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Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is Rivka Galchen’s second novel.

In the early 17th century, in a small German village, 71-year-old widow Katharina Kepler – mother to Johannes of the planetary-motion laws – is accused of witchcraft by Ursula Reinbold, “comely werewolf” and wife of a third-rate glazier, who’s convinced she was sickened by Katharina’s herbal concoctions. In the ensuing trial, the other villagers gleefully pile on, wilfully conflating Katharina’s idiosyncrasies (she wears dark clothes!) with guilt in a manner that feels at once anachronistically Kafkaesque and sadly familiar.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is Rivka Galchen’s second novel. Her previous books, which include the novel Atmospheric Disturbances and the short-story collection American Innvoations, were shortlisted for several prizes. The author’s personal trajectory – she received an MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and has written about quantum mechanics – is almost as unusual as her books. Born in Toronto and raised in Oklahoma, she currently calls Manhattan home while keeping a summer pied-a-terre in Montreal’s Villeray neighbourhood.

Where did you get the notion to write about an ostensible witch, and why in this specific era?

I’d been working on a different novel altogether. But my ‘comfort’ reading at the time was, for reasons slightly opaque to me, scientific biographies. It started with a biography of the mathematician Ramanujan, and then a biography of Paul Erdos. Then I just kept looking for more. No other genre held my attention as well. In retrospect, I think reading about these lives that were bullied in one way or another by history, by politics – it was a way to think about the present moment without having to think directly about the present moment. And also, I love reading about science … which is a long-winded way of saying that I was looking to read a biography of Johannes Kepler, and I was frustrated to discover that there wasn’t much available in English. I came instead across Oxford University Press’s The Astronomer and the Witch by the scholar Ulinka Rublack. Even though the book was not really about Kepler – it was about Kepler’s mother – I thought I’d give it a try. And then I was thunderstruck by Katharina Kepler’s story. All I wanted to do was learn more about her time period, about her trial, about her family. I set aside everything else to do that.

What did you learn about that time period that astonished or interested you the most?

It was one wonder after another. Even the littlest details about, say, how a servant girl would get in trouble for wearing a velvet hairpiece, because it was above her station. I liked learning that cows and other animals were housed on the ground floor, with the humans above – instead of in separate barns. I liked learning about how no one ever wanted the job of constable, because it was your responsibility to fine [people] for being out late, or making too much noise – so people disliked you. But you also received a cut of the fines. That all felt so … familiar. There’s even a letter by Johannes Kepler in which he talks about salad.

Also a wonder was the incredible ethical and legal effort that went into trying to make witch trials more … fair. That sounds absurd from our modern viewpoint, but thinking through whether confession by torture could count, whether a rumour reported only by a woman or child was valid, etc. – it’s such a tangle of good faith and viciousness.

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What were the challenges of presenting, in English, the voice of an illiterate woman in 17th-century Germany?

One way that I thought of Katharina Kepler’s voice was in terms of the tradition of oral storytelling. Old wives’ tales told by illiterate, brilliant, marginalized older women. Hans Christian Andersen said his stories came from his aunts and grandmothers. And the Brothers Grimm collected many of their tales from old charity homes. There’s a story that they heard of an older woman who had especially wonderful and numerous tales, but that she refused to share them. They finally bribed a young serving girl who worked at the charity house to get the tales from the old woman and try to remember them as best as she could.

Thinking about stories like that helped me access the intelligence and charisma an old woman of that time period, even if she couldn’t read.

The accusations against Katharina are pretty outlandish. Are they all true? Which were the most bizarre to you?

Yes, the accusations are pretty much all from the historical record! From the inquiry she makes about exhuming her father’s skull to have it coated in silver, to her being accused of walking through locked doors, of serving poisoned drinks, of giving a dark look that then makes a butcher’s leg hurt, or a cow get ill, or a pig die.

The accusations that seemed most bizarre – if also predictable – to me were some of the ones against other women tried at the time. Women forced to confess that they’d slept with the devil, [who were] coerced into offering detailed accounts of how that was.

The term “witch hunt” became pervasive under a certain recent American President. Did that cultural moment, which I suppose is continuing, factor into the writing of this book?

I imagine I was trying to escape the current political moment. That was what sent me back to ‘foreign’ time periods. After all, the ‘genre’ of historical novels is akin to the genre of fantasy. But of course, whatever you’re running away from informs where you run to. I’m sure that living through this time period, in which evidence, logic and truth seem unusually inconsequential – influenced the emotions that went into this book.

You’re part of a minority of fiction writers with a background in science. Do you think this benefits, or not, your work? Does writing require mode-switching for you?

I think science, and even a childhood love of math – these are central to the ways in which I enjoy reading, enjoy writing. For example, I get a little electric thrill from a sentence that loops back on itself in a paradox, and that particular thrill is one I connect to math, to logic. Also, I get a thrill from recognizing a form, altering a form. From repetitions with variations. From hypotheticals and counterfactuals. And again that connects to science, in my mind. I realized recently that three of the visual artists whose work I connect to the most emotionally – Agnes Martin, Hilma af Klint and Louise Bourgeois – also had mathematical or scientific interests in their youth.

What are some of your favourite scientific biographies?

The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo, about the physicist Paul Dirac, is a relatively recent scientific biography that is marvellous. Dirac was a physicist who won the Nobel when he was 30. One story about him was that, when friend took him to an Impressionism exhibition at a museum, he said of one of the paintings something like: It’s interesting how this is equally inaccurate throughout. Dirac was an unusual person, and difficult to reach, but also, like Wittgenstein, loved detective novels, and even Mickey Mouse. The biography manages the impossible, which is to give you a substantive sense of Dirac’s scientific contributions, but also a substantive sense of who he was as a child, as a family man, as a colleague.

Other biographies I recommend include: Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime, Simon: The Genius in my Basement by Alexander Masters, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman, Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway by Siobhan Roberts. To find interesting biographical information about a lot of interesting female scientists, you often have to turn to scholarly papers, rather than full-length books, but some of the people who have been especially interesting to read about include Tu Youyou, Elena Ivanovna Barulina, Vera Rubin and Barbara McClintock.

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