Thursday, November 20, 2008

Loaded Questions with "The Heretic's Daughter" author Kathleen Kent


Martha Carrier was one of the first women to be accused, tried and hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. Like her mother, young Sarah Carrier is bright and willful, openly challenging the small, brutal world in which they live. Often at odds with one another, mother and daughter are forced to stand together against the escalating hysteria of the trials and the superstitious tyranny that led to the torture and imprisonment of more than 200 people accused of witchcraft.

With The HERetic's Daughter Kathleen Kent has brought to life the defiance and courage and death of Martha Carrier to life through the eyes of her surviving daughter. Kent's debut novel is filled with rich historical research as well as the drama and terror of a very contentious time.


Kelly Hewitt: As a fellow historian I appreciate the fact that in The Heretic's Daughter you portray a very honest look at Puritans who, as you noted in one interview, in 1692 more closely resembled the Elizabethan Puritans who historical documents tell us were, in your words, "contentious and libelous, full of superstitious dread and malicious gossip." That is not to say, and you acknowledge this also, that there weren't individuals and groups who were moving towards the sort of New England Puritan that we associate with the religion today. In some of reviews your readers have expressed some surprised at this fact, as was I when I first discovered it. Why do you think that we have this view of Puritanism? What sources would your recommend readers read to get a better idea of Puritanism at the time?

Kathleen Kent: I do believe that much of what we regard as "Puritan" has come to us not just through the acute study of history, but also through the religious practices of Protestantism (the need to view the founders of our church as somehow more filled with moral certainty) and social rituals, such as Thanksgiving. Through the lens of Victorian idealism we see a God-fearing, saint-like people who came to this country escaping religious persecution. In Wayward Puritans, though, Kai T. Erikson writes, "The main theme of this story [of New England Puritans], however, does not really help us understand the Puritan settlement in America, for it pays too little attention to the English background against which the whole adventure was played. In order to imagine what this experience meant to the men who participated in it, we must begin by looking at the world they claimed as their own rather than the world they happened to make."

The Puritans, then, were transplanted Western European peoples, strangers in a strange land, who brought with them their dress, their language, their practices and superstit
ions and tried to survive, at least initially, by imposing their way of life onto the New World. Another good source of the life of the Puritans can be found in The Puritan Family by Edmund S. Morgan who details not only the practices, but the ideals, of relationships within family groups--husband to wife, parent to child, etc.

What makes the most interesting, and telling, reading, however, comes from town records that reflect the warnings, fines and arrests of the citizens of such villages as Salem, Andover and Billerica for drinking, fornication, swearing and, most of all, gossiping. One detailed account is "The History of Billerica, 1653-1883" by the Rev. Henry A. Hazen, and published by The Billerica Historical Society, which gives in great detail the early conflicts of the colonists, including Roger Toothaker, brother-in-law to Martha Carrier, who was "wasting his time and substance in pursuit of the witchcraft delusions at Salem, and leaving his family to charitable aid." Roger Toothaker had been fined on numerous occasions for abandoning his family for drink.

Kelly: A lot of interviewers and reviewers of The Heretic's Daughter have noted that your great-grandmother nine generations back is Martha Carrier, the real life inspiration of your book who was one of the first women hung in August 1692 during the Salem witch trials and that you first heard this fascinating piece of family history at the age of eight or nine. Aside from being jealous about your link to history I couldn't help but wonder what it must have been like when Halloween rolled around and little girls were dressing up like witches, what reading The Crucible in high school was like or studying about the trials in history class. Did you feel a special connection to these stories or a sort of sorrow for an individual whom you have written was very real and often mentioned in your family? Did you tell your friends and classmates when the subject came up?

Kathleen: I was always very proud to be related to Thomas and Martha Carrier and, following my grandmother's attitude towards our family history, a little bit gleeful to be descended from Carrier women who were known for being outspoken and forceful. My grandmother used to say that Martha was not a witch; merely a ferocious woman. Studying early American history was always fun, and relatively easy, because I always knew what my research paper was going to be about--The Salem Witch trials, of course! The only down side to all this family pride was during Halloween while we were children. My mother made all of our costumes and, although she never forbade us from wearing "witch" outfits, she actively discouraged it. She wasn't humorless about it, but she felt it made light of the suffering of men and women wrongly accused of being confederates of the Devil.

