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the first day of autumn

In The Witches of New York, the writing life by ami

I woke up Thursday morning to the joyful sound of honking geese wafting through my window. Their “conversation” was filled with impatient exuberance and, as Joni Mitchell once wrote, “the urge for going.” A lone raven that often perches atop one of the spruce trees beside my house barked a string of surly caws to send them on their way. It was the first day of autumn—a time of passing, a time of new beginnings, a time of change.

The Witches of New York begins on the cusp between seasons—when the heady, bright days of summer are giving way to autumn’s dappled, magic-inducing light. The veil becomes thin this time of year, allowing the spirits of our ancestors to come close enough to beckon us to listen.

I did a lot of “listening” while writing Witches—to the characters on the page (and in my head,) to our dear honey bees as they buzzed around their hives, to the ravens that passed over our land as they flew to and from their rookery each morning and night. And when my brain needed a break from crafting story, I’d turn my attention to chasing after the stories of the people who inhabit the branches of my family tree. Filling in the blanks of their lives is immensely satisfying. A simple click here or there can lead to a mystery solved, or to another place and time.

A good way into the writing process of Witches, I followed a genealogical trail that led me to 19th century Massachusetts and several family members with the name Hathorne/Hawthorne. Wouldn’t it be amazing, I thought, if I’m related to Nathaniel Hawthorne of The Scarlet Letter fame? With some diligent digging I found that indeed I am a 5th cousin, 5x removed. It’s a distant, sideways connection, but a connection just the same.

After reading Hawthorne’s Wikipedia page it hit me…if I’m related to good old Nathaniel, then I’m also related to a man so vile it led the great American author to change the spelling of his name. John Hathorne (1641-1717) the only judge from the Salem Witch Trials who refused to repent for his actions, is my 1st cousin, nine times removed. Needless to say, clicking that wiggly leaf on was no happy moment. I was sad, upset and angry for days. I wrote in my journal:

When I’m finished, this book will make him roll in his grave.

For the next few months I abandoned my genealogical pursuits for the novel (and other diversions like baking bread, or playing Settlers of Catan.) Christmas arrived and my dear husband, knowing I was still obsessed with my strange connection to Salem, gave me a copy of The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. It’s a wonderful, well-researched account of what went on before, during and shortly after the trials. I immediately went back to my own research and found that Salem, as well as the names of other towns in the surrounding area was quite prominent in my family history. One town, Andover stuck out from the rest. I had a lot of family from there. Were they involved with the trials as well?

I soon discovered that Andover has the dubious distinction of having the most citizens (40+) formally accused of witchcraft (the majority of them women and children) and the most “confessed.” Many of the accused were imprisoned, and three were executed. I kept digging, clicking leaves, Googling until my eyes were red.

Three days after Christmas I discovered this:
Among those accused in Andover was a woman named Mary Ayer Parker—my nine times great aunt.

The 55-year-old widow was examined, tried, convicted, and then executed in September 1692. Her twenty-two year old daughter, Sarah was also accused.

What had Mary done? (What had any of the accused done, for that matter?) Where was her brother, John, my nine times great grandfather?

Both John Ayer and Mary’s husband, Nathan Parker were long dead. Widowed Puritan women were often targets for gossip and social machinations—some, simply because of their age, others due to the things they did to survive (many became healers or midwives,) and still others, like Mary, happened to own a fair bit of choice land.

There was a definite double standard when it came to “occult practices” in the Puritan communities of the day. If a woman practiced folk healing or Bible dipping or oomancy (a form of divination that employs pouring egg whites in water) then she was a witch. If a clergyman studied alchemy, then he was a learned scholar. As Stacy Schiff wrote: “Plenty of clergymen dabbled in alchemy. While inveighing against the occult popular magic was one thing, elite magic was another. A great deal of bet-hedging and base-covering went on; just because you were eminently pious did not mean you hesitated to serve up witch cake.” (A cake containing the urine of a witch that was fed to dogs or the afflicted to gauge the guilt of said witch.)

Historians have tried to dissect Mary’s case, but have found it quite puzzling. Unlike many of the accused from her community who confessed in hopes of having their lives spared, Mary denied the accusations. Maybe she was worried a confession would further implicate Sarah, or maybe she believed they’d gotten the wrong Mary Parker (there were three other women from the surrounding communities with the same name.) Perhaps Sarah had spurned the attentions of a suitor and he was out for revenge against both the young woman and her mother.

