Katherine Howe is the New York Times bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, The House of Velvet and Glass, and Conversion. She has hosted “Salem: Unmasking the Devil” for the National Geographic Channel, and her fiction has been translated into over twenty-five languages. A native Texan, she lives in New England and upstate New York, where she teaches at Cornell and is at work on her next novel.
Rock the Boat: I have to say, you got the lingo of the American teenager down perfectly. Was that easy to do or not?
Katherine Howe: Thank you! I have to say, “easy” is not the right word. On the one hand, I spent seven years as an American teenager myself, so that helped. To some degree, I think teenagers all face some of the same feelings and challenges regardless of where or when they happen to live, including figuring out what your values are, and what kind of person you want to be. For me, the lingo wasn’t as hard as the generational stuff. I was a teenager in the 1990s, putting me squarely in Generation X. I distinctly remember when we got our first answering machine (I was in middle school). I didn’t get my first email address until I went to college, and I probably sent my first text message when I was 24. The biggest challenge for me was trying to understand what it feels like to be a so-called “digital native,” someone who is so used to being in constant contact with her friends via cell phone, and who curates her online persona as part of her everyday life. I spent a lot of time eavesdropping on teenagers, and I sat down with a few carefully chosen informants.
Rock the Boat: In CONVERSION, Colleen and her friends have to juggle the stress of school and college applications, homework, parents, and a social life. Does it get easier as you get older?
Katherine Howe: In a sense, yes, and in another sense, no. When you get older you have to worry about things you never even imagine existed – just today I remarked to myself that never when I was a teenager did I guess I would spend hours worrying about the gutters on my house (adulthood involves a lot of things like gutters and pantry moths and paperwork). But navigating friendships definitely gets easier. Colleen and her friends struggle with feeling affection for each other, and yet also feeling competition with each other. Part of that anxiety stems from the fact that most teenagers are still in the process of figuring out who they want to be. Eventually, as you get older, you start to know yourself much better. It becomes easier to see people in nuanced ways, with all their advantages and flaws. Ask anyone who has been to a high school reunion – you go in still carrying all these scars, and it can be surprising to discover that all the people you thought were the worst in high school have turned out to just be regular people, like you.
Rock the Boat: I imagine that you–along with most American high schoolers–had to read Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE. Did it stick with you from your first reading or was it upon looking back that something struck a chord?
Katherine Howe: I definitely read The Crucible in high school. I don’t remember what I thought of it when I first read it as a teenager, but I remember the first time I taught it to college students. First, I was struck by how many of my students thought that everything in the play was completely factual. That’s a testament to what a good writer Arthur Miller is, obviously, but at the same time, Miller has his own agenda in that play. It’s all about John Proctor’s moral rectitude. You know what I don‘t care about? John Proctor’s moral rectitude. Not when Salem was really about women, and girls, and power. It’s interesting to me that we so often use historical episodes to explain our culture to ourselves. Salem shows up over and over again in American culture, so much that the phrase “witch hunt” has become shorthand for any overzealous, unjust pursuit of a group of people or ideas. But I feel like, for our current moment, Arthur Miller misses the point. Right now, we’re in a moment where teenagers feel very keenly that they can’t count on the same things that worked for their parents. Jobs will be different, relationships are different, maybe family structures are different. It’s a stressful, transitional time, and it’s worth thinking about.
Rock the Boat: All of Colleen’s friends have very distinct characteristics: one is a talented texter, another is a secretive, shy girl. How did you come up with these characters?
Katherine Howe: Well a lot of them borrow from either myself, or people I know. Deena’s habit of changing song lyrics to be about her friends is something I do all the time (it drives my husband crazy). And we all have that one friend who’s always texting, even while you’re in the middle of a conversation. A few years ago my mother gave me a t-shirt that says “Careful, or you’ll wind up in my novel.” And it’s so true – I’m always watching the people around me, looking for little details that I can glean that might fit with a given character.
Rock the Boat: What do you find so fascinating about the Salem Witch trials?
Katherine Howe: Honestly, Salem is so at odds with the national narrative that the US has spun for itself that it’s like we can’t get over it. Maybe because our history is so short – I mean, technically during the Salem outbreak we were still British – that a lot of energy goes into Americans trying to decide what “American” really means. There’s a lot of mythmaking involved. And the thing with Salem is, it really forces us to reckon with a lot of those myths. Think we value tolerance? Not always. What about religious freedom? Due process of law? Stuff like that? Salem was 100% legal, and yet 100% wrong. How can that be? Honestly, I think we’re still trying to figure it out.
Rock the Boat: What, if any, myths did you find out about the Salem Witch trials that turned out not to be true? What, in your research, were you surprised to find out?
Katherine Howe: So many!
MYTH #1: The witches at Salem were burned at the stake. Status: False! Witchcraft in North America in the 1600s – just like in England – was a felony, in the same way that murder was. It was tried as a felony, and the punishment was death by hanging.
