After teaching Shahrukh Husain back in 2004, Emily Pedder, Course Director of The Novel Studio, catches up with the successful author and City Short Courses alumna about her recently reissued book, The Book of Witches, and the relevance of the book for feminism today.
Shahrukh Husain is that rare breed: a prolific writer of screenplays, plays, fiction and non-fiction for both adults and children who also happens to be a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Her adaptation of Anita Desai’s Booker-nominated In Custody for Merchant Ivory productions won the President of India gold medal and received an Oscar nomination; her most recent work was screened on ITV this autumn in the six-part series Beecham House, set in India in the late 18th century. Her books have been translated into 17 languages including Estonian, Turkish and Korean, and in October 2019, Virago decided to reissue The Book of Witches, edited by Shah, for which she was asked to write a new preface.
In 2004 I was lucky enough to teach Shah on City’s Novel Studio (then the Certificate in Novel Writing). You may wonder why such a talented and successful writer would choose to go on a writing course. But Shah is unashamed in her lifelong pursuit of learning. ‘My family say I’m addicted to courses,’ she tells me at the kitchen table of her beautiful house in Willesden where we met last week to talk about her latest book and her long and interesting career.
I began by asking Shah how she had come to edit the original incarnation of The Book of Witches, first published in 1993: ‘I’ve always been passionate about fairy tales,” she told me, “and witches in particular…from childhood. I’d corner people and force them to tell me stories and I remember my parents saying: “You can’t just go up to people and ask them to tell you stories about ghosts!” Years later, Angela Carter wrote her book about fairy tales, (The Virago Book of Fairy Tales) and I just loved it. So, I found out who was in charge of the series, it was Ursula Owen at the time, and she told Ruth Petrie who was the series editor, who called back within about 10 minutes and said, (in those days there wasn’t any internet) “we’re commissioning you,” just like that.’ The book became Shah’s breakthrough as a writer, selling in eleven languages, and the first of four subsequent non-fiction books for Virago.
Virago’s decision to reissue the book, 26 years, later was influenced by the rise in interest in witches and their potency, particularly in relation to female anger and the #metoo movement. In her new preface, Shah brilliantly highlights the relevance of the witch today: ‘resilient, edgy, awe-inspiring and potent. She never disappears from our culture for long.’ At a recent sold out Virago Speakeasy event celebrating the book, Shah was joined by award-winning writer and fellow City short course alumna Imogen Hermes Gowar, to explore the power of the witch today.
Storytelling clearly runs through Shah’s veins. Though resident in the UK for most of her life, Shah’s childhood was spent in Pakistan where she spent hours listening to the adults telling stories: ‘my mother’s family weren’t academics, my mother and her mother weren’t even educated…they told stories and everything was embedded in history and culture…if they wanted to tell us off they’d tell a story and then they’d go on to explain or encourage us to ask questions, like ‘was she a real queen?’ It was such fun, I soaked it all up…’
This deep-rooted understanding of the links between stories, history and culture has continued to influence Shah’s work as a writer and her career as a Jungian psychoanalyst. All four of her books for Virago are themed around different aspects of womanhood and illustrate the universality of so many myths: Women Who Wear the Breeches, Erotic Myths and Legends, Temptresses, and The Book of Witches. As she puts it, they are all about ‘women and myths who’ve had a bad press, they’re all themed, so it’s about knowing that these things exist in every culture really…’
Not surprisingly for someone so knowledgeable about storytelling and narratives, Shah is passionate about the value of creativity and imagination in the lives of both adults and children: ‘‘I really want people to have imagination in their lives… I remember when my daughter was six, she came to me and said: “Mum everybody keeps saying there’s no such thing as magic but is there?” So, I said the funny thing about magic is that if you don’t believe it you never find out about it, so you have to believe it, and it’s the same with miracles…and I said to her we’ll go in the garden in the morning and I’ll show you, and I showed her the dew, we see it falling and it looks like a diamond, so that’s kind of a miracle. And she came back afterwards and said “I’ve been thinking about it. It’s not kind of a miracle, it is a miracle because actually that is a diamond…”’
The Book of Witches is published by Virago.
For more about Shah’s work please visit her website.
For more about City’s short writing courses, including the Novel Studio please visit.