The Big Idea: Nancy Werlin
Hey, do you remember the 90s? Nancy Werlin does, and one of the reasons she does involves her latest novel, Healer & Witch. Her latest novel… but perhaps not her most recent novel. Werlin is here now to explain how that works, and why she’s delighted this novel is now out in the world.
Healer & Witch is being published now, but I wrote it in 1996. I had a clandestine love affair with it when I was supposed to be monogamously involved with a contemporary young adult thriller. Healer & Witch is a historical fantasy set in 16th century France for ages 9-12—in other words, it wasn’t remotely a YA thriller.
I didn’t care.
I was in love with Sylvie, a teenage village healer who with a touch of her hands could locate and destroy pieces of a person’s memories—only her own power terrifies her and she needs to learn how to restore what she can take away—and with her barefoot companion, eight-year-old Martin, a headstrong farrier’s child who wants to see the world. Could they trust the bastard caste-climbing young merchant, Monsieur Chouinard? What was Ceciline the wisewoman planning for Sylvie, and why? What about the fanatic inquisitor newly come to Lyon? Also, how was I going to work Italian double-entry bookkeeping into the plot? The underground tunnels of Lyon?
I wrote longhand, which was not my usual method, at a breathless pace and finished a draft in months. Overcome with joy, I showed it to my editor, who’d been waiting patiently, years, for that thriller. Surprise!
Heartbreak was gently delivered unto me; Healer & Witch was too much like another middle-grade historical novel they had recently published. (It wasn’t!) But what about that thriller? Wouldn’t it be a more appropriate follow-up to my first YA, and shouldn’t I think about building a career, and not just about following my whims? (Oh.)
To the young writer that I was, that all made sense. It makes sense still . . . except in the ways that it doesn’t. But I was then too inexperienced to fully understand how to work with my creative needs.
And so, Healer & Witch went into my file cabinet. Just for now, I thought. And it turned out that the break had done me good; I finally found my way into The Killer’s Cousin and loved it too, and it eventually won an Edgar award. My editor and publisher then wanted another thriller.
Time passed, a great deal of it. I wrote and published YA novels, 11 of them, and I loved each one.
But at the same time, I buried the Nancy Werlin who wrote longhand on yellow legal pads, with a book of herbs and poisons by her side for ready reference, and her French dictionary, and her historian college roommate on speed dial. The Nancy who’d pinned up a map of France to track the course of Monsieur Chouinard’s caravan, and another map of the underground tunnels of Lyon (which, sadly, I did not end up able to incorporate into the plot).
I had also set aside the Nancy who was inspired by the adult historical fiction of Dorothy Dunnett and wanted to engage with it as writers do. Dunnett’s invisible hand is on the shoulder of the writer that I was and am. I can’t speak of her work without awe. Her books have it all: Unforgettable characters. Twisty plotting that makes your head hurt. Meticulous yet creatively inspired use of historical detail. Action scenes to give you a heart attack. Prose at once beautiful and precise, and dense with multiple meanings that reward close attention and re-reads.
In Healer & Witch, I had tried to evoke for younger readers what Dunnett had for me as an adult reader: intellectual and emotional absorption in another time and place, with life and death stakes, and accurate attention to the political, religious, and economic realities of the period. Only feminist, too, and also with a bit of magic, for I play looser than she, and for a younger audience.
That Nancy spent 25 years in a file cabinet.
Then, as the pandemic dawned in 2020, I was homebound. I was scared. I sought comfort, diving deep into reading old, beloved books. One day, I looked in that file cabinet and saw a paper manuscript. It was the only copy I had of Healer & Witch.
I read it. I had no expectations. I remembered being the Nancy who’d written this story, but I had no certainty about her passion or reliability. I felt the way you might when, after many years, you meet your teenage love. You don’t know if intense emotions will reignite, or if you will smile and shake your head.
But as I read, my breath caught; heart beat faster. It was 25 years later, but I was still in love with courageous, desperate Sylvie. I still cared about her predicament, and her friends and enemies, and her world. And I thought I had told her story very well indeed.
And so, I retyped. I needed another opinion; one I trusted. I sent the manuscript to my new editor at my new publisher. She had minored in medieval history at college. Within a week, she emailed me with a few exciting suggestions for revision.
And an offer.
Publishing Healer & Witch makes me feel as if my character Sylvie has touched me with her healing hands, and restored my past self to me.