November 2015

Stacy Schiff

A fascinating reappraisal of Salem’s witchcraft mania
Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches, a brilliant, exceptionally well-researched account of the 1692 Salem witch trials, says her number one requirement when writing her prize-winning nonfiction books is “a big desk, an enormous desk!”
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Stacy Schiff, author of The Witches, a brilliant, exceptionally well-researched account of the 1692 Salem witch trials, says her number one requirement when writing her prize-winning nonfiction books is “a big desk, an enormous desk!”

“You’re synthesizing massive amounts of raw material,” she explains during a call to her home just north of the grand, Beaux-Arts main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, a favorite haunt. Schiff speaks rapidly and with enthusiasm. “For whatever reason, I physically like to have the maps, my notes, the articles and the books all on my desk while I’m working. I just can’t do that on a small-size desk.”

In fact, Schiff works at two enormous desks—one in Manhattan and one in Canada. Throughout her married life, Schiff and her husband, a Canadian businessman, have had a commuter marriage. “He’s the one who does the commuting. The kids [two sons, 15 and 24, and a daughter, 21] went to school in the U.S. So for the school year we’ve always been here. He goes back and forth. Then in the summer and holidays, when I get a huge amount of writing done, we decamp to Canada.” Her husband, she adds, is “an incredibly astute reader,” one of two trusted first-readers of her work.

Admiring readers of Schiff’s Cleopatra, her widely hailed 2010 biography of the Egyptian ruler, or Vera, her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, know her to be a remarkable researcher. 

“I like to feel documents,” Schiff says, when asked about her methods. “I like to touch them, I like to smell them, I like to read them in the original!”

Schiff’s passion for primary documents proved particularly important in piecing together the story of a disturbing chapter in early American history.

“This is an episode we go to over and over again and can’t quite seem to resolve. It gets under the skin and enchants,” she says. “It’s a chapter that everyone thinks they know well but truthfully have great misconceptions about. Most people think the witches were burned. [They were hanged.] Most people have no idea that it included 19 people. Or that it took place over nine months. Or that men were also victims, including a minister! People aren’t sure about when it took place. Halfway between Plymouth Rock and Paul Revere, there’s this sort of strange wasteland in American history. You forget that there was this very different early America.”

Much of what is so compelling about The Witches is how vividly Schiff brings this very different era to life. 

Schiff offers a nearly day-by-day account of the conflagration that is tactile in its detail.

The Puritans lived in near-constant dread of Native-American attacks. They contended with starvation during long, arduous winters in tightly enclosed spaces. Little wonder, Schiff notes, that it was in January and February that the overworked, sensory-deprived adolescent girls in the household of Salem’s minister were overtaken by fits of twitching and barking. The affliction spread.

Add to the mix the foreboding Puritan sensibility, and a skeptical modern reader can almost begin to understand the diagnoses of witchcraft. Of her four years of working on the book, of “disappearing into another century,” Schiff says, “It was a pretty dark and chilly place to live. This is a very bleak religion, in which you are meant to feel at all times off-kilter and inadequate. You are haunted by that horrible Puritan riddle—am I going to be saved or am I going to be damned? At some point I thought the first line should have been, ’This is a book about anxiety.’ ”

The Puritans were also a highly literate and highly litigious people. Neighbor sued neighbor for trespass or pigs in the garden seemingly at the drop of a hat. Carefully kept court records bloomed. And the Puritan elite—political leaders, court officials and ministers—wrote voluminous letters and kept personal journals. But the records of the nine-month witchcraft mania are curiously spotty, perhaps deliberately so.

Nevertheless, by keeping a careful chronology and uncovering “the interesting coincidences, the patterns”—by reading between the lines—Schiff offers a nearly day-by-day account of the conflagration that is tactile in its detail. Building on an account by John Alden, an eminent community member who was one of more than 100 people jailed in the widening gyre of accusations before finally being released, Schiff offers an astonishing description of the packed, smelly, raucous courtroom in which the teenage girls writhed and flitted between judges and accused, pointing to witches in the rafters. And she shrewdly reverse-engineers the hazy record to help us understand the charges against George Burroughs, the little-known, Harvard-educated minister who was hanged for being the supposed leader of this confederacy of witches.

Schiff’s account also draws deeply on Cotton Mather, a young, charismatic, spiritual and intellectual leader of the colony, who was often equivocal as events unfolded. “He’s so fascinating, so unctuous, so prolific, so all over the place and so desperate for the spotlight,” Schiff says. “He shouldn’t be blamed, but he’s at the white-hot center every step of the way. Looking at [the originals of] his letters, I was able to see where he crossed out, what he had trouble with, what he stalled on, what he emphasized. It gives you a strong sense of what everyone was listening to because he’s among the top authorities on the subject.”

Noting that earlier books about the witch trials “are very thesis driven,” Schiff felt her book “could only work if you just tell the story.” While she does sow seeds along the way, only in the final chapters of The Witches does Schiff offer her own fascinating analysis of the complex set of causes that probably underlie the witchcraft charges, the sudden passing of the storm and the years of denial about the persecution of innocents. In Schiff’s telling, this is an old story with contemporary implications.

This narrative approach works so well because Schiff just happens to be a superb and witty writer. Asked about her sometimes droll humor, she says that after reading an early draft of the book, one Yale scholar told her he didn’t know the Puritans could be this much fun.

“I do feel,” she explains, “that at some point you can only write in your own voice. I was aware that I had to be careful with this book—it’s a very sobering subject. On the one hand, you need to feel sympathy for all of these people, including the ones who are driving the prosecution forward for what they consider to be their own good reasons. On the other hand, you need to be interesting and you need to be vivid and you need to be lively. I decided that even while I told this relatively dark story, there was no reason why I couldn’t sparkle on the page.”

And The Witches definitely sparkles.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

The Witches

The Witches

By Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316200608

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