INTERVIEW: Kathryn Nuernberger, Author of The Witch of Eye

Book Cover: The Witch of EyeAbout the Book: This amazingly wise and nimble collection investigates the horrors inflicted on so-called “witches” of the past. The Witch of Eye unearths salves, potions, and spells meant to heal, yet interpreted by inquisitors as evidence of evil. The author describes torture and forced confessions alongside accounts of gentleness of legendary midwives. In one essay about a trial, we learn through folklore that Jesus’s mother was a midwife who cured her own son’s rheumatism. In other essays there are subtle parallels to contemporary discourse around abortion and environmental destruction.

Nuernberger weaves in her own experiences, too. There’s an ironic look at her own wedding, an uncomfortable visit to the Prague Museum of Torture, and an afternoon spent tearing out a garden in a mercurial fit. Her researched material is eye-opening, lively, and often funny. An absolutely thrilling collection. (from Sarabande Books.)



About the Author: Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the poetry collections RueThe End of Pink, and Rag & Bone. She has also written the essay collection Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past. Her awards include the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, and notable essays in the Best American series. She teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing program at University of Minnesota. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or her website.

Lara Lillibridge: I’m so excited to interview you! I review books for Mom Egg Review, which was how I discovered your book, and I was so nuts about it that I said I have to see if I can interview her.

The first thing I want to ask you about is Sarabande books. Your paperback has these wonderful embossed endpapers—which is a nice touch you don’t see often. Your publicist sent a handwritten note with the advance reader copy, and they hosted readings at AWP for you. They seem like they really care and support their authors. So, first of all, how did you wind up there? What was your experience like with them?

Kathryn Nuernberger: When I sent the book to Sarabande I was like, I think it’s done. But I also sort of figured I’ll probably be submitting it for years now. Right? I was expecting that I would go through the rejection rigamarole but Sarabande’s reading period was only one month a year and Sarabande was my dream publisher for this book. So I jumped on it when that window opened, even as I was also thinking, let’s just get that first rejection out of the way. But then they just said yes. I had really good luck in that way—it was the first place I sent the manuscript.

Kathryn Nuernberger Headshot

Kathryn Nuernberger

LL: Wow, that is really amazing. And you have other books published so obviously I assume that is not always your experience.

KN: My first book was rejected dozens of times, same with my second. BOA has published my last two books of poetry and I hope they’ll keep being my poetry home.

LL: One thing I have found in interviewing people is that the people who have gotten acceptances right away, it was always because they knew that their book was a good fit for this particular publisher. Which is the opposite of what I did. I went with the wallpaper the internet with queries technique my first time around.

KN: Sarabande published this really cool book called A 20 Minute Silence, Followed By Applause by Shawn Wen that’s a very experimental essay/poetry book about Marcel Marceau, the great mime, and that book gave me so much permission to play with forms. And then I really love Elena Passerello’s essay collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses. And then, on the poetry side, Kiki Petrosino Witch Wife—all of these books on Sarabande that were influences on my writing. So I thought I might be writing something that was a good fit with what they do.

But it’s important to say I’ve been rejected a lot at previous points in my writing career, and I was rejected by places where I thought my manuscript was the perfect fit for x, y, and z reasons, and they were still like, No, thank you. And so I also know that feeling can be so painful. In some ways not researching—just submitting everywhere with reckless abandon can feel less personal and so less devastating.

LL: Yes, for sure. Because then at least you at least have an excuse, right?

KN: It’s like, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just winging it. In a way that’s useful armor.

LL: I agree. So one thing I love about your book is the form—you took this history of the persecution of witches and witchcraft over centuries, and that in itself is just really fascinating, but you made it relevant to the present—you made it a commentary on society now. And also, by the end of the book there’s a personal connection to you.

How did that evolve? How did you decide that this was the form that this book would take?

KN: Well, I was working on a poetry collection called Rue, and the backbone of that poetry collection was a series of poems about plants historically used for birth control. And in writing those poems, I ran into this problem of having lots of plants referred to by euphemisms for birth control. For example, used to provoke the menses is a common one. So I knew what plants had been used in this way, but I didn’t necessarily know what part of the plant.

