The Hippo


Oct 22, 2019








Meet Stacy Schiff

Where: The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut St., Portsmouth
When: Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m.
What: Presentation, author interview with Virginia Prescott
Admission: $13.75; for each one to two tickets sold, the purchase of a book voucher ($32) is required, which can be redeemed the night of for signed book copies.
Contact: 436-2400,

Witch words
New book uncovers truths about Salem witch trials

By Kelly Sennott

The Salem witch trials aren’t new to literature, but Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff says her most recent take, The Witches, is different from the others, debunking myths while providing drama.

“It’s not thesis-driven. It’s really written toward the ideas,” Schiff said via phone last week. “Unlike most [nonfiction] books, it builds like a thriller.”
Schiff is best known for Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and Cleopatra: A Life, published in 2010. When she turned her attention to the Salem witch trials, she was attracted to the fact that it’s one of the few moments in American history when women played the central role. It also held a kind of puzzle to solve: how did this seemingly enlightened community execute innocents in the light of day? 
The book’s release is Oct. 27, a couple days before her Music Hall event on Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m., which includes an author presentation and onstage interview with Virginia Prescott, host of NHPR’s Word of Mouth.
The trials, Schiff said, were “probably even zanier and loopier” than people realize, especially since most of what people know is from fiction, like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Occurring over 9 months in 1692, it started with a minister’s daughter screaming and convulsing and ended with 19 hanged men and women and one elderly man crushed to death.
“The accusers themselves are primarily girls, and I think that surprises many of us,” Schiff said. 
Other surprises may occur in the story’s context, which Schiff provides in The Witches. Massachusetts was without a charter at the time, which caused political unrest and had a huge bearing on how accusations were tried. These events also occurred in the midst of the Indian Wars, and at the time, Massachusetts spanned across New England. Accusations happened in 24 different communities.
“It’s a fairly large cast of characters over a fairly large terrain, but what’s fascinating is how quickly word travels, and charting how the story develops — how the narrative begins with these girls twitching, and how it builds into a diabolical plot against the state,” Schiff said. 
Schiff spent her researching time in Massachusetts, making trips to Salem, Danvers, Boston and North Andover. She delved into diaries and day-to-day court records, which gave insight to the kinds of things people were tried for, and thus, cared about.
“This was heaven in terms of the detail and the texture,” Schiff said. “It showed how litigious they were and how they were really good grudge-holders.”
These were the details that helped her get inside characters’ minds and set the scene, for instance, when George Burroughs, the minister, walked into court for his trial, probably confident and unaware of his fate. No man nor minister had yet been hung for witchcraft. The goal was to make these people feel human again and for readers to sense what they were experiencing.
“These people are like us. As much as 17th-century New England feels like this very distant place, we too are prone to some of these behaviors,” Schiff said. “Many of these people sincerely believed what they were testifying was true, whether because they were brainwashed or had their ears boxed by the authority, or because at this point in the story, it just seemed so vivid to everyone, and so convenient for so many reasons,” Schiff said. 
Schiff went through many drafts to find the balance of narrative and information.
“You have to withhold a certain amount. You don’t want to hit the reader over the head with too much explanation early on,” she said. “I had to have this sense of suspense. This sense of, ‘Why is this happening?’ The reader has to feel compelled to turn the page. I needed the reader to basically feel as if witchcraft could be possible and buy into the story these people were telling themselves. My job here was to make a crazy-seeming thing completely rational or explainable.”
In the end, the heroes are not necessarily who you expect them to be. There are surprising twists. But Schiff’s satisfied with her conclusion.
“I do think it makes sense, once you see it this way,” Schiff said. 

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