Go Heathen or Go Home: An Interview With Kristen J. Sollee | Haute Macabre

Go Heathen or Go Home: An Interview With Kristen J. Sollee

Kristen J. Sollée is a Haute Macabre favourite, and for good reason. Her first two books, Witches, Sluts, Feminists and Cat Call, deftly weave pop culture with academia, social justice with humour, and research with memoir. They’re complex in the best way, but you’ll still attempt to devour them in one sitting. I love them.

Before the holidays, I stayed up far too late reading her recently-released third book. Witch Hunt: A Traveler’s Guide to the Power and Persecution of the Witch is a hybrid travelogue-memoir packed with fascinating history. It takes us to Italy, France, Germany, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with Kristen serving as an intensely knowledgeable and wildly charismatic psychopomp-to-the-past.

Probably the best part of writing for Haute Macabre is getting the chance to talk to people far cooler than I am and convincing them to answer all sorts of questions. I’m fortunate to consider Kristen a friend, but still perpetually in awe of her mind — doing this interview was a real treat. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did. Kristen also sent along a few photos from her travels, which are interspersed below.

But before we get started, perhaps you’d like to order Witch Hunt on IndieBound or Amazon and follow Kristen on Instagram and Twitter?

Very good. Now, on we go…

It feels like this book was a long time coming. Was there a specific moment where you felt the idea start to grow in your mind? When did you first start writing Witch Hunt in your head?

In the introduction to Witch Hunt, I write that I have “unwittingly” been doing research for this book for quite some time. I have always been drawn to seek out occult sites wherever I happen to travel. But I didn’t start writing this book in my head in earnest until a few summers ago when I was in Florence. One day I hired a car service to take me to the Oak of the Witches. On the way out of town, the driver—who happened to be a tattooed metalhead like myself—pointed out the window to the lines of tourists waiting to get inside the Uffizi and said: “that’s where they used to burn witches.” In that moment, I began to seriously think about all the seemingly mundane places where witch hunting atrocities once occurred. All the sites that have so much history but you wouldn’t even know it walking through. And that’s the moment I knew I had to write Witch Hunt.

When I think of travel I always think of staring out the window of a train or bus and listening to something. Was there a soundtrack to Witch Hunt? Do any songs connect with specific places for you?

I began my writing career as a music writer and have long been an unrepentant fangirl so music is always part of my process. Whenever I’m in a city I like to listen to bands that are from there, as if I can pick up more from the music while immersed in the landscape that birthed it. In Scotland it was Simple Minds or Franz Ferdinand, in Ireland it was The Undertones, Thin Lizzy, The Pogues, etc. But because I was also immersing myself in the distant past, I frequently put on period music as well. So there was a lot of Gregorian chant and Renaissance madrigals. And opera when I was in Germany heading up to the Brocken…

Painted doorway. Triora, Italy

What place felt most like home?

London has always felt like home, likely since I live in New York City which is similar, and because I have loads of ancestry from London. That said, I also feel so much grounding, homey magic in the Ligurian coast and the medieval towns there like Portovenere, where Lord Byron used to write in the summers. There’s a swimming hole through a gorgeous archway where I’ve spent a lot of beautiful days eating focaccia and pesto and thinking there is nowhere else I’d rather be on earth.

Similarly, what place felt most uncomfortable?

Definitely Bamberg. The excessive cruelty that characterized their witch hunt is still palpable. Although the city—little Venice it’s called—is just stunning, a total Bavarian gem and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the little witch hunt plaques and markers and memorials sprinkled throughout give you the sense of how much trauma bubbles under the surface. It’s something that does not feel good to be around, despite the beautiful architecture and scenery. 

Tyburn Tree memorial. London, England

Your chapters on France reminded me of my writing about Gilles de Rais, and how inaccurate history drives modern perceptions. (Your book mentions how Michelet ‘took the demonological suppositions of Pierre de Lance and Henri Boguet quite literally’; in Gilles’ case, a fictionalised account of his life by author J-K Huysmans was treated as fact by future biographers.) This historical game of telephone is fascinating to me. Can you share the most egregious example of bad history you have come across through your work, or describe an extreme length you’ve gone to in order to track down the truth?

I am equally fascinated by the power of historical distortions. I think when you study the witch hunts for any amount of time, you’ll find that there are so many egregious examples of bad history, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I used to believe many of them! I think the two most egregious witch hunting history myths are that 9 million women were killed during the witch hunts and that the women accused of witchcraft during the early modern witch hunts were part of a witch cult that stretches back to ancient times. Both accounts have been disproven for decades now, but still influence how witch hunting is written about to this day. 

As for that astronomical statistic, I actually got to visit the city that birthed the error. Basically, one 18th century German historian used the stats from witch hunting in his own town (Quedlinburg) to extrapolate how many accused witches were executed throughout the whole of Europe during that time. There are still folks who repeat the “9 million women” stat. Wild how long that bad history has lasted.

Similarly, what was the most bizarre thing you encountered in a historical record?

