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Archive for Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fear and hysteria

Author Kathleen Kent discovers personal connection to story of Salem witch trials

September 14, 2008

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On the street

What are you reading?

I just finished reading ‘World Without End,’ by Ken Follett. It’s about 13th century England, but I almost think I liked ‘Pillars of the Earth’ better.

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First-time novelist Kathleen Kent used the story of her great-grandmother nine generations back as a springboard for "The Heretic's Daughter."

First-time novelist Kathleen Kent used the story of her great-grandmother nine generations back as a springboard for "The Heretic's Daughter."

Kathleen Kent was a child of 8 or 9 when she first heard about Martha Carrier, her great-grandmother nine generations back, who had been hanged in August 1692 during the Salem witch trials.

"I have a very clear memory of the first time I heard about it," the Dallas resident says. "I was at my grandmother's house, and she and my mother were gossiping about relatives. One of them said something about this relative, Martha Carrier, who had been one of the first women hanged as a witch.

"That got my attention. I put down my paper dolls."

Now Kent's novel, her first - her first publication of any kind, in fact - is grabbing the attention of the publishing industry. Appropriately, her new book about the witch hysteria, "The Heretic's Daughter," features as its protagonist an 11-year-old girl, Sarah Carrier, the daughter of Martha.

"The Heretic's Daughter" is getting an intense promotional push from publisher Little, Brown. It was featured on the company's fall catalog cover and was its selection for the closely watched "buzz" panel at BookExpo America earlier this summer.

It's the kind of support most first-time novelists can only dream of. Reagan Arthur, executive editor at Little, Brown, explains, "A lot of people have interesting family stories, but most of them don't happen to be great writers, as well. ... This story had so much potential. We wanted to sound it as loudly as we could, and to as many people as we could."

That plan's on track: Little, Brown sent Kent on a pre-publication tour to Boston and New York, and she'll tour to about a dozen cities this fall.

"The Heretic's Daughter" is being published in seven countries in addition to the United States; the Italian version, the first, came out in May. Kent said she did 30 interviews in three days there.

"I think it especially resonated with Europeans," Kent says. "That suppression of women and children under a fundamentalist religious regime. ... Western Europe is very much in the grip of that kind of fear right now."

Child's viewpoint

Kent, 54, was a teenager when she first ventured to the library to confirm the family legends. "It was kind of stunning to find out that these were real people, they weren't just Grandma's fantasy," she says.

That curiosity about the Carriers stayed with Kent as the Pennsylvania native grew up in Dallas, spent a couple of years at the University of Texas studying literature and history, then moved to New York. She worked in commodities and eventually scored a job that meant travel abroad to exotic locales such as the former Soviet Union.

In 2000, wanting a less stressful life, she and her husband and preteen son moved to the Dallas area, to an Old World-style home designed by Charles Dilbeck.

When she decided to work on the book full time, she says, "That whole five years I worked on research and writing, I didn't tell anyone but my immediate family. You know, you're 50 and you tell someone you're working on your first book and their eyes glaze over, and then it's, 'Oh, that's nice. I need to go wax my dog. ..."'

She decided to frame the story from a child's viewpoint, she says, "when I found out that of the 150 or more people arrested, at least half of them were children under 17. You read about the young accusers, but I'd never read an account from the accused children. The real Sarah was only 6. ... Can you imagine? They put a 6-year-old girl in prison and made her testify against her mother."

Wildest dreams

When she completed the book, she began blindly sending it out to agents. It resonated with Julie Barer of New York City. She'd done her Vassar College thesis on the Salem witch trials. "She told me she'd been looking for a book like this for years," Kent muses, sounding astonished at the odds.

She's now at work on a prequel, about the life of Martha Carrier's husband, Thomas, who was said to be more than 7 feet tall, died at age 109, and before immigrating to the colonies was allegedly the executioner of King Charles I of England.

Kent's also trying, despite all the attention, to abide by her late father's advice: "He'd say, 'What do you do when your reality exceeds your wildest dreams? You keep it to yourself."'

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