Usually, if a plant was used to reduce fever or something, it wouldn’t be hard to find the details about how it would be used. If it was used for birth control, I couldn’t find how, and I also couldn’t even tell if it was used an abortifacient after you’re pregnant, or if it was being used as a preventive. None of that information was readily available. And also unclear was what parts of the plant or what preparations were involved. I wasn’t even sure if it was the root we’re talking about, or the leaves or seeds?

For the poems I wanted the concrete details. I was struggling with a lack of precision in some of the poems and I was trying to find out where this information might be. And in the course of my research, I remembered hearing that witches might have been midwives, persecuted for providing birth control. I thought, oh, maybe the trial records will have the information I was looking for. So I started reading these trial records.

In some archives you can actually read the full trial transcripts. In other cases, you can read summaries that the court issued after the fact about the trial with some degree of detail. But none of them had any information about plants. And in fact, only a very few number of the trials I looked into involved prosecuting midwives.

Anyway, researching witch trials didn’t yield the answers I was looking for regarding that particular question. But I did find the accounts of their torture-induced confessions as well as the accounts of their defiant resistance and pissed off hexing of the people on the jury to all be really fascinating. I also find the folklore around magic to be really interesting. So I started writing about this research alongside the writing about plants. In the beginning, I thought they would be poems. I’d give myself a little project every morning where I’d read about a witch and try to write a fairy tale weaving in observations about some plants growing in my weedy front yard meadow.

But those writings got bigger and just kept evolving. I just had this profound feeling of wonder reading about these women. Well, if wonder can take the form of pissed off astonishment.

I  wanted to share that feeling. But I felt like I had to excavate either my own personal life or surface what was in the news that day—questions of justice and injustice that were on my mind because of the historical moment we’re living in now— so that readers who don’t live inside my brain could have this kind of similar effect when encountering the material.

LL: You wrote,

I started reading about witches because I thought I’d find people talking about how they felt this green world offering to take over their bodies if only they could figure out how to let it. But what I found was just the usual politics and patriarchal bullshit.

 And you wrote about so much from the news, for instance, the Black man reaching for his wallet and getting shot, and it just really hit me how nothing that we’re living through now is new. Right? Like this is the same bullshit that has been going on for centuries where people in power are persecuting those who can’t defend themselves. For me, that juxtaposition of current news and historical record did induce that feeling of ‘pissed off astonishment’ you mention.

Let me go back to your book. When you did this research, how many sources are online now? Did you have to go and hunt actual transcripts down? Were they handwritten? And were they hard to read?

KN: I’m not ashamed to say that Wikipedia is an amazing resource. One of their features I love are their lists of lists. So I’d start my writing time every morning by looking at their list of people executed for witchcraft. The entries also have extensive footnotes.

So I would start there to kind of just see if there was something that caught my eye. And then I would follow their footnotes deeper down the rabbit hole to get more precise information.

All of the Salem transcripts are available online. There’s a really excellent historian named Emma Welby, and her book, The Visions of Isobel Gowdie, which is like 600 pounds—it has as an appendix that includes the complete transcripts of her trials. And actually a lot of the historical texts I’d order through interlibrary loan would include translations and facsimiles of witch trial records.

LL: Nice. Hippocampus Magazine has a creative nonfiction conference every August. And there are always a lot of people really interested in the intersection of research or journalism with creative nonfiction. There are so many books that are either academic, or creative, but few that combine the two. And your book—you’re primarily a poet? Or also a poet?

KN: Yeah, I would say at this point, I’m 50/50. My new work in progress—I keep trying to make them poems, and they keep turning into essays. So I seem to be pretty shifty when it comes to genre.

What’s interesting about these trial records that I think makes them particularly suitable to interpreting in a creative nonfiction kind of way is that they’re not word-for-word what was said in the room. In most cases there was a court reporter taking notes who then summarizes the proceedings. The first person doesn’t exist in most of these documents—the reporter is translating into third person as the event is happening. So the women’s, the accuseds’, actual words aren’t there. Rather, they’re presented through this filter of the state in a very mediated way.

Sometimes when reading these it seems like the trial got going too fast and you can really see how frantically the reporter is summarizing, and you can sense that they’re skipping lots of detail, or that they’re kind of twisting it so it will serve as a justification of what’s ultimately going to be done.

LL: Oh, wow.