Kelly: I read that you did 30 interviews in three days when the Italian version of the book came out! What was that like? Were there particular questions or aspects of the book that your European interviewers were interested in?

Kathleen: As The Herertic's Daughter is my first published novel, I had no idea what to expect on the initial book tour. In an unusual turn of events, the book was to be published first in Italy and I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Milan and Rome for the launch. When I got the schedule, I was stunned to see close to 30 interviews (radio, print and TV) scheduled within 3 days. It was particularly exhausting because every interview had to be translated, real-time, from English to Italian. I have to say I was very impressed by the knowledge the interviewers had, not only of the Salem witch trials, but of early American history. The Italians have a great interest in, and a great respect for "La Stregha"--the witch-- and without exception, they all asked if there were parallels to be drawn between the witch trials of the 17th century and the treatment of women within some closed societies currently in Western Europe.

Kelly: The story of The Heretic's Daughter's publication is a lesson in taking initiative. I read that you wrote the book and just sent it out blindly. How long did it take before it got picked up? I think a lot of Loaded Question readers, in addition to being avid readers, are aspiring authors as well. How did you select which publishers you sent to?


Kathleen: Having no contacts, or experience, in publishing, I sent cover letters out blindly to agents in the U.S. who I thought would be interested in the story, or who specialized in historical fiction. I got quite a few nice, and not so nice, rejection letters until I was contacted by Julie Barer, of Barer Literary Agency. She was intrigued by the story and is living proof that there are literary agents committed to finding new talent, even if it means slogging through the "slush" piles. Julie led me to Little Brown, and to my wonderful editor, Reagan Arthur, who gently and skillfully guided me through the final editing processes. The process from agent to publisher was relatively short, only a few months--and I'm grateful for (and amazed by this) every single day.

Kelly: Do you think that your familial connection to the topic of witch
trials gives you more credibility with your readers?

Kathleen: People seem to be endlessly fascinated by the witch trials and it's surprising the number of people who have approached me with knowledge of their own genealogy connecting them to the trials. I think it does add interest to readers, knowing about my family lineage, but more so, I think what touches people is finding out that these stories about the Carrier family have survived through 10 generations and more than three centuries.

Kelly: The reviews for the book have been really great. A lot of the reader interviews at Amazon.com commend you for your detailed focus on the harshness of the time period. What books would you recommend readers check out to get more info about the realities of life during the period the book is set in? Did you look at a lot of primary resources?

Kathleen: Reading the transcripts from the trials makes for very poignant, and disturbing reading. Many of the trial documents have been collected into the work: Salem Possessed; The Social Origins of Witchcraft by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. Another very good, non-fiction book is In the Devil's Snare by Mary Beth Norton.

Kelly: I think that The Heretic's Daughter really works because of your connection to the subject, the research that you have obviously done and most importantly your ability as a storyteller. It is kind of a perfect storm, this your debut novel. If you hadn't written about with trials and Sarah Carrier what kind of debut novel might we have seen from you?

Kathleen: I can't imagine having written any other novel first. The story and the characters have been rattling around in my head for decades and I always knew that I would some day write this book. Since my first love is historical fiction it might have been a book about post-civil war Texas (which is an idea that hopefully will be developed down the road). Reconstruction after mass civil conflict makes way for a lot of human drama; the good, the bad and the ugly.

Kelly: I was excited to read that you will be writing a prequel to The Heretic's Daughter. What can you tell us about that?

Kathleen: The follow-up novel will explore the life of Thomas Carrier, Martha Carrier's husband, who lived to 109 years of age, was over 7 feet tall and, according to family legend, fought for Cromwell during the English Civil War and was one of the executioners of King Charles I of England. The contents of the "red diary" that was presented as a literary device in "The Heretic's Daughter" will be revealed, and the story will encompass the events leading up to the flight of the regicides from the Old World to the New.

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