‘We’ve never needed Orwell more’: 21 Questions with Malcolm Gaskill

The author of The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the power of the pen, and the ever-looming threat of social embarrassment.

As both Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and one of the country’s leading experts on the history of witchcraft, it makes perfect sense that Malcolm Gaskill’s bibliography so far – including the acclaimed Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy and Between Two Worlds: How the English Became Americans – would concern the intersection of the two. Recently, he turned his pen to narrative non-fiction.

The result, The Ruin of All Witches, finds Gaskill retelling a dark folktale set on a 1651 Massachusetts plantation, and though the historical details set the scene of a world transitioning from religion and magic to an age of enlightenment, it’s the timeless emotions of the story – in which spite, distrust, envy and resentment tear a family and community apart – that make it feel almost impossibly contemporary.

The Ruin of All Witches is out now as a paperback. To mark the release, we got in touch with Gaskill to ask him our 21 Questions about life and literature. Here, he discusses the genius of George Orwell, the perils of vertigo and weeding out counterfeit bills from real money.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

George Orwell – because he taught me that everything in life is in some way political, and that language is the key either to illuminate this or to conceal it. Never a dull sentence, every line of every book a crafted yet simple instrument for telling the truth. Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier should still move readers to pity and anger at the sordid, miserable lives of the poor. We have never needed him more.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It remains for me a perfect children’s book, full of adversity and triumph, black comedy and cruelty, and a youthful sense of wonder. There’s no redemption for the wicked, only vindication for the just – a moral outcome to which kids are naturally drawn. I’ve been trying to learn Italian, and the translation La Fabbrica di Cioccolato has been useful for getting my eye and ear in for the language. No need for an English parallel text: the story is imprinted in my head like a myth.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

I was mildly obsessed with William Golding’s The Spire (1964), partly because it was historical, but also because it was itself a book about obsession. D. H. Lawrence had introduced me to the psycho-sexual undercurrents coursing beneath daily life – well, someone had to – so I was well primed to grasp that Dean Jocelin’s feverish desire to build a gigantic phallic cathedral spire might represent more than just an ambitious 12th-century construction project.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Everything in life is in some way political, and language is the key either to illuminate this or to conceal it

My answer to this question is usually Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), an enchanting work about the enchantment of pre-modern English life, which really made me want to be a historian. But there’s another book that had a profound effect on me as a teenager: James Burke’s The Day the Universe Changed (1985), a tie-in for a BBC TV series. Burke was an inspiring communicator, who spoke with confident authority but without a trace of condescension. He made all sorts of startling connections between cultural and scientific innovations across vast spans of geography and time. I saw him once, reading at a desk in the old British Library in Bloomsbury, and I wish now I’d had the courage to tell him what his book had meant to me.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

In my gap year between school and university I worked for the travel agent Thomas Cook in their foreign money division, based in Berkeley Street, Piccadilly. Wearing a cheap Burton’s suit my parents had bought me, every day I went by tube to Green Park from my uncle’s house in Notting Hill, where I was staying. Superficially, then, normal London employment. But now the culture of that office seems so strange, and may even have been strange at the time. There were some real characters, ashtrays on the desks, and every lunchtime we all drank (as much as we could) in a pub in Shepherd Market. I was getting paid and the work was easy. We were given packets of foreign banknotes, which we then sorted and counted. That was it. My favourite bit of the job was weeding out counterfeits. A third of my PhD thesis ended up being about the history of offences against the coinage in England, and I sometimes wonder if I have Thomas Cook to thank for that interest.

YouTube: Witchcraft Expert Malcolm Gaskill Breaks Down Famous Witches in Films & TV

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Remember to tell readers directly how you see something, because they are trusting and ready to believe you. That was my editor at 4th Estate, Clive Priddle. It was extremely valuable guidance, and I think about it all the time. Before then, I was in the bad habit of hedging statements with qualifiers and conditionals, timidly distancing myself from my own writing – as I wasn’t actually speaking to another person.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

I’m not a great re-reader. Much as I love reading books, I’m tyrannized by those books I haven’t yet read (see below). So, I always feel the need to keep moving on. I have read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy three times, twice aloud to my children. It’s an uneven body of work, but I will always revere it as a study in how age and experience dissolve childish innocence. It shows brilliantly how moral truths can be conveyed in fantastical settings as well as in naturalistic ones. When Lee Scoresby and Hester met their end, we all cried. My son, then about eight, said that he realised that Pullman had the power to let them live, yet knew that would not have been true. The writer as magus.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

My guilt about this is so vast I have learned to suppress it. But, okay then, War and Peace.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

A film director. Books are fine but they take years to write, and the solitude can be crushing. I’ve always liked the idea of trying to tell a story by making people pretend to be other people and pointing a camera at them (I realise there’s more to it than that).

