by Michael McCarthy
Adriana Mather is a descendant of Cotton Mather, one of the key players from the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials. Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that her debut novel, the young adult best-seller How to Hang A Witch, is ripe with almost as many historical facts as it is fiction. The plot concerns Samantha Mather, who is also a descendant of Cotton Mather, and the strange things that happen after the high school student moves to Salem with her step-mother Vivian. As if her father being in a coma isn’t enough to get her feeling down, soon the descendants of the witches who Cotton hung are out for blood. Meanwhile, there’s a ghost named Elijah who wants her to leave the very house she just moved into. Suffice to say poor Samantha can’t catch a lucky break. Her next door neighbor, Jaxon, is nice enough to her, but to a point that makes her suspicious, wondering if he’s just setting her up for a mean-spirited practical joke. It’s all very complicated, but in the best way possible. More than a young adult novel, How to Hang A Witch is a fantastic mystery that will have you guessing right up until its clever ending.
Aside from being an author, Adriana is a talented actress who recently portrayed an end stage cancer patient brilliantly in the drama Honeyglue, which she also co-produced. If there’s any justice in this world, it should garner her an Oscar nomination. Suffice to say, she’s one of the most intriguing people of the year and I naturally had to pursue an interview with her.
NOTE: If you haven’t read How to Hang A Witch yet, I highly recommend that you do so before reading this interview because it does contain a few spoilers.
MM: I bought the hardcover edition of your book, How to Hang A Witch, and I was slowly but surely making my way through it but then Bookbub had a special and I bought the Kindle version and finished it in less than a day. My question is, are you selling more physical or E-reader copies?
AM: I sell about evenly. Apparently – I don’t know how accurate this is – but what I’ve heard is that the adult market tends to buy more electronic copies and the younger kids tend to buy hardcover. It’s interesting because I would’ve thought it was the other way around. That’s what I’ve heard. So, a lot of people say if you’re selling both evenly then you’re hitting both teenage and adult markets.
MM: Do you personally read more E-books or physical books?
AM: I read physical books. Mostly. Unless I’m traveling, in which case I bring along a Kindle because it’s just more efficient. But, yeah, I’m a sucker for hardcover. I have way too many books.
MM: I like hardcover but with the Kindle, maybe because I’m a writer, I have something like 500 books on mine now, and I feel so powerful walking around with that many books in my pocket.
AM: [Laughs] A library?
MM: Yeah. That’s why I always went for the iPods that had the highest capacity. So, I could put like 10,000 albums on them.
AM: Oh, I know. Except now they don’t. Now they make those Touch ones. They don’t make those as large as the older ones. It’s just frustrating.
MM: I agree. It is. So, how long did it take you to record the audio book? I read that you did that yourself.
AM: Yeah, it took four and a half days. I did it in Random House’s listening library studio in Los Angeles. And I had a director. I’d say the days are broken up. You have lunch and you take breaks for your voice and have liquids and things but it’s a pretty normal schedule like 9 to 5ish.
MM: Where you’re an actress, did you really get into it while you were reading it, almost as if you were performing the characters, or is more of like a monotone thing like most audiobooks where it’s just kind of the same level of emotion consistently?
AM: I’d say somewhere in between there. Because I think if you over do it emotionally it can be distracting. But if there’s no emotion I think you miss sections of the story. The impact of the story. So, somewhere in between. Audiobook acting is very different from film acting. Film acting is a lot more subtle, I would say. And you have a lot more tools that you get to work with because people can see your facial expression, they can see your body language, and you have a setting that’s already designed for you. However, when you are doing voice acting the only things you have are your voice and silence.
MM: That must be trickier.
AM: It’s just very different. It takes a little bit to adjust.
MM: Have you done any other voice over things besides the book?
AM: No. It’s not my area of expertise. But I really enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun and it’s very challenging.
MM: I know you’re doing a sequel to How to Hang A Witch called How To Sink A Ship –
AM: – Actually, it’s been re-titled.
MM: What is the new title?
AM: Haunting the Deep.
MM: Is it still a sequel to How to Hang A Witch?
