An Interview with Author Kathleen Kent
By Marla Schwartz
The thing is – history is malleable, whether we want to believe it or not. And the fact of the matter is – there’s a lot about America history that’s difficult to accept, let alone understand. But what if someone bore witness, in effect and then wrote about one of these particular events in time?
In essence, this is what author Kathleen Kent has done in her debut novel, The Heretic’s Daughter (Little, Brown). Kent was one of the many gifted authors to grace South Florida with her presence at the Miami Book Fair International 2009.
Kent is a tenth-generation descendent of Martha Carrier, one of the first women convicted in the Salem Witch Trials, which is the subject her novel. This beguiling tale will no doubt be gobbled up by readers of historical fiction, but people who truly treasure reading about parental love and self-sacrifice in the face an overwhelming sense of collective madness will most definitely relish this novel.
The novel explores the plight of the Carrier family who are first generation colonists in New England. They had hoped to escape the plague of smallpox in their homeland, but inadvertently brought it along with them to the new world.
Kent’s novel is narrated by Sarah, Martha’s spirited teenage daughter, who valiantly takes us through the horrors of this particular time in America’s early history.
Kathleen Kent was able to take time out of her busy schedule to answer a great deal of questions for AROUND WELLINGTON readers:
QUESTIONS FOR KATHLEEN KENT
AROUND WELLINGTON: I understand that while growing up you heard stories about your ancestors who were executed because they were found guilty of being witches during the Salem Witch Trials. At which particular point in time did you realize that the story of the Carrier family would make a great piece of historical fiction?
KATHLEEN KENT: Fortunately, I grew up with the stories of Martha Carrier, my grandmother back nine generations who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692, and the Carrier family’s involvement with the witch trials. From the time I was about eight-years-old, I remember my mother and grandmother telling me, not only stories of the witch trials, but anecdotal tales of 17th century life, passed down from generation to generation. By the time I was in college, I had wanted to put that history and those family legends into novel form. But it took many years before I had the time and resources to write a book-length retelling of Martha’s life. I spent 20 years living and working in New York in various commercial enterprises and was “on the runway” to fifty before I began the research and writing that became The Heretic’s Daughter.
AW: Obviously, the Carrier family was caught up in unfortunate times … but why did people in colonial times hang others as “witches?”
KK: It’s hard to imagine, as modern, rational thinkers, the time and place that was Puritan New England, where there was no separation of church and state, where you were guilty until proven innocent and where women were targeted as witches because of their mental instability, their position in society, and their combative dispositions, especially if they stood in opposition with the “Town Fathers.” In order to understand the Puritans’ actions and motives, it’s important to understand that these were transplanted Europeans, strangers in a strange land, who believed literally that the Devil was alive and well and living in New England. Death was always close at hand, through disease, childbirth, Indian raids, and these people lived in superstitious dread and had a firm belief in the Invisible World. The theologians conducting the trials, examinations and executions of the witches were using a source book from the Middle Ages, the Malleus Malleficarum, which could explain any wart or birthmark as proof of the Devil’s Mark.
AW: Do you see any common elements in your book that can be compared to modern times? Such as HIV/AIDS or the current swine flu pandemic?
KK: Unfortunately, there are parallels to the witch trials still relevant today. In every culture there are, for example, fundamentalist groups who refuse to engage in the civilized discourse, who do not adhere to due process of law, who suppress free speech and free expression, and who strive to oppress the weakest members of society; often women and children; persecuting those who fall outside of narrowly defined patterns of “the norm”. Arthur Miller of course wrote “The Crucible” to illuminate the McCarthy era witch trials, and there are groups of individuals still today, in this country, who are censored and excluded for having differing religious views, ethnic origins or sexual orientations. We’re still as a species trying to overcome millions of years of the self-protective, xenophobic response to “The Other.”
AW: Do you have a favorite historical novelist? If so, who is it and why?
KK: I have always loved Charles Dickens for his universal stories and for his timeless characters. His use of storytelling to illuminate great societal wrongs was always so inspiring. John Irving wrote that Dickens was “unafraid of sentimentality—of anger, of passion, of emotionally and psychologically revealing himself.” I really like that in an author.
AW: I understand you admire Annie Dillard’s work. When did you first discover her work and have you ever had a chance to meet her? How has her fiction influenced your own writing?
KK: I first discovered her when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek over twenty years ago. I remember being in awe of her elegant, lean observations of nature and thinking, “if only I could write like that!” I keep her books, including The Writing Life, and For the Time Being, in the nightstand next to my bed and read them over and over again. Unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to meet her, but if I had the chance, I’d leap at it.
AW: In the novel, Martha punishes her five children with a spoon they’ve dubbed the Iron Bessie. Is this a fictionalized account of such punishment?
KK: Iron Bessie is a figment of my imagination. But I do have my grandmother’s cherry wood mixing spoon, given to me by my mother. Blessedly, the only thing my grandmother ever whipped with the spoon was heavy cream.
AW: Is there anything you wanted to include in your novel but couldn’t do it?
KK: Originally, the novel was written in two parts, the first part being The Heretic’s Daughter. Fortunately, the second part has been re-worked and will be published now as a prequel—about the life of Martha’s husband Thomas; a man who family legend and local Massachusetts’ lore said lived to 109, was over 7 feet tall and was one of the executioners of King Charles I of England.
AW: If someone today accused you of being a witch – what would you say?
KK: Thank you!
AW: Tell me about the accolades your book has received?
KK: The book is now being published in over a dozen countries and won the David Langum award for historical fiction last year. The reviews have been mostly wonderful, although I try pretty hard to not focus too much on the reviews, but rather on the positive reactions of the readers who love historical fiction
AW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
KK: Only that my grandmother used to say, “Sweetie, there are no such things as witches. Merely ferocious women.”
A native of Toledo, OH and a graduate of Kent State, Marla E. Schwartz has been a professional journalist since her teenage years and is a Senior Writer for Miami Living Magazine, and a freelance writer for CRAVINGS South Florida in Aventura, as well as Around Wellington Magazine and Lighthouse Point Magazine. An avid photographer, her images have appeared in numerous Ohio publications, as well as in Miami Living, The Miami Herald, The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and The Palm Beach Post. She has had numerous plays published and produced around the country. Her short play, America’s Working? was originally read at First Stage in Los Angeles and in the same city produced at the Lone Star Ensemble. It was then produced at Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL and then taken to an Off-Broadway playhouse by its producers Adam and Carrie Simpson. Her piece, The Lunch Time Café, was a finalist for the Heideman Award, Actors Theatre of Louisville. Feel free to contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.