What makes you happiest?

I live with my wife, three children and an utter basket-case of a dog. It’s noisy, demanding and sometimes stressful, especially for the writer in the next room trying to coax a thought into typable words. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. My family is a wellspring of joy.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Books take years to write, and the solitude can be crushing

I’m passionate about electric guitars, but these days I only have two. One is a beaten-up 1972 Fender Stratocaster, which I bought when I was 17, having saved up all summer when I was working on the deli counter in Sainsbury’s. The other, which I bought recently, is a brand new Rickenbacker 330 Fireglo. I haven’t played it much, but it’s beautiful and reminds me of my school friend Tim Groves, who died suddenly last year. Tim and I went to see The Jam at the Hammersmith Palais in 1981, and back then Paul Weller pretty much only played Rickenbacker 330s. I used to draw them on my exercise books.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

One where I know exactly the structure of what I’m trying to say, be that an essay or a book review or an entire book. Silence is nice, but for that I have noise-cancelling headphones.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I once got locked into a university building with an author who had come to speak to my history society about her childhood experiences in Auschwitz. We walked endless lonely corridors looking vainly for an exit. She was a model of courtesy and patience, while I grew increasingly anxious about forcibly detaining a Holocaust survivor. Nothing funny about that of course. If you want a funny story, that would have to be when, as chair of another history society, I accidentally interrupted the distinguished speaker to thank him for coming and to solicit applause from the audience, when actually he had just drawn breath to introduce three further points. I had been watching the clock and not listening, so I thought he had finished. Alan Macfarlane: I’m sorry. It still makes my toes curl.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

Hitler and poison.

What’s your biggest fear?

It’s boring, but true, to say: anything happening to my children or serious illness or whatever. So, instead I’ll go for something John Cleese once said in an interview: social embarrassment (see above: Alan Macfarlane). I don’t much like heights either, and once had an attack of vertigo at the Eden Project in Cornwall. I got to the top, froze and had to ask a stranger to look after my daughter. I’d previously not understood the compulsion to kiss the ground until I got off that swaying staircase.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I’d really like to be able to concentrate – I mean, for hours on end and be distracted by nothing. It’s not much of a superpower, I admit, but a lot of the Marvel-type skills seem to involve heights, and that would be a problem for me (see above: Eden Project).

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass is a 20th-century family memoir full of tragedy and mystery, but also love and hope. Her relatives flee anti-Semitism in Poland for Paris, where there is more anti-Semitism, and then to America, where there’s yet more anti-Semitism. It’s pitiful and enraging. But the book is written with compassion and candour, and with the historian’s uncertainty about the past right there on the surface.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

God, no. I can’t even remember when I last had a bath (by which of course I mean I prefer showers).

I'm very much a coffee person, although my wife and I sometimes have a quick cup of tea while we’re waiting for it to brew.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

I'm very much a coffee person – although my wife and I sometimes have a quick cup of tea while we’re waiting for the coffee to brew. I like it strong but I’m not the sort of fetishist who knows which Colombian estate their beans come from, nor do I have much time for people who claim not to be able to function until they’ve had their hit of espresso.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997). Roth is a genius, and that book haunts me.

What inspired you to write your book?

I wanted to write about a 17th-century witch-panic where you see how gradually reputations and relationships deteriorate to make witchcraft a plausible explanation for misfortune. The story of Hugh and Mary Parsons of Springfield struck me as the perfect choice: a well-documented case, where one could say meaningful things about people’s inner lives without too much speculation. The testimony speaks volubly about emotions: dread and terror, resentment and envy, spite and rage. I wanted to show that although the belief in demons and magic was essential to witchcraft trials, it was not enough. The greater part of accusing someone as a witch were feelings that we all know and feel ourselves.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more