Katherine Howe: Bewitching History

photo: Nina Subin

Katherine Howe is the award-winning author of four previous novels and a nonfiction book. Her novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane debuted at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list and was named one of USA Today's Top 10 Books of 2009. Howe holds a BA in art history and philosophy from Columbia and an MA in American and New England studies from Boston University. A native Houstonian, she lives in New England and New York City. Her new novel, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, will be published by Holt in June 2019.

When you started your education path, what were your career aspirations?

After college I worked as a researcher for the Museum of Modern Art for two years, and then I went to graduate school to pursue a doctoral degree in American studies, with an emphasis on American visual and material culture--the images and objects of everyday life. My plan was to become a college professor. I loved the teaching and the research aspects of graduate work, but I found that I wanted to tell different kinds of stories from what academia would allow me to do. I left academia when my first novel came out. I feel privileged to be able to bring my graduate study to bear on my fiction writing.

In 2014 I published what would have been my doctoral dissertation as The Penguin Book of Witches, an edited volume of primary sources about witchcraft in England and North America. But I haven't fully left my old ways of thinking behind--every novel of mine has some work of art positioned in the middle of the story. Physick Book and Daughters both center on a portrait of a young woman hanging in Connie's grandmother's house.

Did you have any desire to pursue writing before your "thought experiment" that became The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane?

Definitely--I had wanted to be a creative writer since I was a child. I had always written, even if I wasn't working on anything in particular. Writing is how I process emotion and understand the world around me. It never occurred to me that that was something I could do for a job. I still sometimes look with disbelief on the trajectory my career has taken.

You have a personal connection to the Salem witch trials. Did that genealogy spark your interest in the idea of witchcraft and magic?

Initially, yes. I learned about two of them--Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe--as a teen, when my aunt did genealogical research. Naturally, I thought it was the most metal thing ever. I didn't start thinking about witchcraft in a more structured, historical way until I moved to Marblehead, Mass., in 2005, halfway through grad school. Marblehead is right next door to Salem. I realized I'd never seen a story that took seriously the colonial belief in witchcraft. I knew the skeptical version of the story--The Crucible, for instance--and I knew more fantastical versions of witchcraft, like Harry Potter, but I couldn't think of a magical realist approach to the Salem witch trials.

That's where the story in Physick Book came from. I chose to fictionalize Deliverance Dane, even though she was a real person, in part because she played a very small role in the Salem story, and because her name was so evocative of a specific time and place and cultural context.

That's why the third witch in the family came as a real surprise. Years after Physick Book came out I was nosing around on a genealogy website, filling in some missing pieces, and who do I find but Deliverance Dane herself! She's my eighth-great grandmother, more closely related to me than the Elizabeths, even the one with my same last name. It's a truism among witchcraft scholars that studying this topic long enough is bound to make you superstitious. That's definitely been my experience.

In your research, have you interacted with modern-day practitioners of witchcraft?

Yes, I have been fortunate to hear from many members of the Pagan and Wiccan communities over the years. One thing that moves me about these readers is how deeply those I have heard from feel a sense of solidarity with the past. Modern-day witchcraft is, perhaps counterintuitively, a contemporary syncretic religion, but virtually everyone I have encountered feels a deeply personal connection to people who were persecuted as witches in the past. As a history person, I am excited whenever I meet someone who is passionate about learning about the past, particularly when that past is as culturally or religiously remote from the moment we are living in today as Salem.

You introduced Connie Goodwin in The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in 2009. Did you always intend to continue her story?

I definitely wanted to continue Connie's story, both because I am partial to her, but also because I came up with an entire genealogy for her family when outlining the first novel, and I thought it would be fun to explore some of the other women in her timeline. But other projects always seemed to get in the way. I'm excited now to be able to expand the world that I made in Physick Book.

Connie learns about a powerful recipe in The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs with very specific and very interesting ingredients. Where did that come from?

I got the basics of that recipe from a rare 18th-century book about folklore in Britain and North America that is held in the New York Public Library. Without giving too much away, I knew that I wanted to deal with a recipe for that kind of witchcraft because it has historically played such a huge role in our conceptions of what witches are able to do. Any pop-culture representation of witchcraft, be it a medieval German woodcut or a Harry Potter film, addresses this variety of magic. I alluded to it only glancingly in Physick Book, and I was really excited to explore it in Daughters. But I think it's a bit of an open question as to how the recipe works, or indeed if it works at all.

You've also published a YA novel, Conversion. How does writing for young adults compare to adult fiction?

It might not be immediately obvious, but Conversion is also set in Physick's world. My main character, Colleen, is trying to solve an outbreak at her high school that looks an awful lot like what happened in Salem in 1692, so that book examines the Salem story from the afflicted girls' perspective, rather than from the witches' perspective. I really enjoyed writing YA, partly because the point of view is more constrained. We see the entire story from inside the teenagers' perspectives, so when I write YA I naturally gravitate to writing in first person. That voice feels more immediate to me, in the self-preoccupied, intense and dramatic way that most of us feel when we are in our teens and 20s.

And finally, what's next for you now?

I'm plotting and scheming. And learning how to read tarot cards, just in case. --Jen Forbus

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