Monday, March 20, 2017

Brunonia Barry at The Poisoned Pen!

This was the second Wednesday in a row that Denis came with me to The Poisoned Pen, and I couldn't've been more pleased. I do love spending time with this man of mine. Having looked up information on Brunonia Barry's books, Denis wasn't so sure that he'd be interested in the proceedings, but I had a feeling that his attitude would change. 

When Brunonia ("Just call me Bru") and her husband, Gary, walked into the bookstore, the staff had to turn all the chairs around because while Bru talked, her husband was going to show photos of the things she was talking about, and we had to be able to see the television screen. This year's Writer in Residence, Linda Castillo, introduced Bru. There was a quote Castillo really liked in Barry's book, The Fifth Petal, part of which is "Tell me what you fear the most, and I will show you who you really are." I could see why Castillo liked it-- it grabbed my attention, too.

L to R: Bru's husband Gary, Brunonia Barry, Linda Castillo. Photo © Jeff K.

Bru's ancestor, William Sprague, first came to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1628, and Salem is where she lives now. She and her husband have been in charge of the Salem Literary Festival, and they are both founts of information about the locale and those infamous witch trials. This area is where Barry sets her books. "If you shake a tree in Salem, six historians fall out," she said, "so I have to get it right." The Phillips Library has all the records of the witch trials, so it's a place Bru knows well. 

There is a bit of generational guilt that runs through Salem, especially since the town garners much of its revenue by showcasing the very people it killed in 1692-93. The city of 42,000 swells to 300,000 for Halloween. "First we kill the witches, then we celebrate them, and-- I would add-- then you buy the t-shirt," Barry said.

"There's a group of characters that I really found interesting," Castillo said. "The Goddesses who were involved with the murder in 1989."

"Yes," Barry said. "Today I think we would call them 'girls behaving badly' there in town."

"Trees play a role in the book. Is it symbolic?"

"Yes, it is. One of the characters believes she is a banshee. In legend, the banshee is the spirit of a woman that's trapped in an oak tree. An oak was also the hanging tree in Salem," Bru said.

Linda then said, "I loved the character of Rose. I could hear her voice. I could see her. She was so vivid, so fascinating."

Bru smiled. "Rose is my favorite character that I've ever written." She then told us the significance of the book's title. "The character of Callie Cahill has a rosary with a five-petaled rose instead of a cross. If the reader can identify the fifth petal, they will be able to solve the mystery."

L to R: Linda Castillo, Brunonia Barry. Photo © Jeff K.
Other writers' writing processes always interest Castillo, who asked Barry about hers. "It took me five years to write The Fifth Petal because I got bogged down in my research. I always know whodunit when I start. When I do begin, I 'clear my throat' by writing about one hundred pages and by creating detailed biographies of my characters.

"Salem is now a safe haven for thousands of witches, not despite its history but because of it. Every Halloween I wonder if the Salem Witch Trials could happen again. This can be such a polarizing subject that the local newspaper will not publish anonymous comments.

"Historians and archaeologists found the spot where the hangings actually took place. The location has been verified, and it's in back of a Walgreen's parking lot. The city is planning to put up a small memorial which will include an oak tree for each one of the victims."

The more Barry spoke of Salem, the more fascinated I became. I also wanted to start planning a visit there... as long as it wasn't during Halloween!

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The character of Rose is loosely based on Sarah Good, one of the accused witches in 1692. While in jail, Good gave birth to a baby who died, and her entire family was reduced to being beggars.

The photos Barry and her husband used to illustrate what she was talking about were perfect. The logos on the Salem police cars have witches on them. There is a Bewitched statue in town featuring the star of the television series, Elizabeth Montgomery, that caused such a furor that it divided the town. The so-called Witch House was the home of one of the hanging judges.

Bru laughed and said, "Yes, we can get 'em to Salem with witches and then show 'em what else we have. There is one spot in town where you can see five different periods of Colonial architecture." Have you ever heard of the House of the Seven Gables? That's in Salem, which was once the richest port in the New World.

One person who has helped Barry with her research is Terry, who runs Artemisia Botanicals. The author made us all laugh when she told us of one of Terry's cures she insisted Gary drink when he was sick. It tasted absolutely vile, but it worked. When asked what the concoction was, Terry said, "It's fermented garlic that I've had in the fridge for two years." What made the episode even funnier was the fact that Bru and Gary were helping a film crew at the time. Gary got in the car with Bru and the crew, and finally one of them said, "I'm sorry, but you're going to have to get out of the car!" Seems the brew not only tasted vile, it was extremely pungent as well!

All of Barry's books are set in Salem and the original area of the Salem Colony. After her first book, The Lace Reader, Bru was asked not to describe the buildings because readers were coming to town and going up to knock on doors. 

One of the jobs the author had as a teenager was tour guide at the House of the Seven Gables. She was fired for making up stories! That's when her mother knew Brunonia would be a fiction writer. 

Bone Lace will be Barry's next book. Although there are repeating characters in all her novels, the main character is always someone new. For anyone who wanted to read the books in some sort of chronological order, she advised them to begin with The Fifth Petal, then The Lace Reader, followed by The Map of True Places.  

Halloween plays a big role in The Fifth Petal, and the holiday always has a large police presence. If you're wondering how many candy bars Bru and Gary handed out last Halloween, the number is 3500. Yikes!

On the way home, I asked Denis if he'd been bored. "Not at all!" he replied. I wouldn't be surprised if he was thinking about a trip to Salem, too!



  1. Ooh, I don't know her work, Cathy. This is really interesting! I'm glad, as ever, that you had a good visit to the PP!

    1. I'm really looking forward to reading The Fifth Petal.

  2. What a interesting speaker she is. The best speakers are those who are informational and entertaining too. I liked her phrase about shaking a tree and six historians falling out. I liked her humor. Actually she is motivational too as it made me want to visit Salem.

    1. New England is the only part of the US (outside of Alaska and Hawaii) that I haven't visited, so I think a trip there is in order. ;-)

      I, too, enjoyed her humor.

  3. Brunonia Barry is a funny woman. Enjoy her humor.

    Thanks for the summary. It's always fun to read about anything at the PP.

    And, yes, my parents took us to Salem in our childhood. The only thing I remember is the House of the Seven Gables. That fascinated me with its secret passageways, among other things.


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