Writers & Company

Rivka Galchen's reimagining of a 17th century witch trial is a story that speaks to our time

The Canadian-born American writer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about her new novel, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, and the historical connections between science, reason and magic.
Rivka Galchen is a Canadian-born American writer. Her debut novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General's Award and won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. (Sandy Tait)

In a small German town in 1618 — a time of fear and superstition — an elderly widow is accused of witchcraft. She's no ordinary woman: she's the mother of the renowned mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, and a remarkable character in her own right. Rivka Galchen brings Katharina Kepler and her eventful trial vividly to life in her new novel, Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. It's a witty tale with contemporary resonance.

Galchen originally trained as a psychiatrist but has won recognition as the author of smart, inventive fiction. Her first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, focused on a psychiatrist convinced that his wife has been replaced by a double. Her short fiction collection American Innovations featured disquieting stories that mirror literary classics — from a female perspective, and with a touch of the surreal. Her wide-ranging work often appears in the New Yorker magazine.

Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch is on the CBC Books summer 2021 reading list.

Galchen spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from her home in New York.

Magic and reason

"Like many people, the 2016 U.S. election, and then everything afterwards, was a time when I felt like my laptop was just a place where I compulsively read the news.

"I was reading about the lives of scientists. In so many real-life stories of scientists throughout history, we see that they're bullied by politics and history — and bulldozed by it a lot. 

"I wanted to learn about Johannes Kepler, who was such a fantastic scientist. But there was no modern biography of Kepler in English. That's how I came to this amazing scholarly book by Ulinka Rublack called The Astronomer and the Witch, which is really about Johannes Kepler's mother, Katharina Kepler — and how, at the end of her life, she was put on trial as a witch. 

"I did not order the book to read about her; I ordered the book as it was the only thing I could find about Kepler. When I read it, I was thunderstruck. I was so interested and electrified and overwhelmed. All I wanted to do was reread the book and everything else I could learn about that time period. I dropped everything I was working on to learn more and imagine more about this woman, Katharina Kepler, who was the mother of a tremendous mathematical and scientific mind. 

Magic, science, reason and instinct — at the time they were just all barely beginning to disentangle themselves and to find themselves.

"She herself was illiterate, but obviously very intelligent and capable. I wanted to be present and think about who she was and what that situation was — and how the question of 'why?' connected to it. It was something that is beginning to reveal itself now — but when I was writing, I was just following the energy.

"It's an amazing moment in science history as well, because magic and science hadn't separated themselves out yet. Magic, science, reason and instinct — at the time they were all barely beginning to disentangle themselves and to find themselves."

Circa 1615, Johannes Kepler is the German astronomer who made many discoveries in optics, general physics and geometry. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Immigrant intent

"I was the daughter of immigrants. My parents emigrated from Tel Aviv when they were very young. I was born in Toronto, and I mostly grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, which is not a part of the United States that has a lot of immigrants.

"My first love was math — and by math, I also mean logic, paradoxes, sentences that cancel themselves out, things like that. That made my imagination feel electric — to see some of the basic glamour points in math. The proof that the square root of two is irrational is a very elegant, famous proof. That was what seemed beautiful to me. Those were my first ideas of beauty. 

"I came to reading quite late in life, but also, in a sense, I feel that my most powerful sense of self is as the daughter of immigrants. I've noticed in my life that, wherever I form close friendships, it tends to be with other children of immigrants, or with people who have what I think of as 'the math personality,' which is a sort of odd, logical way of seeing the world. 

The proof that the square root of two is irrational is a very elegant, famous proof. That was what seemed beautiful to me.

"Although I've written very little about that identity, I think emotionally that translates into the kind of 'strange' or alternative places or stories that hold my attention." 

A world of medicine

"I think the medical profession is one that is really interesting and intimate. It's about suddenly being very close with strangers physically — a crisis moment in their life or a vulnerable moment in their life. So it's socially, emotionally and intellectually interesting. But I was absolutely miserable when I was there. 

"I'm shocked by how miserable I was. I did have that immigrant feeling, like you do what's the most useful thing or the best thing for various practical concerns. But I had this thought when I was having breakfast. I was like, 'I'm a fork, and I'm being used to eat cereal.' Forks are bad utensils for eating cereal. It gave me the conviction that it was not a moral failing — I just had no desire to be a doctor. I didn't feel I had a gift for setting other people at ease, which is an important thing for doctors to do.

"It was almost like I had to get there backwards. I had to run away from something else in order to think, 'OK, I really don't feel like myself when I'm not working on my writing.' That's what it was like for me. 

I didn't feel I had a gift for setting other people at ease, which is a really important thing for doctors to do.

"It also wasn't like science. Medicine has a tremendous amount of science that supports it. But the actual practice of medicine, especially if you're not doing research, is not science. A great doctor is someone who is great at being with people.

"A lot of what is really difficult about medicine is interpersonal and communication. And I feel like those are the gifts that separate a great doctor from a passable doctor." 

A quixotic journey

"Atmospheric Disturbances was a really, really fun novel to write. I think it came from several places. One place that came from — that it's just a total cliche, but it's absolutely accurate — was that so many psychiatrists are just absolutely nuts. We all have someone who can have quite a bit of insight into a lot of other people's situations and very little insight into their own. And that's like a natural comic setup. 

"There was a case in England where a man and his wife had been in a car crash and they had both survived. But the husband had had a traumatic brain injury; he was convinced that his wife had died in the car wreck and that there was this other woman who shared a lot of characteristics with her, but was not her to him. 

"And when they compensated him — because the accident had not been his fault — he was compensated as if he had lost his wife, because that was his experience. And that struck me.  

"In retrospect, I think of that novel as something much more universal. I thought of it more as that problem where we sometimes want someone we love not to be altered. We view it as a betrayal when they seem to have interests we didn't know about, or their interests change. People change over time. But for certain personality types, they might feel that it's not the person they fell in love with."

Rivka Galchen's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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