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Katherine Howe’s New Ghost Thriller Inspired by Witches

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Katherine Howe’s New Ghost Thriller Inspired by Witches

Author of The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 15 September 2015).

Columnist Anna Roins

Katherine Howe is a best-selling author. Her most well-known work is the novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane that debuted at No 2 on the New York Times best-seller list, and was named one of USA Today’s top 10 books of 2009.

The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen
by Katherine Howe

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Her remarkable new book, THE APPEARANCE OF ANNIE VAN SINDEREN is a literary thriller and contemporary ghost story rolled into one. It’s about an aspiring filmmaker, Wes Auckerman, who attends NYU for a summer term when he meets the mysterious and beguiling Annie. She’s searching for something, but time is running out. As Wes helps Annie find what she’s looking for, they uncover deep secrets along the way.

AUTHORLINK: Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to discuss your compelling book, The Appearance of Annie Van Sinderen.

HOWE: Thank you for having me! I’m very excited about this book, so it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to talk about it.

AUTHORLINK: You have written about witches and later mediums, both in the context of historical fiction. What inspired you to write a story about ghosts in The Appearance of Annie van Sinderen?

“Oddly enough, there’s a witch connection to my interest in ghost stories.”

HOWE: Oddly enough, there’s a witch connection to my interest in ghost stories. If you go back and reread the original text of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” one of the best known and longest enduring American ghost stories, the reason that the residents of Sleepy Hollow are able to scare away Ichabod Crane is that he is an itinerant schoolteacher from New England who is an expert in the Salem witch trials. I was struck by Ichabod’s historically contingent credulity, and how that affected his status as a stranger newly arrived in a forbidding landscape. Ghost stories in general are about that contact point between the strange and the familiar. And no place puts that contact in sharper relief than New York City, the setting for ANNIE VAN SINDEREN.

AUTHORLINK: You convey the voice of Wes, the 19-year-old protagonist of the story, convincingly. How are you able to get into the mind of a male character younger than yourself? Did you base Wes on someone you know?

HOWE: Thank you. I’m a humanist at heart, and so I think that the first step in creating a character of a different gender is to remember that the character is a person first. When I was a teenager I thought for some reason that the guys I knew had it all figured out in a way that I myself did not. It took me awhile to discover that guys are also insecure about their bodies, anxious, excitable, ambitious, frightened, irresponsible, sexually baffled. We’re all just muddling through this together. Nobody knows what’s going on.

AUTHORLINK: Yes, I can see that. Your family settled in Essex County, Massachusetts in the 1620s, and are related to accused Salem ‘witches;’ Elizabeth Proctor, Elizabeth Howe and Deliverance Dane. Elizabeth Proctor and Deliverance Dane escaped execution, but, unfortunately, Elizabeth Howe did not. What do you know about these extraordinary ancestors from the 1690’s?

HOWE:  Deliverance was accused near the end of the panic, and so fortunately they called the proceedings off before she was in any real danger. Elizabeth Proctor was married to John Proctor, and they were both supposed to be put to death. Elizabeth was expecting a baby, however, so they decided to wait until after she gave birth before hanging her (isn’t that thoughtful of them?). Elizabeth Howe was from Topsfield, and was sort of an odd duck. She’d had a bad reputation for a long time. She was among the first group of women hanged together, right as the panic was picking up steam.

AUTHORLINK: That’s fascinating! Yes, very thoughtful. Do you believe in witchcraft, and separate to this, the casting of the ‘evil eye’ that is prevalent in many cultures and, recognized in some Christian-based religions?

“I’m always very interested in the relationships between belief systems and the historical moments that give rise to them.”

HOWE:  I’m trained as a historian, and so the kinds of stories I’m drawn to write take place in moments in time when our understanding of how reality works is very different from today. I’ve written about early modern beliefs in witchcraft, or about the early 20th Century when Harvard scholars were conducting research that they thought was on the brink of scientifically proving the existence of the human soul. THE APPEARANCE OF ANNIE VAN SINDEREN collides two different times together – the present, when we believe that technology offers us contact with reality that’s unassailable, and with New York of the 1820s, a moment of rapid technological change and transformations of our relationship with space and time. I’m always very interested in the relationships between belief systems and the historical moments that give rise to them.

AUTHORLINK: That’s very interesting. Had you ever tried to write anything before your first book, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (Hachette Books, 3 June 2009), which debuted at No 2 on the New York Times best-seller list? If so, what was it?

HOWE:  I wrote quite a lot before PHYSICK BOOK, though I hadn’t attempted to write a novel before. Most of my writing up to that point had been academic or personal in nature, but I’d written nearly every day since I was a kid. My first actual published writing is three short catalogue essays in the exhibition catalogue MIES IN BERLIN, published by the Museum of Modern Art in 2001.

AUTHORLINK: You once said the research for your first book took, ‘’about a year and a half of reading and stewing, and then another year and a half was spent in the outlining and writing of the story.’’ Your second book The House of Velvet and Glass (Hachette Books, 12 April 2012) was released three years later. Since then, you have released a book each year (and two were released last year). Do you feel more confident as a writer as the years go by? How has your routine and your writing evolved since your first book?

