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History Buff is a site
for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women
of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives
in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's
sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!
historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the
past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
Logo designed by Shaun Venish
Blog designed by Mia Pearlman Design
Monday, October 1, 2007
Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Erika Mailman
* In your historical novel THE WITCH'S TRINITY, you write about
a widow named Güde who is accused of witchcraft in 16th century
Germany. What was it about this time and place that fascinated you?
I’ve always been compelled by the medieval time period. I loved
The Once and Future King when I was a kid and I think that influenced me.
I also did a lot of reading up on witchcraft because I was always fascinated by such
misogyny: an early feminist!
In terms of place… well, I grew up in Vermont and so I felt in my bones it was
important for this story to take place in snow. There is something about the
woods in snow at nighttime that was exactly the atmosphere I was looking for.
I was also heavily influenced by Robert Frost’s poem Stopping by Woods on
A Snowy Evening, which was wonderfully illustrated on the first page of my reader
when I was in first or second grade.
Secondly, I am of German heritage and this novel provided a way to explore that.
Third, Germany was one of the countries where the witch craze was the strongest.
The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum, one of the most popular witch hunting bibles,
were German men blessed by the pope in their purpose. Fourth, the Grimm Fairy Tales
were set in Germany, and although The Witch’s Trinity is definitively not a fairy tale,
it does borrow from the surprisingly cruel familial relationships of the original stories.
* How much of THE WITCH'S TRINITY is based on fact and how much
The story is completely fictional—but it could very easily be true. Güde is sort
of an “every woman” to me. The witchcraft hunts in Europe lasted 400 years,
and the scope of the holocaust was so huge that I felt it would be easier to
understand through one woman’s story. I hope when people close the book, they
will think that my character was just one of thousands of Güdes.
I could go through and differentiate fact from fiction for each page of the book,
but my hope is that it will lead people to do their own searching if they’re interested.
Here’s one example, however, of how I used fact and twisted it: The pebble trial that
another character, Künne, faces was a real way of testing witches. However, I
made there be exactly three pebbles for the friar to honor the Holy Trinity.
The book has a nonfiction Afterword where I write about my ancestor Mary Bliss
Parsons, who was accused of witchcraft in 1600s Massachusetts. Her story was
fascinating: She was accused of things as mundane as always being able to find
the house keys, even when hidden from her, and as colossal as causing a newborn
baby’s death. She went to trial twice and was both times… acquitted. It was a
relief to be able to conduct this research knowing that she outlived her accuser
and died of natural causes in her eighties.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 16th century
I was surprised that some sources state that witches were not burned alive at
the stake—that at the very last minute, they were garotted (strangled). While
I’m sure that happened, I’m a little cynical that it was the norm. After all, once
you research the appalling instruments of torture that were used on these women,
it’s hard to believe that the gleeful tormentors had an eleventh hour dose of mercy.
But I hope for the women’s sake it was true.
One note on torture: I knew that for this book to be palatable, I had to downplay
the torture element. I myself would not want to read a book that outlined what really
happened to these women. The Witch’s Trinity gives a little taste of what the
horrors were, because the whole of it would be too hard to swallow.
* What was life like for the *average* woman of the lower and
middle class during the period that THE WITCH'S TRINITY
takes places? Would a lower class woman's rights be any different
from those of an upper class woman?
For all classes, it would be important for a woman to have the support of male kin.
Most witchcraft sources agree that women who were on their own—whether spinsters
or widows—were most in danger. This certainly hints that women were powerless.
At the time clergymen were debating whether women had souls. Everyone took quite
literally the idea that original sin was Eve’s fault, and thus women were to be reviled as destructive temptresses. That kind of scorn radiates through the pages of the Malleus Maleficarum.
An upper class woman would certainly have the benefit over a lower class woman
(although her coveted property might then open her up to pointed witchcraft
accusations), because she would fit more solidly into society, fade more into the wallpaper.
My feeling is that women at this time would want to keep their eyes downcast, be as
bland as possible, and try not to attract attention. Beggar women or those who otherwise
insert themselves into the lives of those not their kin— those were women who people begin
to look askance at.
While villages were small, people could take responsibility for these outsiders, but as
the population of Europe grew, the sense of responsibility dissipated and the feeling of annoyance grew. And then add in a famine or a food shortage, and either you give food
to this woman and then feel resentful, or you don’t and then feel guilty—either emotion is extremely uncomfortable and you just sort of start to wish she wasn’t there. And then you notice that after you passed her in the lane one day, you tripped on a rock and barked your shin….
* Are you working on another historical fiction novel, and if so,
who will be your protagonist?
I have a novel outlined set in revolution-era France and in fact took a research
trip last September. But I find that my mind is more taken with an entirely
different novel that’s set in the modern day and involves medical students,
cadavers, artists, infertility and parallel lives. And that’s all I’m going to say!
I love historical fiction. I read it voraciously and it’s my favorite thing to read.
Two of my favorite novels are Girl with a Pearl Earring and Year of Wonders—
and I just today finished The Nature of Monsters and thought it was fabulous.
Doubtless I’ll wander back to historical fiction at some point, but for now the pot
bubbling on the stove is very much 21st century. Michelle, thank you so much for
the opportunity to answer these questions. I really enjoyed Nefertiti and am looking
forward anxiously to your next novel! Hurry up and write it!
Thank you Erika! And feel free to visit
Erika Mailman online for more information about her novel
The Witch's Trinity.
Photo credit: Sherry LaVars