AM: Yes. Technically, I think it’s a companion novel. The same way you could watch episodes of a show without seeing other episodes and you’d understand it. You might not have the same depth [but] the story is intact like that. It takes place about six months after How to Hang A Witch ends. And it does continue with the same characters. It’s just an entirely new mystery.
MM: So, aside from Samantha, which other characters will we see again in the new book?
AM: Well, all of The Descendants will be big players. And Jaxon and Mrs. Meriwether and her father, obviously, and everyone keeps asking me if Elijah will be back and all I will say is it will be better just to read the story. And find out as a surprise.
MM: One of the things I loved about How to Hang A Witch is the way everything comes together in the end. You realize that all of these things that happened have all accumulated to something.
MM: So, I was wondering – did you completely plot out the whole book before you wrote it or did you just kind of wing it and you happened to have subconsciously laid out this groundwork that you were able to tie up nicely?
AM: Both. The first time I wrote it I winged it. And then I rewrote the entire book and before I rewrote the entire book I did an extensive outline. Like a 30 page outline. So, when I rewrote the book it was completely different and very carefully plotted. And some of those elements came about in revisions, too. The way that everything connects together with clues and how it’s discovered in the end, my second book does the same thing. How all of those things that you weren’t quite sure how they fit together become clear. But it does take a lot of careful plotting to get them to work properly. Sometimes trial by error, honestly.
MM: That’s cool.
AM: Yeah. You stick something in and then you realize that it’s too obvious or it’s too subtle or it isn’t working with your theme properly and then you change it or you add in new things. Books change more in revisions – it’s probably a couple of months writing a book and a year revising it, if that makes sense.
MM: Yeah. Now, I really liked the revelation that Vivian was trying to help Samantha when she poisoned the pastries and killed Jason, but was she telling the truth when she said she did those things to protect her or was she just trying to set her up to frame her for killing The Descendants.
AM: So, Vivian is a narcissist. So, everything that Vivian does is ultimately about her. But she believed she was trying to help Samantha. It’s just that her own agendas always take over. So, if she needs to frame Samantha in order to do what she needs to do that’s fine with her.
MM: Is she in the second book at all?
AM: Um, no. She’s mentioned though, obviously, because Sam is still dealing with the aftermath of that.
MM: I didn’t think she’d be back but with witchcraft you never know.
AM: No, she’s gone.
MM: I’m at the end of the second book in my series called Book of Shadows, which focuses on a trio of teenage witches.
AM: Oh, neat. That’s awesome.
MM: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to read your book – because I hadn’t seen a contemporary teenage witch book in a while.
AM: Yeah, there’s not that many of them. Or there haven’t been just recently. It’s really fun to write about spells. I find that part extremely entertaining.
MM: Was How to Hang A Witch the first novel you ever wrote or had you tried to write others before that?
AM: It was the first novel that I ever wrote. Hence having to rewrite the entire thing.
MM: When did you first start writing the first draft?
AM: June 2013.
MM: I was wondering about your family history. If there’s any information about Cotton Mather that you’re privy to that most people don’t know?
AM: Oh, interesting. His life is extremely well-documented and he kept a journal, which is probably the best insight into Cotton as anything. It’s hard to read some of his writing because it’s written in puritanical English and the spelling is all wonky and capitalization and all that stuff. I don’t necessarily have documents that others don’t. It’s always been part of my family’s history. So it’s very personal to me. My family is very integrated into New England history in general. We came over on the Mayflower, and survived the Titanic, which is what my next book is about, and we lived in Sleepy Hollow and fought in the Revolutionary War and so on and so forth. Even my bed set at my mother’s house was my fifth great grandmother’s wedding set. So, it’s different. It’s portraits and drawings. All kind of things that bring these people to life. I’m always hearing stories about them. More of an oral tradition than anything.
MM: My great grandmother was a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, and they’re supposedly the most powerful witches, and she would use regular playing cards in lieu of tarot cards and people would come from all over and she’d give them readings. I can’t remember what else she did off the top of my head, but she was evidently a pretty powerful witch and I think I inherited some of her abilities.
AM: Did you ever get a reading from her?
MM: No, no. I only knew her for a short time. She died when I was young.
