Photo credit: Sandy Tait
It’s hard to introduce award-winning novelist Rivka Galchen’s latest work, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch
, without eclipsing some aspect of its value and achievement. It’s hilarious, in a way I didn’t think possible when the subject is the real-life persecution of an elderly woman. It’s relatable, in a way I didn’t think possible when the setting is 17th-century Germany on the cusp of the Thirty Years’ War. And it’s poignant and philosophical, an examination of motherhood, neighborhood, science, magic, and culpability that I knew possible only because I’ve read Galchen before and was prepared for her singular ability to breathe life, logic, and beauty into the absurd. To quote Karen Russell, "I need no witchcraft to predict it will astonish, beguile, and transform you." It's very exciting to present Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch
as Volume 92 of Indiespensable
You mention in the acknowledgements section that Everyone Knows
was inspired by Ulinka Rublack's The Astronomer and the Witch
, which is about Johannes Kepler. I was wondering what drew you to study Kepler in the first place?
I was going through a kind of funny phase in my reading. I was really drawn — I'm actually still drawn — to reading scientific biography. I don't know why. It was just really soothing. You know how everyone kind of made it through the past four years in their own way? [Laughs
] They had their own calming mechanisms. And I just found it really calming to read these biographies even though most of these scientists had very difficult lives that were totally destroyed by politics and history.
And I really wanted to read about Kepler, and there are almost no good biographies of Kepler in English. I really stumbled on The Astronomer and the Witch
by chance, and I just was so kind of seized by Katharina's story. I dropped everything I was working on, and just wanted to learn more, and just felt really emotionally connected to the story.
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What was about her that you felt connected to?
When I'm really obsessed with something, it's sort of opaque to me. Why? I usually think because it's somehow unacceptable or, you know, looks like a dream. It's like a part is hidden.
When I was reading that Rublack book, I realized that I was reading it in a suspenseful way as if I was going to find out whether she was or wasn't a witch. And it just seemed so shocking to me to notice that I was reading in that way; and then, to be honest, I had a couple of friends who had kind of strange persecutions, you know? And I felt quite helpless as a bystander. I think that was part of it too, maybe the Simon element.
I also sort of conflated her in a wonderful way with my own mom.
I just thought, Who is this woman who must be very intelligent even though she's illiterate, who's completely managed on her own for decades as a widow?
She became so meaningful to me.
Rhianna: Everyone Knows
is set in Germany in the early 17th century, which in many ways was a terrible place to be. The novel takes place on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War, a period of horrific sectarian violence, and a time when the plague was rampant and life was very precarious. On the other hand, it was also a very fertile place and time for scientific advancement and creative thought.
Is it that paradox that attracts you to this historical period? Also, how do you conceive of the relationship between early modern Germany and the world of your reader?
It also feels so maddeningly contemporary.
I think I see it differently when I'm done with the book than when I'm writing the book, so I don't know if I'm sort of deceiving myself, but one thing about that time period, which was just brutal, is that I did find comfort in reading about horrible periods of time that ended.
It’s not as difficult a time now as it was then, but it's been a difficult and kind of frightening time and so I think I was attracted to a way to experience the current moment without having to look directly at the current moment. To sort of triangulate the thinking because I find that gives me better perspective.
When I look at something straight on, I can often feel quite overwhelmed or susceptible to canned ideas about what's happening. So, to sort of exit the present moment while still basically looking at the present moment from somewhere else helps me break canned or fearful thinking. I never dreamed I'd be writing a historical novel.
Also… it was just completely normal for people to lose their children all the time. I was very connected to that.
And I do connect to the creativity of it. And it's not surprising that it was a creative era because the power structures were so unstable. That’s a great recipe for chaos and war, but it's also a great recipe for whatever set ways of thinking start looking a little wobbly.
I’m interested in what you said just now about how looking at something straight on can be overwhelming or unproductive.
In a prior interview you noted, "There are certain things where the only way to feel like you don't miss the point entirely is by shifting the story into another register, another world."
