Phil Rickman is probably best known for his Merrily Watkins series. Set in Herefordshire and the Welsh borders they feature Merrily Watkins, the attractive, widowed vicar of Ledwardine. However, Merrily isn’t your average country vicar. She’s trained in exorcism or, to use the modern euphemism, Deliverance Ministry. She is aided and abetted by Jane, her feisty and idealistic teenage daughter. Other characters include: Lol Robinson, her damaged but brilliant musician boyfriend; Gomer Parry, an ancient but indomitable drainage contractor; and Frannie Bliss, an edgy and angst-ridden Scouse copper. Though the topic is exorcism and there are spooks and shades to be dealt with, there’s always a body or two as well. The Magus of Hay, latest in the series, is due out 7 November. So we caught up with Phil Rickman.
First of all, can you tell us a little bit about your writing career so far?
I’d always wanted to write crime novels, but the breakthrough as a novelist finally came with feeling irritated about all those US horror writers transporting elements of British folklore to the Midwest, or wherever. So I started Candlenight, a Welsh ghost story – I was the BBC’s reporter in mid-Wales at the time – which involved thinly-disguised real places, indigenous folkore and contemporary politics. It was spotted by the novelist Alice Thomas Ellis, fiction editor for Duckworth at the time, who sold the paperback rights to Pan. However, horror had peaked by the early 90s and Candlenight bombed in the few shops it managed to reach. However, the second one, Crybbe (Curfew), was a bestseller in the US. But I’d never wanted to be a horror writer, and the genre was already turning into fantasy, so after five novels I grabbed the chance to go the other way, into intelligent crime with a careful element of the paranormal. Enter Merrily Watkins – mystery you can solve, with hints of mystery you can’t. Merrily was a slow-burner. For years, neither my then publishers nor most booksellers got it. The moral is: if you want to make any money always stay firmly in one genre and never attempt anything original.
What can crime fiction lovers expect from The Magus of Hay?
It’s a Merrily Watkins novel about Hay-on-Wye and its mysteries. When I was working for BBC Wales, I made several radio programmes and TV items about the King of Hay and his declaration of independence, which had turned a rural backwater on the Welsh border into the world capital of the secondhand book trade. Now it’s a cool cultural centre, which draws a mass of tourists every year. But they don’t know the half of it. In the book, a man is found dead below a waterfall outside the town, and a whole secret history is uncovered. I’ve taken a few liberties, but much of it’s based on fact. It really is a very strange area. I’ll be talking about it all at the Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend on December 1.
In the Merrily books, the supernatural entities are normally seen by the other characters and not by Merrily. Does she really believe in them?
She doesn’t know. Nobody knows. I’ve spoken to lots of C of E exorcists. One actually didn’t believe in ghosts. Some have told me – occasionally half-embarrassed – that they’ve seen one. These novels sit on the border, in every sense. Born-again evangelical Christians won’t go near them, while they’re quite popular with a surprising number of atheists.
The Church of England background seems totally authentic, and worthy of Trollope. Are you a ‘churchy’ person?
Worthy of Trollope? Wow. Thanks. Well, I went to a Church of England primary school but, despite that, I still feel a certain sympathy for the Church. But no, I’m not a churchy person, I just keep my ears open. ‘My bishop?’ one vicar said. ‘Complete bastard. Can’t wait to get the hell out.’
To write so sympathetically about the travails of Lol Robinson, you must be a guitarist. Are you?
Oh, yes. I play a guitar that’s far too good for me.
You have an eye for the power of landscape, and features that can loom over the action, like Glastonbury Tor and the Mosses. Where does this come from?
No idea. I like to think I’m responsive to atmosphere, and I’ve loved mysterious places for as long as I can remember. Dragging my mum and dad to some remote cromlech on Anglesey when I was about eight. And then discovering leylines – the point about leys is that it doesn’t matter whether they exist or not, they make you view the landscape with new eyes.
You also write as Thom Madley and Will Kingdom. Have Thom and Will retired, with fat pensions?
Will’s been fired for being stupid enough to sign a two-book contract for paperback originals and then having the nerve to moan about his books getting a promotional budget of about £2.40. His novels The Cold Calling and Mean Spirit have now been Kindled under my name with better covers. I get endless emails asking when there’s going to be another. Thom Madley’s two young adult titles, set in Glastonbury, also seem to have bombed. He’s still published in paperback by Usborne but has now also been made available on Kindle for grown-ups
If Spielberg bought the rights to the Merrily series and you could cast the characters, who would you pick?
No way! This is the kiss of death. I once decided a very well-known actress would make a great Merrily and even exchanged a few emails with her. I remember her saying, ‘Of course, by the time it gets made, I’ll be too old’. And now she is. So never again. However, for the record, ITV Drama has optioned the series and now just has to sell the idea to ITV.