Q&A with Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic’s Daughter

The Heretic’s Daughter

by Kathleen Kent (London: PanMacmillan, January 2009; September 2009)

ISBN 978-0-230-70443-5, 352pp • £16.99 hbk

ISBN 978-0-330-45630-2, 400pp • £16.99 pbk

 heretic's daughterAs much a coming-of-age tale as an eye-witness account of the witch-trials in New England, in 1692, The Heretic’s Daughter encompasses an ugly period of American history. For Kathleen Kent, though, Salem is not simply a metaphor for American extremism; it’s where history becomes ‘her-story’. In her debut novel, she interweaves family fireside tales with the written documents of the past to craft a compelling tale with grand themes encompassing extremism, slavery, and personal liberty.

Since first publication in the US in hardback in September 2008, The Heretic’s Daughter has slowly gained a large and dedicated readership. To date it has garnered a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, 91 reviews on Amazon (mostly 4 and 5 stars), reached the New York Times Bestseller list and received many glowing reviews in the national and international press. LINK HERE to the publisher’s website for reviews and book information.  

The UK paperback version of The Heretic’s Daughter was released on 4 September 2009. heretic's daughter paperback ed uk

Kathleen Kent graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her quietly assured debut novel.

Q: I’m very interested in the difference between personal history and documented history and the gap that often opens up between them. You say on your website that, to give authenticity to your story when writing The Heretic’s Daughter, you drew on your own family history and also researched widely in private and personal documents. What was your strategy for dealing with any uncomfortable ‘gaps’ between document and legend? Did you forge a middle way? Or did you choose one interpretation and follow it through?

 

A: I have always felt that the most interesting and compelling historical fiction is firmly anchored in fact and so I used many of the authentic names, dates and places from the Salem witch trials to give the reader a sense of life in 17th century New England.  That being said, I wanted to unfold a very personal rendering of Martha Carrier, one that had been passed down to me by my mother and grandmother.  From an early age, I had heard stories of Martha being an outspoken, strong-willed woman.  That perception of her was reinforced by the witch trial documents which revealed she had had quite a few disagreements with her neighbours, some of whom, when deposed by the courts, stated they had long suspected her of being a witch.  In crafting the novel, though, I had to make some selective choices which changed the historical fact for the sake of pacing or believability.  For example, I made the decision to make Sarah, the narrator of the novel and Martha’s daughter, a few years older—nine years of age, instead of six— because I believed an older child would make a more convincing story-teller.  The Salem witch trials, in a sense, became the back-story in the beginning chapters of the book, albeit an important one, because I wanted to more closely illuminate the themes of religious intolerance, the destructive forces of superstitious dread and the corruption of a small community through hysteria and rumour- mongering; themes which I believed were timeless and universal.                                                                               

Hatchette Book Group provide a good index of source material consulted in preparation of The Heretic’s Daughter. CLICK this link

Q: Within the story, you allude to previous authors who have written of the Salem witch trials, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller.  Do you think, as they did, that we learn more ‘truth’ about our present situation from historical fiction than straightforward historical accounts?

A: History is written by the survivors and “factual” history is often taught within a very narrowly defined band of ethics and sensibilities.   Many people, authors included, have challenged that narrow band of what’s considered true and have revealed a greater spectrum of human emotions and experiences; especially from a woman’s perspective. Currently, there does seem to be a greater blurring of boundaries between “fact” and “fiction.”  There are genres of “historical fiction” and “fictionalized history” which can be tricky if you’re searching for archaeological remnants.   But I do think that bracing, accurate historical fiction can reveal so many philosophical, moral and cultural truths about our ancestors and our heritage that a dry recitation of dates and places cannot.

 Q: “Martha was not a witch. Merely a ferocious woman!” The women and girls of Salem and surrounding settlements were accused of witchcraft and ultimately condemned because of the testimony of other young girls. New England society, religion and judiciary was male dominated so that it could be argued that male society put women against women. Cotton Mather, the great seventeenth-century theologian, called Martha Carrier, “the Queen of Hell” because of her strength of character. How deliberate is your portrayal of Martha Carrier?  Did you begin with her strength and build the other characters around her or did her strength grow out of the weakness of the other characters?

A: When I first began writing the book, Martha was the narrator.  But this posed some problems right away because the trials and imprisonment of nearly 150 men, women and children continued after Martha was hanged.  I felt a big part of that story had not been told, so I made the decision to develop Sarah as the first hand witness to the cruelty and deprivation of the witch hysteria.  Sarah was arrested as a witch and tried, along with her three brothers, spending months in prison.  I felt that Martha’s character initially might not be likeable to the reader because she was so unyielding in her defence of her family and her property, but it was also important for me to illustrate her remarkable bravery and fortitude.   Martha was the only person, according to the surviving records, who not only held steadfastly to her innocence, but who confronted her judges for listening to a group of hysterical, accusing girls.   It is through Sarah’s eyes that Martha’s strength is revealed.