AM: That’s too bad.
MM: One thing I remember though. We were standing out on the edge of the street – she lived at the end of a dead end with her house facing my grand mother’s house – at one point the street was practically the whole family –
AM: – Oh, I like that.
MM: Yeah, and so we were standing outside and there was a spider on the ground and I was about to kill the spider and she said to me, “You should never kill a spider.” And I asked why. And she said to me, “Because spiders have souls” and I asked how she knew that and she didn’t say anything for a minute then she said, “It’s in the Bible.” And I was just like, oh, OK, it’s in the Bible. But, obviously, I don’t think there’s any mention of that in the typical Christian Bible. So, I wonder if she had a book of shadows. I would’ve loved to have had that.
AM: Oh, yeah, that would be interesting. I don’t kill bugs either.
MM: Yeah, if I have a beetle inside I’ll trick it into walking onto a tissue then I’ll open the window and toss the tissue outside so it can fly away.
AM: Yeah, I catch everything and put it outside.
MM: I also read that you’re a vegetarian.
AM: I am.
MM: I’ve been for about 20 years.
AM: There’s no meat in my book. I don’t know if you noticed that.
MM: Yeah, yeah.
AM: It’s not obvious. It’s never brought up or anything like that but I did it on purpose. I really didn’t want meat in my world.
MM: In my books, the main character, Emma, and her parents are vegetarians. She was just brought up that way. And her two best friends are vegetarians, too, so I guess I’m trying to avoid it as well.
AM: Yeah. You get to make choices when you write things like that. And so it’s always good to remember that you have the ability to shape things the way that – sometimes just for fun – because you like something some way and sometimes because the message is important to you. Both are true.
MM: Have you by any chance watched the television show Salem?
AM: I have not. I read the pilot before they filmed it. I have not seen the show. I hear it’s a sort of supernatural soap opera type re-telling of Salem events, but I don’t know.
MM: It’s kind of a satire and soap opera but there’s definitely a supernatural element to it.
MM: The twist is that there really were witches there and the witches were the people in power and everything and they were using the trials to get rid of the innocent people that suspected them and stuff.
AM: Ah, interesting. There’s a lot to be said about that time period because there’s a lot to learn from it. I understand Cotton is a major character in that show.
MM: He is. And he seems to have the best interest at heart, so I wouldn’t say he’s portrayed poorly. His father is portrayed poorly though.
AM: That is interesting. Because historically, Increase was actually the more sober minded of the two when it came to the Salem witch trials. Increase is the one that urged caution and said that if even one innocent person is killed among ten witches then it’s not worth the cost or something like that. So, he did not necessarily agree with charging ahead recklessly with the trials. He was more tempered.
MM: They totally changed that one.
AM: Oh, I know.
MM: He comes around and he’s almost like a bully to Cotton and makes Cotton feel like he’s not catching enough witches and that puts more pressure on Cotton to hang more witches and all that.
AM: Oh, yeah, that’s not accurate.
MM: Your book was published by a division of Random House –
AM: – Yeah, Knopf, Random House.
MM: How did you get the deal with them?
AM: My agent. My agent sold it to them. The way that the industry works is that you query agents and then your agents use their relationships at various houses and make sure your book gets to the right people. Some editors might love historical stuff or others might be looking for zombie stuff, but your agents do because they spend time with them. So, it was my agent. And I got my agent just by querying.
MM: My query letter for Book of Shadows was edited by two best-selling authors and it still didn’t help.
AM: There’s a lot of factors. Some of which you can’t even gauge for. Like market, for instance. What people are buying or not buying at a given time. And then there’s agent preferences. If the agents that have a work that’s similar to yours they won’t take on another one because it would be competing essentially with a work they already have. There’s so many factors. It is very difficult to figure out how to navigate it. It takes some time.
MM: My plan now is that I’m going to self-publish a few books and if they do even half as well as this self-publishing course makes it sound like they will then I’ll query agents again and say, you know, I’ve sold 3000 copies of this book in six months or whatever. That might phase them.
AM: Oh yeah, absolutely. Money speaks in all industries.
