An interview with Isabel Greenberg: “Accusing a woman of being a witch was often an excuse to punish her for being even slightly different”

Interviewed by Charlie Ponzio

Award-winning illustrator Isabel Greenberg on her newest graphic novel The 100 Nights of Hero. We talk about the influence of witchcraft, women’s bad lot in folk tales, the evil of the metropolis and the broader influences for her book.

Isabel Greenberg is one of the most exciting authors in the contemporary British graphic novelist landscape. Her newest book The 100 Nights of Hero is the story of a lesbian love affair between Hero and the house maid, Cherry. One evening two rich men, Jerome and Manfred, discuss the virtues and vices of “woman”. Jerome boasts to his friend that Hero, his wife, is so modest that she is in fact still “UNTAINTED”. To prove how much control Jerome has over his wife, the two men come up with a bet; Jerome will go away for 100 nights, in which time Manfred is to seduce her in order to prove that she isn’t the obedient and chaste wife that Jerome claims to be married to, thus proving his theory that “there are no good women. They are all scheming bitches, whores and also fiendishly boring.” Luckily, Hero’s girlfriend is there to help. With their almost supernatural capacity for spinning mysterious and tragic stories, they manage to keep Manfred enraptured and distracted from his plan for all the 100 nights. The stories they tell often depict groups of women and girls who are creative and help one another; they are devious and cunning; intelligent and adventurous. However, the evil and patriarchal figure of Birdman looms over the narrative, condemning many of these women to subjugation, or even death, as punishment on charge of being witches.

Greenberg offers strong feminist themes such as the loss of folkloric traditions and knowledge, violence against women, the concept of one all-ruling patriarchal figure, witch persecutions against independent women who read, and the city as a symbol of corruption and capitalism. Space, in the book, is of great importance. Many times, the confinement of women leads to the creation of something beautiful; a novel, a tapestry, or an intimate relationship through storytelling. This is an incredibly exciting and important book in the world of illustrated stories, especially since it is suitable for older readers and younger readers alike.

I found the city and the metropolis to be symbols of corruption in the book, whereas the forest and the lakes are spaces for imagination and intimacy to flourish. What does the city vs. the countryside represent for you?

This is an interesting question. I can completely see that that is what I have done in the book! But in honesty it was not totally intentional. I am actually from a city (London). I was born here and have always lived here, so I love cities! But though Early Earth is set in a fantastical time, it is clearly a time before mod-cons; flushing loos, antibiotics etc. London (and cities generally) in the past could be very filthy and unhealthy places where diseases spread very fast and people lived close together, often in terrible conditions. Early Earth is an imaginary world, so I am free to do as I like within it. This is very liberating, but sometimes means that it is easy to fall back on this! In reality the city to me (my city) is home. It is also a place full of more different people, histories, stories, art, culture than I could possibly ever explore. But I think it isn’t magic. And only when visiting places outside cities; walking in the countryside, mountains, coast etc., can I come close to this feeling. The wilderness in Early Earth I think I see as a place where magic can still happen, its unexplored and wild and full of possibility. 

Witches and witchcraft are recurring themes throughout the book. What is it about the history of witches that interests you?

The persecution of witches throughout history is a tragic and fascinating one. It’s very often (though of course not always) women who were persecuted. Accusing a woman of being a witch was often an excuse to punish her for being even slightly different. 

There seems to be a pessimistic view of heterosexual love in the book. The only good man in the book is Hero’s father, and violence against women is a recurring motif. Was this intentional?

There are some less than savoury men in the book, who get involved with women in a violent way. This was a theme that I deliberately explored, certainly. A lot of the folk tales I was working with, I felt dealt women a very bad card. But I think the portrayal of heterosexual relationships as negative in some way; certainly not. I think that the love affair between Hero’s grandfather and her grandmother, the moon (in Phases) is my favourite story in the book. I think it is very positive despite it being sad. It doesn’t work out because there are things about each other that cannot change, which is something that can happen in any relationship. She can’t stop being the Moon, so it has to end. But they love each other very much anyway. Obviously the main relationship we follow is Hero and Cherry, and yes, they are two women in a relationship together, but I certainly didn’t intend to portray heterosexual relationships in a pessimistic light. There wasn’t room in the story for another couple; this is Hero and Cherry’s story. The omission of another equally interesting straight couple was not a slight at heterosexual love, simply that this book was not about that.   My first book, The Encyclopaedia of Early Earth, featured a  boy-meets-girl, but they can’t touch each other due to the magnetic field of their world story! 

Storytelling is at the centre of the book, and plays out on varying levels. What, for you, is the importance of storytelling in relationships and do you see storytelling as integral to human communication?

Yes, I think it is the most vital thing we do as people! (wow that sounds rather grandstanding!!) But in all seriousness, I do. I think people flourish when they are given voice, I think we learn and teach and communicate on every level through storytelling. I love stories. 

Can you talk about what literature and theory you were reading whilst you were putting 100 Nights together? 

I have always been interested in world-building fantasy and science fiction. My favourite author is Ursula LeGuin. I was also reading Margaret Atwood, Russel Hoban, Philip Pullman. I am interested in the way that authors use imaginary worlds as a vehicle through which to explore their own. For Hero I was also heavily influenced by a collection of ballads called ‘The child ballads’ which were a lot of English, Irish, Scottish folk songs collected together. They are very dark and strange and mysterious, full of terrible and weird things. I found these very inspiring. 

100 Nights of Hero is available to order from Jonathan Cape and is stocked by most major bookstores.

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