KN: The rhetorical manipulation is pretty transparent. From our vantage point at this historical distance it almost feels like they are inviting you as a reader to try to hear the voice of the accused, even as it’s being muffled. I think this was a big part of the reason I was so inspired to write about these records. It felt like a pleasure and compulsion to get past the manipulations and hear what these women were really trying to say.

In many cases, they’re trying to survive. They’ve been tortured or know they will be and they’re trying to say what they have to say to survive. They trying to guess what the judges from their position of power will like to hear. So there’s a lot of rhetorical nuance happening in these documents and a ton of ways to interpret them because they’re laden with lies.

LL: That reminds me of a quote, 

A translator once told me that the first act of translation is to move silence into words.

 Like even the record, the accused are silenced in their official transcripts. And you as the writer is taking the role of the translator.

KN: I think you’re thinking of the essay that’s about Johannes Junius, who was mayor of Bamberg, Germany, who got caught up in a massive witch trial. In Bamberg, it was like the third one in 20 years and they executed tons of people. He was wealthy and he was a man, so he was literate. Because of those privileges he was able to write a letter that he gets smuggled out of prison to his daughter, Veronica, in which he said, ‘I’ve confessed because they tortured me, but I didn’t mean a word of it.’

And that letter feels really important, because it verifies what seems pretty obvious, which is that probably almost nobody meant what they said, right? I’m always hesitant to say ‘nobody,’ because each the circumstances of each trial are quite different. But it seems to me that a lot of what is said which seems ridiculous, in fact, was definitely ridiculous. The idea that he got that letter out verifies what anybody with common sense knows is probably true for the other accused as well.

When I was writing that essay, I was asked to be part of a larger art project by Catalina Ouyang, who was doing a collective art project— Catalina is an artist who had been assaulted during their undergraduate education, and was doing a project to try contend with that assault but also the subsequent trauma of dealing with their university’s Title IX hearing after they reported the assault. That report, like the witch trial transcripts, was just a complete twisting of everything Catalina said and the way Catalina understood the experience into something that was almost unrecognizable. And so the project was to give the conclusions and findings section of this Title IX report to a bunch of different poets with the writing prompt  ‘can you translate this?’

My response to that prompt was to write an essay that considers the ways in which this report seemed a lot like these witch trial transcripts, with people wanting to draw a certain conclusion and then bending over backwards, twisting everything Catalina said in order to reach a particular outcome, which in this case, was to exonerate the rapist.

So I was and am struck by the parallels, by how, in some ways these panels, these tribunals, these juries operate in certain very familiar ways over centuries.

LL: Further on in that same essay you wrote,

He feels so guilty about how he couldn’t seem to translate his humanity into a language that his judges, from within the peculiarity of their official positions on a panel, would understand as human.

 Which again, feels very familiar.

And you wrote,

I do not know when I will ever be able to write about that with forthright clarity. So I translate what I know into essays about people who have been dead for hundreds of years, whose lives have become torn and water-stained pieces of parchment.

which is gorgeous writing.

KN: Thanks

LL: And this is a very awkward segue into how you handled your own privacy.

You alluded to “…liabilities and vulnerabilities and responsibilities that include what I can and cannot say to you now.”  And I think, as essayists and memoirists, there’s always this balance between how much do I have to say about myself? How much do I want to say, and how do I keep myself safe? 

Can you say anything to new writers who are struggling with balancing the personal in creative nonfiction?

KN: Yeah, I was pissed that I had to write with so much privacy and discretion, to be honest. I began my writing career as a poet and very much a confessional poet, and I’ve always had my sense of my voice as one that doesn’t hold back. I don’t have or care to have a strong sense of privacy or good filters.

I really love and constantly quote Adrienne Rich’s line about how lies and secrets are a failure to appreciate how ‘The possibilities that exist between two people, or among a group of people, are a kind of alchemy. They are the most interesting thing in life. The liar is someone who keeps losing sight of these possibilities.’

Part of finding my voice involved letting go of secrets and discretions, which is perhaps not helpful to writers who want to maintain their privacy. I was forced to relearn how to keep my secrets and maintain discretion only  because I was being stalked by a former student who was regularly threatening to commit mass shootings, both in my classrooms and at my public reading events. That person has since died. He was very sick, had endured traumas no person should have to face, and the place where I worked then (which is not where I work now) failed both him and me in myriad ways.