It’s too hard to choose! I just think the extremes of misogyny at the heart of so many demonological beliefs from the period are utterly bizarre. The sex with the devil details from witch trial “confessions” always blow my mind.

Witch tableau from the Walpurgisgrotte section of the Harzeum. Thale, Germany

How many of your trips were must-sees you had discovered through your research and how many were side quests that happened along the way?

I would say it was 50% planned, 50% pure spontaneity. Sometimes a local would tip me off to something or I just found out something was happening in a town I was heading to or a city that I happened to be in and just crammed another stop into my travels.

“Better the threat of a mythical beast than the reality of an ill-intentioned man.” I was struck by this statement. Can you tell us a bit about travelling solo, especially to some of the smaller and more remote locations?

When you’re a woman or femme or feminine-presenting person traveling alone, fear is often your most reliable companion. A few times in smaller towns I found myself out late waiting for a car service I ordered and suddenly my cell service would go out and I was immediately in a panic. There’s no safety net, you’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t speak the language, there’s a kind of helplessness that I realized loosely parallels the position of women during the witch hunts, where you’re basically praying the men around you don’t decide to follow their baser instincts.

Ancient Burying Ground. Hartford, Connecticut

This is the sort of book that in many ways could only have been written by a femme and/or someone socialised as a woman. What was it like, exploring these historical tragedies that might, in another life, have happened to you?

I was viscerally aware of my own privilege during my research for this book. Because, yes, I was at risk for goddess knows what when I was traveling alone, but at the same time, my rights are much more codified now than they were in early modern times. I write about that ambivalent feeling in Witch Hunt when I’m inside a fancy hotel in Edinburgh, The Witchery. I’m basically in this lavish room in a bed made of antique pulpits wearing lingerie, pulling tarot cards, and drinking champagne and right across the street is where they would have been burning accused witches. It really hit home to me in those moments that it’s pure luck to be living in this time period and in this world with the privileges I have. And at the same time, I was acutely aware of how sexual assault is still so pervasive and how bodily autonomy is still not a guaranteed right for women and queer and trans folks in America today.

You visited large, bustling towns and small medieval villages. Was there a distinct energy shift between such locations?

I really enjoy the juxtaposition between big cities and tiny, out-of-the-way enclaves precisely because of that energy shift. I could really listen to the landscape in smaller places in a less self-conscious way than I could in a city surrounded by people. That said, the hum of big cities has always been intoxicating me because of that intensity of energy.

Salem Witch Trials Museum. Salem, Massachusetts

I’m living in Manchester now, which is home to a library where occultist John Dee once summoned the devil. While many accusations of witchcraft were launched at women who were not witches at all, there is still a palpable distinction between how history has treated witches versus occultists, who were largely wealthy, well-educated, and male. Can you talk a bit about that?

Well to speak in generalizations, the women accused of witchcraft who did practice some form of magic were usually practicing folk magic, while male occultists were usually practicing high magic/learned magic/ceremonial magic, etc. That split of “high magic” versus “low magic” definitely had a gendered dimension. Basically, medieval and early modern male occultists were the 1%, to speak in contemporary economic terms, and witches were the 99% or the common folk, which is why occultists were afforded more freedom to do their thing and witches more often met their death. Sexism and elitism pure and simple! But, of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule.

When reading one of your chapters set in France, I was shocked to discover that the Place de Grève had been renamed in 1802 and that I had walked all over it in my countless visits to Paris. Of all the sacred or historically important sites you visited, which was the most hidden?

The site of Tyburn Tree, the gallows that saw the deaths of countless accused witches and thousands of other convicted criminals is in a median next to a traffic circle. I venture that very few notice it when walking through. But at least there’s a tiny sign in the concrete. Like the Place de Grève, the Piazza della Signoria in Florence is another place that was home to witch burnings, but that’s certainly not part of the Florentine history the guidebooks feed you. On the surface it’s just tourist central where witch history is hiding in plain sight!

View from the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, formerly the Place de Grève. Paris, France

A bit of a pragmatic question. How did you map the locations? It seemed like you were always showing up when something exciting was happening. How did you time everything? And how long did your journeys take?

The planning for Witch Hunt was both systematic and totally haphazard and intuitive. I had a structural skeleton I didn’t deviate from, but then took all kinds of last minute side trips in between. Sometimes I visited a country because there was a festival on a certain date, and sometimes I “randomly” arrived to find something very pertinent to my research was occurring in the street in front of my hotel. There were so many synchronicities that I can’t chalk it all up to coincidence. I did feel guided by outside forces many times during my travels…And as for the timeline, some of what I write about I drew from trips that happened years ago, but all the fresh research for the book happened in a six-week journey throughout Europe and short weekend trips across the American East Coast. All in all it took the better part of a year.

Is there anything you wish I had asked you, or something additional you particularly want to share?

Well I’m just so glad you didn’t ask why x, y, or z city or country wasn’t included in the book! There are a ton of fascinating places I wasn’t able to include, which I hope to touch upon in the future through my Witch Travel Chronicle newsletter, which will launch officially in 2021!