Adriana Mather, author of the brand new YA novel How to Hang a Witch , has a name that might just give you a double take. Almost 400 years ago, her ancestor Cotton Mather was highly influential in the Salem Witch Trials that resulted in the executions of twenty people. Today, Mather is still an unpopular last name in Salem — but Adriana certainly doesn't share her relative's superstitious beliefs. In How to Hang a Witch, Mather shines a light on the lessons the Salem Witch Trials can teach us about modern-day bullying — and what we can do about it.
The novel, which was released on July 26, is set (of course) in Salem. The protagonist is teenager Samantha Mather, who has just arrived in town from New York, and whose last name isn't winning her any friends. The popular kids at school dress all in black and are known as The Descendants; they have strong ties to the Trials as well, only their ancestors were on the other end of the noose. Before long, the town is struck with a series of mysterious illnesses, accidents, and even deaths — and The Descendants are blaming Sam. Oh yeah, and if that wasn't already bad enough? Sam's house is haunted by an angry (but rather handsome) ghost.
I talked to Adriana Mather about her controversial family, why witches are feminist, and even got some exciting clues about what we can expect from her next.
Were you always interested in your ancestors growing up?
Mather: Always! My grandmother, Claire Mather, used to walk me through her house telling me stories of forbidden love, failed inventions, and over-seas adventures. I was completely charmed by my ancestor’s paintings and by reading the letters they wrote hundreds of years ago. My imagination still runs wild thinking about discovering a diary from the 1700s in the back of an old button drawer.
Do you think you'll write about any more of your family history?
My ancestors came over on the mayflower, instigated the Salem Witch Trials, lived in Sleepy Hollow, and survived the Titanic. The Witch Trials weren’t initially my main focus. I loved the quiet stories, the humorous poems, and exploring my grandmother’s attic. But this story about Salem appeared in my mind one day and it wouldn’t leave me alone.
I will absolutely be writing about my family again. There is so much intrigue there; I just can’t help myself.
What do you think Cotton Mather would think of How to Hang a Witch?!
After 300 years of reflection, I bet he’s a pagan. (Hehe.)
In your author's note, you mention a haunted B&B you once visited in Salem. Tell us more!
What I’ll say is…Supposedly a woman was murdered there by her husband after he found her with another man. And if you stay in certain rooms you might just hear her wailing. I made the grave mistake of reading the guest book entries that talked about rockers rocking by themselves and the ghost of a little boy waking someone up in the middle of the night to ask for a penny. That did it. I kept checking under my bed convinced something was going to eat me.
Why do you think witches are so popular as a feminist symbol of female power?
Witches can be both good and evil. They are the persecuted and the powerful. They provide women with a broad range of ways of being that subvert the typical stereotypes. When looking at world religions, many goddesses appear in relationship to gods. They are the consort, wife, or mother. And they are partially defined by their counterparts. But the witch is defined by no one. She is her own person.
And, well, women are magical…obviously.
I loved your line "Group silence is a death sentence." Who do you think we need to be speaking up for at the moment?
All marginalized groups and any sentient being who needs it. I remember studying the Good Samaritan Law in psychology and wondering why we needed a law to tell us to do the right thing. It was explained to me that people deflect responsibility to speak up, call the police, and stop violence. And if there’s a crowd, people often assume someone will or already did take action. Thus, creating group silence. It is so unbelievably important to be the one person who actually says/does something.
What's your writing process? Do you have any tips for aspiring first-time writers?
I write in bed. Someone once compared me to the grandparents in Willy Wonka. And I thought, yes, that is the most apt celebrity comparison I’ve ever gotten. I also have a morning coffee song with my fiancé, usually a cat or a dog draped over my lap, and I take a lot of walks (where I talk to myself about made up people).
For first time writers…be unstoppable. There is no right or easy way through a creative profession. You have to be committed and willing to plow forward even when you can’t see the light ahead. And there is always light. Also, donuts and bawdy jokes help.
What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations for our readers?
2016 books I love: The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace, and Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst. The first two are Contemporary and the second two are Fantasy. They are a great mixture of drama, heart, adventure, and princess romance. But the thing that binds them all together is that all these authors have amazing senses of humor and awesome prose.
And finally — can you give us any clues about what you'll be working on next...?!
Yes! I was so hoping you would ask. My next book is currently titled How to Sink a Ship and is a sequel to HTHAW. It’s the same cast of characters, only it has ghosts from the Titanic instead of ghosts from the Witch Trials. My ancestors survived the Titanic with their valet and their dog (one of the only dogs to survive!) and my family has an actual letter recounting their journey. It’s in the book and I’m bursting with excitement to share it with everyone.
Um, did anyone else just *squeal* with excitement when they read that?
Image: Courtesy of Penguin Random House