In the interview you’re speaking to speculative fiction, but it made me think — and you’ve been alluding to this — how well historical fiction can do that work too, by virtue of being placed so long ago that the people and settings require reimagining.
Yeah, absolutely. In a funny way, I feel like historical fiction’s just a different color of science fiction or fantasy. It's like a different estrangement. It has different boundaries, but even for people who know a lot about that time period, it's a radical shift to try and inhabit it.
One of the things that interests me about early modern Europe, and that I think you engage with so beautifully in the novel, is how the worldview of the characters is informed by an active divinity and an overall presumption of interconnectedness; the separation of the individual from God, nature, and community that’s a hallmark of modern selfhood is missing. It feels very organic in the novel, but was it difficult to capture the way Katharina, Simon, and others understood and acted in the world?
I feel like most of us, when we're children, have that same, intense sense of connection and of being watched by a greater power. It's like a biological feeling that gets shed. But I feel like I definitely have strong residues of that and other people do as well. And actually, I think of astronomy as a good bridge to those feelings.
I'm working on a journalism piece that has me talking to a lot of astronomers, and their emotional description of their work doesn't feel that different from some of Kepler’s letters. Just this sense of a beauty larger than themselves and indifferent to themselves, but still connected to them. In a funny way, astronomy is an easier bridge back in time than physics or culture.
At some point in the novel, Katharina remarks, “Everyone knows Wallpurga tells fortunes by measuring heads — a superstitious and unlawful practice, which, besides, she is no good at.” This paradox wherein something can be irrefutably false and yet still given credence is at the crux of this novel, and maybe this time period, in which more modern ideas and methods of proof are emerging out of an intensely religious and also more magical environment. It leads to a lot of very funny situational irony.
Absolutely. And that structure is so appealing. I sort of feel like it's the older version of “the restaurant was awful and the portions were too small.”
But, you know, it also feels so maddeningly contemporary.
All the power of conviction preceding evidence. It seems like that's still dominant in so much of our culture, even though at the same time it's the age of miracles and wonders. In everyday discourse there's still that sense of like, I looked in his eyes and I could tell he was lying.
I guess there's something that feels good about thinking there's a secret knowledge out there that someone has, that's not general knowledge, that makes us forever open to weird superstitions.
Katharina has another line I really loved where she says, "I do my best to avoid superstition, which can be difficult to separate from the quiet knowledge with which we are born and that sometimes reminds itself to us."
When I read it, I thought, Well, I don't know that the quiet knowledge we're born with is necessarily true.
I love the sound of someone trying to convince themselves of something.
I don't think it necessarily is at all, but it's so compelling, you know? That sense of instinct is so hard to let go of.
A classic example is that a lot of the people in the Inquisition were excellent mathematicians and knew very well everything that Galileo was right about. They just refused to look through the telescope.
We still exist in that. So even if a little section of the brain is saying, "OK, that's true," another section of the brain is saying, "But be sure not to know it."
Something that frustrated me on Katharina’s behalf was how her accusers turn everyday aspects of life in a 17th-century German town into supernatural boogeymen. For example, Katharina’s herbal remedies become “devil’s cures” in the depositions. She’s also denigrated for being widowed, doing her own shopping, and conversing with townspeople [laughter
]. It’s a world where anything can be turned into witchcraft or an ill omen, which makes it such a scary and frustrating place for everyone — accusers and accused alike — to inhabit.
It was amazing to read the trial transcripts and see how it seizes upon people that, OK, I'm now being told that these difficulties in my life, like my six children, like losing an animal, like being annoyed at the sight of this nattering old woman who's always coming by and asking for something or giving advice I don't want, I’m now morally permitted to dislike her.
People had a kind of egosyntonic explanation for these ugly feelings, because all along she was diabolic.
It wasn’t all them, and that's the other thing I find moving. A few people, although you get the sense it cost them, weren’t going to do that when interrogated.
