By Eleanor Bowskill, Katie Farr and Zarah Yesufu
It is often said that witch narratives are written as a response to a political climate which may see women as dangerous, or in danger. In a world where patriarchal order is threatened by female power, Jennifer Lane’s new young adult novel The Black Air responds to this. Lane explains “Witchcraft gives practitioners a lot of agency – they don’t need to rely on the powers that be to receive what they need: they are their own source of power.” While this undoubtedly plays a role in Lane’s story, her main focus is “the stigma that still surrounds mental health.” Through writing a witch story whilst being open about her own experiences with mental health, Lane wanted to “normalise asking for help” and most importantly remind us that “we are allowed to feel our feelings, even if we were never told that growing up.”
The fictional town of Long Byrne – notorious for two famous witch hangings – is reminiscent of the Pendle witch trials, which took place in 17th century Lancashire. Pendle played a “huge” role in Lane’s life, having begged her parents to take her up there to “see the witches” and traipse around the graveyard in Newchurch. Growing up, she remembered reading the likes of Jacqueline Wilson and Harry Potter, and feeling disconnected from their respective settings. Popular children’s books never mentioned the places she’d heard of, as most were “centred around London” which she had never visited. When Lane began writing, she felt strongly that books should reflect her own experiences, “giving voice to northern, working-class women.” Since writing The Black Air she has receive frequent messages from readers expressing their love for reading about familiar places, given how rare it was for books to take place outside the south.
A visit to Lancaster castle, where the Pendle witches were gaoled, impressed on Lane the reality of the horror and fear the accused must have felt. “This fear had embedded itself into the walls of the cells they’d been held in,” she says, “you could feel it emanating from the stonework.” Lane feels that her life has been strangely entangled with those of the witches, even unknowingly getting married on what was once Gallows Hill in Lancaster, the very place where the “witches” were killed. Writing The Black Air around the 400th anniversary of the women’s deaths, they were the focus of her witchy inspiration. To anyone looking for “a taste of the stark reality those women were facing,” Lane recommends A.K. Blakemore’s “masterpiece” The Manningtree Witches, which explores the Essex witch trials of 1645.
For Lane, witch trials fascinate us to this day because the threat of it still “feels somehow real,” as “those seen as living on the fringes of the world or going against the norm are still demonised, on the brink of persecution themselves.” While we like to think of ourselves as living in a much more enlightened age, the way in which leaders in countries like the US are still creating new legislation to “control and lessen women” has frightening echoes of the time when witchcraft laws came into being.
Modern day witch stories have been a staple of many of our childhoods, from Sabrina the Teenage Witch to The Craft. Lane is as much of a fan as we are of these shows. When asked who she would cast as her main characters, Lane says “I’m probably a bit behind on my film and TV consumption but I feel like Freya Mavor would make a fantastic Bryony, while someone like Claudia Jesse would do a great job portraying Tawny’s confidence. Cate would be a bit more difficult to cast in my eyes (as she’s heavily based on me and my own experiences!) but I loved Eliza Scanlen as Beth in Little Women (2019) and think she would do an amazing job.”
The Black Air perfectly captures the raw, emotional intensity of teenage friendships in a small rural town. Tawny and Cate “couldn’t be more different from one another” according to Lane, and, in her opinion, this contrast is the reason for the pair “working so well together.” Both girls are “fascinated” by each other’s “quirks and idiosyncrasies” but Lane pointed out that Cate’s “intense attachment” to Tawny has “put her best friend on a pedestal” which can often cause problems in relationships. The teenage friendship is “heavily based” on one from Lane’s childhood – with one more extraverted than the other. She recalled memories of her supposed friend humiliating her in front of others, in an effort to “feel better about herself.” Lane cited a similar hidden jealousy in Tawny, whose “snippy” attitude functions as an “unpleasant” coping mechanism. It is clear that young girls can have significant power over one another, as added that her own unpleasant experiences still hurt to think about.
The Black Air also explores mental health issues, with the protagonist Cate struggling with disordered eating, a trauma response from losing her mother at aged twelve. While it was under different circumstances, Lane put much of her own struggles with mental health into Cate’s character. Struggling with a lack of coping mechanisms after finishing university, Lane lived off “carrot sticks with hummus, vegetable stir-fries and black coffee,” which led to “intense panic” when her caffeine levels peaked, knowing she was about to experience a crash that could cause “deeply low moods,” as if she was “trapped in a dark pit.” Now “very happy” in her thirties, Lane hopes that “people will find shards of their own experience within the characters of this book and understand that help is available.” To anyone writing about mental health issues while dealing with them in their own lives, Lane advises “give your characters the ending you wish you could have. While I wouldn’t say Cate gets a necessarily happy ending, she does get a realistic one, with practical help. Which is what I wanted in my own life, and what also gave me hope.”