Many early reviews have compared Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, The Year of the Witching, to other feminist dystopian novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale. And while Henderson’s fundamentalist world of Bethel does invite comparisons to the horrors of Gilead, a more apt parallel may be the 2015 horror film The Witch, in which a young Puritan girl discovers that the only avenue for self-determination in her deeply misogynist and joyless world may be to embrace all that is forbidden, sinful and powerful. We talked to Henderson about how her upbringing in one of America’s most haunted cities shaped her writing and how she crafted Immanuelle Moore’s journey to the dark heart of her society.
What drew you to SFF as an emerging writer? Did you always know that you wanted to write a fantasy novel?
I’ve always loved reading SFF. I think I’m naturally drawn to the way that speculative fiction allows me to escape the conventions of this world and enter another. So it was natural that when it came time to write stories of my own, I gravitated toward fantasy. In a way, I feel like it’s all I’ve ever known. And while I dabble in other genres, fantasy has always been, and likely always will be, a creative touchstone that I return to time and time again.
What has the process of releasing and promoting a book been like during the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s been surreal, to say the least. I think it’s always awkward to promote yourself, but amid this pandemic, attempts at promotion feel a lot like shouting into the void, and I’m often worried that by asking people to pay attention to my book, I’m drawing their attention away from more important issues. That said, I think there’s something profound and humbling about debuting during such a historically significant time. I know, without a doubt, that I’ll never forget the months leading up to my debut. And I’m immensely grateful that the publication of my book has offered me some light in these increasingly difficult times.
“I was raised on a steady diet of ghost stories and Southern folktales . . .”
As a fellow Southerner, I got the feeling that this book was somehow decidedly Southern even if it wasn’t explicitly set in the South. How has growing up in (and then later settling in) the coastal South affected your writing?
I grew up in one of America’s most haunted cities, Savannah, Georgia. Because of that, I was raised on a steady diet of ghost stories and Southern folktales, and they definitely inspired some of the eerie, gothic themes that are so prevalent in The Year of the Witching. Southern cultural conventions were also a huge source of inspiration behind the book. In the South, religion is more present than it is in other regions. Here, churches serve as more than religious institutions. They are cornerstones of the community and are often integral in shaping the social (and even political) climate of the surrounding areas. I think that social piety directly inspired Bethel, the theocratic settlement where my story takes place.
The motif of dark, earthy blood, whether from the cutting knife or menstruation, feels like it’s everywhere in The Year of the Witching. In what ways do you see blood and magic bound in this world? And is this magic feminine?
I wanted to play with the idea that creation (and the power it affords) demands blood sacrifice. I think that menstruation is symbolic of this, but so are the animal sacrifices Bethelans make in order to win the favor and forgiveness of the Holy Father they worship. So while the magic isn’t inherently feminine, I think the blood sacrifices that are required to wield it can manifest in many different ways—whether that be menstruation, blood spilled on a battlefield or a sigil carved into flesh. In the end, every act of sacrifice can be distilled down to a simple truth: blood buys power.
The figure of Lilith might be familiar to folks who know witchcraft lore. But what about the other witches? Did those come solely from your imagination, or from similar witchy archetypes?
The other witches are inventions of my own twisted imagination. I think I was inspired by some of the conventions of the horror genre (specifically the subgenres of cosmic and body horror). But for the most part, Jael, Mercy and Delilah emerged from the recesses of my mind. I remember, in the early days of drafting The Year of the Witching, being visited by each of them in turn. It was almost as though I had to gain their trust through the writing of the story, and once I did they revealed themselves to me.
The contrast between the earthy, transgressive witchcraft and the strict puritanical society of Bethel that you paint is striking. Can you talk about what inspired the setting for The Year of the Witching?
I always knew that I wanted to write a story about witches and cults. The Year of the Witching, and the setting where the story takes place, was birthed from the marrying of the two. I think that both settings are emblematic of the toxic, binary social and religious structures that are responsible for so much of the dysfunction and darkness of Bethel and the Church that governs it. Ezra’s character represents a different kind of subversion of Bethel’s society than Immanuelle does.
Do you think that in Immanuelle’s absence, Ezra would have continued to rebel, or would he have simply fallen into his role as the next Prophet?
This is a great question and one that I’m still wrestling with. A part of me wants to say that, without Immanuelle’s influence, Ezra would have still found his way to the light. But I do wonder if, without Immanuelle’s prompting, Ezra would have simply followed in the steps of his forefathers. I often ask myself if Ezra’s choice to aid Immanuelle’s quest was a testament to his character or simply another way for him to rebel against the Church, and by extension his father the Prophet. I hope to unpack that question in future works, in the hopes that one day I’ll have a firm answer to it.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Year of the Witching.
The Year of the Witching deals not just with witchcraft but also questions of identity and how much the actions of one generation affect the lives of the next. What drew you to explore these themes?
I drew a lot of inspiration from my own life, and my natural fascination with transgenerational trauma and the way sins and vices can be passed down from one generation to the next. I wanted to know whether it was possible for a person to completely defy the circumstances of their birth and, in doing so, free themselves from the ghosts of the past.
Is there more to come from Immanuelle, Ezra and the rest of Bethel?
Yes! I’m writing the (yet untitled) sequel to The Year of the Witching right now!
Author photo by Marissa Siebert of Hazel Eyes Photography