For whatever reason, Mary was accused by fourteen-year-old William Barker Jr. of having “afflicted” sixteen-year-old Mary Sprague with witchcraft. Eighteen-year-old Marcy Wardwell added to the widow’s pain by claiming she’d seen her “shape” among the afflicted. During her examination, just the mention of Mary’s name caused the afflicted girls (Mary Warren, Sarah Churchill, Hannah Post, Sara Bridges and Mercy Wardwell) to fall into fits. When she was brought in for the infamous “touch test” and commanded to lay hands on the girls, the young women were instantly “cured.” This was taken as sure proof of Mary’s affiliation with the Devil and her use of witchcraft.

On September 22, 1692, she was taken by an ox-drawn cart (along with Martha Corey, Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Willmot Redd, and Samuel Wardwell) to Gallows Hill to be hanged. Some of them asserted their innocence, others recited their petitions, still others prayed. I’ve yet to find any record of Mary’s last words that day. The Reverend Nicholas Noyes II, who was the official minister for the trials and the officiating clergy for the executions was said to have looked upon the bodies of the dangling dead and cruelly commented, “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there.”

It was the first day of autumn.

The executions at Salem ended that day, but the prolonged suffering they caused and our bewilderment at how any of it happened, remain. Luckily, the edict to halt the executions came down in time to spare Mary’s daughter’s life. No one knows what happened to Sarah after the trials. She seems to have simply disappeared. I dedicated The Witches of New York to Mary and I’m still searching for signs of Sarah.
Since discovering them in my family tree, I’ve found three other accused women who are also related to me. I can’t help but feel their heartbreak has always lived in my blood, leading me to feel compelled to tell tales of women who are extraordinary outsiders and gloriously “other.”

This year, on the first day of autumn, I spent the afternoon with a dear friend. We drank tea in the company of a crystal ball (and perhaps a few ghosts.) I turned cards in honour of witches past and told tales of the future.

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step right up!

In Events, The Witches of New York, Witchy Wednesday by ami

Ta-da! Behold Ian McKay's marvellous ticket contraption...

Ta-da! Behold Ian McKay’s marvellous ticket contraption…

On Monday I posted a six second video teaser of this amazing thing-ma-jig on Facebook and Twitter. The video was shot from the back, where all you could see were the inner workings of the contraption, rather than its swanky facade. I’m pleased to announce that this lovely contraption (designed and constructed by my talented husband, Ian McKay) has now been installed at The Box of Delights Bookshop in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.

As you can see from the placard that graces its front, it’s being used to issue tickets for the upcoming launch of The Witches of New York at the Al Whittle Theatre. Tickets for the event are “by donation” with all proceeds going to “Because I Am A Girl,” an organization that’s near and dear to my heart. You’re welcome to donate whatever amount you like in exchange for a ticket, but if you happen to have a Toonie on hand when you visit the shop, you can give the contraption a whirl. It makes an oh-so-satisfying sound when you turn the crank!

the works!

the works!

I’m really looking forward to the big to-do on October 25th. It’s going to be a ton of fun! I’ll be reading from the novel, giving an illustrated talk about the research and inspiration behind it, answering questions, signing books, AND unveiling a super special video project that has magically blossomed since finishing the book. If you’re in the Wolfville area I’d LOVE to see you there. Seating is limited, so I encourage you to get your tickets early. Also, the lovely co-owners of Box of Delights, Mitzi and Hilary, are  offering a 15% discount on the book if you pre-order it through them. (How swell is that?!)

Gorgeous "save the date" postcards provided by the fabulous team at Penguin Random House! (along with one of the event tickets. :)

Gorgeous “save the date” postcards provided by the fabulous team at Penguin Random House! (along with one of the event tickets. 🙂

Psst…there may still be some “save the date” postcards at the bookstore. Pop in and get one before they’re gone!

For those of you who aren’t in the Annapolis Valley and have been asking, “when’s the book coming out near me?” and “when are you coming my way for a reading?” here are the deets…

The book will be published in Canada (Knopf Canada) and the UK (Orion) this October, 2016. (The 25th of October in Canada, the 27th of October in the UK. Just in time for All Hallows’ Eve!) It’s available for pre-order NOW from any independent bookseller, chain store or online retailer. (And I’ll add that the Canadian hardcover edition and the UK paperback contain brilliant book design elements and illustrations. Thank you, Kelly Hill!) The US edition will be published by Harper Perennial in early summer, 2017.

