What follows is our second seminar with one of our visiting authors, Katherine Howe. She'll be discussing her book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a novel that was published in 2009 and became an instant New York Times bestseller. It's a novel about witchcraft in early America, but also about the relationship between past and present. And also about the nature of historical research itself. And one of the reasons I assigned this book is that it brings together two different periods and helps us think about both of them through the lens of historical fiction. The first period is the late 17th century and the Salem witch trials. This was, of course, a difficult period in colonial American history that was famously dramatized in Arthur Miller's play the Crucible, and that Howe brings alive through a series of interludes, that follow the persecution and trial of a group of women suspected of witchcraft. And the second historical period, if you want to call it that, is the year 1991 when the modern protagonist, a graduate student, tracks down a book of magic that belonged to a mysterious and elusive women named, Deliverance Dane. One as, aspect of the story that really comes out in Howe's discussion with my seminar students at The University of Virginia, is the archival dimensions of the novel. As you can see if you look through the sources linked in the readings tab, many of the novel's scenes are derived quite directly from specific moments in the witchcraft trials in the 1690s. In fact, I've given you some links that will allow you to read some of the primary sources that Howe used. Most of them from the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, hosted here at the University of Virginia libraries. And you can put those excerpts from the primary sources side-by-side with some of the moments in the novel and see how she's working with these archival sources. In a, in a very immediate way, really at the level of the sentence. so I'd encourage you to poke around in this really impressive digital archive as you read Deliverance Dane, and think about the process of research and recovery involved in a novel like the one that we're reading for this class. What follows, then, is a long and in depth discussion between Katherine Howe and our seminar students about the genre and the craft of historical fiction. So we've divided it into several parts beginning with the author's own introduction of the novel and her writing process. I hope you enjoy this seminar with Katherine Howe. So Katherine, thank you so much for joining us. >> Thanks so much for inviting me. I'm delighted to be here. Thank you guys for being here too. I'm a little unusual as a histor, historical fiction writer goes because I came to historical fiction from the history side rather than from the fiction side. I was actually halfway through a Ph.D in American and New England studies when I started working on the Physic Book of Deliverance Dain. And the funny thing about it is that my background is in American visual culture, which is kind of like interdisciplinary art history to some degree. And I was studying for my oral exams, which is the halfway point of a Ph.D. And I was living in a really unusual place. I was living in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which is one town over from Salem. And the thing that makes Marblehead a little bit special is that. Whereas, Salem. So, we know Salem from the with trials. Obviously, we're going to be talking about that to some degree today. but Salem thought of itself for a very long time as not related to the witch trials at all. In fact in the 19th century, up until the 19th century, Salem was very wealthy. It was a wealthy ship building town. This is the Salem that Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in, for instance. And when Salem became very wealthy, they knocked down all of their old early colonial architecture. At least most of it. It had become very unfashionable to live in these dark, dank, spooky, gabled houses, like the House of the Seven Gables, just to pick one example. So, Salem today doesn't look very much like its 17th century self. where as Marblehead's a little bit different. Marblehead was founded as a fishing village. And it stayed a pretty poor fishing village until well into the twentieth century. And so one of the paradoxes of this is that from a historic preservation standpoint, it's actually very fortunate that Marblehead stayed a poor fishing village. It's eighteenth century architecture stayed pretty much unchanged. They weren't wealthy enough to knock the houses down and replace them with snazzy new brick architecture. And instead they just turned them into small apartments and tenements, if you can imagine that. So in, around 2005, my husband and I were living on the second floor of what had been a fisherman's house, from 1705. And the interesting thing about living in a historic context. When you have the eye of a historian, and especially someone who is trained in material culture and visual culture, which is what I was trained in, was that I was very interested in kind of thinking about continuities and discontinuities between that period of history I was studying and the period of history I was living in. And if you go to Salem today, Salem is a wonderful town and I'm very attached to it, and it's very, kind of celebrates its witch heritage. And so if you go around Halloween, it's a good time to go, because there's pointy hats, and there's a lot of parties and festivals and it's a great time to be there. But I was very struck as I was studying and I was living in this historic context, that our contemporary picture of what a witch is. And I think if I say a witch we all immediately get a mental image which is a woman with like a warty nose and pointy hat and a broom, maybe a cat. I was interested by the fact that this kind of fairy tale inflected picture of what a witch is. the "Wizard of Oz" witch is so different from what the historical conception of what a witch is. And I was very struck by the fact that I was living in this part of the world, and in fact in a piece of architecture that had been inhabited by people who believed witchcraft was really real. And so I think one of the great strengths of history as an academic discipline is that it's able to talk about systems. It's able to talk about the way that systems enable and constrain our experiences. It's not always as good for talking about individuals often times because individuals, their individual stories are so lost. To time. I mean there's some certain examples, exceptions to that rule. but for the most part, it's easier to talk about systems than it is to try to reconstitute an individual's experience. And so I think for me, I think that, that's where historical fiction has a lot to offer. It's a way of investigating. The mental, the