Q: What was your inspiration for The Fifth Petal?
A: History casts a long shadow in Salem, MA. 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 as tourists from all over the world 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.
Q: How does this novel tie into the world you created in your previous novels, The Lace Reader and The Map of True Places? Did you have a sense there was more to tell?
A: 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.
Q: In the book, Rose posits the true location of the hanging site from the Salem Witch Trials. Can you tell us about the actual response to that idea among historians?
A: For a long time, those of us who have studied the history of Salem’s witch trials have known that Gallows Hill could not have been the real location of the hangings for a number of reasons, one of which was that, legally, the hangings had to take place outside of Salem Town’s limits but still be visible to its citizens, as a cautionary tale. But Salem’s records are sketchy at best, and so, for years, the city had relied on a faulty best guesstimate and had named Gallows Hill accordingly. Historians knew (and recently discovered journals and letters proved) that the real hanging site was located at the back of a Walgreens parking lot, hardly a scenic spot for a memorial. Instead of either location, Salem eventually created a serene memorial downtown where tourists would be more likely to gather. But the scholars didn’t give up, and, a few years ago, a task force, which included both historians and scientists, was formed to verify the real site, which is just now being recognized, a nice bit of synchronicity I hadn’t anticipated when writing the book. A memorial plaque is planned for summer of 2017.
Q: What would people be surprised to learn about modern-day Salem? About Salem’s history?
A: I think the most interesting thing about modern-day Salem, and the reason I write about it, is the irony that the place that once accused and executed suspected witches has now become a safe haven for thousands of neo-witches from all over the world, not in spite of its history but because of it. It’s fascinating on a number of levels. There were no witches in Salem in 1692, but they thrive here in great numbers now. Modern-day Salem embraces “otherness” in a way few places do, but we still have our problems. The truth is, a witch hunt would probably be less likely to happen here than elsewhere in the country, and, if it did, it would look very different. Which is what gave me the idea for this book.