HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: One of my favorite author memories. It was…I forget what year. But I think PRIME TIME had just come out. I was at…I forget what event. (Are your memories like this?) Anyway, several authors were there, talking to booksellers and librarians about our new books. There was this woman in the booth next to me, so you can imagine I heard her pitch over and over. I had no idea who she was--I couldn’t even see her.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it.
I went around the barrier between us and said something along the lines of “Whoever you are, LEMME SEE THAT BOOK!
Turned out it was Brunonia Barry, and the book that sounded so irresistible was THE LACE READER.
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and I am jumping up and down that she's here today to tell us about her newest blockbuster!
And wow. You’re going to say: LEMME SEE THAT BOOK!
HANK: So tell all. What was your inspiration for THE FIFTH PETAL?
BRUNONIA BARRY: As someone whose family has been living here since 1628, and who has both accused and accusers hanging from her family tree, I suffer the same generational guilt that many Salemites are reminded of every day by the tourists from all over the world who visit our city to explore its dark history.
We have a love/hate relationship with the tourists, our economy wouldn’t be possible without them, but they serve as a constant reminder of our guilt. Walking through town, especially at Halloween, when our population grows from 40,000 to 300,000, and seeing some of the strange goings-on, I sometimes wonder if the whole thing could happen again. People are still accused and demonized in many parts of the world, and fear of the “other,” has seldom been as rampant even in our own country. I tried to consider what a modern day witch hunt might look like in Salem.
HANK: Is this novel connected to your other Salem novels, The Lace Reader and The Map of True Places?
BRUNONIA: Though they stand alone, all of my novels are linked in some way. "The Fifth Petal" has characters who appeared in my previous novels. They grow and change with time as we all do, but they remain in place. And Salem, as well, changes as if it were a character; it’s not the same place it was five years ago, or even last year, which fascinates me. There are so many more stories to tell, so much more history to explore that I find myself wishing I could either write faster or live long enough to tell them all. Both characters and place reveal themselves more fully as I go. They say we write in an effort to understand. That’s very true for me.
HANK: Strong female characters are at the core of your books. Certainly the history of Salem lends itself to an exploration of female relationships and stories!
BRUNONIA: I don’t know if I believe "the world breaks everyone” (to quote Hemingway), but I truly believe that people become "strong at the broken places." Stronger in fact. All of my best characters are strong, and all have been broken in some way.
Rose, though demonized, is probably the strongest. She believes her own perceptions, though it has cost her dearly. And, with all that has happened to her, she is still able to love. Abused as a child, Towner suffered a psychotic break in "The Lace Reader,” but has healed herself though years of therapy, and by giving back to those who were victimized in the same way. Callie is in the process of healing by coming back to Salem to help Rose, and by discovering who killed her mother and the other two young women nicknamed the “Goddesses.” As is the case with many strong women, the bond between them is unbreakable; they help and rely on each other as a source of their strength.
Historically, Salem has always been a center of feminine power: from the women who refused to confess to witchcraft (though a confession would have saved their lives), to those who helped win American independence, to the abolitionists, suffragists, and the early champions of public education, strong women have played a huge role. Even the sewing circles, who still meet in secret, are fiercely dedicated to today’s most important social issues.
HANK: Sewing circles?
BRUNONIA: After the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, women in Massachusetts were forbidden to gather in groups. That “law” remained in effect for a number of years, and, as a result, Salem’s secret sewing circles began, with three of them still in existence today. No one knows the identity of the groups' members, as all are sworn to secrecy. Mostly, they are known only by their charitable work. But, because of their secrecy, there is still some uneasiness about the circles.
HANK: You did so much research!
BRUNONIA: I’ve been obsessed by Celtic Mythology since I lived in Ireland when I was in college. The connection to the modern day Salem Wiccans and witches, many of whom worship the Celtic pantheon, made this an easy fit for me. I knew a bit about modern witchcraft, but not enough. With hundreds of practicing Pagans in Salem, I have many consultants who help me with my research. But for this book, I needed more, so I took a course put on by one of our local covens called "Witchcraft 101." I’m not a practicing witch by anyone’s standards, but the course helped me understand their nature-based beliefs and practices far better than I did before.
HANK: I was fascinated by the sacred tree…tell me about that.
BRUNONIA: Again, Celtic mythology was a big part of this, but sacred trees are part of almost every religion, going back to the World-tree Yggdrasil and 3,000 BC Babylonia, as well as to Mayan mythology, and even the tree of life in our Old Testament. I read everything I could find on the subject, from scholarly articles to Yeats’ studies of Irish mythology. A favorite source was a book called “Trees of Inspiration, Sacred Trees and Bushes of Ireland," by Christine Zucchelli. It’s a great guide with wonderful photos.
Somewhere in my studies, I came across the idea that wounds and imperfections on a tree’s bark are somehow sacred, and I loved that idea. Also, while I was writing the novel, Suzanne Simard’s research revealed that trees have developed a communication system through their roots via their symbiotic relationship with fungi. In this way, they are able to pass nutrients from one tree to another, and to essentially help each other survive. The idea of trees communicating fascinated me, and it immediately became a key part of the novel.
HANK: And music?
BRUNONIA: Music has always been an important part of my life and my writing. I have been suffering from asthma since I was a child, and have explored many healing modalities including acupuncture and massage along with traditional medicine. Both therapists have used singing bowls in their practice, and I have found them very helpful. I now use them every day for meditation and to begin and end my writing day. I think sound has a profound effect on the body. And music takes that to an even higher level.
Well, I was born in Salem and lived next to the woods in a neighboring town, where our favorite pastime was telling ghost stories and scaring each other. And I’m half Irish, with a family that claims to have a banshee, so I think it’s a given.
How about you, Reds? Salem? Witchcraft? Celtic mythology? SO fascinating!
Let us know your thoughts! I am on a plane to California today...so I’ll pop in whenever I get wifi!
Brunonia Barry is the New York Times and international best selling author of The Lace Reader and The Map of True Places. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She was the first American author to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award and was a past recipient of Ragdale Artists’ Colony’s Strnad Fellowship as well as the winner of New England Book Festival’s award for Best Fiction and Amazon’s Best of the Month. Her reviews and articles on writing have appeared in The London Times and The Washington Post. Brunonia co-chairs the Salem Athenaeum’s Writers’ Committee. She lives in Salem with her husband Gary Ward and their dog, Angel.