I met Erika Mailman last October when we both did SF in SF at the American Bookbinders Museum. She struck me immediately as a kindred spirit. I’ve interviewed her before about her most recent book, The Murderer’s Maid.
Officially, Erika Mailman is the author of four historical novels: The Witch’s Trinity, a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book which Khaled Hosseini called “gripping;” Woman of Ill Fame, which is about a Gold Rush prostitute; House of Bellaver, a literary ghost story set in Oakland; and now The Murderer’s Maid: a Lizzie Borden Novel. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona, has been a Yaddo fellow, and served as a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards.
I asked her to come back to tell me about The Witch’s Trinity:
In 1507, when a severe famine strikes a small town in Germany, a friar arrives from a large city, claiming that the town is under the spell of witches in league with the devil. He brings with him a book called the Malleus Maleficarum—“The Witch’s Hammer”—a guide to gaining confessions of witchcraft, and promises to identify the guilty woman who has brought God’s anger upon the town, burn her, and restore bounty.
Güde Müller suffers stark and frightening visions—recently she has seen things that defy explanation. No one in the village know this and Güde herself worries that perhaps her mind has begun to wander—certainly she has outlived all but one of her peers in Tierkinddorf. Yet of one thing she is absolutely certain: she has become an object of scorn and a burden to her son’s wife. In these desperate times her daughter-in-law would prefer one less hungry mouth at the family table. As the friar turns his eye on each member of the tiny community, Güde dreads what her daughter-in-law might say to win his favor.
Then one terrible night Güde follows an unearthly voice and the scent of charred meat into the snow-filled woods. Come morning, she no longer knows if the horror she witnessed was real or imagined. She only knows that if the friar hears of it, she may be damned in this life as well as the next.
The Witch’s Trinity beautifully illuminates a dark period of history; it is vividly imagined, elegantly written, haunting, and unforgettable.
Thank you, Loren, for having me on your blog again! Autumn is always our time of year, with the renewed interest in graveyards, witches and the eerily unexplainable.
Did something in the real world inspire The Witch’s Trinity?
Yes. I used to have a long commute and so I would listen to Great Lectures CDs in my car. I was deeply affected by one by Teo Ruiz called “The Terror of History,” about witchcraft. He mentioned a very strange statistic: that there were a lot of women accused of witchcraft in medieval Europe by their own daughters-in-law. Now, whenever I said that at a book event, I always was surprised by the laughter that broke out. I guess a lot of people have difficult relationships with their mothers-in-law, but I love mine! I was horrified by the idea that a family member (of sorts) would accuse another of witchcraft, knowing the usual outcome was execution.
My horror grew when he explained that that was often the case because resources were scant. If you don’t have enough food to feed everybody, of course you first want to feed growing children (who will go on to later feed you) and yourself and your workmeet… but the elderly woman who sits at the fire all day and doesn’t contribute to the household resources? Maybe it’s time for her to go. Starvation to that degree is a horror worse than anyone tormenting a summer camp in a hockey mask.
I built my novel The Witch’s Trinity around this statistic.
What is your favorite scene in the book?
There is a revenge scene that is very powerfully satisfying, but alas, I can’t talk about it without it being a plot spoiler! Suffice it to say, sometimes the powerless can have their day in court.
What was your writing process like as you wrote The Witch’s Trinity?
I worked from an outline and thus had a sort of “to do” list to work through. I kept one important thing open, though: whether my main character would live or die. I waited until I had written my way to the end to figure out the correct answer to that question.
One crazy thing happened while I was in the process of writing the novel. My mom emailed me, saying, “Here is a link to a website about our ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons, who was accused of witchcraft!” That was uncanny to the nth degree. I had been fascinated by witchcraft all my life, had even wished I had a witchcraft ancestor, and here it turned out I did, while I was writing about witches!
Mary Bliss Parsons was accused and underwent trial twice (perhaps even a third time, but records were destroyed) and was acquitted. You don’t hear about that too often, but in the U.S. colonies, magistrates were far more likely to acquit witches than were their counterparts in medieval Europe. Note: Mary Bliss Parsons is a different person from Mary Parsons, who was also accused of witchcraft in the same town and same time. Here’s the website my mom sent me to: http://bit.ly/2O5G00F The image at the website is NOT Mary Bliss Parsons, and I’ve repeatedly asked the web masters to either label the painting correctly or take it off the site. Strangely enough, it looks like my mother, an 11th generation descendant.
I dedicated my novel to Mary Bliss Parsons and wrote an extensive Afterword about her that appears in the back of The Witch’s Trinity.
What was the best thing that happened during your promotion of the book?
Meeting other descendants. In fact, I go to the west coast Parsons Family Reunion! I see these fun people once a year and adore that connection.
If you ever wind up in Northampton, Massachusetts, there is a great historical society with the Nathaniel Parsons House, built on the site of Mary’s original homelot. Nathaniel was the grandson of Mary and her husband Cornet Joseph Parsons.
What do you have planned next?
I just finished a (very rough) draft of a new novel. I wanted to finish by the end of September, so on Sept. 30 I was trying to write the very last few paragraphs as I kept falling asleep. I did it by midnight, though! It’s a young adult novel about…you guessed it…witchcraft. I’m going to spend the next few weeks heavily editing and then seeking an agent to represent it. In the meantime, we just adopted a rescue puppy and so that has been taking quite a lot of energy and time and bringing lots of SMILES to our family!
Erika’s website: http://erikamailman.com/writing/the-witchs-trinity/
Erika’s blog: http://erikamailman.blogspot.com/
To buy The Witch’s Trinity:
Random House: http://bit.ly/2BZrJf4
Barnes and Noble: http://bit.ly/2dpMYKc