But it's just absolutely maddening how you don't need to be a rocket scientist or a Johannes Kepler to see how absurd the accusations are, and they still stuck. And the herbal remedies are a great example, because they were all doing herbal remedies and it was sort of fine until it wasn't fine.
I think it was also very painful for people to see women who were powerful. Katharina was powerful in the sense that she was independent and she survived without a man. All of her children did quite well and they all rose in their station in life. And I think that must have been quite painful for people like the schoolmaster to see that.
I read in Rublack’s book that the physical presence of an aging woman was considered very displeasing at this time too. So, you take that bias and add some agency and intelligence, and it’s even worse.
Absolutely. I think that's just so powerful, because if you grow up in a society where “at least you're better than the women” then to have this person who in many ways is doing better than you, and living longer than you… it would just be totally humiliating.
All of those strands of misogyny come in. And then, because it's not spoken of that way, it gets processed fantastically so that it's not so offensive to their sense of self.
While Katharina is recuperating from her first journey to Linz, her daughter-in-law Susanna reads her what I believe is the story of Orestes’ pursuit by the three Furies, and his subsequent trial for matricide. I loved this section and wondered how you came to incorporate it.
That was one of my favorite parts to write.
First, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what would be the few books that people owned at this time. And then, honestly, I kind of stole it — which is something I like to do — from a scene in True Grit
by Charles Portis where Mattie is reading to the older lady in bed. And I just thought, It's so weird that this is so compelling and fun even though there's no action.
And so much character is revealed by the way they respond to it. I’ve wanted to do something like that for a long time and so I thought, Here's my chance.
I’m curious about why you selected the story of Orestes.
I chose it partially for the complicated sense of, Is this justice? Do we support punishment?
It is such a complex story. There’s male and female, and justice and fidelity...
I really enjoyed Katharina's commentary on the story, and how her life experiences impact her interpretation, like assuming Orestes is on the run for impregnating a girl, and then remarking that the bit about tearing him to pieces would interest many of the women she knows.
It's so good.
I love the privacy of the women's lives at that moment.
The novel is mostly a work of fiction, but you do include translations of Johannes Kepler’s letters to the Duke of Württemberg. Did you rework these at all?
I shortened them. I actually had to do a bit of sleight of hand because the situation went on for almost six years, which doesn't work for a novel.
I kept them in there because he is so practical and subservient and appealing to power, and kind of kissing ass as he needs to, even as he's also Johannes Kepler. He doesn't stand on his dignity or ego. I thought that's something that should be in there just as it is.
With the witnesses, I wanted to have room to give them dialogue that I felt would really reflect their kind of life and psychology a bit more than in the true transcripts, because I felt like I had to use those sections to let them come across as full people.
The deposition sections are wonderful and surprising. I was so taken aback by their sassiness.
At some point, Katharina remarks, “I suspect the only thing I would be interested in reading would be a history. But I’m told histories are hated, which is not surprising. People prefer to make it up themselves.”
I found this so interesting in light of your project here, and it made me think about what a novelist does or doesn’t owe to historical persons made fictional, and also how useful fiction can be in explicating the past and illuminating its forgotten corners — like the lives of almost all women and children.
Women and children are just less documented. Historians have to work with what's available, and so there's a natural kind of... prejudice isn't quite the right word, but people are drawn to working with what they have.
And that ends up meaning a very different kind of history that leaves out the stories that don't get documented. And that’s often also a population that's more illiterate, so there are no journals.
That said, even if there were a lot of records, it still feels like there's something fiction can do.
The thing is, you don't get to speculate about people's emotional lives very much unless you go into the realm of fiction. And that's how I interpret the world. It's kind of like piecing together hundreds of subjectivities — that's an approach that makes sense to me and that I feel like I have a gift for. And maybe I don't have a gift for some of the other ways of approaching the world.
I also think it's kind of like a little love postcard to the past.
Historical fiction’s just a different color of science fiction or fantasy.
In terms of what do we owe to the historical record... This is going to sound super sappy, but I felt like as long as I loved these people, I would be as true as I was capable of being to their spirits and their lives.
