The concept of the witch has figured prominently, not only in American history but in American literature as well. From Cotton Mather’s cautionary essays to Nathaniel Hawthorne to Arthur Miller, readers have been held in thrall by accounts of accused practitioners of dark magic, primarily women. Vilified and persecuted, “witches” were often portrayed in earlier novels as confederates of the devil—evil, ugly and terrifying. In more modern-day novels the witch has been transformed into a powerful, often majestic figure, capable of both creative and destructive magic, and unmoored from patriarchal judgement and censorship. She is a force of nature, and the possessor of ancient healing arts.
Laird Hunt: What was your earliest encounter with witches?
Kathleen Kent: Thanks to my maternal grandmother, I had a unique introduction to the history of “witches” and, in particular, the Salem Witch Trials. When I was quite young I was told that I was the 10th-generation descendent of Martha Carrier, one of 19 men and women hanged in Salem for the crime of witchcraft in 1692. My only perspective before that had been what was usual for most children exposed to the Halloween-ish parodies of the supernatural: scary, unwholesome, devil-worshipping women who flew around on broomsticks, frightening peasants and livestock alike. When I asked my grandmother if Martha Carrier had truly been a witch, she told me, “There are no such things as witches, Sweetheart, just ferocious women.” From that moment on I became fascinated with the true history of the accused witches, not just in America but in Europe as well. I read everything I could find in the historical records about Martha Carrier, and she was truly a ferocious woman. After being asked by her judges during the witch trials if she had ever seen the devil, she responded, “The only devils I have ever seen are those sitting in judgment before me!” It started me on a lifelong quest to discover how the concept of the force-of-nature female—who in ancient history often served as a healer and a wise woman—became relegated to the role of evil sorceress, poisoner, seducer of men, and spoiler of crops.
What were your earliest impressions of what a witch was?
LH: Perhaps before I answer that I should relate something that I think will be of interest to you. When my aunt, Linda Wickens, who among many other talents is an expert genealogist and the family historian, learned what I was writing about, she sent me the chilling account of one of our own ancestors—my 9th great-grandmother, Elizabeth Phelps, of Andover—whose incurable fever led to the conviction and death sentence in Salem of Ann Alcock Foster. During Foster’s trial, after considerable coercion resulted in her confessing to witchcraft, she implicated Richard Carrier, who I believe was your ancestor’s son, in evildoing. I should note that it is not at all clear that Elizabeth Phelps, very ill at the time, was directly involved in getting Foster arrested for witchcraft. Indeed, Phelps’s husband seems to have been much more central in that regard. But the fact remains that my ancestor was a part of the story and not on the right side of things. The complexity of those events is so intense.
Foster only confessed to witchcraft in court when her own daughter, also accused, pointed the finger at her to try and avoid punishment. Foster died in prison before she could be hung. My ancestor died of her fever around the same time. Death, always around the corner in Puritan New England, must have seemed omnipresent during those grim days.
My own first memory of witches was from a British television show I watched when I was far too young in the 1970s. In it, a young nanny is revealed to be a killer. Her weapon of choice is a knitting needle. I cannot remember quite how magic figured in the program, but it was present, and it was dark, and the satisfied smile the nanny wore as she worked her needles was terrifying. So for me the notion of the witch has always been linked to the idea that the intimate, the familiar, the everyday, the safe is anything but. I wonder if you could talk a little about the ways in which Martha Carrier was ferocious. Ferocity is what links the female narrators of the last four books I’ve written, and it never fails to amaze me how frightening the ferocity of women is to so many societies across time and space.
KK: That is so fascinating! And isn’t it interesting that your aunt is your family historian and, like my grandmother, gave you knowledge of your personal history. Women are often the lamp bearers in this regard—the keepers of the oral traditions and ancient legacies. Richard Carrier, whom you mentioned, was Martha’s oldest son. He was arrested to compel his mother to admit to practicing witchcraft. He refused to do so, until he was tortured, and then confessed to the trial judges that, not only was his mother a witch, but that he practiced magic as well. The irony is that had she confessed to being a witch, she probably would have escaped the hangman’s noose.
Your female narrators, as in Neverhome and The Evening Road, are indeed ferocious, which, to me, means not only physical prowess, but a willingness to buck convention, to exist outside the boundaries of what’s considered culturally appropriate for women. There is bravery in this, but also it speaks to a woman’s righteous anger as a motivating force, which can make quite a few people uncomfortable. I think it’s particularly illuminating that women throughout history who have taken on the mantle of leadership, or even ownership over their own fates, were suspected, or accused, of witchcraft. Joan of Arc was burned as a witch. And even today Hillary Clinton has been referred to as a witch, the word taking on a derogatory meaning synonymous with shrewish, destructive, and untrustworthy behavior. It’s also interesting to me that every culture—from Europe to the Middle East to Asia—has its own history of witches. In Italy “La Strega” is feared, but she’s also respected and sought after for healing remedies. In the Carpathian Mountains, people still anchor the corpses of suspected witches into their graves with heavy stones or sharpened stakes. It speaks to an ancient fearfulness of a woman’s intrinsic and profound power: the power to bring life into the world, or, as in Medea’s case, to eradicate it.
In your new book, In the House in the Dark of the Woods, it feels as though you tapped into some very ancient lore, women as healers, women as destroyers. What inspirations were you drawing on to paint your narrative?
