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Author Talk: July 2, 2009


July 2, 2009

Katherine Howe's debut, THE PHYSICK BOOK OF DELIVERANCE DANE, follows two intertwined narratives --- one of a Harvard graduate student in 1991, and the other of a woman caught in the middle of the infamous Salem Witch Trials three centuries previous. In this interview, Howe describes her personal connection to this historical event, and discusses her interest in portraying it accurately as opposed to its more common "fairy tale version." She also explains what drew her to the real-life titular figure, and speculates why people have always been fascinated with this period in American history.

Question: Your website, postscript, and the press materials talk about what led you to write this book --- the idea developed while you were studying for your doctoral qualifying exams (and while walking your dog in Salem and Marblehead, and teaching at BU). Can you provide more specifics about how the idea came about?

Katherine Howe: My husband and I moved to Marblehead from Cambridge in summer of 2005, and that November I was scheduled to take my oral exam in the American and New England Studies Program at BU. The interesting thing about Marblehead, for those who haven’t been there, is that it has one of the most complete collections of extant eighteenth-century American architecture in the country. It’s the kind of place where only a little bit of imagination can erase the power lines overhead, block out the cars parked along the street, and start to imagine what life might have looked like in a different moment in time.
Grad students get notoriously nervous leading into their oral exams, and I was no exception. If I went walking and didn’t occupy my mind with something else, I would just turn back to worrying again. So I distracted myself with thought experiments. Since Marblehead is only one town over from Salem, we see a lot of the more commercial interpretations of the Salem witchcraft episode. As an AMNESP student, however, I knew that the reality of Salem looked very different from the fairy tale version. So I asked myself: if witchcraft were real the way the colonists understood it to be, rather than in our fairy tale sense, what would it look like? How would it work? What would it be capable of, and not capable of? The story for PHYSICK BOOK really grew out of that idea.
How did you come to know about Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth Proctor (i.e., how did you first learn of them? Were you immediately curious about them? Have you done a lot of research on them?) You mention in your postscript that they have affected your life --- how?
I first learned about them when my aunt was doing some family research when I was about fifteen years old. And of course I responded like a fifteen year old would --- I thought it was the coolest thing ever!

For a lot of people, uncovering a family connection is a way to personalize a period of history that otherwise feels too remote to be really relatable. For my own part, I have been more interested in learning about what daily life was like in that time period. How did it feel to live in that world? What was it like to think like a Puritan? How itchy were the clothes? How dark was the meeting house? I think the Salem episode belongs to all of us; we all have something to learn from it.
Q: Why did you decide to write a historical novel, rather than a work of nonfiction?
There has been so much amazing work done on witchcraft in America by so many prominent historians, including AMNESP’s own David Hall, that attempting a narrative nonfiction account would feel like hubris! Also, fiction allows much more room for imagination. I chose to write about Deliverance Dane in Physick Book because though she was a real person, very little is known about her. Since so much of the novel expands in an imaginative way on real events, I wanted to have room to play with the historical record.
Q: It’s true that no such “physick book” exists today, correct?
I am not aware of any North American examples of a physick book per se, though there are a number of cookbooks and guides for housewives that date from that time period. A physick book from the eighteenth century was recently discovered and put up for auction in the UK. Its recipes called for pike bones and dragon’s blood in a few instances, which is really just a fancy name for red tree sap.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on Deliverance Dane? Had you come across her in previous research? The real Deliverance Dane survived…correct?

I was first drawn to Deliverance Dane because her name is so wonderfully evocative. It seemed dramatic to me, and a little foreboding. I also wanted to write about her because the vagueness of the details about her actual life left me lots of room to fill in a story. If I had written about one of the better known Salem witches, like Rebecca Nurse or Giles Corey, the story would have been less persuasive since we already know so much about those actual people.

The real Deliverance Dane was accused near the end of the trials, when the panic spread north from Salem into Andover. She did have a husband named Nathaniel, and she was imprisoned for a short time. However, there is no evidence that she was an actual cunning woman, and she survived the trials relatively unscathed.
Q: Why was it important to you to bring all of these women to life?

