His forthcoming novel, “Hour of the Witch,” arrives on May 4, 2021. It’s a novel of historical suspense set in 1662 Boston, a tale of the first divorce in North America for domestic violence — and a subsequent witch trial.
Q. Hour of the Witch is coming out tomorrow, May 4, 2021, behind a wave of anticipation. What does 1662 Boston have to teach a modern reader about human relationships and society?
Chris: Indoor plumbing has made the world a better place. So have electric lights and stairs to second floors. Also, no good ever comes from hanging people as witches.
Obviously there is more to it than that: it’s a great question.
The Puritans came here with what — in their minds — was a noble goal: to build a city upon a hill that the world would smile upon and make their God proud. Instead they started the Genocide of the indigenous people who lived here, and showed everyday that good intentions are no match for the robust hypocrisies and contradictions that live within the human heart. Human relationships are always going to be fraught and the human soul is always going to be fragile. We are always going to make mistakes.
And we are at our best when we understand that and are capable of saying either, “I was wrong, forgive me.”
Or, “I forgive you. There’s a reasonable process and we’ll get past this.”
When the Puritans were at their best, they did those things. When they were at their worst? Well, it wasn’t pretty. Let’s face it, they used the stocks the way we use Twitter: for public shaming.
Q. You’ve said elsewhere that no matter what you’re writing about, you need to be passionately interested in the topic. What passion inspired you to write this book?
Chris: Hour of the Witch is set in 1662, but it is — by design — among the most timely novels I’ve ever written.
I wanted the novel to feel as authentic and historically accurate as possible, and I used as my rhythmic touchstones the poetry of Anne Bradstreet and the King James Bible.
But I also know that readers won’t miss the reference when a member of Boston’s all-male Court of Assistants calls my heroine, Mary Deerfield, “a nasty woman.”
The novel was inspired, in part, by the first divorce in North America for domestic violence. In 1672, Nanny Naylor was granted a divorce due to “cruelty.”
But it was also inspired by America’s first witch hunts: the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law hanged as a witch in 1656, and Hartford was hanging women six years later for witchcraft — which was three decades before Salem.
So, I think the passion that had me at my desk every morning was the notion that there were colossal injustices being rained down upon seventeenth-century women such as Mary because they were smart and opinionated, and simply had had enough of the awful men around them.
I love that some early readers have referred to the novel as “The Crucible meets The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Q. Your research for every book is famously thorough. (Take, for example, the example of the 65 interviews you reportedly conducted for Midwives.) What research did you undertake for Hour of the Witch?
Chris: Researching a novel set in the 1660s is very different from researching one set in the 1980s. The vast majority of the research I did for Midwives was talking to people: I interviewed midwives, nurse-midwives, ob-gyns, defense lawyers, prosecutors, Vermont’s Chief Medical Examiner, and (of course) moms and dads who had their babies at home. I was very grateful to count among my friends midwife Carol Warnock, who was gracious and patient and wise beyond belief. Yes, there were lots of clinical books and articles I read, but most of the research involved lengthy conversations and follow-up conversations.
But for a novel set in 1662, it was almost entirely reading. I have been interested in Puritan theology and the Puritan mind — which is a lot more interesting than you might suppose — since college. When we imagine the New England Puritans, we envision a stodgy group that wore black and hanged people as witches. (Arguably, that’s not a totally unfair characterization.) But they were a lot more complicated than that. They drank more beer than Miami during spring break and their table manners were likely atrocious because they didn’t use forks: the three-tined implement just starting to gain favor in Europe was a tad too reminiscent of the Devil’s trident. And they lived in a world where Satan was as real as your neighbor, and fretted constantly over one critical question: am I saved or damned?
And they also weren’t nearly as dour as we suppose. The beautiful poetry of Anne Bradstreet is one remarkable example. Their clothing wasn’t all black. And while adultery was a capital crime, no one was ever actually executed for it. It happened.
So, my research included the primary sources, which were lots of diaries and poems and memoirs. The Puritans were rigorous with their ledgers. And it involved secondary sources: analyses of their lives by historians. The acknowledgments of the novel includes many of the books and articles on which I depended, some of which I have had since college.
But I do have to give a shoutout to one person I interviewed a lot: L. Kinvin Wroth, professor emeritus of law at Vermont Law School. We first had lunch in the summer of 2001—twenty years ago—when I reached out to him to discuss the novel I was contemplating about a Puritan woman’s attempt to divorce her husband. He pointed out to me the articles it was critical I read about seventeenth-century law and the first New England courts. He read a draft of the novel and patiently corrected my most egregious mistakes. I will always recall fondly our lunches over decades in South Royalton, Vermont.
Q. Your novel, The Flight Attendant, is now an HBO TV series starring Kaley Cuoco. What was the adaptation process like on your end? What has your reaction been to that show’s success?
Chris: Oh, my gosh, I love the TV series: every moment and every beat. From the second Kaley Cuoco reached out six months before the novel was published because she wanted to play flight attendant Cassie Bowden, it’s been a dream. I knew Kaley — who is an amazing human being and a brilliant actor — would be perfect for the role. Cassie is an alcoholic hot mess who makes terrible decisions, but there are reasons why she is the way she is: her childhood was one trauma after another. And Kaley walks the tightrope between heartbreak and hilarity with utter perfection. She IS Cassie Bowden.
And I love what show runner Steve Yockey and producers, such as Suzanne McCormack, have done to adapt the novel for television. They are just so freaking smart and found the perfect tone: it feels often like Hitchcock at his best. They also assembled a great team, with directors such as Susanna Fogel and Marcos Siega, and an unbelievable cast. Every word from Griffen Matthews’s mouth is gold. Same with Zosia Mamet. And Michiel Huisman and Rosie Perez are just riveting.
Now we have season two to look forward to. I can’t wait.
Q. Who are some of your favorite writers, in and out of your genres?
Chris: Most of my friends are writers, so I always try to step coyly around this question. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.
But I read a lot of historical fiction, contemporary literature, thrillers, and history.
Among my favorite writers who have gone to that great library in the sky? Here are a few off the top of my head: Emily Dickinson. Joseph Heller. Toni Morrison. Willian Styron. Anita Shreve. Howard Frank Mosher. Patricia Highsmith. Ernest Gaines. Scott Fitzgerald.
Q. What are you working on now?
Chris: I wrote my next novel, The Lions of Hollywood, during the pandemic. It arrives in October 2022.
And I didn’t know what the “present” would look like in 2022, and so my next book is also historical fiction — BUT it is set in 1964 (a year I honestly don’t recall, but I was alive).
I loved Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and decided I wanted to write a Hollywood novel, but with a twist. The world’s biggest movie star finally gets married and brings her entourage with her on her honeymoon safari — where it all goes to hell really fast, and it’s quite clear early on that an awful lot of Hollywood royalty is going to get eaten or otherwise killed.
Chris Bohjalian's Latest
Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.
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