There's something strange happening to the girls at St. Joan's Academy. The students are having uncontrollable tics, seizures, coughing, hair loss, and many more bizarre symptoms that seemed to come out of nowhere.
So what's to blame? Pollution? Stress? A virus? Everyone is left scratching their heads expect one student, Colleen, who comes to realize that their town was once Salem Village, and another group of girls suffered from a similar illness three centuries ago. Coincidence? Or is there more to it?
This spellbinding read was inspired by true events and will keep you on the edge of your seat from the moment you pick it up! I was fortunate enough to catch up with author Katherine Howe and discuss her fantastic book Conversion!
What was the inspiration behind your novel Conversion?
In spring 2012, while I was teaching a class on historical fiction, a group of teenage girls in upstate New York fell victim to bizarre, uncontrollable tics. Nobody could figure out what caused the strange constellation of symptoms, and as media scrutiny grew more intense, every adult seemed to have a different agenda about what was really going on. Was it strep infection? Was it Gardasil? Was there pollution and a cover-up? The official diagnosis was that the girls had conversion disorder. Being a teenage girl is such an intense experience that their bodies "converted" the stress into physical symptoms -- basically, it was a modern-day outbreak of hysteria.
Their experience made me reflect on how much has changed for young women in our culture, and how much hasn't. The teenage girls in Salem whose strange outbursts spurred the witch trials lived in a time of rigid social hierarchy, religious extremism, and backbreaking labor. We all assume that it's much easier to be a teenage girl today. But what if the challenges have just changed shape?
Tell me a little about your background and how you became a writer.
My husband and I moved to Marblehead, Massachusetts from Cambridge in summer of 2005, and that November I was scheduled to take my doctoral qualifying exams in graduate school. The interesting thing about Marblehead, for those who haven't been there, is that it has one of the most complete collections of extant eighteenth century American architecture in the country. It's the kind of place where only a little bit of imagination can erase the power lines overhead and block out the cars parked along the street. I started to imagine what life might have looked like in a different moment in time.
Marblehead is only one town over from Salem, which is a terrific place full of modern-day witchery. As a historian, however, I knew that the reality of Salem looked very different from the pop culture version. So I asked myself: if witchcraft were real the way the colonists understood it to be, rather than in our fairy tale sense, what would it look like? How would it work? Who would do it, and why? The story for my first novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, really grew out of that idea. Conversion extends that story to look at Salem from the teenage girls' point of view.
One of the many things I loved about your book is it was based on "real" events. Did you find it harder or easier to write a book that way, and was there more pressure on your end for the plot to feel authentic?
I would say that the book was inspired by real events, rather than based on them, since the story that I tell in Conversion is markedly different from what really happened in Le Roy. That being said, I think that any novelist feels intense pressure to make her story feel authentic to a reader, regardless of where the original idea for the novel may have come from. A feeling of authenticity is crucial for the development of empathy with and investment in the characters. One of the most enjoyable challenges for me in writing fiction lies in the historical aspects of the story. Most of Conversion takes place in 2012, but the back story unfolds in 1706, and the characters living in that time period had a very different understanding of the world from the one that we have today. I enjoy trying to think myself into a frame of mind that no longer exists.
You are a New York Times bestselling author for your books The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and The House of Velvet and Glass. I have no doubt your fans will love Conversion, but what do you think makes Conversion stand apart from your other work?
The biggest difference between Conversion and the previous two novels is that Conversion immerses itself fully in the teenage perspective. Whereas the previous two books move between several different characters' points of view, Conversion stays tightly focused on Colleen and her friends. I feel like the experience of being a teenage girl is often marked by a social and psychological intensity that is difficult to understand. Colleen's whole world is bound by her friendships, her rivalries, her romantic life, and her perceptions of herself in relationship to these things. At moments in the story it's not clear which girl is saying what, in part because I wanted to capture the sensation of the self being subsumed to the imperatives of the group. I think my adult readers will enjoy Conversion, as it's still a very me sort of book, but my hope is that Conversion will open a dialogue with teen readers as well.
What is next for you in terms of your writing career? Any new books on the horizon?
My next book is an edited collection of primary sources about witchcraft in North America called The Penguin Book of Witches, which will be out from Penguin Classics on September 30, 2014. Readers of Conversion will recognize some of the 1690s courtroom dialogue, which is reproduced in its entirety in the Penguin reader. And right now I'm finishing a draft of a new novel, a love story set between 1825 and 2014 in New York City, which should be ready to meet the world next summer.
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