But when I was writing the book, I was afraid that if he recognized himself in my pages that this would lead to a renewed onslaught of threatening behaviors and misguided cries for help I could not provide. So I attempted to disguise him from himself in my writing. I can speak about it now because he passed away last year. Though I’ll also say that I would prefer to still be silent about it if it meant that he could have gotten treatment and lived.

In terms of writing advice, I learned though that you can simply nod to the fact that there are things we cannot say. And sometimes that’s because a nondisclosure agreements, which are bullshit. Sometimes it’s because of circumstances like mine, which are quite common. And sometimes it’s because a writer wants to keep their privacy and they have the right to do that and there’s no reason to think that art can’t make space for that very human feeling too.

LL: I had an advisor when I was getting my MFA who had a stalker. Not in the same way as yours, but she really pushed me to write in metaphor—she was worried that as women, we always have to think about the consequences of our words. I got upset by that, because at that stage I needed to not think about the consequences to find my voice. But it is also true that some people do pay a penalty for what they write. As much as we like to say, the truth will set you free, it doesn’t always.

KN: One of the things I say to writers is that your story belongs to you. So I think it’s important to encourage writers to tell their stories as frankly and directly as they want to. A related dilemma I struggle with is what happens  when  our stories overlap with other people’s stories as we share the same moment in time but experience it quite differently.

I’ve observed nonwriters often hate that feeling of cognitive dissonance that happens when you realize a moment you thought was one kind of moment was experienced by someone else entirely differently—sometimes even in small ways. My sister was once very annoyed by an essay of mine because she thought I was remembering the make of a particular car wrong.

Writers sometimes ask, how can I write this in a way where it won’t make this person I love angry? A difficult truth is that the very fact the moment exists in time differently for you than for another person may make a person very uncomfortable. And it won’t matter how you write it. It doesn’t matter how careful you are trying to be, because what’s going to bother them is that they will not have realized until they see their experience on the page in a different way—they won’t have known how many worlds are in this world and they might just not like that feeling. But you can’t protect them from that, because words on the page can’t change that fundamental nature of being persons in the world.

But speaking of the problems of silencing and tribunals—I  went to a hearing at my public library after Missouri passed a law that says you could not ban conceal and carry anywhere, including in public libraries. So then there was a public hearing about what to do about the fact the library’s signage and policies were in contradiction to state law. The library Board of Directors had a hearing and I went with some friends, basically just to bear witness. I understood they were going to have to take down the signs, that we were going to lose another measure of our sense of security that day, but I wanted to be there as part of a group lodging our objections by our very presence. But we were such a small enough group that the librarians asked everyone to stand up and speak.

I was going to lots of hearings, then. And one of the things you do, at least in Missouri, before you speak at any public hearing of any kind is say your name and address for the record. I was in this awkward position where it was clear that I was the next person to speak—I hadn’t come expecting to speak—and so I had to stand up and say, ‘my name is Kate Nuernberger and I cannot tell you my address, because there’s a person in a different public library right now sitting on the internet describing the specific ways he imagines he might kill me and posting snuff films. I’m here, though, because I’d like to at least prohibit guns in this library.

Basically, for many years, I wasn’t even able to speak to tribunals and panels for reasons many women, something like 1 in 6, know about all too well. And going back to your teacher’s advice to you, I will say that I sometimes advice my students who are writing about this kind of material or, frankly, who just aspire to be outspoken women in the public sphere, to start erasing their address from public records now. Because there was a period of time where I spent five hours a day for a week, going through many hoops to get my name erased from all of those public sites that list your address, and so on.

It was enormously time consuming and every time I found my address had slipped through a crack and been up for maybe a few hours or days, it was enormously stressful. But I think knowing how to do that kind of work too is sometimes a necessary part of the writing life for some of us.

LL:  You wrote, “because I realized, if I wanted the world to get as big as I needed it to be, I had to learn how to identify with male characters too.”

Can you speak at all about that decision? Did you intentionally search out a male accused of witchcraft? Or did you already have the stories and thought that at some point, I need to incorporate that or how did that come to be?

