist, specializing in heavy metal. She plays guitar and keyboards in the all-female metal band Chaos Rising, and her sheet music compositions are published by Universal Edition. She has four children and lives in Geneva