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Author Spotlight – Interview with Author John Linwood Grant

Maya Preisler (MP): What inspired you to write Ain’t No Witch?

John Linwood Grant (JLG): Mamma Lucy sprang almost fully formed, without warning, from something long at the back of my mind, six or seven years ago. I come originally from a rural community, and I’ve always been interested in the practitioners of ‘small magicks’ — the village and tribal herbalists, hedgerow wizards, curse-lifters, finders, and others. In Europe, these practitioners used to be called the Cunning Folk, and that sense survived in America in the old term ‘cunning doctor’. Those who advised ordinary folk in need.

Black Africans forcibly transported to the States carried with them the beliefs and religions of many different cultures. These then became interwoven with Christianity, and that weave became the basis of many American hoodoo practices. But what happened after Reconstruction? Disappointment, more prejudice, and the terrible Jim Crow laws. Mamma, as she came to me, was a counter not just to haints and curses, but to the injustices of the 1920s — a gifted, independent Black woman, not some white outsider trying to do good.

Although the terms hoodoo and voodoo have often been freely interchanged by other people, I write only of hoodoo folk traditions, not those religions such as true voodoo, which syncretised African beliefs with aspects of Catholicism. Mamma is an old style Protestant root doctor, a Cunning Woman (with her own quirky view of God).

MP: What makes Mamma Lucy fun to write as a character?

JLG: Mostly the fact that she’s ornery and real. She’s a doer — she rolls her sleeves up and handles problems, regardless of what others think. She doesn’t utter vague philosophical wisdom; she’s not averse to being physical, having sex, or cussing someone out. Mamma uses both conjure and psychology to influence situations, and she has no shame about it — she stands firmly with those who struggle, though her priority is her own people. Conjure for her is a way of being, not simply a set of spells she pulls out when convenient. Perhaps because I’m old myself, I find myself in tune with her every time I start a new tale — and I share her anger about what happened back then. Some of it is still with us, so writing Mamma Lucy can be cathartic for me.

MP: If Ain’t No Witch were made into a television series and you were in charge of casting, who would you pick to play Mamma Lucy?

JLG: Oh, that’s so hard. I’m tempted to say Whoopi Goldberg, who knows how to mingle dark moments and wry humour — though she’s not quiet as tall and gangly as I see Mamma Lucy. I guess that people like Angela Bassett and Halle Berry are getting old enough for the role, but they’d need to look a bit more ‘weathered’ to fit. Mamma Lucy can grin, but she’s not a cheery, smiling old woman with plump cheeks.

MP: What horror/dark fantasy books/authors/films/tv shows influenced you as a writer?

JLG: A lot of earlier British stuff, consumed heavily when I was quite young. Saki, William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, M R James, the poet Edith Sitwell, and many more. Black and white horror films, such as ‘Night of the Demon’, ‘I Walked with a Zombie’, ‘Cat People’, including psychological ones, but not much later horror, in film or paperback. I’m not exactly a horror writer — I just like strange stuff, and the weirdness that permeates genuine history. Elements of Mamma Lucy were influenced by early Black writers, including Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Toomer and others, and by accounts of old ‘Black Belt’ hoodoo, not by more recent media.

MP: Would you consider yourself a plotter or a pantser or mixture of both?

JLG: Generally, I make it up in a freewheeling manner. I often write a story simply by typing a few paragraphs straight from my head. Or by seeing an ending, and then working out the whole story which runs up to that ending as I go along — maybe to see how we could get there.

MP: If a coffee shop made an Ain’t No Witch themed drink, what do you think would be in it?

JLG: Strong black coffee with an edge, maybe a hint of cloves, nutmeg, or almonds — no sugar allowed. And a dash of whiskey, if it was available in bars as well.

MP: What are you currently working on?

JLG: More than I can cope with. I have a new collection of peculiar stories, about a gay art critic who keeps getting involved in unusual scenarios in 1970s Britain, ‘An Unkindness of Strangers’, coming from Lethe Press in June 2024, then a much expanded third edition of my first collection ‘A Persistence of Geraniums’ due from IFD around the same time. Also, for Belanger Books I’m editing two original anthologies to come out during this year — ‘Alone on the Borderland’, new weird tales of the Edwardian period, and ‘A Darker Continent’, new strange tales of Europe at war. And weird and strange certainly apply some of the fine contributions in those. Plus I continue to co-edit Occult Detective Magazine for Cathaven Press in the UK, with at least two issues of that due before the end of 2024.

MP: Why did you pick Mocha Memoirs Press to publish your book? 

JLG: Ideally, I’d always wanted a publisher which had a strong Black presence. One which might appreciate (and even challenge) what I was trying to say with Mamma Lucy, however ineptly — fables of strength, not victimhood. I wasn’t sure some presses would ‘get it’, or be able to assist me so well with sensitivity to the issues. Which seemed an unlikely deal to get, until Mocha Memoirs showed interest. So from my side, it’s hard to imagine a better fit, especially as I already knew Mocha’s range and had even been in their great SLAY anthology (with Mamma Lucy, of course). Now we both have to hope that someone buys a copy or two!

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