intellectual, the spiritual experience of people whose lives have been lost to history, and in doing it in a way that is informed by historical research and historical experience. So for me, the story in Physick Book of Deliverance Dane started out as kind of a question. If witchcraft were actually real the way that the colonists believed it to be, how would it work, and who would do it, and why would they do it, and what would it really mean to those people? And so, the research that I did for The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane concerned, of course, being me, and being a material and visual culture person concerned. First, I wanted to get a really thorough grounding of the dramatus persona of the Salem Witch crisis. Second, I wanted to really understand the material world in which those people lived. Because I believe that the way we interact with our environment can in some, to some degree determine our experience of what's happening around us. And then I also wanted to understand the relationship between folk magic belief, and religious belief, in the 17th century. historically we've held that the Puritans who were living in Essex county at this time, didn't have much in the way of folk magical belief. But that's not actually the case. And in fact the relationship between folk belief and kind of doctrinaire belief, and who gets to define what a witch is and what a witch means to different classes of people is a question that I still find very interesting and motivating. So the story in Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is about a graduate student, this should be unsurprising since I was a graduate student while I was writing it. A graduate student who discovers that one of the Salem witches was the real thing. Except that she was the real thing, not in a fantasy way, not in a Wizard of Oz way. But in what I imagine, the Puritans believed witches to be. And so that's kind of an origin of the story and also starts to get at some of my thinking about what historical fiction has able to do. And what distinguishes it from regular fiction or contemporary fiction, and what distinguishes it from narrative non-fiction. because I think one of the struggles that I run into in thinking about historical fiction is. What is its purpose? You know, if, if literature is meant to convey something transcendent about the human experience, then there's really no need to set it in a different time period. Unless we just want to have people dressed in funny outfits. maybe we just want to have people dressed in funny outfits. But I think that there's something to be said for creating empathy with people in the past, with a, a different. Set of experiences that might be difficult to achieve otherwise. >> One of the things I know that, that [SOUND] a lot of the students picked up on was the, the fact that in some ways this is two intertwining historical narratives. >> Yes. >> It's not, it's not the Connie story, the, the present day protagonist. She's in some ways historical too. >> She is. >> [CROSSTALK] Now the, the timing of that is 1991? >> 1991, that's true. And, and I'm, I'm intrigued that you guys picked up on that. That, as you can imagine, a very deliberate choice for a couple of reasons. One is a historian, historian's joke I think. The fact that because of the way that the calendar changed. the Salem witch crisis actually started in 1691 slash 92 and and so I was enjoying the 300 year kind of symmetry and juxtaposition there. But the other reason is, even though it's appalling to those of us who remember 1991 and I certainly remember 1991, it is a historical moment. It is a different historical time. And so for Connie for her adventure, I needed her to be isolated. I needed her to be alone in a library. I needed her to be alone in a house and unable to call someone for help. I needed her to physically pursue a book. one thing that's interesting to me is that even it's, it's even different from when I first learned how to do research. I could if, if Connie wants to look at a particular witchcraft book, a particular text that's at the British Museum, Connie has to apply for a travel grant. She has to travel oversees, she has to go to the British Museum, she has to put on her gloves, maybe, and she gets to look at the book. And if I want to look at that book, I can pull out my smartphone. I can log in to early English books online and just look at the book right now. And which is both amazing, but also from a from a fiction writing standpoint, not as fun to watch. [LAUGH] And so, and so that was my, I was interested in thinking about Connie's relationship to, or lack of relationship to technology. that her research skills and her requirements would be very different from those that we would have today. >> Well let's, let's open it up for any other pointed discussion questions. >> In light of that, I was wondering if there was any sort of process you went through to get in the mindset of 1991. And obviously [LAUGH] you weren't even around for it. Did you still? [LAUGH] It's still like 20 years in the past. And a lot of things were very different. So I was wondering if you have any trouble distinguishing it from now, and making it like it's own concrete time without sort of blending the two together. >> That raises an interesting question about the difference between history and memory, I think. And I actually ran into for the very time the very first time I TA'd a class. Which was, I TA'd U.S. History 1968 to the present. And I had a lifetime learner in that class who of course remembered [LAUGH] 1968. And so when I asserted that that the film M.A.S.H. was a film just from 1970 and is set in Korea, but I asserted that it was about Vietnam, and my learner raised his hand and gently corrected me that it was about Korea. And I was like, but it was really about Vietnam. So, in answer to your question, to get back into the mindset of 1991, I did sort of think about the cultural artifacts of that time. I thought about the music. I thought about the clothes. you'll notice that Connie is a, doesn't dress anything like me. She she is in cut-offs [LAUGH] all the time. She is kind of a mess. and so I wanted her to kind of feel the way that I thought a student at that time, a kind of penurious graduate student might have felt. And I also thought about Connie's relationship with her mother. And and her mother is in some respects, Grace kind of epitomizes a certain kind of woman who came of age during the Age of Aquarius. And so I was thinking about what Connie's assumptions about the world would have been like, and how they would have differed from Grace's assumptions about the world. And you'll notice in the course of the story, in 1991 and in the 1690s part of the story, we are dealing with three generations of women, and they are each having trouble communicating with