Science and the supernatural at war in Sadie Hoagland’s “Dementia, 1692”
The thrill of the supernatural surrounds Sadie Hoagland’s short story “Dementia, 1692.” This historical fiction is set against the backdrop of the Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts, where a young girl struggles with her own identity as suspicion and paranoia grow amongst her neighbors.
“Dementia, 1692” is part of the SFWP Annual, an inaugural anthology of pieces collected from the SFWP Quarterly. Hoagland is currently a professor of fiction at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and we asked her about her writing life and the inspiration for such a suspenseful short story.
Santa Fe Writers Project: Is it true that there are alligators at the University of Louisiana?
SFWP: Have you had a personal encounter? What is your wildest experience with them?
SH: The alligators are pretty tame, but I did see one eating a cell phone once.
SFWP: “Dementia, 1692” gives an interesting perspective of the Salem witch trials and their consequences. What particularly inspired you to write about it?
SH: I was thinking about the ways in which modern science explains so many illnesses and behaviors, and what it would have been like before we had those explanations. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood, I was working with the intersection of magic and science, as well as the incredibly fascinating – and horrifying – stories of the Salem witch trials. There are current scientific attempts to explain the witch trial hysteria, including a theory involving grain contaminated with a fungus that caused the symptoms of the ‘bewitched.’
Much more mystifying to me is the possibility that it was just group think madness. The hysteria ended after a couple of years, and I often wonder what happened to those who lived beyond those years and had the time to look back at that period. Did they maintain their belief in witches? Did they feel shame? Anger? Suspicions about their own latent powers? It was these kinds of questions that fueled the story.
SFWP: What do you want readers to know about your story?
SH: Much of the information about the witch trials in the story is based on actual events. The character of Tituba was a real person, and there was a real witchcake. Cotton Mathers was also real, and responsible for publishing tips for identifying a witch, which are mentioned in the story. Lastly, the sister in the piece dies of the measles. We have a vaccine for this now, but before we did, hundreds of children died a year and thousands more contracted this very contagious illness.
SFWP: What are you working on now?
SH: I’ve just finished a short story collection. The title is Warning Signs and it’s full of stories that imagine trauma as a space in which language fails us and narrative escapes us. It seems to me our culture almost has an inability to communicate grief or sympathy outside of cliché, so this work addresses that failure both in theme and form.
The narrator in the title story, for example, tries to understand her brother’s suicide by excavating his use of idioms and devising elaborate theories. The story’s form is then organized by her theories, reflecting the narrator’s own attempts to recuperate the logic of a narrative. Her tone is at times extreme, and reflects the trauma she is experiencing: it is outside the norm and defies normal narrative strategies.
Other stories construe grief and trauma in much subtler ways – the passing of an era or of a daughter’s childhood, the inability to have children. As a whole, the collection asks the reader to imagine the ways in which we suffer as both unbearably painful and unbearably American.
SFWP: Do you keep a writing schedule, or do you write when you feel particularly inspired?
SH: Because I work full time and also have a family, I have one scheduled writing period a week during the school year. I write much more when school is on break, and if I have a project that needs me I steal any moments I can. Last year, to finish a project in the middle of the semester, I woke up an hour and a half earlier every morning for three weeks.
SFWP: What inspires your writing? What interests you?
SH: My interests are constantly evolving. Before the short story collection described above, I was working on a book about a polygamist community called Strange Children. The book has several first-person narrators all telling their accounts of the events in the community (a rupture, a murder, a fire). For this project, I was interested in the way in which personal stories and eyewitness accounts help form identities and the ways in which the truth is subjective. Strange Children is finished and currently looking for a home. My next project centers on three generations of women, and various modes of what it means to female/feminine.
SFWP: What do you feel are the benefits of an independent press? The drawbacks?
SH: An independent press sees you as an artist and a person, not an economic equation. They are often under the same pressures of any small business – which means they may not be able to publish all they want to publish, or run as many copies, or have a giant public relations team. But these drawbacks are probably worth the personal attention and passion paid to the work all the way through.
Originally from Salt Lake City, Sadie Hoagland earned her BA in psychology from Middlebury College, her MA in creative writing from UC Davis, and her PhD in creative writing from the University of Utah. She has been teaching creative writing for thirteen years in institutions ranging from universities to drug rehabilitation centers to mental health facilities. She served as an editor for Quarterly West for two years, and you can read more of her work in The Alice Blue Review, The Black Herald, Mikrokosmos Journal, South Dakota Review, Sakura Review, Grist Journal, Oyez Review, Passages North, and others.
Visit Hoagland on her website and be sure to follow her on Twitter @sadiehoagland. You can read “Dementia, 1692” in the SFWP Annual, which is available in print and eBook everywhere books are sold. Keep up with the latest news by following SFWP on Twitter @sfwp.