The last 20 years of your career have been spent working as a corporate lawyer and now you’re a YA novelist. What inspired you to make this significant change to your career path?
Yes, I started working as a paralegal in 1997 while studying at university and was admitted as a solicitor in 2002. I’ve heard it said that solicitors are frustrated writers and barristers are frustrated actors, so I suppose that’s been true for me. This is not really a change in my career path as I’m still working as a lawyer, but I’ve found that I need a creative outlet to be able to do my day job. Commercial legal work can be pretty dry, so I need to let my imagination off the leash. When I first started doing a novel writing course at the Writers’ Studio, I was going to write a legal thriller because I thought it would be relatively easy, being a world I know. What I didn’t realise was that writing a novel is a huge, slightly insane undertaking. You have to be in love with your story and characters, otherwise it’s impossible to keep going. Halfway through the course I hadn’t written a word of my legal thriller, so I decided to abandon that idea and instead write a historical fantasy story that I’d been thinking about for a while, about a witch being pursued by a witch hunter. I knew it would push me creatively but would also be fun to write, so that’s how The Last Balfour came into being.
Why did you choose to write in the YA genre?
I suppose it came down to the age of the protagonist. Iona, the main character, is fourteen, and when I decided to write her story in the first-person it really became a matter of seeing the world through her eyes. So, the YA genre was a natural fit. Also, I’d recently read The Hunger Games and thought that the first-person point of view and present tense gave the story a sense of urgency that I absolutely loved. As I was reading The Hunger Games, I had no idea if Katniss was going to survive, and I wanted readers of The Last Balfour to have that experience as well.
The star of your new book The Last Balfour is Iona Balfour. What would you like potential readers to know about her and the challenges she faces?
I wanted Iona’s story to be about the experience of a young person not fitting into the dominant culture, and what choices they are forced to make about that situation. Of course, there are no witch hunts today, but many young people still have that experience of being an outsider, often because there’s something different about them. Iona is from a family of witches at a time when witches were persecuted. Being a Balfour and a witch is not something she’s able to change, and so the very fact of her existence places her in constant danger. And yet, she can make choices about how she’s going to deal with her circumstances. Early on, we meet Iona’s aunt Grizel, who refuses to conform in the face of a changing world, and there are consequences for that decision. At the other extreme is Iona’s sister Ishbel, who has chosen a path of conformity, but it may not be any safer.
Iona’s story is also about finding your own personal magic. This is the age when teenagers start considering their place in the world, and ask themselves existential questions such as, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘What am I going to be?’ Iona and her friend Cal have inherited some gifts from their families, but they also have to make their own decisions about how they use those gifts.
Could you tell us a bit about the research you did while writing this book?
I’m a bit of a history nerd so I really enjoyed doing the research. I now have an extensive library of books about Scotland and magic! There were also some great online resources available. The University of Edinburgh has a project called the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, which is an online database of historical records about the Scottish witch hunts. It’s a fascinating area and it’s great to see that the university has invested in this project.
The problem I faced when doing research was that I had a tendency to go off on tangents and get distracted. Sometimes it was a way of procrastinating, to avoid sitting down and doing the writing! In the end, I did a lot of research that I didn’t end up using. One of my early readers recommended that I cut back on some of the historical detail in favour of making the story as compelling as possible, and also to focus more on Iona’s emotional journey, in light of the fact that the book is written for a YA audience rather than an adult audience. I thought that was good advice.
There are spells, incantations and folk tales used throughout your book. Were there any favourite or surprising folk tales that you unearthed?
Scotland has a rich history of folk traditions and healing magic and so I found that aspect really interesting. Scottish folklorists such as Alexander Carmichael and Florence Marian McNeill collected and documented some of these traditions, mainly from the Highlands. McNeill’s book The Silver Bough is a wonderful resource and is highly recommended to anybody interested in reading more about Scottish folklore. Most of the spells I have used in the book are based on traditional Scottish folk magic. My favourites were the rowan tree protection spell and the burning of the nine sacred woods.
I suppose the aspect that was most surprising to me was King James VI’s active involvement in the Scottish witch hunts during the late sixteenth century. In the novel I have used a story that was reported from the North Berwick witch trials. During the trials, King James personally interrogated a woman called Agnes Sampson. Agnes told him about her involvement in a coven of witches that had worked magic to sink the king’s ship. James expressed scepticism about her claims, until she whispered in his ear the words the king had said to his wife, Anne of Denmark, on their wedding night. After that encounter, James was apparently convinced that the witches of Scotland were plotting to assassinate him.
Can you share with us some of the books that you read as a child and young adult that have made an impact on you?
This is a really hard question, because I was an avid reader as a child and young adult and devoured everything I could get my hands on. Fortunately, my mother would never deny me a book and so I always had a good supply! My two absolute favourite books from childhood are The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m not a huge fantasy reader, but as a younger child I enjoyed the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and when I was older I read Tolkien. I’m sure I’m dating myself, but as a young adult I read Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton, as well as Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series. I also read many of the classics and particularly loved Dickens. I recall there was a nineteenth-century Russian literature obsession at some point as well!
Cait Duggan has spent the best part of twenty years working in commercial law, while harbouring a secret ambition to become a writer. This led her to undertake a number of writing courses, studying at the Writers’ Studio and Faber Writing Academy. As she loves history and is obsessed with magic, Cait writes fantasy and magical realism for children and young adults. The Last Balfour is her first novel.