STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Katherine Howe

the-physick-bookTitle: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Author: Katherine Howe
ISBN: 978-1401340902
Pages: 384
Release Date: June 9, 2009
Publisher: Voice
review source: publisher
Rating: 4/5

Before retiring to one of the four-poster beds discovered upstairs, Liz had managed to crank open one of the windows in the sitting room, so the room’s overpowering mustiness was now tempered somewhat by the soft breath of summer. Outside Connie heard only the occasional sawing of crickets. After her years in Harvard Square, she found the quiet strangely foreboding. It roared in her ears, demanding her attention, where sirens would have passed by unheeded. She was accustomed to being kept awake by the whispering of her anxieties, but here the whispers sounded even louder than the pervasive, disquieting silence.

Phenomenal writing and splendid imagination propels The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. History collides with present day [in the novel’s case that being 1991] through author Katherine Howe’s lovely storytelling and intricate details about the Salem witch trials of the 1690s and academia at Harvard University in 1991 [she painstakingly depicts the oral qualifying exam of a doctoral student]. The novel weaves back and forth between the past and present. In the past, ardent and empathetic Deliverance Dane is accused of witchcraft. In the present, rational and straightforward Connie Goodwin has been dispatched to Marblehead to prep her grandmother’s long-abandoned house for sale. Perchance, Connie discovers mysterious information about Deliverance Dane that causes her to launch into full-fledged historian mode. Connie delves into researching the often forgotten true frenzy that was the Salem witch trials. Interwoven with Connie’s unique challenges, Howe adeptly depicts the accusations of heresy, the societal fears, the strange “witch” tests and trials based on little more than rumors and innuendo. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane chronicles Connie’s journey of self-discovery and illuminates the powerful connection between women and nature [whether external or internal].

I recently met Katherine Howe at Boston University where she’s completing her PhD in American and New England studies. I’m an alumna of BU. About a decade ago I received my masters in journalism.

author Katherine Howe/ photo from author's web site

author Katherine Howe/ photo from author's web site

In 2005, Howe was studying for her orals at BU. “And the orals are just colossal, really stressful. The way that they are represented in The Physick Book is 100% accurate. Most people get a little worked up before they take the exam. To chill myself out a little bit, I started to tell myself the story of The Physick Book just as a distraction. It was just that special project that I had on the side so I wouldn’t totally freak out about my real work.”

A former college roommate, who lives on the West Coast, e-mailed and suggested that they sign up for National Novel Writing Month. Though Howe liked the idea to do something fun and constructive with her friend her orals fell during the same month.

“The existence of National Novel Writing Month made me think that I could write a novel if I want to. [Writer’s note: must look up National Novel Writing Month] It’s funny that we sometimes need to give ourselves permission to do something.”

Once a week, Howe and her husband gathered for a literati/academia-filled poker game with a $10 buy-in. Author Matthew Pearl [The Dante Club, The Last Dickens] was part of the group. Her husband suggested she tell Matthew her idea for a novel. After some initial hesitation [“He’s a real novelist,” she recalls telling her husband.] she told Pearl her idea. Pearl liked it and encouraged Howe to work more on it.

 “Then what happened was strangely cinematic. I took my orals and passed them. I started to work on my dissertation prospectus and sent it to my advisor and she emailed and said I had to think of another topic. It was like the rug being pulled straight up from under me. That very day Matthew called me from the train. He said: ‘Oh hey, I was just in New York; I hope you don’t mind but I told my literary agent about your novel idea and she’d like to talk to you.’ It was poker night that started it off.”

 AS: How did your own studies influence the research involved for the Physick Book?

KH: My background is actually in Art History and material culture. It was only after I finished a draft of the book that I realized how many paintings show up. There are at least three or four that have some sort of plot element. I was very interested in the details of everyday experience and of the visual and architectural world of that time period. I think it’s also one of the great pleasures of historical fiction. I think a lot of us read it because we want to know what it really felt like in a different time. I feel like having a mastery of those kinds of details makes for a lot of the pleasure of history. I knew the basic grounding in the Salem episodes because of my background work so I just read a lot more of the secondary sources of witchcraft in North America and magic and religious belief in England. For me, being an academic at heart, stopping research was a really hard thing to do.

There’s a scene where a judge is distracted because of the infection in his toe. And all he can think of is that he’s got this terrible ingrown toenail. And I kind of think about history that way. One thing I was trying to do with The Physick Book is restore some of the muck to history.

AS: Why did you set the present day in 1991?

KH: Two reasons. We use a different calendar system now than they did in the 17th Century. So if you ever run across early modern dates that are written with a slash, that’s because the New Year started in March instead of January. So for the first three months the date would be written 1691/92. This is just nerd ephemera but I enjoyed it when I found it out. I liked that there was the 300 year symmetry between 1691/92 and 1991. 

The other major and more important reason was that 1991 feels like it’s the present but it’s really the past. [Writer’s note: I graduated from college in 1991] For what Connie had to do I need her to not have cell phones. I needed her to actually have to go into the archives. I also wanted to have more liberties with the academic universe. I represent it as more byzantine than it really is today.

AS: You have what some might say is a quickly developing romance between Connie and Sam in the novel. Why did you feel like you had to put that in there?

KH: I didn’t feel like I had to put it in there. I felt like it belonged there. One of the things I was thinking of is: what are the things that really motivate us? And for most of us, I think those things are very simple. I think that ambition is a motivating factor in the story and in our everyday lives. But I feel like that’s vague and amorphous. When I thought of what would persuade Connie that much is love for somebody. Sam’s not just an object for her. He changes the way she thinks. I needed him to bring her into contact with history in a different way. To get her out of her head and more into the world. Also I could give a shout-out to the BU Preservation Studies department.

AS: Do you think that as Connie has these powers and uses them to save a guy that it can be perceived as being anti-feminist?

KH: Why would that be anti-feminist?

AS: Because she’s not empowering herself completely but is helping a guy [Sam].

KH: I think she empowers herself quite a bit and helping Sam is a pleasant after-effect. A lot of people have asked me outright if this is a feminist book. And it’s a loaded word so I tend not to supply it myself. But I think it absolutely is. I’d be a little disappointed in myself if it weren’t.

AS: I really like what you wrote in the postscript: I was moved both by how fully the past in New England still haunts the present, especially in its small, long-memoried towns, and also by how the idiosyncratic personhood of the early colonists seems to have been lost in the nationalist myth. Can you elaborate on that?

KH: The one thing I enjoy about New England is that it’s very old. And I am comparing it to New York which is just as old. But I feel like New York is focused on the future. I feel like New England clings assiduously to its past which I think can be both a strength and a weakness. I prefer to see it for these purposes as a strength. It gives you a sense, as you move through these spaces, that we are a part of a longer continuum than just ourselves right now.

AS: How do you feel about personally being connected to the Salem witch trials?

KH: I found out about it when I was a teenager because my aunt did this genealogy. Of course I was a 15-year-old girl so my response was, “Awesome!” It wasn’t really until we found ourselves in Essex County and I was living in this house in Marblehead. We were living on the second floor of a fisherman’s house that was from 1705. I was cooking dinner one night and everyone was in the other room. It was summer and I was boiling hot. We didn’t have air-conditioning. I had sweat dripping off me in sheets. I’m at the stove and there’s a fire going because it’s a gas stove and I’m holding a wooden spoon. I had this moment where I realized “This is how it feels. This is what women have been doing in this space forever.”

Katherine Howe will be part of the New Literary Voices Panel on November 1 as part of the Concord Festival of Authors.

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