25th Birthday Bash Day 5: History & Katherine Howe interview!
October 15, 2010 by · 24 Comments
I’m a huge history nerd. I watch The History Channel like it’s my job and am always the one that is actually excited about going to historical sites and museums. I cried when I saw the ruins in Rome. My stepdad, when I was a child, instilled this love for history in me as he is a huge history buff. He even does the reenactment of Washington’s Crossing every Christmas! I don’t even discriminate about time periods as I am enthralled with everything in history. I do have to say that I am really intrigued by early American history, particularly the Salem Witch Trials.
I am really excited for today’s birthday events and seeing as today is my actual birthday I thought history is quite fitting for the theme as I feel like birthdays just remind me of the fact that with each day and year I’m adding to this comprehensive book of history. I wanted to do something different for today and I thought an interview with an author whose books I loved would be a good way to celebrate. The first historical fiction book that I read was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a historical fiction novel set during The Salem Witch Trials, and I have to tell you how much it made me love historical fiction–a genre I had never really explored before. I knew I need to have Katherine Howe be a part of my birthday celebration and she was willing to do so! So, thank you Katherine!
1. Aside from living near Salem and having a family connection, what drew you to the stories of those involved in the Salem Witch Trials?
I am actually trained as a historian, believe it or not. I am finishing up a PhD in American and New England Studies at Boston University, and started working on the novel as a way of distracting myself from my PhD oral exams. I was very intrigued by the intense difference between our current popular culture conception of what a witch is – pointy hat, black cat, “Bewitched,” et cetera, and the ideas that the colonists actually had about witches. That difference becomes much more acute given that I happen to live in a part of the world where people believed for generations that witches were real.
2. I liked that you focused on Deliverance Dane, a relatively unknown figure in the Salem Witch Trials, rather than some of the more well known figures. I felt like she was such a compelling character and she really came alive to me. Considering little was known about her, where did your inspiration come from in creating a personality and a story for her?
I was very attracted to Deliverance Dane first of all because her name is so evocative of a particular place and moment in time. Also, given that the story in Physick Book is not straight historical fiction,but also indulges in some more fantastical storytelling, I felt like writing about a lesser known figure would allow greater freedom to imagine. I hasten to add that I take broad liberties with Deliverance’s life; I change her age, her town of residence, and her fictional trial moves very differently from her real one. But I wanted very much to create a personality for the character that was true to what history would tell us about a woman in her position, of her religion, social rank, talents and shortcomings. One way to do that, for me, was to research the lives of women in colonial era New England.
3.It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel and reading some other interviews with you confirms that fact. What is one of the most interesting things you learned about the time period throughout your research?
Most surprising for me was to learn the extent to which even strictly religious people like the Puritans maintained some of their more esoteric folk beliefs in magic and the supernatural. A great book about the relationship between magic and religion during this time period is “Religion and the Decline of Magic,” by historian Keith Thomas. I learned quite a lot about the cunning folk tradition while researching the book, and wanted to weave that set of thoughts and beliefs into the Salem story in a new way.
4. What do you think is one misconception/myth concering the Salem Witch Trials?
I think there are several. People often ask me about the hypothesis that the afflicted little girls during the Salem panic were behaving strangely because of ergotism, a hallucinatory effect that results from eating moldy rye. That theory has largely been set aside by historians; we now think the behavior was psychologically rooted, rather than based on a physical ailment. The second question I am often asked is whether or not anyone as actually practicing witchcraft. Evidence suggests that there was no actual practice of witchcraft at that time; people accused of witchcraft did not *do* anything wrong. In the 1690s, accused witches were Christians who just didn’t fit in.
5. How hard is it, as a historical fictional writer, to be true to the area of history that you are writing about? What is one piece of advice for those who want to write historical fiction?
For me, the challenge with historical fiction is to make sure that the historical setting isn’t just window dressing. The idea is to tell a story that *must* take place in a specific moment in time, which is not the present. The best way to craft an authentic story, I think, is to do your homework ahead of time. People at different points in history didn’t think the way we do; they had different assumptions about the world, different hangups, different strengths and shortcomings. For writers of historical fiction, the reading of good secondary and primary sources is the most important part of writing.
6. Do you read historical fiction? If so, what are one or two of your favorite novels?
I greatly admire Matthew Pearl, another Boston based historical fiction writer best known for his novel The Dante Club. Anyone who enjoyed Physick Book should definitely check his books out.
7. If you could go back in time and live in any time period, what would it be and why?
I think most historians would agree that the best time period to live in is right now. There are plenty of time periods that I would enjoy being able to see, maybe from a safe vantage point: Revolutionary era Boston, for example. But life in the past for most people was brutal, filthy, violent, wracked with physical and emotional pain, and over very quickly. If I were a middle class woman in Revolutionary era Boston I would have bedbugs and fleas in all my sheets, a face scarred by pox, rotting teeth, a few children who probably did not survive infancy, and I might have already lost my husband to an accident. I wouldn’t be able to vote, I wouldn’t be as educated as I am today, my every day would be a rough slog of household labor and worry about the future. I’ll take antibiotics, instant brownie mix, and the vote, thank you!
8. I have this fascination with reading about relatively obscure people from the past who did extraordinary things. Do you have any favorite obscure historical figures?
One of the best history books I have ever read is called “A Midwife’s Tale,” by the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. The book is about Martha Ballard, a Maine midwife in the 1700s, reconstructed from a daily diary that she kept about her household work. She is a perfect example of someone we might not normally consider to be important – she wasn’t involved in the Revolution. She wasn’t political. She just lived her life, day to day. But in her own way she was a courageous and remarkable person. I think a lot of women’s history is about uncovering these kinds of stories, about valuing all different aspects of historical experience, not just the big important men attending the Continental Congress.
9. Do you have any books in the works? If so, and only if you can share, give us one sentence describing what we can expect!
I am hard at work on a new book, which will be the same genre as Physick Book, so historical fiction with an imaginative twist. However, it will look at a different family in a different moment in time. The Scrying Glass (its tentative title) will visit a Boston Brahmin family who loses someone on the Titanic and then gets caught up in the world of spiritualism and seances, and will ask if you can see what the future holds for you and the people you love, is it a blessing, or a curse? News and updates about that project will appear on the Facebook page, on Twitter (@katherinebhowe) and on www.katherinehowe.com
Thanks so much for celebrating with me, Katherine. I will be eagerly anticipating your next book!
Thank you, Jamie!
For today’s giveaway I’m going with the Salem theme!
Adult Historical Fiction Prize: Win a SIGNED copy of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (provided by Katherine Howe! Thank you!)
YA Historical Fiction Prize: Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials
Fill out this FORM. This one is US only. Ends 10/22.
Tell me your favorite period in history! Why that period?