Historical fiction often blurs the lines between truth and story.
Authors A. K. Blakemore and Rivka Galchen each have new books out that explore the very real witch trials of the 17th century. But their approach to the subject matter and the characters at the center of each story feel like opposite sides of the same coin.
Blakemore’s “The Manningtree Witches” is set in 1643 and follows the young, single, and naïve Rebecca West, who is being pursued by the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General. Galchen’s “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch” centers around elderly, illiterate widow Katharina, who is accused of witchcraft in 1618 in the German territory of Württemberg.
As part of the Portland Book Festival, OPB host Crystal Ligori sat down with the writers to discuss the process of basing fiction on historical events, how individual experiences can be wrapped up in national and global circumstances, and what it really means to be a witch.
This excerpt is from a series of podcast-only conversations to be released as part of The Archive Project.
Crystal Ligori: I’d love to start off with a big overarching question for you both. What is a witch? Both in how it was popularly defined in the time period of your book and what your own definition is.
A. K. Blakemore: I think one of the reasons we feel so removed from the witch crazes of the 17th century now and why we almost fetishize them in terms of the sort of aesthetics is because what they believed a witch was, in the broadest sense, is something the vast majority of people would now find it impossible to believe in: someone who had commerce with the devil. And if you don’t believe in the devil, which, like I say, the vast majority of people now don’t, that is a ridiculous accusation to level against someone. But at this time in England — so my book is set in the 1640s, which was during the English Civil War — the sense of observation and judgment by God, the sense that the devil moved through the world intentionally trying to corrupt people, was very real in people’s lives. That was something I found incredibly fascinating from a psychological point of view. What would it have been like to have lived your life with the idea that the devil was almost a real person, an active force in your life? He could appear in your dreams, he could appear as a man, you wouldn’t know where he was or what he was trying to do.
A friend of mine, the writer Rebecca Tamás, who’s done a lot of research on witchcraft and witches are sort of her area of study, has a really neat way of putting it, [which] I sort of paraphrase in my book. A witch is someone who makes things happen by saying them. Obviously that’s a broad definition, but one I I quite like and in a fairly self-regarding way, I guess a lot of writers would quite like.
Rivka Galchen: I think the other side of what makes someone a witch, is what makes someone see witches? What is it that generates the vision like that? And one of the offshoots that I thought was interesting when I was kind of [researching] is just how upsetting it was to see power located somewhere where one doesn’t want to see it. While it wasn’t only women who were burned for commerce with the devil, but it was overwhelmingly women, and then you see that there is this kind of irreducible sexual power and sexual aversion that can’t be taken away from women. It’s disturbing to see it.
With all of the vaccine talk, I was reading about how [historically] people who worked with cows, all these dairy maids, wouldn’t get smallpox and it was just seen as kind of devilish—their health was seen as devilish and it wasn’t understood. They were incidentally inoculated from cowpox in a way that people eventually learned how to get on top of. But seeing that health and not understanding it, not understanding why it was happening to this lower-class group of people and not to other people and just how disturbing it is to see power located somewhere that seems unsettling to the perceiver.
Blakemore: I think the point about power is a really interesting one because with British witch hunts, there’s power and powerlessness at work because I think very often something people say about which hunts is, “Oh, it could have happened to anyone.” And after researching it for a little while you think, “Well, no, that wasn’t the case.”
Ligori: I was thinking about that [imbalance of power] when I was reading both of these books. The women who are accused of being witches are often poor, they’re widows, they are single women. Folks who are vulnerable, [and] who live outside of acceptable social norms of the time. They’re not owned, they’re not “claimed,” per se. Earlier, you mentioned temptation and sexual desire, how were you thinking about the desire and the policing of it?
Blakemore: One of the starting points is [that] my main antagonist, the Witchfinder General, is a real person. And he was responsible for the persecution and death of at least 200 women and men in about a five-year period. He wrote “The Discovery of Witches,” which is essentially his own guide to witch hunting. I became really fascinated by this book because there is such a sensual charge to his language. This kind of connects to what Rivka was saying about women having kind of an irreducible sexuality or propulsion that can’t be controlled or taken away from them. His obsession with witches definitely had this really powerful sexual element to it. It’s strange because I almost came away from writing it and from my research thinking obviously it was much harder to be a woman, but it must have been incredibly difficult psychologically to be a puritan man as well. You have to sublimate natural sexual desires into something very much other.
