There’s an audible howling on the line as Adriana Mather settles in to talk about her debut novel How to Hang a Witch from her Santa Monica home. But the cry isn’t coming from an otherworldly spirit or spell-casting crone; it’s her beloved gray tabby, Smeagle, trying desperately to get her attention. “He’s just standing on my desk,” Mather says. “I’m his personal servant.” Mather has taken a circuitous route to writing her first book, from her days studying religion and neurobiology at Vassar, to her first job traveling the globe for a company that exported health food from Tibet, eventually turning to acting in and producing films for Zombot Pictures. She spoke with PW recently about her family’s historical connections, making the switch from writing for the screen to writing for teens, and her plans for her next book.
You’ve just had two big months professionally: Your film, Honeyglue, which you starred in and produced, hit theaters in early June, and now your debut novel is headed to shelves in July. How did you translate your film background into writing for teens?
It actually came really naturally. I sat down to write How to Hang a Witch as a screenplay but I didn’t know my characters well enough. So I started writing this story and I got 10 pages in and thought, “Oh, this is really fun, I’m going to write a bit more.” And I got to 100 pages and thought, “I’m going to do this.” When I was done I took it to some people in the industry who I trusted, and their reaction was ‘You’ve written a YA except you haven’t technically written a YA.’ It was written as an adult book, and I rewrote the book start to finish. That all happened very quickly. It has some of the same characters, but in the first version there was no parents, no high school, there were all kinds of things that were missing.
So I learned real fast. I’m one of those people who jump off and figures it out on the way down. If there’s anything the entertainment industry has taught me, it’s to get over myself. Creative projects are always difficult because so many emotions are involved. I’ve pretty much had the emotions beat out of me and I just move on.
The character Samantha Mather, like yourself, is a direct descendant of Cotton Mather, who helped instigate the Salem Witch Trials. In real life, you’re first cousins nine times removed by sharing a grandfather, Richard Mather (the first of the Mathers to come to America). Was it strange growing up with this genetic link to a major historical event you were learning about in school? Do you have any insider knowledge that makes him a more sympathetic individual for you than a standard history text might let on?
I grew up in New York so the Salem Witch Trials were emphasized in school. I read The Crucible, I saw the play performed. I learned about it in school, absolutely, and people were curious about the fact that my last name correlated to his. I think I was always curious about Cotton because people had so many conflicted views on him and they weren’t afraid to say them out loud to a child. I don’t attach to it personally. I just want to learn. My family members are on the bad side of history in a lot of areas and also on the good side of history.
Growing up I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house, where the majority of our family historical artifacts are. My great-grandmother Adrianna Storm Haxtun Mather, whom I was named after, was a teacher and an amateur historian. She had catalogued all of these things like letters an uncle wrote his niece in the 1800s, messages from the western frontier, and correspondence from Japan when it was a “closed country.” My grandmother, Claire Mather, was the first person when I was a little kid who told me I should be a writer. She used to walk me around the house on Long Island and explain the family heirlooms. There was so much American history in that house for sure. Open a drawer and you’ll find a journal from the late 1700s that talks about making apple pie. History had always been personal to me as a kid, but I didn’t really think anything of it. Until I became an adult and was looking at it through adult eyes, I didn’t realize these artifacts were “important.” Part of what I try to do with my writing is bring the history and the historical voices back.
While doing some of the research for the novel, you accidentally booked yourself into a haunted inn. What was that experience like and did any parts of it make it into the story? Do you believe in ghosts?
Salem has an interesting culture. There’s a sort of suspended belief there where history isn’t 300 years ago, but it’s blending with the present. People don’t ask you if you believe in ghosts, they ask when was the last time you saw one. It’s sort of this accepted cultural thing that these things exist and there’s curses and magic.
I was in Salem for my birthday and I was doing research [for] this book. The first [bed and breakfast] that I happened upon had one room that was empty and it was a reasonable price. They gave me the key and I went up multiple staircases that didn’t connect and finally I found this little door at the end of a long hallway that had my room number on it. I was in a section of the house all by myself and the temperature was 10 degrees colder. So finally I get into my room, and it’s so pretty, but I felt very uncomfortable. I was like a little kid. I looked under my bed. I checked in the closet. And I went back to the front desk and said, “This might be super weird but do people complain about this place being haunted?” And the girl was like: “If you really want to know, read the guestbook.”
That evening I got super curious and I did, and I could not sleep that night. It was full of entries about chairs rocking by themselves and messages being written in steam after you get out the shower and trails of pennies being left behind. And screaming. That did it.
As you mentioned, your great-grandmother was the family historian. I understand that lineage also links up to the Mayflower, the Revolutionary War, Sleepy Hollow, and the Titanic. Will there be a next book and might you focus on one of these major events as a jumping-off point for another story?
Oh, absolutely! There’s a follow up book to How to Hang a Witch that is currently titled How to Sink a Ship and instead of being about ghosts from the Salem Witch Trials it’s about the Titanic but with the same protagonist, (Samantha Mather). In Witch, I parallel hanging a witch in Salem with modern-day bullying, so for the second book I use the Titanic to discuss topics like privilege. History repeats itself. I think when you look back at history you can take really important things that people have concluded on and raise the same questions about today. With Salem, people [say], “That’s terrible. We would never let that happen today.” But would we?
How to Hang a Witch by Adriana Mather. Knopf, $17.99 July ISBN 978-0-553-53947-9