Adriana Mather's How to Hang a Witch: How she turned her Salem with trial ancestry into fiction
Mather's 'How to Hang a Witch' returns to the spooky town of her past
Adriana Mather, 33, a descendant of one of Salem’s most infamous figures — Puritan minister Cotton Mather — returned to that spooky town to conjure up her haunting YA debut, How to Hang a Witch. EW caught up with Mather to learn all about her eerie ancestry, and what it was like to feel like a real-life villain.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your new book is the fictional tale of Samantha Mather, a modern-day teen who, like you, is a descendant of Puritan minister and Salem-witch-trials advocate Cotton Mather.
ADRIANA MATHER: Yes. I always knew about Cotton. My great-grandmother was a teacher and amateur historian, so she catalogued everything from our family. She put little note cards on everything, telling us whose furniture it was or whose letter it was and what significance it had. My grandmother took me around her house when I was a little girl and told me all the stories of our ancestors.
In researching, did you learn anything surprising about Cotton?
He fought for smallpox vaccinations at a time when lots of people were dying, and it basically ruined his reputation. People said that between the witch-trials hysteria and then fighting for vaccinations, which to them sounded like total insanity, they thought he had lost his mind. But with the vaccinations, he actually wound up saving a lot of people, too. This is why history is so complex: How do you judge someone’s entire lifetime?
How did you decide to make your protagonist a Mather relative?
I wanted to get this lineage book from the 1890s, which was no longer in print, and funnily enough, the only store in the entire country that I could get it through was in Salem. When I wrote down my name and address to order it, the woman looked at the slip, then looked at me and said, “Hmm. ‘Mather.’ That’s not a very popular name around here.” And I thought, “This is so cool. I’ve never been a villain of any kind, but for some reason, here I’m a historical villain of sorts.” It sparked my imagination, and the story just tumbled out after that.
You’ve said Salem is a bizarre place. What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen there?
My fiancé and I were walking through the Salem Common. It was a beautiful day, and there was this girl underneath a tree. She was just so sweet-looking, holding her baby and rocking it. She was probably in her mid-20s. We smiled at her and the baby—and it wasn’t a baby.
What was it?
I don’t know. I truly regret not finding out, because it was one of those moments where everything inside me sunk and I just went [gasps], “Oh, no.” It was a grayish color, almost like something that was decomposing. It looked like it was made out of wax, maybe.
Are you done writing about Salem now, or will you come back to it for another project?
Actually, my next book in the series is called How to Sink a Ship. It’s the same characters, but instead of Sam seeing ghosts from the witch trials, she sees ghosts from the Titanic, because my ancestors survived the Titanic with their valet and their dog. It was one of the only dogs to survive! Their names were Myra Haxtun Harper and Henry Sleeper Harper, who are the Harpers of Harper & Brothers publishing, before it was HarperCollins. I didn’t know [my ancestors were in publishing] until after I sold my book. What are the chances?
This story originally appeared in the August 18, 2016 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Pick up your copy on stands now, or subscribe digitally at ew.com/allaccess.
How to Hang a Witch