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The Magical Realism of Katherine Howe

by Suzanne Daub

Every June, the Nantucket Book Festival brings together readers and authors in a celebration of the written word. Over the years, this weekend event has welcomed to our island hundreds of well-known authors including Alice Hoffman, Dennis Lehane, Tiya Miles, Marlon James, Jodi Picoult, Sebastian Junger, Imani Perry, Hernan Diaz, Jennifer Weiner, Charles Graeber, Isabel Wilkerson, James McBride, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, and Azar Nafisi. The Book Fest also showcases Nantucket writers: Nathaniel Philbrick, Elin Hilderbrand, James Sulzer, Nancy Thayer, Steve Sheppard, and Gabrielle Burnham have made appearances. Kwame Alexander, Margaret Atwood, Erik Larson are among the more than 20 authors who will speak at the 2024 Festival held this Thursday through Sunday.

Book Festival presenting authors have written fiction and nonfiction; they’ve won the Pulitzer, the PEN/Faulkner, and other national book awards. Some have written multiple New York Times Best Sellers, and a few have written a single, notable book (so far). Each has been willing to share their stories, their challenges, and their successes during the many free talks and forums. Some even offer guidance to aspiring writers attending the Nantucket Book Festival.

Among the presenting authors for the 2024 Book Festival is Katherine Howe, an award-winning historian and novelist with ten books to her name, four of them New York Times Best Sellers.

Katherine Howe
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Howe lives on the North Shore in Marblehead, and she’s visited Nantucket many times, often as a sailor and recently during the 2024 FIGAWI race in May. She’s a scholar and a teacher as well as a published author and is working this summer to finish her doctorate. She has loved writing from a very young age “I’d always written as a child: it was how I made sense of the world, but it never occurred to me that I could do it professionally,” Howe explained.

Of the ten books she has written so far, more than half are about witches, witchcraft, or pirates. Katherine Howe earned a BA in Art History and Philosophy from Columbia and an MA in American and New England Studies from Boston University—what inspires an academic to write about witches, magic, and pirates? Howe answers by saying that she likes to write about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

“Pirates and witches are two sides of the same coin…Most, but not all, witches were women being punished in spectacular fashion for challenging the dominant power structure. Pirates were mostley men, but not always, and were punished in spectacular fashion for challenging the dominant power structure…the end of the era of witches overlaps with the golden age of pirates…witches and pirates have a lot in common,” Howe explained. “Also, I’m a sailor, and pirates are objectively awesome,” she added.

It was as she wrestled with her dissertation about 15 years ago that the idea for her first novel—The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane—came to her. “I would walk around Marblehead (near Salem) [the town] was still rough around the edges… we were living in a house built in the 1700s, and someone had left a horseshoe charm. That made me think of the vestiges of belief that we have,” she explained. “It was surprising to me that every version of the Salem [witch trials] story I had seen up to that point was skeptical of the people in the past — like The Crucible… nothing I read regarded the colonial experience as they had believed it…. At the time, I had “ABD status” [all but dissertation], and I kept hitting a wall. I distracted myself by thinking about my idea for a novel…Ideas sometimes come barging in on you… I told [my friend] Matthew my book idea during a poker game one night, and unbeknownst to me he pitched it to his agent. She thought it was a good idea, and I met with her… I’m so lucky!” That first novel Howe wrote became her first New York Times Best Seller.

Katherine Howe
PHOTO BY JAMES SCHEURELL Caption: Author Katherine Howe with Tim Ehrenberg of Tim Talks Books

Deliverance can be described as magical realism based in historical fact: “most of my books have an element [of this]—it’s not fantasy: it’s understanding reality in a magical way. I have no way of knowing what beliefs I hold today that in 400 years may be thought of as crazy: people in the past had no way of seeing past their time… it’s a difference of understanding the world.” In her more recent books, Howe has moved away from magical realism. During the past few years, she co-wrote with broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper two non-fiction books based on Cooper’s family history: Vanderbilt and Astor.

Although Katherine Howe grew up in Houston, Texas (and once won an award there for “Most Improved at Baton Twirling), her ancestors settled in Essex County, Massachusetts in the 1620s. She is related to both Elizabeth Proctor and Elizabeth Howe, women convicted of being witches during the Salem Witch Trials. Proctor was spared because she was pregnant at the time of her scheduled execution, and later among prisoners released. Another relative, Edward Howe, was a 19th century ship captain whose wife, Hannah Masury, took over his ship after his death during a Pacific excursion. Hannah Masury is Katherine Howe’s great aunt, and her story became the inspiration for Howe’s most recent novel A True Account (November 2023). This book tells the story of a woman who dressed up as a cabin boy, set sail, and turned to pirating.

In addition to being an author and co-author, Katherine Howe also works as an editor: “I enjoy every aspect of each [task]: they have their pleasures and their challenges. But my favorite is writing a novel.” One of her favorite places to write is in a cafe in Salem called Front Street Cafe.

When asked what she likes best about being an author, Howe answered: “What do I enjoy about breathing?… I don’t know what else I would do! I enjoy feeling completely absorbed into a world I am creating… and I get no greater pleasure than hearing from readers who enjoyed what I wrote or got something from it.”

Tips she offers to aspiring writers include: “read outside your comfort zone: it’s important to read many different kinds of things…Write to stretch your wings; write without worry about what anyone will think… Connections are important: if it weren’t for Matthew, I would not have this career… And be confident enough to talk about your work with people. Don’t say “no” on your own behalf… have the courage to give yourself permission…Remember that sometimes the answer is YES.”

Want to hear more from Katherine Howe? Her 2024 Nantucket Book Festival conversation with Tim Ehrenberg of Tim Talks Books will be held on Thursday, June 13 at 3pm in The Great Hall of the Nantucket Atheneum. Subscribe to her SubStack “The Howe and the Why” at

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