MM: Do you have the same agent for your career as an author as you do for an actress and movie producer?
AM: No, no. I have my literary world and my entertainment world are separate.
MM: As a young adult author, I imagine you must read young adult fiction. What are some of your all-time favorite young adult books?
AM: All-time favorite? Let’s see. There is a new author who has a book coming out that that I absolutely love and her name is Kali Wallace. She writes literary horror, which is fascinating and so beautifully done. I just love her. I love Kerry Kletter, who writes contemporary but her sentences are some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever read. I love Jeff Zentner, who also writes literary fiction but it tends to have a southern twist and his dialogue is always really funny. And I love Audrey Coulthurst. She writes high fantasy and there’s always horses in it and often gay princesses.
MM: What do you consider How to Hang A Witch to be genre-wise?
AM: It transcends genres. A lot of people talked about it as a contemporary novel with historical and magical elements. But I think, technically, it’s paranormal because there’s a ghost in it. There’s so many distinctions and sometimes your book falls into a couple of the categories.
MM: Your big screen debut was in a film called Chasing Shakespeare with Danny Glover and Graham Green –
AM: – The title of that, actually, is From Above. But, yes, it was originally titled Chasing Shakespeare.
MM: What was going through your head before filming that first scene with Danny Glover?
AM: I was hoping that I was going to be able to cry the way I need to in the scene. There’s a lot of prep that goes into setting up each setting and so when I was coming into the scene I was like, OK, I’m ready. But they don’t always do your coverage first. Sometimes they do someone else’s coverage first so you have to maintain your emotion through that. And they film it from seven different angles. It’s not just crying once. It’s crying thirty times. And making sure you get your best takes on your close ups and things when you can see the most subtle kind of movements. So, it’s not exactly what you expect it to be. If you don’t train well, it’s very difficult. It’s difficult anyway, but you have to really be prepared for each emotional thing you do in a film because you have to be able to replicate it so many times. So, yeah, I was super nervous, honestly. I wanted to make sure I did a really good job. I had grown up watching Danny Glover. The Color Purple is one of my favorite movies of all time. And I really just didn’t want to mess it up.
MM: Is Danny Glover as nice as he seems in most of the movies he’s in?
AM: Absolutely. He’s even better, I think. He’s kind and he sings and he’s just a lovely human being.
MM: How old were you when you did that movie?
AM: That’s a good question. I’m not good with timelines, to be perfectly honest. I think that filmed in 2011. So, I guess that I must have been 26 or 27.
MM: According to Internet Movie Database, you did a TV movie called Cyber Vice. Was it as cheesy as the title makes it sound?
AM: [Laughs] It’s a cyber – it’s basically a cyber drama. Like a detective type of a thing. It wasn’t cheesy by any means, but it was on the nose for that genre.
MM: What network was it made for?
AM: I don’t actually know where that wound up. I know that it went to New York and then I lost track.
MM: Were you the main character in that one?
AM: No, no.
MM: Now that you’ve done a made for TV movie, would you do another one in the future or are you sticking to serious dramas now.
AM: Well, the next thing I did after From Above was Eat Spirit Eat and that was a comedy and that was a lot of fun. That was fantastic. And most recently I did Honeyglue, which went to theatres in June. I will only work on projects now that I feel really strongly about. They take a long time. If you do these roles, or even very strong supporting roles, either one, they will take an enormous amount of time of energy and emotion. So, for me, it’s the same way I love books. I would never write a book because someone else wanted me to. I would only do it because I felt it was the thing that inspired me. If that makes sense.
MM: Yeah, it does.
AM: And I go back and forth between industries so I pretty much pick and choose.
MM: You’re one of the producers of the company Zombot, which made Eat Spirit Eat and Honeyglue, and I know you co-produce with writer/director James Bird and Anya Remizova. How does the dynamic break down in terms of who handles what aspect of the production? What do you do?