HOWE: THE PENGUIN BOOK OF WITCHES, a primary source reader which came out from Penguin Classics last year, was a five-year project that simmered along at the same time as two other novels. I don’t know if “confident” is the right word. I am more certain of my method, which involves a lot of primary source research and outlining and staring off into space and thinking and collecting odd bits of information and ephemera, not all of which will be useful. But each book is its own entity, and has its own challenges and strengths and weaknesses. I’m in the transition phase from research and outlining to drafting on a new book right now, and there’s just as much vacillating between terror and hope and excitement and doubt as there ever is.

AUTHORLINK: What kind of books do you like to read? We understand Edith Wharton is your favorite author. Any others? What are you reading right now?

HOWE: Right now I’m reading a collection of oral histories about folk magic and conjure in the Gulf Coast in the early 20th Century, primary sources on piracy in that same region that I collected on a recent research trip, a history of hurricanes, and volume 2 of the papers of Mirabeau B. Lamar in the Texas State Archives. As you can tell from this list, most of my reading time is spent on research. But it’s not all work all the time. At night before bed I’ve been reading Jessie Eisenberg’s new story collection Bream Gives Me Hiccups, which is hilarious, and I just finished Empty Mansions, the story of Huguette Clark and her copper fortune.

AUTHORLINK: That’s a great mix! In that case, you might also be interested in reading the AUTHORLINK interview with the author of Empty Mansions, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Bill Dedman (31 December 2013). Until you wrote The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, you had been studying. In fact, you have been either studying or teaching as an academic since you left Kinkaid School (a PK-12 non-sectarian school in Piney Point Village, Texas). You obtained a Bachelor of Arts in art history and philosophy from Columbia University and a Master of Arts in American and New England studies from Boston University. You also taught at Cornell. Is there any other career path that you would like to try your hand at other than writing and teaching?

“. . . yes, studying, writing and teaching have made up the bulk of my professional adult life. I love my job. I can’t imagine doing anything different. “

HOWE: There’ve been a few blips. I worked as a researcher at an art museum for a couple of years in between college and grad school, and as a researcher in the corporate archives of Tiffany any Co., and for a few ignominious months at a ladies clothing boutique in New York (I’m pretty sure they only hired me because I was tall). But in general, yes, studying, writing and teaching have made up the bulk of my professional adult life. I love my job. I can’t imagine doing anything different.

AUTHORLINK: Lovely. Sometimes, young adult novels are more enjoyable than fiction aimed at adults. What draws you to write YA novels? Why are they an important genre, do you think?

HOWE: To be honest, I don’t see much of a difference between fiction aimed at young adults and fiction aimed at… what’s the opposite of young adults? Old adults? There’s a difference of perspective, in that young adult literature typically privileges younger characters. Plenty of non-YA fiction features younger characters, however, without being “YA” as such. Oftentimes those distinctions strike me as subjective, even arbitrary. A lot of teen readers read my adult fiction, and some septuagenarians have read my YA fiction. As a teen, I read far and wide, both fiction aimed at teens and fiction aimed at adult readers. And when writing, the only difference between my YA and my adult fiction is that question of a slightly narrowed perspective. The vocabulary is the same, the literary intent is the same. THE APPEARANCE OF ANNIE VAN SINDEREN is essentially about self-fashioning and self-determination, which are topics much on the minds of people in their late teens. But it’s also on the minds of a lot of so-called adults I know.

AUTHORLINK: Well said! Which person, living or dead, famous or not, would you like to meet and why?

HOWE: Philip Roth. He knows why.

AUTHORLINK: We understand you are a visiting scholar at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University . You will try and complete a novel set among the Corsairs of the Gulf Coast that imagines Texas’s role within the broader Caribbean diaspora. Tell us a bit about this next book.

“Curious readers can spy on me while I work on it by checking out my Pinterest page.”

HOWE: I’m writing to you from there as we speak, as it happens. You can gather a certain amount of insight about the new novel from my reading list above, but it’s going to be about pirates, and forgery, and storms, and magic along the Gulf Coast. I’ll have it finished by the spring, come hell or high water. (That’s a hurricane reference, isn’t it?) Curious readers can spy on me while I work on it by checking out my Pinterest page.

AUTHORLINK: That sounds intriguing. Ms. Howe, thank you so much for your time today. It was such a pleasure researching you as an author and meeting you. We wish you the best of luck with The Appearance of Anne van Sinderen.

HOWE: Thank you!

About the Author:

Katherine Howe is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels and a non-fiction book who writes historical fiction with a slight magical twist. Her work uses the novel’s form to ask historiographic questions about the contingent nature of reality and belief. Her best known work is The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which debuted at #2 on the New York Times best-seller list, and which was named one of USA Today’s top 10 books of 2009.

Howe has appeared on Good Morning America, CBS This Morning, and the History Channel, in addition to hosting “Salem: Unmasking the Devil” for National Geographic. Most recently, she spoke about witchcraft on NPR’s Weekend Edition. Her fiction has been translated into over 20 languages. In spring 2015 she was the visiting writer in-residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina. She holds a BA in art history and philosophy from Columbia University and an MA in American and New England studies from Boston University. A native Texan, she lives in New England and upstate New York, where she is a lecturer in American studies at Cornell.

You can find out more about Katherine Howe at,,, and her website,

About Anna Roins:

Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor in Sydney before she embarked on a career in writing eight years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites, and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with best-selling authors.

You can find out more about Anna Roins on and