Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Interview with Karen Vorbeck Williams

Q. Tell us a little bit about who your ancestors in the Northampton area are.

My 11th great grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons actually lived in Hartford when she married Joseph Parsons 1646—he was from Springfield—and brought her home with him where they lived for 11 years before he got the idea that he’d increase his fortunes by going up-river to settle Northampton.

Hartford and Springfield were both founded 1636

Q. Give us some history of Mary Bliss Parsons and Sarah Lyman Bridgeman. What happened between the two women?

Epic jealousy! After growing up in Hartford where Sarah—who came from a distinguished family--knew Mary Bliss as the daughter of a poor farmer, both women moved to Springfield. Mary Bliss-- with a husband who would make a great fortune-- and Sarah Lyman who married a carpenter. James Bridgeman was unable to match Joseph Parsons’ wealth and Sarah was unable to match Mary’s birth record.

Q. How did Mary's witchcraft trial compare to the Salem witch trials? Did they occur close together?

No. Mary Bliss Parsons was tried 17 years before the Salem Witch Trials by a couple of the same judges (William Danforth and Thomas Stoughton) who went on to try the Salem cases. (Court of Assistants in Boston, a panel of judges)

Lots of people when they hear the word witchcraft automatically jump to Salem, but the first witch hanged in New England was probably Alice Young of Windsor, CT 45 years before Salem. Before Salem over 90 people had witchcraft complaints against them. About 60 went to trail, about half were acquitted. Approximately 15 people were executed. Most significantly, only 4 confessed.

Q. I understand that your book is set in Springfield, MA. What can you tell us about the early settlement?

Springfield in those days was an unusual place—almost a baronial state run by one man, William Pynchon. Everyone in town worked for him. He had a general store at the edge of the river where Indians came to trade furs and everyone in town shopped. From there he shipped barrels of furs, meats, grains back to England. He was enormously rich and appears to have been a mentor to Joseph Parsons’—Mary’s husband.

Q. As your grandmother told you stories when you were little about a witch in the family, did you believe her at the time? Or was it all in good fun?

I had to believe--she delivered her story with great sincerity and pride. She was glad to have an ancestor with such an exceptional life.

Q. The journey of writing this book began with you hearing stories about your ancestors at your grandmother's knee. How important is it to keep the oral tradition alive? And how can parents and grandparents do this?

Well, first you have to know your family stories, you have to be interested yourself or you won’t be able to interest your children.

Keeping oral tradition alive is, in my opinion, a good thing. What’s the saying?

If you don't know your history--you are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree.

Q. The topic of witchcraft holds a fascination for many people. What are some misconceptions about the subject?

There are many:

Most common:  Witches were burned at stake in New England
                           Only ignorant, uneducated people believed in witches
                           Only women were accused

Q. How long have you been at work on this book?

I started the first research in the 70s, wrote a non-fiction narrative back then. In the 80s –while I owned an art film theatre--I decided I’d try to make it into a screen play. Early in the 21st Century I started work on the historical fiction—by then I had the help of the Internet for research. So the answer to your question is—30 some years.

Q. Why was writing this novel important to you?

I fell in love with the story and with my characters—especially Mary Bliss Parsons. Another, less obvious reason, had to do with our times. The Puritan theocracy was very similar to radical Islam without the suicide bombers. I wanted to explore the similarities.

Q. What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

An enormous amount of enjoyment, a sense of being on an adventure and a better knowledge of our founding fathers. These were Early Modern people with no understanding of science. They were not us and should not be judged by our standards.

Q. What's next for you--will you continue writing?

Yes. I have a new novel in the works--literary fiction with a mystery element. Oddly, it’s based on another story my grandmother told me—about her own life.

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