AM: Me, I hire a lot of people. I’m very good in negotiations. I’m very good at talking to people. My brain is also highly organized so I do certain parts of the paperwork and deal with the unions and things like that. There’s not one thing – the best stuff, the funnest stuff, is the creative stuff. Like choosing the places that you’re going to shoot things. And deciding what kind of actors or what look works best for the film. All that stuff is really fun. There’s a lot of things in between that need to be done and all of us have different specialties but we all overlap and we all compliment each other. Like Anya is also a music composer. James is also a writer and director. And I act. So, we all have different skill sets and we all approach storytelling in a different way.
MM: Where were the cafe scenes in Eat Spirit Eat filmed?
AM: In Venice. I don’t know how well you know Los Angeles, but Santa Monica borders Venice and Venice is really cute and has a main street with a lot of little cafes and things on it. That particular cafe, unfortunately, no longer exists.
MM: What was it called?
AM: I want to say, and I’m terrible with names, something with a V. I don’t remember.
MM: What is your favorite cafe in the L.A area?
AM: My favorite cafe. Oh, let’s see, if we’re talking about having a coffee or food, food would be Kreation in Santa Monica. There’s a few of them, actually, but it’s all organic and they’ve got a lot of good juices as well. Coffee, I would say the most consistent is Groundwork.
MM: Where are they?
AM: Groundwork, you can find pretty much all over Los Angeles, but they have their own brand of coffee and it’s very good.
MM: I was obsessed with The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf when I was out there because we don’t have that in Massachusetts. That and Jamba Juice. We don’t have that either.
AM: Oh, yeah, you’re in the land of Dunkin’ Donuts.
MM: Yeah, there’s literally three of them within a mile of my house.
AM: Yeah, I know it well. I grew up on Long Island.
MM: So, whereabouts do you live in L.A.?
AM: Santa Monica.
MM: Your performance in Honeyglue was nothing short of stellar. How did you prepare to play an end stage cancer patient?
AM: A lot of research. Pretty much the same thing that I do with my books. I go for personal sources and also for expert sources. So, I get sort of a personal story and I get what’s actually happening in the body. And then I just did a lot of work. And I did some really practical things. Like we really shaved my head and so on. So, that helped.
MM: That helped you get into the head space of a cancer patient?
AM: Exactly. And learning how to have a seizure and all of those things. It’s incredibly difficult. And actually physically painful. It really helps put you in the right state of mind. Having to progressively change a speech impediment. All these things. There were a lot of moving parts with this character. The most impactful part about playing that character was that I took that character home with me. Because once my head was shaved everyone assumed that I was ill and they treated me in a different way than I was used to. They would look at me when I wasn’t looking at them. They would touch my arm when they maybe wouldn’t have before. They would speak slower to me. It was obviously all out of kindness. But it was a constant reminder that if you look different in any way people will never let you forget it.
MM: I walk with a cane and limp a little and people go out of their way to open doors for me and a lot of people seem to think I must be a disabled veteran.
MM: I had someone say “thank you for your service” one day and I was like, “Sorry, I’m not a veteran. Just a regular guy with bad luck.”
AM: Yeah. You really do get to see how people react to you with those things. And I think it invokes a sense of compassion because a lot of people deal with that in different ways. And not always with kindness. Some people are not kind when you seem different in some way. So, where the people talking to you are saying nice things and they’re going out of their way to help you, but if you appear different in a way that people don’t like then you get a very different response. So, it is interesting. It’s like a walk two moons in someone else’s moccasins kind of a deal.
MM: Did you lose weight for Honeyglue? Because at some points you looked extremely thin.
AM: Right. A little bit. Not much. I was also working a lot of hours at the time so I think that contributed. But a lot of it was cancer make up.
MM: Who did the lovely animation in Honeyglue?
AM: It was designed by an artist named Steve Curcuru and he drew all of the characters. Someone else physically put it all together, but he designed it all.
MM: Historically, our site was mostly a music site. So, I was wondering if I could ask you some music related questions.
AM: Absolutely, go ahead.
MM: First of all, who are some of your all-time favorite artists?