As far as events go, I’ll be touring across Canada starting in October and through to late November. I don’t have all the dates and locations yet, but I’ll be posting them on my events page as soon they’re confirmed. There are a few events listed already for Nova Scotia and Ontario (see events page link below,) including a pre-view reading October 1st at the brand-spankin’ new Lunenburg Lit Festival! If you’d like to be notified if all upcoming events, feel free to follow my author page on Facebook, and/or sign up for my e-newsletter via this site.

Thanks, as always, for your support, interest and patience. It is a true honour to know that there are readers waiting to read my work. I can’t wait to share my Witches with you, and to see familiar and new faces when I’m on the road!

the stunning Orion UK cover of The Witches of New York. *swoon*

the stunning Orion UK cover of The Witches of New York. *swoon*

People, Places and Things mentioned in this post…

The Box of Delights Bookstore

Ami’s Events

The Fantastical Makery of Ian McKay – Monkey Dream. Monkey Do.

Because I Am A Girl

Ami’s Facebook Page

Lunenburg Lit Festival

Penguin Random House Canada

Orion Publishing Group UK

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when it pains you not to speak

In The Witches of New York, Witchy Wednesday by ami

Halloween circa 1974. My sister Lori and me. (I'm sporting my "resting witch face.")

Halloween circa 1974. My sister Lori and me. (I’m sporting my “resting witch face.”)

I’m reclaiming the word witch. To do so, I’ve got to take things all the way back to its roots…which are, much like the way we regard the word itself—shadowy, misunderstood and not completely clear. Even renowned scholars of etymology can’t quite agree on how it first sprang up, but they all admit its origins are tantalizingly old, stemming from times and places where those labelled with the word witch were revered rather than reviled.

Here are just a few of the earliest meanings to be found in the word’s possible origins:

One who bends (like a willow,) one who dances and makes mysterious gestures, one who rouses others, who wakes the dead, who is strong and lively. A wise one, a teacher, a diviner, a seer, a diverter of evil. One skilled in the use of medicinal herbs. One who sees hidden things. And my personal favourite, “she who knows.”

Which meaning is right? One, some, all? No one knows for sure.

“One thing we do know is that the word came to Britain with the Saxons, who at the time of their arrival on these shores were pagans. I believe that to them, the word witch (or whichever of its forerunners they used), did not necessarily have any derogatory meaning. A witch was a seer, a knower, an averter of evil. The word only took on a negative meaning with the coming of Christianity, which taught that all the gods of the heathen were devils. So anyone who clung to the old ways and the Old Religion was a devil worshipper. And annually, around Halloween, we still see the same old charges being made in the same old spirit of bigotry. Isn’t it sad that these good folk haven’t learnt anything since the Dark Ages?” —Doreen Valiente

Sadly, history has shown us that when that spirit of bigotry is left unchecked, horrible things can happen. 

“Women who expressed their religiosity in unapproved ways, or in ways that were “too feminine” by the standards of the culture, were branded as witches or heretics.” – Ayşe Tuzlak (from, “The Real Reason Women Love Witches” by Anne Theriault)

During the witch hunts in Europe and the trials in Salem, mere accusations became death sentences for thousands of people, the majority of them women. (This especially hits home for me, since I recently discovered that I’m related to one of the women hanged for witchcraft at Gallows Hill in Salem. But that’s a story I’ll save for another day.)

Throughout the ages and into the 21st century, the gendered label of witch has been used as a contemptuous slur, thrust upon any woman who was considered “other” in her society —too old, too pretty, too ugly, too smart, too powerful, too wise, too outspoken, too weird, too disabled, too talented, too sexual, too curious, too…well…too just-about-anything-you-can-think-of.

from New York WitchFest 2016. (Via Broadly. Photo by Darragh Dandurand)

from New York WitchFest 2016. (Via Broadly. Photo by Darragh Dandurand)

For the past five years while writing The Witches of New York, I’ve been researching the history of witches, mainly as it pertains to North American culture. Recently I started sharing some of that research, via the handle @WitchyWednesday on Twitter. What I haven’t posted are the MANY articles, memes, tweets, posts etc. that I’ve come across where witch is used as a slur against women. Search for the name of any woman who happens to be an influencer in her sphere, any woman of power, strength or unusual talent; then add the word witch to that search, and I guarantee you’ll be met with some to the most vile, hateful and frightening results you’ve ever seen online.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” an extraordinary documentary that traces the history of the women’s feminist movement in the US during the 1960’s and 70’s. Among the leaders of the movement in that era was a group of women that called themselves “W.I.T.C.H” (the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) also known as (Women Inspired to Tell their Collective History.) The group was formed in 1968 when the NYRW (New York Radical Women) split into two separate organizations—the Redstockings and W.I.T.C.H.