MYTH #2: The afflicted girls at Salem (Ann and her friends) acted strangely because they were suffering from ergotism, caught by eating moldy rye bread. Status: False! This hypothesis has been around since the 1970s (the same time an awful lot of people were using LSD. Coincidence? I think not), that the effects of ergot poisoning caused the children to hallucinate, and that’s why they thought they saw witches and demons and so forth. It’s a tempting solution, partly because it’s so tidy. Also, because it’s easy to prevent. The truth is, a complex intersection of social and psychological forces caused the girls to behave the way they did. And ultimately, that’s much scarier, isn’t it? What ailed the girls was their lives. Not poison.
MYTH #3: Witches were found out by the use of ducking stools. Status: only sort of true. Ducking stools in England and North America in the 1600s were more commonly used to punish “scolds,” i.e. women who were mouthy. I’ve only found two instances of North American witches who were evaluated using a ducking stool, one in Connecticut and one in Virginia. With the one in Virginia, the colonists had gotten the idea out of a book, and had no idea how to interpret the results. They let that accused witch off with a warning.
MYTH #4: The Salem panic broke out because the girls had been conjuring in the woods at night under the guidance of Tituba, Reverend Parris’s Barbados slave. Status: totally false (and kind of racist, blaming Tituba for what happened). This version shows up in The Crucible, and has its origin in some 19th Century accounts of Salem, but it was made up based on an obscure footnote in a recollection by a Salem survivor many years after the fact. There’s evidence that the Massachusetts colonists believed in folk magic in ways similar to their relatives in England, but that’s not what caused the initial symptoms of Betty Parris and Abigail Williams. There’s probably no one specific cause, but several all clustered together, only some of which do modern historians understand.
Rock the Boat: Although America is not as old as many European countries, it still has a very rich history. Tell us three of your favorite times in American history.
Katherine Howe: One of the things I love most about the United States is that we are an ongoing experiment. As such, my favorite times in American history have to do with major change. First, I love the American Revolution, partly because so many important things took place in and around Boston (where I live), but also because it’s actually a crazy idea, having a revolution. How does that even happen? The colonists rebelled in part because they felt their rights as Englishmen were being violated. It’s strange to think that what we now call the American Revolution came about out of a struggle over Englishness. One of my other favorites is the Texas Republic. I grew up in Texas, which is a huge state that shares a long border with Mexico (it’s even bigger than France). For ten years, from 1836-1846, Texas was an independent country before joining the United States. Partly because of that, Texans are known for having an independent streak. Texans like to act as though we’re doing the rest of the US a favor by deigning to hang out with them. Finally, I think my most favorite historical moment in the US would have to be right now. We’re at a moment when we’re confronting our legacy of racial discrimination and intolerance. We still have a long way to go, but the amount of change, even in my parents’ lifetime, is staggering and fills me with hope. My parents grew up in the segregated South. Now we have a black president, and are starting to have hard conversations about police brutality and inequality. Maybe it’s naïve, but I’m hopeful. I believe our experiment can change for the better.
Rock the Boat: Deena likes to make up songs to the tune of Colleen’s name. In somewhat of the same vein, do you think there’s a theme song to CONVERSION?
Katherine Howe: Deena’s habit of singing with Colleen’s name derives from something that I do all the time. (I sing songs and put my husband’s or my dog’s name in them. I’m a lot of fun on long car trips. And by “fun,” I mean “maddening.”) I think a good theme song might be “Fear of the Unknown,” by Siouxsie and the Banshees. I was listening to a lot of Siouxsie and the Banshees while I was writing CONVERSION. And when the novel first found a publisher, I listened to the Smashing Pumpkins “Today” very, very loudly.
Rock the Boat: You’re allowed to bring three books and two movies with you on a deserted island. What are they?
Katherine Howe: Oh, that’s hard. I mean, the temptation is to name really, really long books and movies, right? Lots of time to kill. Hrm. Okay, let’s try this.
Books: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton. It’s my favorite novel, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921. It’s a devastating story of thwarted love in Gilded Age New York, and I reread it every year. Right now I’m reading obsessively about piracy in the Gulf of Mexico during the early 1800s as research for my next book – I know, historical novelists have weird reading lists – so I might bring one of the books I’m reading for that. And then I’d bring a blank book and a pen, so that I can write.
Movies: Ocean’s Eleven (remake), so that I can watch George Clooney in slow motion whenever I want. The Last of the Mohicans, so that I can watch Daniel Day-Lewis in slow motion whenever I want, while he’s dressed in buckskin, and because of that scene behind the waterfall. I love that scene. And maybe The Godfather, because it’s incredible. Also, it’s long. That will be very important on a desert island.
Rock the Boat: What advice do you have for young, aspiring writers?
Katherine Howe: Honestly, the most important thing you can do if you want to write is…. Write. A lot. Write every day. Write when you’re supposed to be doing other things. Try different voices, different tenses, different styles. Try to imitate other writers to see how it feels to write like Hemingway, or Poe, or Hawthorne, or James. Watch the world unfold around you, and have the courage to write about it. It’s harder than it sounds. But if you want to do it, you can. It’s just a matter of giving yourself permission.