KN: It’s true men are also harmed by sexism. But I will also say I wrote that passage in a pretty salty mood. There’s a line in that same essay where I also say, I knew I needed to have a male witch in the book so I’d have a ready response to mansplainers at book launch readings for The Witch of Eye who would inevitably come up and tell me, ‘you know, there were male witches!’ Because men do love to remind women that there were male witches too.

My response to that is to ask, were there male witches because the aim of the witch trials was to make men afraid to make money, live on their own, or grow old? I mean, it’s true that there were men who were on rare occasions victimized by the same systems, but the systems were designed to make any kind of woman who would deviate from the status quo feel afraid to do so. It sucks that men got caught up in the system from time to time, but focusing on that misses the very important point of the trials more generally

But I do sincerely believe sexism is harmful to men too and I write about history in part to practice imagining the future I want to see. And the future I want is one where is one where men get it, right? Like, I don’t want a future where only people who aren’t cis-men get it. I do want there be a future where men are not enculturated inside a space of toxic masculinity. I want there to be a future where I don’t have to wonder if one in four women have been raped, how many men of the men I’m encountering have raped someone?

I think one reason to write about history is because if you can see something that has already happened you can figure out how to make it happen again. It’s the recipe for a spell, in fact. If there’s a time that already happened, and you can cite that you can make it happen again in the future.

A lot of the spells that you will see described in medieval and early modern folklore have that quality. Lisbet Nypan, for example, was a healer, and her specialty was helping people with rheumatism. So she would have rub salt on her patient’s back as she said to the patient something like, Jesus rode over the moors, he was afflicted by rheumatism. He saw his mother at the crossroads. His mother said, ‘How are you my son?’ He said, ‘I’m in great pain, for I’m afflicted by rheumatism’. And his mother said, ‘Here, let me pour salt on you. And then this way will heal you, as it’s pouring salt on you.’

Lisbet is telling you that Mary healed her son, Jesus, by putting salt on him in the same way she’s putting salt on you right now. The fact that it’s already been done is what makes the magic work. So I’m thinking about the relationship between the past and the future according to this logic. I’m trying to excavate moments of defiance, or find instances where a woman resisted this kind of oppression, took her objections as far as they could go. I’m interested in how that might help us imagine what effective resistance might look like in the future.

It’s a little ironic, right? Because they all end up executed, but I’m interested in the moments before that. Because sometimes in these trials the accused thwarted the machine, or they sew doubt in the narratives of the just, reasonable trial. All of this is my way of saying there are moments in the book where I do try to remember that the future I want is one where men are participants in something more equal.

LL: I thought in the book that you actually made a very clear distinction. You wrote,

Though I personally do not believe the spells, hexes, fairies, or transmogrification of people into animals that Gowdie describes in her confessions are possible, I am committed to believing women.

But when you talk about systematic oppression and abuse, you also draw a connection to the now dead Black teenager that is seen as a demon. You are, I thought, encompassing all people without power.  Here’s the quote,

This century is not so different. Consider the mug shot and some blurry footage from a gas station calling into being that archetype of white America’s inquisitions. The officer will say in the deposition that he was “like some sort of superhuman beast bulking up to run through the shots.” That’s the only way such tribunals can imagine a now-dead Black teenager. “Like a demon.” The mostly white jurors will nod like people who know, and then they will acquit.

And clearly, that it is not just women, you know? Because there are so many people that are oppressed in so many different ways besides gender and I really felt that you made space for that, that you expanded the conversation from a female witch, but that oppression is easier for some people to understand how preposterous it is when it’s a white person named Agnes.

KN: In the Middle Ages, the target of the witch trials was often women of independent means. They might be a widow who had managed to like hold on the land that she shared with her husband, or in some cases, maybe because they were midwives or healers, they had a source of income. Many of accused were unattached, independent women. And this made them a source of power that seemed like it would like be troubling to the status quo. There’s other context too. Isobel Gowdie faced a situation emerging in Scotland, in the late 1500s, where England is trying to colonize Scotland, where women holding property prove to be particularly problematic. So they use the witch trials to dispossess the Scottish people from their lands, because after you’ve been convicted of witchcraft, they can take your land.