LH: It is interesting to think that the late 17th-century story you tell with such force in The Heretic’s Daughter and the slightly earlier Connecticut witch—or purported witch—activity I drew on when writing my own tale, as far away from the earliest 21st century as they might seem, have such ancient roots. I wonder if acute awareness of the ancient and maybe ultimately unknowable traditions you evoke so well, combined with the relative dearth of information about and awareness of those Connecticut trials that started in the 1640s, made my story swerve so emphatically out of history and into the twinned (at least here) space of fairy tale and horror. Having written about women contending with slavery, the Civil War and Jim Crow in the first three novels of the loose quartet I pointed to above, I had the definite sensation this time out that I was still writing about these things even as I fell backward, or plunged more fully, into the murkier territory of magic and malice in the 1600s. I suppose I see it as all interwoven, all these dark, glistening threads of our shared history whose ends reach deep into the past, and felt the need here more than ever to recognize, as you put it so beautifully, the “lamp bearers” (and perhaps breakers) as being at the center of it all.
I drew as much on works like Cynthia Wolfe Boynton’s Connecticut Witch Trials and Jules Michelet’s La Sorcière as I did on works of feminist theory like Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” and Victoria Nelson’s fascinating discussion of chaos and Dionysian excess, as opposed to Apollonian order, in The Secret Life of Puppets, not to mention Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Fable and fairy tale and the oldest initiatory stories were always in the mix as well. I have ever been partial to the versions that end both badly and interestingly. How about you? What were you drawing on and plugging into when you wrote The Heretic’s Daughter?
KK: I love the expression that you used—“murkier territory of magic and malice”—which, for me, seemed easier to channel when I was writing about 17th-century New England than, say, 19th-century Texas. There were so many societal contrasts and opposing forces at work in the Colonial wilderness, which gave the story in The Heretic’s Daughter so much narrative tension. The Puritans were a European people who ostensibly came to the New World to escape religious persecution, yet they were violently opposed to other religious groups, such as the Anabaptists and the Quakers. They were self-described “saints,” yet they were incredibly fractious and litigious with their neighbors. They were mandated by law to attend church, yet the Colonial villages had many public houses and inns serving alcohol, and the court records are filled with accounts of adultery, theft, and violence of all sorts. There was no separation of church and state as we know it, and a Doctor of Law had to also be a Doctor of Theology, man’s law being made to copy, at least in theory, God’s law. In the Puritan mind, anything good that happened in life was divinely ordered; anything unwholesome, destructive or threatening—failing crops, dying livestock, sickness—came from the devil.
The witch trials of 1692 were a natural extension of these beliefs. Smallpox, increasing retaliation from Natives, and an impoverished town (Salem) left too long without any steadying, spiritual guidance were written about extensively by contemporary figures who detailed in increasingly hysterical terms about the “growing miasma of evil” that seemed to rise up from the ground like fog. This hysteria was further fanned by the prevalent attitude that women, especially women who were mentally unstable, ungoverned by a man, or a burden on society, were up to no good; natural confederates of the devil because of their innately weaker constitution and moral capabilities. The “dark magic” unleashed on the villages of the Colonies, described in the source book on witches, The Malleus Maleficarum, and as noted by the witch trial judges themselves, were also an outgrowth, they believed, of women’s unfettered rage and licentiousness, which to me is a harkening back to the fear of the chaos and Dionysian excess that you referred to earlier.
I traveled extensively through New England while writing The Heretic’s Daughter because the description of location for me is as important as the character development. The physical setting in your latest book felt very substantive and important to the story. Were you writing about any place in particular or is the setting purely imaginative?
LH: I lived in Western Connecticut as a boy and continued to spend considerable time there afterward with many a deep plunge into the woods along the way. The streams, ponds, bushes, dense trees, and lichen- and moss-covered rocks of the world my protagonist encounters are very much informed by those I spent so much time surrounded by in earlier years. Having said that, I got a first glimpse of the story on a cold, rainy walk in the woods near Cherry Valley, New York, where the landscape is less compacted, so that was in the mix, too. As were eastern woods glimpsed in movies and described in books and stories like Hawthorne’s powerful witch tale, “Young Goodman Brown,” or his other, longer witch tale of sorts, The Scarlet Letter, both set in that Colonial wilderness you refer to above.
I’m absolutely with you on the importance of description of location and have worked throughout my recent novels to draw heavily on actual, repeated engagement with place, whether that’s been rural Indiana, battlefields in Virginia and Maryland, or the Connecticut woods. Because, like you, I often work with the past, I have tried to be extra cognizant of how landscapes have changed and shifted as native peoples have been displaced, whole animal species like the passenger pigeon have vanished, and imported plants and trees and interloper insects have swept aside indigenous ones. The results have always been hybrids—spaces of recollection, research and imagination—which never quite were but, through the curious witchcraft of language and literature, somehow are.
I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously.
This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said:
My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me…is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating…a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity.
Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage.
Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range — subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests — over a long career. The earlier novels — The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star — form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga:
I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly…even if The Exquisite wouldn’t, I imagine, be caught dead with it.
The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One — inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south — a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female — a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts — by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry — of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel.
What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret:
He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road.
Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing — and too familiar — in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions.
Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge — whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included — criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology — “cornflower” — for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice — acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people — has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts.
Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background — stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life — amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels.
Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed.
The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested — as have you — that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc?
Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America.
At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published.
TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you — professionally, creatively — if anything?
LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit.
TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization — are we doing better? Worse? Both?
LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually — with care and determination — we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction.
Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.”
TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring?
LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels.
TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear.
LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear.
Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear.
TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular — not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns?
LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right.
In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same.
All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at.
TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one?
LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation.
I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it.
TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors — trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from — is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy.
LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good?
Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions.
TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?”
LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did.
I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.