The women of W.I.T.C.H were, “devoted to overthrowing the patriarchal dominance of society, and according to scholar Cynthia Eller, they chose to do so in “witty, flamboyant and theatrical ways” by carrying out witch-themed political stunts. —from Wikipedia

Their glorious manifesto speaks for itself:

WITCH is an all-woman Everything. It’s theater, revolution, magic, terror, joy, garlic flowers, spells. It’s an awareness that witches and gypsies were the original guerrillas and resistance fighters against oppression – particularly the oppression of women – down through the ages. Witches have always been women who dared to be: groovy, courageous, aggressive, intelligent, nonconformist, explorative, curious, independent, sexually liberated, revolutionary.

A witch lives and laughs in every woman. She is the free part of each of us. There is no joining WITCH. If you are a woman and dare to look within yourself, you are a witch. You are a witch by being female, untamed, angry, joyous, and immortal. You are a witch by saying aloud ‘I am a witch’ and thinking about that.

1969 WITCH protest at the Chicago Federal Building.

1969 WITCH protest at the Chicago Federal Building.

As a child growing up in Indiana, I watched the film version of the Wizard of Oz annually. (Why they chose to show it at the start of tornado season in the Midwest is beyond me, but that didn’t stop me from planting my bum on the living room floor in front of the TV.) By the age of eight I had most every line memorized, and I’d often find myself thinking about the dialogue from the film long after I’d watched it. Like most kids, I loved the scene where Dorothy lands in Oz and everything turns from black and white to being saturated with wild, vibrant colour. Still, there was one thing about the story that I wished I could change (one tiny thing that would change EVERYTHING that came after.) What if, when Glinda appears and asks Dorothy “are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” Dorothy doesn’t insist she’s not a witch, but instead says “yes!” ? What if, somewhere between wishing she could fly over the rainbow, and getting swept up in the tornado, she becomes a witch? And better yet, what if she KNOWS it? I guess I’ve been itching to write a story about a girl who becomes a witch for most of my life.

Recently, someone asked me to sum up The Witches of New York in one sentence, and this is was my answer: “It’s historical fiction with a twist: part Victorian fairytale, part penny dreadful, part feminist manifesto.” Now as I strive to be a strong, lively woman who sees what’s hidden, who rejects evil, who prides herself in “knowing,” I find myself wondering, “are there any W.I.T.C.H-minded sisters out there today? Where are the feminists ready to reclaim the word, and the power that comes with it?”

As if by magic, my question was answered last week in an amazing article written by Anne Theriault, aptly titled “The Real Reason Women Love Witches.”

She too, it seems, is reclaiming and redefining the word, witch.

“A witch can be any age; a witch does not need to be conventionally attractive; a witch does not wait for prince charming, nor does she reply on anyone but herself.”
“A witch is someone who, when faced with a brick wall, learns to build a tunnel.”
—Anne Theriault 

This was the nature of the work of the feminists of the 19th century who fought for abolition, suffrage and labourers’ rights. This was the work of our grandmothers and mothers in the 1960’s and 70’s who fought for equality, civil rights and reproductive rights. This is our work now, to continue the fight…for equality, for LGTBQ rights, for Black Lives Matter, for saving our planet.

There’s a scene in The Witches of New York where a daughter fondly recalls a bit of advice given to her by her mother. It’s advice my mother gave to me long ago—sound advice for all young women, (and witches.)

As a child, Eleanor had watched in awe as her mother had said whatever she thought whenever she wanted to whomever she pleased, mostly to great success. 

“When do I get to do that?” she’d asked. “When do I get to say whatever I wish?”

“When it pains you not to,” her mother had replied.

“What if I’m too scared?”

“All the more reason to speak your mind.”


People, places and things mentioned in this post:

If you enjoyed this post…watch this space for more Advice to New Witches