So the witch trials actually become a land grab. I mention all this, because that move is tied to the larger colonial project. England conducts some colonizing experiments in Scotland and Ireland, which they then amplify and do with a whole lot more torture and a whole lot more cruelty and atrocities in their other colonies to Black people and Indigenous people. What I see in the witch trials are oppressors working out their systems. You mention the essay about Agnes Waterhouse. When I was writing that essay I was thinking about how often I was seeing many pop culture engagements with witchcraft trafficking in a certain kind of white feminism that rang false to me.

What I was also thinking about and seeing in the accounts of Agnes Waterhouse’s trial was the beginning of European’s misguided ideas about race. The descriptions of the devil or demons frequently emphasized his blackness in ways feeding other emergent ideas about white supremacy. These trial records also show us how white Europeans were starting to equate Black or Brown people with their fantastical notions of demons.

So if you’re going to draw a metaphor between what someone alive today and someone who was accused of being a consort of the devil, capable of flying on a broomstick, if you’re trying to think of an instance in our society where people in authority seem to be capable of an extraordinary degree of deranged magical thinking, well that’s not really what happens to white women, but it is pretty much exactly what you hear police saying they see when they pull over a Black man, sometimes Black women too.

So if you’re going to draw the comparison to modern times, that’s where I’d argue the most pertinent, urgent comparison lies. I felt the book would be would be missing a lot of the most important things to be said about trials if I didn’t engage with questions of police brutality and our biased criminal justice system.

LL:  Let me shift the conversation and ask you how The Witch of Eye became the title?  I didn’t realize until I got to that essay that that was a specific person.

KN: The working title for the book was Doctrine of Signatures, which is actually a theory about plant medicine from the medieval period, this idea that plants are telling you what their medicines are by how they look. I also liked the idea of the word doctrine, because there’s the devil’s book, where the witches allegedly sign their names. I had the idea that a book called Doctrine of Signatures could operate as a kind of anti-Devil’s Book, celebrating the lives of the accused instead of condemning them.

But at Sarabande, everyone said that we really need the word witch in the title, so readers will understand what they’re really getting. The problem is that every possible title you can think of with the word witch is taken—there’s nothing left. So we went back and forth for a long time. Then the second working title was The Eye of the Hagstone, there’s essay in the book with that name, but that essay didn’t exist yet.

They were like, we can make that the title if you write the essay, so I ended up writing the essay—which is one of my favorite essays in the book now, but it was a very late addition that I only wrote to make the title of the book work.

In the meantime my editor was rereading the book and suggested the “The Witch of Eye,” which was the title of an essay in the book about Marjory Jourdemayne. So then we were mulling over, should it be Eye of the Hagstone, or Witch of Eye.

Once we picked the cover art we had our answer, since that image looks kind of like an eyeball. It’s actually a piece of ice that’s got a melting puddle with the photographer, Taylor Ross’s shadowy reflection in the center like a pupil. At that point The Witch of Eye spoke really nicely to the cover. And also, it’s kind of like a nice double entendre, right? Where like you say eye and you might hear I as the first person pronoun as opposed to like the eyeball, which signals that these essays are sort of personal.

I don’t feel like any one essay in the book is totally iconic or speaks for the whole project. I feel like they do all really need to go together. But I do like that “The Witch of Eye” essay is very much about questions of trying to see the future, thinking about our social contract with each other, and also engaging with questions about power. So in that way, it felt like it was a good essay to highlight some key through-lines running throughout the book.

LL: The cover reminds me of  scrying—seeing a face in water or a mirror to tell your future. That was what I got out of it. But then again, that particular essay is actually at least a little bit about the future, right? The possibilities?

KN: Yeah, so the Witch of Eye was a woman whose actual was Margery Jourdemayne, and she was called the Witch of Eye because Eye is the name of the town that she’s from. And so Margery Jourdemayne is a commoner’s daughter.

LL: The wife of a cow herd.

KN: Yes, she’s a very working class person. She ends up running with the upper crust among people at the palace, and she starts telling fortunes. The executable offense she commits is on behalf of the wife of someone in line to the throne. She first does a star chart to ask, will the king die? Because he was a sickly boy. And then what gets her executed was that she was accused of having made a wax figure of the king and putting that figure in the fire. Which according to the folklore about hexing and curses in that time was basically equivalent to trying to execute the king. And that’s treason, so that’s what she’s executed for.Now the wellborn woman who allegedly hired Marjory, Eleanor Cobham, does not get executed because she’s too rich. Instead, she’s sentenced to an auto de fee which is where they tie a candle to your hand and then let it burn down. It’s super painful, and leaves a really bad wound. Then she’s exiled to the Isle of Man off the coast for the rest of her life.

