Meet Nicholas Bowling.
Nick Bowling is an author, musician, occasional stand-up comedian and Latin teacher from London. He graduated from Oxford University in 2007 with a BA in Classics and English, and again in 2010 with a Masters in Greek and Latin Language and Literature, before moving to his first teaching job at Trinity School, Croydon. While writing Witchborn, he has also performed a solo show at the Edinburgh festival, and has co-written, recorded and released two albums and two EPs with soul-folk singer Mary Erskine, Me For Queen. He currently lives in East London with a lovely gentleman who plays the trumpet. Witch Born is his debut novel.
Social media link:
Twitter – @thenickbowling
How does your classical studies influence your music and your writing?
When it comes to writing, I really can’t overstate how much influence it has. I’ve always said that I learned more about the English language from my Latin teachers than I did from my English teachers, in terms of how to really understand the mechanics of a language, and how to craft a good sentence. And then there’s the texts themselves. I definitely draw from that treasure house of stories pretty much any time I write anything. There’s a great quote from Virginia Woolf about how a fragment broken off a Greek tragedy could “colour oceans” – like there’s some sort of intensity and sincerity and truth to all those stories that we just can’t replicate these days. I think that might be quite an old-fashioned view to hold these days, but I’m sticking to my guns on it.
Music… I don’t know. If you Google “Ancient Roman Music” you just get a lot of wailing and creepy atonal pipe-based stuff. I mean, I dig all of that, but mostly I play bass for other people and they generally don’t appreciate you bringing those influences to bear to their record.
Historical London + witchery + shady characters – heck yes! What is the origin story of your debut novel Witch Born?
I started out wanting to write a straight fantasy book for grown-ups (give me a minute and I will bore the hell out of you about my Pat Rothfuss epiphany), but I wanted it to be dark and earthy and rooted in something familiar. It’s also just incredibly difficult to do world-building in a way that’s believable and non-cliched (unless you’re Pat Rothfuss), so I looked around for a historical period that could scaffold a fantasy story. Elizabethan England is perfect for being a point in history when no one’s really sure what’s magic and what’s science and what’s religion (and the efforts to define them were pretty grim), and was a perfect fit for the dark and grimy thing I had in mind. I’ve also got a thing for reverse-engineering how stories start (cf. Pat Rothfuss), and I liked the idea of taking something like the witch-hunts and asking: what if there was something real behind people’s superstitions? Then I got really invested in the character of Alyce and it became a totally different book from the one I originally set out to write (which was: The Name of the Wind by Pat Rothfuss).
Without spoilers, what was the hardest moment to write for your main character Alyce?
In general I took pains to keep Alyce complex and a bit ambiguous in her motivations, because that’s true of pretty much everyone. I didn’t want her to be an archetype, and I didn’t want her to necessarily behave as you’d like her to behave – given what she has to endure in the book, she was never going to be a typical “hero”. But in particular, there’s a choice she has to make near the end about someone close to her that was redrafted about twenty times, and had as many different outcomes.
Do names have any power or significance in Witch Born?
Yes! Well, lots of them are real historical characters whose names you’ll recognize. But others are also taken from lesser known stories of that period. Matthew Hopkins was the “witchfinder general” of the 17th century witch hunts, so I made John Hopkins a forebear of his; Ellen Greenliefe really was executed for witchcraft (you can find her in Matthew Hopkins’ written report, in fact); Solomon is a nod to Solomon Pavy, an actor in the Children of the Chapel who was eulogized by Ben Jonson; there was a herbalist called Mrs Thomson who lived on Cheapside. I reckon you can work out the meaning behind Vitali. Alyce is actually the least (or most?) interesting of the lot – the name of the girl I was trying to impress at the time of writing the first draft… Eurgh.
Comparing all of your drafts, from the very first to your finished copy, what is one thing you never quite conveyed that you wished you had?
That’s such a good question. Sometimes I don’t think I really gave a broad or deep enough picture of the witchcraft itself – how it works, what people were doing with it. Half of me quite likes how oblique it all is – hinting at what’s beneath the surface – and the other half wants a really detailed schematic of how to curse your neighbour’s cattle. In particular I would have liked to show more of what was going on in the countryside, since the vast majority of witch trials were happening out in the sticks, far from the capital.
Share with us a little bit about your writing, querying, and editing processes.
I always try to write in the morning, first thing. 1,000 words minimum target, but I try to aim for about 1,500. I start at the beginning and just go – I usually have ideas for big scenes or set-pieces I want to get in there, but I don’t have a grand plan and I usually just let the characters do what they want. I like that bit. Just fresh tracks, all the way down the mountain. Editing is just endless wailing and gnashing of teeth and eventually, somehow, a half-decent book comes out the other side.
When someone says London – what is the first thing you think of or say?
I mean, the place just stinks.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers today?
Hope you enjoy the book! Currently working on something new – a 1st century Rome-based romp – which you should be able to read next year. In the meantime, read Pat Rothfuss. Oh, and download Me For Queen’s new album. I play bass on it, so if you all buy it I’ll get about £1.50 in 2025.
Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions!
An unmitigated pleasure!