Q: Martha Carrier’s story has always been a part of your story – what made you decide to write it down for publication?

A: Since college, I always had in mind to write this novel.  But I lived in New York City for nearly twenty years working in various commercial enterprises before I felt I had the time and resources to devote to such an ambitious project.  In 2000 I moved with my family back to Dallas, my childhood home, and made the conscious decision to begin the research and writing of The Heretic’s Daughter.  I spent close to five years researching and travelling to New England, gathering historical fact, family legends and local Massachusetts lore about the Carrier family.

Q:The Heretic’s Daughter is as much about coming-of-age as about witchcraft. Did you have a teenage audience in mind as you were writing?

A: I wrote for an adult audience primarily, but because the book encompasses themes that are relevant to teenagers (peer pressure, gossiping and the vagaries of being in the throes of raging hormones), it has been discovered by younger readers as well.  There are currently schools, middle schools and high schools,  that are including the book in their curriculum and suggested reading lists as a companion reading piece to The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible.    Some of the most enlivening and enthusiastic audiences have been the students attending the schools where I have given talks.  

Q: Your next book fills in the gaps of Thomas Carrier’s past and delves into the mysterious Red Book so that, presumably, your focus moves to Cromwellian England. How difficult have you found it to research another country and an earlier time-frame?

A: There is a wealth of information available about Charles I and Cromwellian England, so it was relatively easy gathering the necessary historical facts.  And because the second book is also a fictionalized account, I had a lot of latitude in describing the life of Thomas Carrier, a man who lived to 109 years of age, stood over 7 feet tall (according to Benjamin Franklin’s paper “Poor Richard” of 1735) and who, according to Carrier family stories, was one of the executioners of King Charles I of England. 

Q: Some historical fiction writers, like Sarah Waters, Matthew Pearl and David Ebershoff, add a note about their source material at the end of their books. Do you find this kind of information unnecessary in a work of fiction?

A: I did not include a list of source material for The Heretic’s Daughter and many readers wrote to me, asking me to give them ideas for additional reading on the subject of the Salem witch trials.  For the second book I will be including a selected list of source material because separating fact from fiction can be a very satisfying discovery; a sort of treasure hunt for the mind.

Q: Most writers enjoy a love/hate relationship with book critics. The Heretic’s Daughter has generated a fair amount of reviews which have been mostly favourable or highly commendable. As a beginning author how much attention do you give to book reviews? Will they change the way you write?

A: Being a first time author, it was tremendously gratifying to see such great reviews.  But from the beginning I tried to let my agent send me the reviews she felt were the most significant and I tried to ignore the rest, because really it has nothing to do with writing.  I didn’t read many of the reviews for the same reason I didn’t go into a commercial book store during the years when I was writing this first novel; it would have been very easy to talk myself out of writing a book with so many terrific authors already on the shelves.   Paying too close attention to other people’s opinions will change the process and, first and foremost, I think writers should write for themselves.

I’m very grateful to Kathleen for providing such honest and incisive responses. Women play such an important part of The Heretic’s Daughter that it isn’t surprising to find their significance in the book’s genesis. In stating “that bracing, accurate historical fiction can reveal so many philosophical, moral and cultural truths about our ancestors and our heritage that a dry recitation of dates and places cannot“, she aligns her writing with American authors, like Hawthorne, who have followed the history/fiction trajectory plotted by Walter Scott. Male authors continue to dominate the historical fiction genre and it’ll be interesting to watch Kent’s progress in this field.  

You can connect with Kathleen Kent on The Heretic’s Daughter page on Facebook  at http://www.facebook.com/thehereticsdaughter 

About Janette Currie

Editor and literary consultant at JC Consultancy. Freelance writer.
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2 Responses to Q&A with Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic’s Daughter

  1. BookRambler says:

    Nelda, I had the pleasure of reading it last January – seems a long time ago now – and then again recently. I found the reading experience much enhanced the second time, which is always a sign of a good book. I completely agree with you that it’s a compelling story. I was trying for an informal, chatty tone with the Q&A and opting for a positive piece that steered away from mention of the negative/hostile reviews it’s received. In doing so I plumped for ‘fair amount’ – you caught me out! Do hope it didn’t limit your enjoyment of the piece.

  2. Nelda Rice says:

    First, may I say this was the most fascinating and compelling book I’ve read in some time. It is a beautifully written tragic story of those dreadful Salem witch trials. I will want to read any and all of Kathleen Kent’s future books. She is a wonderful writer, imho.

    I was a bit disappointed in the interviewer using a wrong word in posing the last question: Surely the editors would know the proper use of “amount” or “number?” “…has generated a fair ‘amount’ of reviews?” Really? “Number” is used when items are countable; “amount” is used when speaking of quantity. Sorry, just one of my pet peeves. I’m guessing Ms. Kent was likewise struck by that misusage when you sent the question to her…

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