LL: You know, the one thing that was so striking is how so many of these people never got justice, right? They were tortured horribly, and then they died. And then that was the end of it. There was no redemption.

And, I know that is so very true for so many people, even now. But in reading, I like to feel that there is hope. I’m curious, you have this story about your husband and your marriage, and the salvation or the salvaging of the relationship. And that was unexpected hope to me, after story after story after story of things ending poorly.

KN: I didn’t think of this book as being particularly about my marriage at all. Like, I had a few pieces about a rough patch between us. But it wasn’t really my central preoccupation when I was doing most of this writing and research. When I was ordering the essays I did think it made sense to put the ones with marriage subtexts together and let that proximity imply a bit of a narrative. Otherwise I had this hodge podge of essays about witches, but each taking a different angle and perspective. The marital difficulties do help to make the collection feel more linked by a single arc.

In the essay Eye of the Hagstone there is the moment I think you’re referring to, where there’s this sense of our marriage working out, that something redemptive has happened between us. And as I said before when we were talking about the title, this essay was the last thing I wrote.

So my major preoccupation was to say something about hagstones and Brian was the one that gave me my first hagstone, so it seemed fitting to revisit our relationship once more. But it was also becoming clear as I worked through the editing process with my editor that the way I was alluding in later essays to the situation with my stalker, where I was trying to be discrete, was creating a certain confusion in the mind of some readers. It gave the book the sense that  Brian, my partner, was abusive.

LL: People could read that into it.

KN: Yeah, and in earlier drafts that seemed very much to be implied, which wasn’t my intent. Though I will say it would make perfect sense for readers to draw that conclusion since domestic violence is so prevalent and in fact is a primary driver of stalking. But that wasn’t my particular story and I wanted readers to have greater clarity about that.

So when I was working on the essay about hagstones, it felt as if this was a way, perhaps, to resolve this narrative about the marriage, more fully characterizing Brian and who we are to each other would be a way to resolve a few different needs that were emerging in later drafts of the book. So that’s part of why that’s there.

And I guess, picking up on our earlier thread about the rhetoric and craft of discretion, to note that I tried maintain my privacy, and just allude to is a situation I couldn’t speak about directly, I had to think about and consider how readers would draw their own conclusions about what was left unsaid. And is an interesting and tricky craft challenge, to decide how large of a palette of potential conclusions do I want to make available to readers? Or how do I want to narrow their focus into a certain category of possible situations that will put them in the right frame of mind to understand the essay?

In terms of hope, I would say for me, the most hopeful essay in the book is the one about Tituba, who was one of the accused witches in Salem. She was enslaved by Samuel Parish, who was the reverend at the core of the story. What’s interesting to me about her story—her trial marks one of the last instances of witch trials ever and I would suggest that that in part has to do with what she pulls off rhetorically, which shows us a way forward.

Usually an accused witch will actually accuse someone else—that almost always happens because of the torture—but Tituba doesn’t accuse anyone who hasn’t already been accused. So she maintains her integrity.

What she does instead is, when pressed to name other witches, say, ‘I see a bunch of well-dressed people.’ She’s giving the Inquisitors a narrative that basically will let them end the trial. They could so easily have said, ‘Oh, it was rich people in Boston, and nobody knows their names.’ The trial could have ended right there—the white power elites of Salem could have taken the gift she offered them and said, ‘Oh, we know witches are out there, but we have no way of finding them.’

What they did instead, which is not awesome, but better than usual, is conclude, ‘oh my God, witches can be rich people and powerful people, not just marginalized people.’

What happens next—and is this is part of why Salem’s trials get so bonkers—is the inquisitors look not only at the marginalized, widowed, impoverished women who may be suffering from dementia, but also they look at each other. The rich turn on each other, which almost never happens.

And so I suggest that Tituba flips the script and then once the script is flipped, it introduced the idea that maybe none of this is real. Although I think the idea that rich people who own slaves are evil monsters is totally real. And it would have been nice to see them prosecute each other for it. But in the absence of that kind of accountability, I think ending witch trials altogether is not a terrible outcome.

