Seventeenth-century New England was not a safe place, especially for women. Any small action outside of being a “good wife” had the potential to spurn allegations of witchcraft, so what was a woman to do if she found herself in a marriage marked by cruelty and domestic abuse? Chris Bohjalian’s latest unputdownable thriller feels timely despite the historical setting, full of twists and the impossible and sometimes terrifying choices women must face in the pursuit of safety. Here, Bohjalian discusses the inspiration behind his latest novel, witchcraft, Puritan theology, and the historically seen threat of strong and smart women.
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Sometimes, I know precisely when one of my novels was conceived. The Flight Attendant, for instance, began at a bar in New York City after I flew in from Russia. I wrote the first three pages on paper cocktail napkins while drinking arak, an anise-flavored alcohol. (Imagine weaponized ouzo.) Midwives began when I met the local, Vermont midwife at a dinner party, and grew hypnotized by her wonderful stories of hippies and home births.
But Hour of the Witch? Witchcraft is a cultural touchstone we all grew up with, and there were multiple epiphanies. It’s one of those rare subjects that walks the tightrope between fact and fiction. The word witch can evoke images as disparate as an old crone living in the woods and boiling children, and Nicole Kidman in the film adaptation of Alice Hoffman’s brilliant, Practical Magic. There are good witches (Samantha Stevens and Glinda) and bad witches (Bellatrix Lestrange and the green witch from Oz who, prior to Gregory Maguire’s magnificent rehabilitation, pretty much went by the name “Wicked”). Somehow, the word witch manages to be both ageist and sexist, capable of conjuring abject ugliness one moment and erotic fantasy the next.
But in seventeenth-century New England, the word should have come with a trigger warning, because it meant only one thing: Satan was present. Satan was among us. Satan — whether it was 1662 Boston, where my new novel, Hour of the Witch, is set, or Salem thirty years later — was as real as your neighbor. And as unnerving as the word was to any faithful Puritan strolling Boston’s Back Bay or the wharves, it was a thousand times more terrifying to anyone who was accused of being a witch, because witchcraft was a capital crime. Hartford was hanging witches thirty years before Salem, and the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law executed for witchcraft in Boston in 1656.
Which brings me to the origins of this novel. As much as witchcraft in the seventeenth century interested me, divorce might have interested me even more. Roughly thirty divorces were granted in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, half initiated by women. One was filed by Katherine Nanny Naylor on the grounds of cruelty — what today we would call domestic abuse. How much courage must it have taken in Puritan Boston for a woman to stand up against the stern men who formed the Court of Assistants and petition for divorce?
And so, Hour of the Witch is the nexus of those two threads, the confluence of witchcraft and divorce. The Puritan mind, with its extraordinary contradictions, has interested me since college, which is what I mean when I say this novel had multiple epiphanies. There have been periods in my life when, in fact, the Puritan mind obsessed me. I’d sit in church while the pastor was reading a Bible passage and ponder what those words meant to a New Englander three hundred years ago. Imagine wondering daily if you were among the saved or the damned? I still have many of my books from college about Puritan theology, but researching this novel demanded exploration of Puritan civil and criminal law, and, yes, witchcraft.
The result is my heroine, Mary Deerfield. I love her. In Hour of the Witch, she risks everything in 1662 to escape a marriage from a beast far more present than the devil, even if that means facing charges of witchcraft. Historically, strong women and smart women and creative women have been a threat to men. And New England women accused of being witches frequently were — at the very least — opinionated.
Yes, Hour of the Witch is set in 1662. But it might be among the timeliest novels I’ve ever written.