In a Boston Book Festival event aptly named “Fiction: Witches and Other Bad Heroines,” on Oct. 25, moderator Bridget Marshall interviewed four authors about the spooky contents of their novels and, more importantly, their radical female protagonists.
Author Layne Fargo kicked off the event with a reading from her second novel, “They Never Learn” (2020), featuring the thoughts of her professor-by-day, serial-killer-by-night protagonist Scarlett Clark. Marshall continued the conversation by asking about the origins of Fargo’s story, highlighting the famous inspiration behind Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818). Shelley’s ideas materialized in a dream brought on by an eerie party with friends, where ghost stories were the main spectacle of the event. Fargo admits that “They Never Learn” was inspired by a tweet calling for a feminist revenge thriller coupled with the intense animosity boiling inside of her as a result of the Kavanaugh hearings.
Next, author Quan Barry answered questions about her novel “We Ride Upon Sticks” (2020), appropriately featuring a girl’s field hockey team. The girls used witchcraft to aid their game in Danvers, Mass. — a town notorious for its original name: Salem Village. Barry related the girls’ experience with her own coming of age, as she, too, grew up playing field hockey in Danvers and gained an understanding of her home’s historical significance. With the book set in the 1980s, Barry wished to explore the period’s problems such as misogyny, homophobia and the AIDS epidemic while balancing it with the humor of pop culture phenomena like wild ‘80s hair. She described this combination as a “green smoothie”; the spinach and kale are the harder-to-swallow massive social problems, while the apple is the comic relief that, when combined with the vegetables, creates a digestible delicacy.
The third author, Alix Harrow of “The Once and Future Witches” (2020), explained how her female protagonists use the power of witchcraft to aid their work as suffragettes. At first, defining the access to magical powers across social and cultural positions proved difficult. Harrow recognized the somewhat sorrowfully lethargic aspects of the women’s rights movement: It did not all happen in a feasibly normal novel timeline. Still, Harrow persevered through these issues, producing a novel that explores their consequences as well. Harrow said her favorite character in the book is Agnes, who has a newborn. Harrow gave birth during her writing process; thus, she wanted to create a character who pushes back against the idea of motherhood as a weakness, or in Harrow’s words, the “softening of a person.”
Emily Danforth, author of “Plain Bad Heroines” (2020), explored two timelines to tell the story of a cursed school used by modern actresses as the set of a movie. At the center of the mystery is the book “The Story of Mary MacLane” (1902). Danforth was partly intrigued by cursed movie sets, and how mystery often plays a role in how great works come to be. The actresses film their movie on the grounds of the cursed school, indulging in Danforth’s many fantasies related to the curses of renowned movies such as “Poltergeist” (1982), “The Omen” (1976) and “The Exorcist” (1973). Danforth also wanted to give voices to characters who identify as lesbian, which she achieved through her characters’ relationships and the accentuated ideas in “The Story of Mary MacLane.” She lamented that there were not a lot of stories about lesbians in their 30s; so, she wished to produce a novel with explicit queerness, not a work where a reader must search strenuously to find representation.
To end, the authors were asked questions such as, “what makes a character bad?” This simple fictional question evolved into important and wise social commentary. Fargo said she believes women will always be disliked from someone’s perspective. Harrow furthered this point, saying that the bar for a bad woman is relatively lower than one for a white male. Barry championed the idea of pushing beyond the common rule of being “lady-like.” Realistically, women will continue to be thought of as “bad” in some obscure corner of society, but there are ways this label can be channeled as a potent power that many might even mark as magic.