Sunday, 30 May 2010

Author interview: Katherine Howe

Katherine Howe's debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, is a unique tale of the Salem witch trials. Katherine has a fascinating personal connection. She's the descendant of two women tried as witches, Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor. I'd like to give her a hearty welcome to Hoydens and Firebrands. Without further delay, I've included Katherine's bio, then on to our intriguing chat behind the scenes.


Katherine Howe is a candidate for a PhD in American and New England Studies at Boston University and the author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane." Two of her ancestors were tried as witches in 1692. Elizabeth Proctor survived the ordeal; Elizabeth Howe did not. Katherine developed the idea for her novel while she was studying for exams, walking her dog through the woods between Marblehead and Salem, Massachusetts. She lives in Marblehead with her husband.

Kim: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane uses two time periods, the 1690s and 1990s, why did you decide to write your story in the framework of the past and a relatively modern time? Why the 1990s?

Katherine: For me, the mental world of the Puritans has always been difficult to understand. They are so far away from us in time, and so many of their fundamental views of the world are no longer held, that I felt that the story needed a modern interlocutor to help us access the action that takes place in the past. Of course, for narrative purposes I had to disallow certain elements of modern life: cell phones and internet research especially. So my modern protagonist had to live in a time that felt like the present, but was itself also part of the past.

Kim: On your website, you say the idea for the book came to you while qualifying for your doctoral oral exams. Are you and Connie alike in other ways?

Katherine: Like a lot of first-time novelists, I wrote about a world that I know very well: graduate school in the humanities in eastern Massachusetts. As such, because we have the same job, Connie and I do share a few characteristics. But we are more different than you might expect. For one thing, Connie is older than I am (25 in 1991, when I was 14). She had a completely different upbringing, and as such has different hangups, assumptions, and habits of mind. Also she is working very hard on her dissertation, while I was procrastinating by writing a novel!

Kim: Interestingly, you are a descendant to condemned witch, Elizabeth Howe, and accused witch, Elizabeth Proctor. Why did you choose Deliverance Dane over one of your own ancestors?

Katherine: Well, for one thing, I was attracted to Deliverance because I felt that her name was incredibly evocative. It's so specific to a given moment in space and time. Also, because the story is somewhat fantastical, I wanted to write about a witch with whom we don't already have a relationship. Elizabeth Proctor was dramatized in The Crucible--we feel like we already know her. But also, I didn't want to write about either of the Elizabeths because I didn't really want the story to be about me. I feel that all Americans, related or not, have something to learn from the Salem episode.

Kim: In the postscript, you mention that numerous real people are used throughout your book, but they are represented fictitiously. Can you elaborate on how some of the details have been changed?

Katherine: The most obvious liberties have been taken with Deliverance herself. In effect, this story has nothing whatsoever to do with the real Deliverance, who lived in Topsfield, not Salem, and while she did have a husband named Nathaniel they did not have a daughter named Mercy. Also the real Deliverance was accused near the end of the panic, and her trial ended differently from how it ends in the book. A few other real people appear, including Mary Sibley, who baked the infamous witch cake early in the panic. I invented her personality, along with the personalities of a few others: Robert Hooper, the 18th Century Marblehead merchant, and several Essex County jurymen, all of whose names are taken from the record, but whose personalities I have invented.

Kim: As someone who definitely believes the cunning folk came to North America (I have found women who fit the description in Virginia and were tried as witches in my own research) during the early colonization period, why do you think some historians claim they remained on European shores? Do you personally think some of those tried as witches in Salem might have been cunning folk?

Katherine: I think the anti-cunning folk bias stems in part from an overemphasis on the role in New England in our national founding myths. Most historians agree that New England was in fact a highly anomalous society compared to the mercantile societies in Virginia and the Chesapeake. The Puritans practiced a very extreme form of Protestantism, which disallowed anything resembling pre-Reformation Christianity, with its saints days, feasting, miracles, and prayers of intercession. They didn't even celebrate Christmas! So for a long time it was assumed that Puritans purged their folk magic along with the remnants of Catholic practice. But only a very small--tiny--part of colonial America was Puritan. The other colonies were less austere, more religiously heterogeneous, and so much more likely to have a broad spectrum of folk belief.

Kim: Magical elements appear throughout the story, and it's definitely true that people of the seventeenth century believed in magic and witchcraft. Why did you decide to show magic the way it was portrayed in the book?

Katherine: I was trying to imagine what magic would look like if it occurred in a real world. In fairy tales or fantasy now we have a very large conception of magic: it deals in gigantic concepts like "evil" and "world domination." But the maleficium that the colonists worried about was very small, very personal, and very tied to the household, and to personal health: beer going bad, a calf refusing to nurse for no reason. So to imagine the magic in this story I borrowed from a few different areas, including New Age thinking about health and healing, some writing on the Tao, and an antiquated notion of the origin of life called "vitalism", which held that life force was akin to electricity.

Kim: What are you working on now and is true you'll be writing a sequel? If so, where does that story begin?

Katherine: I am working on a new book now, the working title of which is The Scrying Glass. This next project is not a sequel, but readers who enjoyed Physick Book will like this as well. It is set in Boston in the 1910s, right after the sinking of the Titanic, and concerns a Boston family that gets caught up in the Spiritualist movement. However, I don't feel fully done with the Dane family. I don't want to give anything away at this point, but I know what I would like to have happen next with Connie and her family, and I can't wait to see how it all plays out.

Thank you, Katherine! Be sure and check Katherine's websites to learn more about her or to purchase a copy of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and

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