Ligori: I feel like both Rebecca and Katarina wrestle with this idea at points in each of your books where they’re like, “Maybe I am a witch?”
Galchen: Yeah, I think you’ve sort of gotten it, that strange kind of satiny quality to seeing the world in terms of good and bad or even power and powerlessness, that those are on the one hand, legitimate frameworks, but also unstable and shifting. And I thought, with Katarina, one thing I thought was interesting about an older woman versus a younger woman, or in her case in particular, is that a lot of the testimony showed that the people who found her to be witchy were basically people who had neglected to help her. You come across these situations in which someone was saying, “Well, I had a cart and she didn’t have a cart and she asked if she could borrow my cart to carry her hay, and I said no and then terrible things happened to me.” And so you sort of see the psychological narrative being written and then you see the light switching. So it’s interesting to see the way that both of our central characters themselves are not excluded from this shifting of moral valence just so that they can understand things in a new way.
Ligori: These books have so much in common, but the tone is really different. Rivka, you chose almost this modern, ironic tone for your book. It reminded me a little bit of reality TV, it was so salacious and gossipy and very tongue-in-cheek. How did you decide to go for that in the writing of “Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch”?
Galchen: You know, it’s sort of absurd, but the one thing I felt really confident about when I was writing this book was the voice; the voice came quite clearly to me. I think I wanted to write a modern book. I knew I was writing a modern book — it was a translation in language and time and space — and for me, that was the way it was going to work. And it was very specifically in my mind — Johannes Kepler’s mother — it wasn’t just anyone. He did sort of identify with her much more than with his father, and there’s a lot of indications she wasn’t educated, obviously, but that she had a very mathematical mind, which I think of as someone who is very sensitive to patterns and takes great pleasure in rupturing the pattern. And that’s a comic mind on some level. So that was how her voice came to me with this kind of conviction.
Ligori: A. K., your book is much more somber in tone, but your main character Rebecca still has a very sharp tongue. How did you go about finding her voice?
Blakemore: Yeah, I knew straightaway going into writing it that I didn’t want any of the witches — when I say witches I just mean shorthand for women accused of being witches for clarity — I didn’t want them to be necessarily good people because you don’t need to be a good person to deserve sympathy when horrible things happen to you.
In the trial documents I was working with, you get the sense that these women were troublemakers. They were interfering. They did have sharp tongues. There’s a brilliant bit [that] I didn’t manage to work it into the book, but Mother Clark — Elizabeth Bedingfield was her real name — it’s after she’s confessed to being a witch and she says that she was visited by the devil in the shape of a man, a man in a coat with black tips, I believe it is. And John Stearns, one of the interrogators, gestures to the Witchfinder General and says, “A man like this?” And she says, “No, no, no. Way better looking than that.” It’s kind of hard to quite interpret, but it just seems so much like a subtweet, a mean joke that you could see someone making on twitter today. And it’s hard not to read it as this kind of gesture of defiance from a woman in a very desperate situation. So I knew that I didn’t want them to be helpless.
Ligori: I just wanted to end on this question of what do you think that we can learn today from these stories of women accused of witchcraft?
Galchen: There is something to me, what was quite in retrospect, overwhelming and maybe drew me to the story in terms of why it felt urgent to me in the present day, was just being so up close with how inconsequential truth and reasoning were. That felt very contemporary to me, to be shocked by that.
Blakemore: For me, it’s something not uniquely English, but something we’ve seen here — perhaps in a more subtle way than it’s happened in America — is a disintegration of solidarity between communities and across communities, and particularly along class lines. And that was something that was reflected in these stories. As Rivka said earlier, this idea of who is given help and who is denied help in a very insular community, and particularly when religious justification or religious drives towards charity collapse, people find ways to justify withdrawing charity and withdrawing solidarity from other people around them.
So that was something I thought was very relevant in kind of a conservative England, where we’ve had decades of the demonization of people receiving social support from the government. And part of that was also to do with the process of “othering,” how you have to make someone not a human being anymore before you do horrible things to them. And how that was part of what happened to these women. They weren’t women anymore, they were witches. And that could justify the sleep deprivation torture they endured, throwing them in prison, hanging them eventually. That’s something that we very much see now in England most obviously directed towards refugees. And I’ve never really had time for this “we are the daughters of the witches you could not burn”- thing. It leaves me a bit cold because I’ve often thought the women who were actually accused of witchcraft and hung as witches probably have less in common with a white, middle class woman now and more in common with a refugee.