I think a lot of people have a secret affinity for the Salem trials, which is one reason we keep seeing so many accounts of them, both historical and fictional. The Salem episode is so anomalous, so different from what we expect when we think about colonial history, or American culture more generally, that we are never fully satisfied about it. I have also long been struck by how much lionization of the New England colonists takes place. We ask them to bear so much symbolic weight that we forget that these were individual people, with strengths and flaws like anyone else. Elizabeth Howe, for example, was so widely disliked that the main complainants against her were her own family! So in a sense I was attracted to writing PHYSICK BOOK because it gave me a chance to explore, albeit fictionally, these lost individual people.
Q: Did you hope to better illuminate that period of American history, or just write about it in a different way? Our knowledge and perceptions of the Salem witch trials tend to be distorted by the media, time, etc.

One of my goals with PHYSICK BOOK was to inspire curiosity about the actual history of the Salem period. It’s interesting to me how blurred our understanding of the Salem episode is; for instance, many people take The Crucible to be a historically accurate portrayal of events at the trials, without considering that Arthur Miller took broad liberties with character’s ages and relationships in order to craft a more coherent story. (Of course, I took some liberties too.) But I wanted to illustrate the fact that the historical truth of witchcraft is very different from the popular, fairy tale notion. I wanted to investigate how the colonists might have felt about witchcraft in their own terms. The witchcraft in PHYSICK BOOK is based on how the colonists actually believed magic to be.
Q: It’s obvious that a lot of research went into this novel (I found Connie’s search for the “receipt booke” and the chapters set in the 1600s particularly fascinating), and you mention that it was important to you to accurately portray the characters’ dress, their manner of speaking, and their homes. Can you talk a bit about research --- how long it took vs. the writing, and what kinds of sources you used?
I relied on some of the excellent secondary sources that exist about Salem specifically, and about early modern popular magic more generally. Historians such as Paul Boyer, Stephen Nissenbaum, John Demos, Mary Beth Norton, Carol Karlsen, Keith Thomas, Owen Davies, David Hall, and Richard Godbeer have all done incredibly detailed work on this period, and I would point anyone curious about the real story of colonial witchcraft to their books. I also tried to train myself in everyday speech of the period by reading a few linguistics articles, since so much historical fiction is written like an episode of “Masterpiece Theater,” as though everyone in the past had perfect diction and no one used slang. For furnishings and details of daily life I used a wonderful exhibition catalogue of early New England material culture that was published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, called “New England Begins."
The research took about a year and a half of reading and stewing, and then another year and a half was spent in the outlining and writing of the story. The hardest part was forcing myself to stop researching. There is always more to be learned.
Q: I know you taught a class on New England witchcraft, but did you learn anything new about it while writing the book? (Or, if not, what can you tell us about New England witchcraft in the seventeenth century?)
The best way to learn something well is to have to teach it. For this reason I am enormously grateful to the two classes of WR 150 students who took “New England Witchcraft” with me. They kept me on my toes for two years while I was working on PHYSICK BOOK.
I think the most striking detail in studying New England witchcraft is to learn what kind of person was likely to be accused. Most accused witches, not just in Salem but in early American history more generally, were quarrelsome women, grumpy, outspoken, bitter, or otherwise disenchanted with their lot in life. Often they had grudges nursed against them for years that only came out when charges were finally brought against them. It is moving to see how narrowly defined colonial village life really was, how bound up in gossip and jostling for social resources. It’s a powerful reminder about the darker side of the human character.
Why did you set Connie’s story in 1991?
1991 feels like the present, but it is actually the past. Connie lives in a world without cell phones, without much in the way of internet research tools, and with a more byzantine academic culture. Many aspects of Connie’s story would not have worked if set in 2009. After all, it’s not so scary to spend the summer alone in a house on the North Shore without electricity or a telephone, if you have great cell reception. In a way, today none of us can ever be truly alone anymore.
Are you working on another book?
I am. It is also historical fiction with a slightly atypical, mysterious element, set in Boston in 1915, just as the city is starting to resemble its modern-day self. Tentatively called THE SCRYING GLASS, the book will follow another unique New England family as it undergoes a shocking transition. Anyone who enjoys PHYSICK BOOK will enjoy THE SCRYING GLASS as well. I also have plans for a PHYSICK BOOK sequel.
What do you plan to do when you complete your Ph.D.?
At this point I plan to focus all my energies on writing, though I confess I’ve missed being in the classroom lately. Who knows what the future might hold?

© Copyright 2009, Katherine Howe. All rights reserved.

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