LL: Absolutely. So how did you know when the story was done? Because this is something that I get asked a lot. And I don’t have an answer other than I just know, it just feels complete to me, which is not an answer, so I’m going to pawn it off on you.

KN: When I looked at that list of witches, there was no else was jumping out at me—I wasn’t able to say anything about other trials that I hadn’t said better elsewhere.

One oddity about ending this book is that there’s an essay called Ode to Maria Barbosa that didn’t make it in. I struggled to get right, and couldn’t make it work in time. We ended up pulling it—the editors at Sarabande felt it was not strong enough to put in the book when it went to press. But then my attempts at revision all just fell into place really soon after that. Michigan Quarterly Review published it in their persecution issue which I thought was very fitting.

It  was another essay where I was trying to write about the parallels I see between police brutality targeting people of color, and Maria Barbosa’s witch trial. Her act of defiance was particularly striking to me. She was accused of witchcraft and brought her on a boat back to stand trial in Portugal. She was a Brazilian witch—Brazil was a Portuguese colony, you know, so they bring her back to Lisbon to stand trial. On the way the ship gets overrun by pirates, and they kill all the Portuguese sailors on the ship, but they let her live. These pirates drop her on the coast of Gibraltar and she walks across the country into Lisbon to the courts, and right into her own trials.

I thought that was a fascinating move. I spent a long time thinking about why she would do this, what her other options were. You know, she was a woman of color, and she would have had an accent, so she couldn’t necessarily blend into Portuguese society. Hiding out probably didn’t seem like a viable option. I’m struck by the courage nevertheless. And then she asked the judges for a cloak to cover her nakedness, because her clothes are in tatters after her ordeal. That’s the first thing she’s recorded as saying.

The way I interpret that moment is she that she walks in and shows she knows exactly who these people are. She’s already stood trial on other occasions, she’s been accused a couple times. So she knows the score—knows full well these guys aren’t going to give her a cloak, but she asks for it anyway. And I’m struck by that.

I guess going back to what we’re talking earlier about trying to make the world big enough to include everybody, even the people who seem inclined to be oppressors. With her request she offers them their humanity. She says, I’m not who you think I am, and implies maybe you aren’t who I think you are. You could do a thing of kindness right now, you could be human to me.

And she knows they won’t. She’s not that naive. But she sets a rhetorical stage where they have to know that she walked in with dignity and integrity and offered them a chance to do the same. So then when they refuse her the cloak, it seems like the trial can only proceed with a mutual understanding that she’s not the monster, they are.

So anyway, that essay, which is maybe the real end of the book, didn’t get included because I couldn’t get that idea coming through in a coherent way for a long time.

LL: Sometimes things we write just live on in other ideations. I’m glad you didn’t give up on Maria though, and that it’s out there in a different form.

What are you working on now? Or what do you see on the horizon?

KN: They might be prose poems, or they might be flash essays, but short pieces about instances of symbiotic mutualism. And symbiotic mutualism is when two or more critters, like a bacteria and like a microscopic parasite or something, are living intertwined in each other.

A really nice example I like is the Bobtail squid, which lives in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii. They don’t have brains, all their neurons are out in their tentacles, but the space where you would expect a brain to be is empty. When they’re born they go into the water and they seek out this bioluminescent bacteria to absorb into that space. So these bacteria glow in the dark which is useful because the squid have all these eyelids that allow them to camouflage themselves with moonlight on the water.

So squid share energy and nutrients with a bioluminescent colony of bacteria and in exchange those bacteria help the squid hide from predators above and hunt prey below.

Basically I’m interested in mutualism, mutual aid, and ways of being together. And I guess I’m still looking for that witchy, transcendent green world, but I’m interested in finding it via understandings available in ecological terms. But as in The Witch of Eye, I’m still looking for that feeling that we’re all connected.

LL: That sense of awe—absolutely. And thank you so much for speaking with me.

KN: Likewise.

Headshot of Author Lara Lillibridge

Lara Lillibridge

Interviews Editor

Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama (Skyhorse, 2019), Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse, 2018) and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, 2019). In 2019 she judged creative nonfiction for AWP’s Intro Journal Project and currently serves as a mentor for their Writer to Writer program. She also writes for children under the name L.B. Lillibridge.


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