AM: Musically? Let’s see here. Favorite questions are always hard for me. Actually, I’ll tell you a story that musically relates to that film. The song that I sang in the bar scene, the grassroots song, “Live For Today,” when we did that we actually recorded that scene in double time and then slowed it down to regular speed so that it would give that whole thing an ethereal feel. So, favorites? I would say Mason Jennings is one of my favorites. Hmm. Who else would be a favorite? It’s so hard. I like a lot of older things like Loggins and Messina and Cat Stevens. I like a lot of old rock ‘n’ roll. I guess another modern favorite would be Josh Ritter. I really like him a lot. I tend to go for singer/songwriters because I like stories in lyrics.
MM: I like a lot of them, too. Are you familiar with Butch Walker?
MM: He’s a really good singer/songwriter.
AM: I may know some of his songs without necessarily recognizing his name. I have a very strange brain when it comes to music. I memorize lyrics incredibly fast. And I don’t know the names of songs or who performed them. It’s sort of a specified knowledge. It’s really weird.
MM: What are you listening to currently?
AM: Currently? Let’s see here. Well, I chose the song for my trailer for How to Hang A Witch. “Wolves” by Down Like Silver. I don’t know if you saw that. They’re no longer a band so they don’t have very much music but I really like that song. Let’s see. What else? The song that reminds me of the book I’m writing right now, which is funny, my brain thinks in terms of stories. So, I can’t listen to music when I write, for instance, because if I do I get lost in the music and can’t concentrate on the story. So, I have to do one or the other. Or I start trying to memorize the words, just subconsciously. But one of the songs that reminds me of my new book is Kodaline “All I Want.”
MM: Cool. I think I have that.
AM: Yeah, it’s a good one.
MM: What was the first concert you ever attended?
AM: Alanis Morrisette.
MM: On her first tour.
AM: I don’t even know to be perfectly honest. I was a kid. Another one I saw when I was a kid was Bob Dylan. And at this point I’ve seen so many performances I wouldn’t even know where to start.
MM: Yeah, I’ve been to something like 250 concerts.
AM: Yeah, I’m probably not that many, but I’m close enough that I don’t even know how to list them.
NOTE: We talked about ’80’s music a bit here, but it was at the end of the tape and for some odd reason it sounded warped to a point that I couldn’t transcribe it. (You’re really only missing two or three sentences though.) Fortunately, the tape was fine when I flipped it over, so here’s where it continues…
AM: I was born in the ’80’s, so… Yeah. ’80’s strong for sure.
MM: Yeah, I was born in ’73 but I don’t remember the ’70’s, I remember the ’80’s.
AM: I also had a pair of MC Hammer pants.
MM: Oh, OK, those would probably be worth money now.
AM: Oh, no, I no longer have them. I had them when I was a little kid in elementary school.
MM: It’s funny how retro stuff comes back around.
AM: Oh, they definitely do.
MM: Like how vinyl is popular again now. The record industry is probably selling more vinyl than CDs. Are you into vinyl at all?
AM: You know, I have a lot of them because my father had a lot of them and my father was a huge Frank Zappa fan and so he had so many. I remember him playing them when I was a kid. But I don’t actually have a record player right now. I used to. The very first album that I knew all the words to was the Loggins and Messina Sittin’ In album. Because my aunt had it. So, even by the time I was four or five I knew all the words to those songs. I bet one of the first albums I bought was Weezer or Sublime, now that I think about it.
MM: Is there certain music that you listen to to get in the right frame of mind for a scene you’re doing when you’re acting?
AM: It can really help, but it depends. James Bird, the writer and director, both James and Anya wind up having playlists that they have for each movie even before we make the movie they’re already picking out artists and songs that they really like. And so the experience of the movie itself tends to be curated by those playlists. Even before we go into production. So, the music is kind of already there. And sometimes we have people do original music, too, which is really cool. Also, my teenage years were like Bjork and the Pixies and stuff.
MM: Finally, I’ll ask you one Twilight Zone, Black Mirror type question for the last one. If somebody came to you and they had a briefcase containing five million dollars cash and they said that they would give it to you but you had to stop pursuing writing or acting – you had to choose one or the other – would you consider it?
AM: Nope. I don’t think I would be happy without them and I actually think that the drive to produce creative things is one of the better things in my life. So, the moment you take that drive away it’s not worth it to me.
Extra special thanks to Adriana for taking the time to do this lengthy interview! It is much appreciated!
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