And, of course, I’m going to be wrong. I mean, it was a long time ago, and I've kind of stitched Katharina out of other women I've known. But I feel like as long as love is the guiding force, then it kind of keeps to a relatively true course.
That’s a lovely way of putting it.
You brought this up at the beginning of our conversation, but children — their play, and what it’s like to care for them, and to lose them — are often evoked in the novel. There are too many beautiful sentences to quote, but one that caught my eye was: “Maruschl was there at Susanna’s skirt, wearing a red dress, and her cheeks also were red, and she smiled. That’s what life is: a bunch of thorns, and a berry.” There’s also a riveting but horrifying scene where Katharina is standing beneath Ursula’s window amidst a storm of blood and falling babies.
I can think of a lot of historical reasons for why issues of children, motherhood, barrenness, and childhood mortality would be front of mind for a woman like Katharina, but I’m curious about what these subjects mean for you within the context of the novel.
I mean, everyone is different. Becoming a mother was so much more transformative than I thought it would be, because I remember thinking as a kid that it wouldn’t be that bad to lose a baby because they're not a person. This was before I really knew a baby and it’s just so crazy.
It was very transformative for me to be up close and watch how complete a person is from the very first moment of their life. That they're just... they're whole, which is really obvious to most people but was somehow news to me.
And you know, I have a lot of friends of all different ages. And even for the ones whose children are 35, motherhood and how their children are doing still just overwhelmingly determines how they're feeling on any given day.
And then, I just think that young people have a very special intelligence. I feel they have special powers. Like, a beautiful woman could walk into a room and people would be like, “Oh, look, a beautiful woman." But if a kid walks into a room, it's like, "Oh my god, a kid just came in the room. That's amazing." It’s so much more exciting. They can make people feel really good. An adult, however nice they are, can't do it in the same way as a child.
I was almost scared to write about a child death, because in some superstitious way, I didn't want to make a prophecy.
I guess it's just something that’s on my mind a lot, to imagine what it would be like to live in a world like that, where there were all these spirits. I'm sure you don't forget those children and they're always present. And you sort of see them in everything.
It's a really poignant aspect of the book. Like you, until I became a mother, I just accepted that childhood mortality has been high for most of human history. Everyone Knows
really drives home how bitterly painful every single loss is. And that women and fathers just had to carry that pain.
Yes. It was actually a letter that Martin Luther wrote about his first child dying that really opened that up for me.
I’m realizing that I haven’t asked you a single question about Simon, Katharina’s neighbor and legal guardian. Do you want to share a little about how you developed his character, and why you included his voice in Katharina’s story?
Galchen: I wanted to capture that weird ethical quandary of the witness or the bystander.
There's this feeling like, If I've witnessed it, I've done my ethical duty, which is a comforting idea but not like very convincing.
And yet, I don't know what the other options were. Simon’s not a family member, he's a witness. At the end of the day, whatever relatively minor anxieties and secrets he has, they still powerfully affect his ability to be a friend. And yet I wanted him to be a pretty good guy who's really trying to be good.
That was kind of the place I wanted to think through, because I connected to him just in the sense of living in a time when a lot of people are suffering so much; and it’s often unclear what to do, but also having a sense that there’s a failure on the part of the person watching and doing some small thing. That was a space I wanted to explore.
Also, I'm a big fan of Ishiguro. And I love those Ishiguro voices that have a story they're trying to sell themselves on. I love the sound of someone trying to convince themselves of something.
I spoke with Rivka Galchen by Zoom on Monday, May 17.
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Rivka Galchen is the recipient of a William Saroyan International Prize for Fiction and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, among other distinctions. She writes regularly for The New Yorker, whose editors selected her for their list of 20 Under 40 American fiction writers in 2010. Her debut novel Atmospheric Disturbances and her story collection American Innovations were both New York Times Best Books of the Year. She has received an MD from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Galchen lives in New York City. Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is her most recent novel.