each other across time. And that's because I was interested by the fact that we all are artifacts of our own time, whether we want to be or not. And so, there are certain things that we are not able to see past, by virtue of the assumptions that we're not aware that we hold. And so, I wanted Connie. And I think that, that comes very clear. In the differences, different assumptions between Connie and Grace. Connie believes the world works one way, Grace believes the world works another way. They can talk about the same thing and talk at completely cross purposes because they are using different language to talk about different things. And so, in the book, I spend a lot of time dwelling on language's ability to both enable and constrain communication. To some degree. >> Yeah. I was really interested the entire time about your research, because there's so much. I, sometimes I read a historical fiction novel, and then I, I don't feel like it's accurate, but. >> Mm-hm. I felt like everything in here was accurately researched. >> Thank you. >> and on the back cover it says you're a descendant of Elizabeth Proctor so I had in my mind the entire time you know, whether you had direct access to letters, past sound. >> Unfortunately no. I didn't, I didn't have any privilege to access but I will say that, that the University of Virginia has made everyone have the privilege to access. to the Salem records. so many of the primary sources that, talking of what Connie would have had to go looking for so many of the primary sources about Salem are available digitally because of the efforts of the University of Virginia, which I think is fantastic. so no, unfortunately, I didn't have any unique insight Although [LAUGH]. You know, I certainly am personally sympathetic with the personality type that was most likely to be accused as a witch. And this was true during, not just during Salem, but throughout the colonial American period. And as far as I can tell, in the early modern period in England as well. Britain as well. That's you were most likely to be accused as a witch if you were a problematic and disagreeable woman. If you weren't in step with your culture, particularly. If you were comfortable, if you were argumentative, if you were if you made other people uncomfortable. If you had trouble controlling your anger, and certainly I think, I think there's a lot to be said about the way that gender roles you know, determine how well one fits into your society. And so the question of gender is very much at the center of the Physic Book of Deliverance Dain. And I think that that's actually a question Connie engages with as well. there's a, a gender politics to her academics and to her relationship with her adviser, and something that I was curious to investigate as well. >> I just had a question about this, the process of writing [SOUND] historical fiction for you. We've talked about really two different types of historical fiction. One where there's a lot of written history. Where you can really pull in details and have a lot of historical accuracy, but then also to have some fiction writing, well, historical fiction writing, where there's not much to go on. And for you? Did it help or hinder you as an author to have so much information available to you? Because, at the same time, you're still trying to create a story and add elements. That aren't in history to, to make it that way. And I'm wondering how, how that process was for you. >> That's a terrific question, and I think it's especially apt with talking about Salem, because of course Salem has been so thoroughly explored in fiction too. And one of the things that I was thinking about, and that actually my next book addresses head on, is the fact that, so much of what we think we know about Salem and the Salem episode, is, to some degree, overwritten by or maybe determined by our encounters with fictional versions of it. Especially with The Crucible, for instance. And so that's actually one reason that none of the superstars from The Crucible really show up in the course of the story. Deliverance Dane was a real person. She was accused near the end of the panic. the real Deliverance Dane was not put to death. She fortunately, the trial was brought to a conclusion before she was, before, you know, that would have happened for her. But one of the reasons, I picked Deliverance for two reasons. One, first of all, frankly, from an aesthetic standpoint. Her name was just so great, I couldn't, [LAUGH] I couldn't not write about Deliverance Dane because that name is so evocative of a particular moment in time [SOUND], of a particular religious outlook. It is a name that could only belong to a woman living in her exact circumstance, and so I was attracted to it for that reason. But the other reason I was attracted to it was because she is not known. She's not part of our popular culture. She's not part of our popular narrative, of what Salem was really about. And so in answer to your question, I found it both incredibly useful and to some degree fairly constraining. I mean Luke Hosh says that historical fiction is about average everyday fictional people encountering grand world events. and, and grand and famous people. and then coming away from it, you know, changed in some, in some way and also demonstrating that history has worked out that the way that it should, that there's a kind of nationalist impulse behind it as well. And I wanted to interrogate that idea to some degree. But it was also important to me, especially because there's the fantastical element to the story, and so. I, I felt like I couldn't write a fantastical, somewhat fantastical story about Rebecca Nurse for instance because we all have seen The Crucible, maybe we saw the movie, we certainly read it in high school. You know I, if I tried to tell you a magical story about Rebecca Nurse I think that it wouldn't work it would kind of create a cognitive dissonance. Party because historical fiction is, in some regards, so effective at displacing historical narrative >> Mm-hm >> that I think that in some regard it it, it, there is a, a struggle I would, I have argued, that there's a struggle between fictional narrative of particularly well investigated periods of history. And historical narratives of them. and that's a tension that continues to interest me. And that I will think about for some time, I think. >> So in some ways there's a, kind of, within historical fiction as a genre, and in. In terms of its relationship to history, to written history. >> Yes. >> There's an anxiety influence. >> I think that there is. >> There's a, there's a real sense that not only are you dealing with a historical record you're dealing with how other people have fictionalized this story. >> That's absolutely true. I think that in, in my instance, and especially when talking about Salem, I think that, that's true.