I had the chance to interview Kathleen Kent, the author of The Heretic’s Daughter.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I grew up in Texas, attending the University of TX at Austin before moving to New York. I worked for over twenty years in Manhattan, first for the Commodity Exchange and then as a defense contractor for the U.S. Dept. of Defense, traveling extensively through Belarus and Kazakhstan. I became a writer only after moving back to Texas with my family in 2000.
You’re actually descended from Martha Carrier, one of your characters. Did you grow up knowing about her, or was her life an adult discovery for you? What made you want to write about her?
I grew up listening to the stories of Martha Carrier and her family from my mother and grandmother and so, from the time I was a child, I had a great sense of pride in her courage. My grandmother used to stress that Martha was in fact not a witch, merely a “ferocious woman.” Once I was a teenager and could verify the history of the Carrier family and their involvement in the Salem witch trials, I recorded as many of the facts of the trials as I could, along with the family legends. I always had the thought that someday I would write a novel-length book about their lives; it just took me a while to get to the place where I had the time and the resources to devote to such an ambitious project.
I imagine that writing historical fiction is a bit like walking a tightrope. How did you find a balance between historical accuracy and artistic license?
This question of balance was something that I constantly asked myself during the five years I researched and wrote The Heretic’s Daughter. I knew from the beginning it would be a work of fiction, but historical fiction works best when it is anchored, as much as possible, with authentic dates, places and people. I read extensively about the Salem witch trials, and the differing theories offered to explain the hysteria, as well as studying contemporary letters and sermons from well-known theologians of the time to capture the rhythm and cadence of the language. I traveled to Massachusetts and Connecticut visiting homesteads and buildings from Colonial 17th century, while spending time with local historians. That said, I did make some changes for dramatic purposes. For example, the real Sarah Carrier was examined and imprisoned when she was six years old, but I felt a child that young would not have the presence of mind to tell a compelling eye-witness account of the events unfolding around her. So the fictional Sarah is nine when her story as a child begins.
What was the writing process like for The Heretic’s Daughter? What were your biggest challenges and triumphs?
Because I had never before attempted a novel-length work of fiction, I spent much of the time—perhaps an entire year—just researching and taking notes. Because of my family life, distraction from writing, pleasurable or otherwise, became my biggest obstacle. I set up a rigid time schedule for writing, from 9:00 am to 1:00 pm, and I left the ultimate finish date open ended. Some days there was no writing, only study and note taking. And then there were the days when I stared for hours at a blank computer screen wondering if I would ever get to “the end.” I went through four major drafts, being as ruthlessly critical as I could, before I began sending it out to agents. I think the biggest sacrifice was limiting my access to book stores (except for relevant research material) which have always been one of my greatest joys. I was afraid that seeing all of the published books, by all of those amazing authors, would distract and defeat me before I had even finished the first draft.
Your writing reminds me of that of Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself a descendent of those involved in the Salem witch trials. His fiction often attempts to vindicate those involved in the trials. Do you see yourself in the same role?
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a favorite of mine growing up, so I think there was a definite influence in some of the darker aspects of the social injustice in The Heretic’s Daughter. The repetitive theme in most of my favorite books, like The Quincunx and Instance of the Fingerpost, is that a great wrong has been done to the main characters, forcing them to act in courageous and sometimes socially contrary ways.
What’s on your nightstand right now?
I have just finished, back to back, two non-fiction books that, at first glance, look to be entirely different. But The Last Witch of Langenburg by Prof. Thomas Robisheaux and The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston are both about witch hunts (the first 17th century German, the second 20th century Italian) and the disastrous results from governments ruled by superstition and intolerance.
Are you working on any other writing projects at the moment?
I am currently working on my second novel; a prequel to The Heretic’s Daughter which explores more fully the life of Thomas Carrier who was over seven feet tall and lived to be 109 (two coffins had to be fitted together to bury him). According to family legends, he fought for Cromwell during the English civil wars and was involved in the execution of King Charles I of England.
What are some good resources for those who’d like to know more about the Salem trials?
A wonderful historical study of the Salem witch hysteria is Mary Beth Norton’s In the Devil’s Snare. Reading Salem Possessed by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissembaum is also very interesting and enlightening.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
I couldn’t have completed this first novel without the help and support of my family. I’m also profoundly grateful for the support from the publishers, Little Brown. I pinch myself every day!