Reading Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks, it’s easy to lose yourself in the novel’s genius concept: a group of high school field hockey players in 1980s Massachusetts become obsessed with the Salem Witch Trials and begin to explore witchcraft in their own way. But there’s a lot more going on here, including Barry’s impressive use of a collective voice and a structure that accentuates the novel’s themes even more. The result is a novel that encompasses a huge swath of life experiences, all the while telling a unique and multifaceted story. I spoke with Barry about the novel, its reception, and what’s next for her.
I graduated high school in ’95, so your novel brought back a lot of memories. And I was curious about the 1990s references. How much of that was stuff you remembered and how much was stuff you had to dig for? I will say specifically, I had completely forgotten about the existence of the television show Sonny Spoon for something like 25 years.
I’m either cursed or I’m blessed, depending on which way you want to look at it, with this crazy memory for pop culture facts. I wish I could remember things that are really important, but the important things I remember are, like, Mario Van Peebles and his father. It’s just there. It’s on the tip of my tongue all the time. All that stuff is.
And so when it comes to research for this book compared to other works that I’ve written, I really, I did very little research because I know it. When I was just first thinking about the book, I’d been talking to a friend of mine who’s also from the north shore of Boston, and my original thought was that I was going to set it in Salem.
I told my friend, “I don’t know Salem from 1989 because I grew up in Danvers.” So I don’t really know Salem, I don’t know where they hung out. I don’t know all this stuff. And my friend said to me, “Well, why don’t you just set it in Danvers?” I said, “Well, because nobody knows the history of the witch trial and how Danvers split apart.” And she said, “Well, why don’t you tell them?”
It opened up a door because I knew I had all this knowledge about Danvers, about the 1980s, about the witch stuff. If I wrote it in Salem I would have to research a lot, because I don’t know that, but I have this huge body of knowledge. And so that made it so much easier for me.
Are there ways in which the fictional version of Danvers diverges in substantial ways or were there any places where you felt you could adjust the history to make for a slightly more seamless fictional world? Or did you stick to the basics?
Yes. 99.9% of the book, place-wise, is completely factual.
The only place where it isn’t is in the very opening chapter when they’re in New Hampshire. I never went to field hockey camp at UNH. And so I don’t really know if there’s a boulder there called the Willoughby Boulder or things like that. So the New Hampshire stuff as far as UNH goes is made up.
But I had an amazing copy editor for the book because usually when you copy edit a novel, it’s just things like, “You need a comma here. You need this here.” She fact checked the book, which seems like a weird thing to do for a novel. But she got it right. I have a pretty good memory, but for example, I think the name of the bowling alley is, I had it at Sunny Vale and she was like, “No, it was Sunny Lake.”
I had the sporting goods store, which is called Coleman Sports. And she’s like, “No, it was Coleman’s then.” Because I talk about what it became afterwards. She said, “No, it became MVP Sports. Sports Authority is at the mall.” She knew all this stuff. At one point I had a prom dress that somebody was making and I said it was McCall’s pattern, I don’t know, 5281. And she said, “There was no McCall’s pattern 5281 for a prom dress.”
Assumably, some of your readers have played field hockey or are familiar with it and others are not. Was it a challenge to find the right balance of making the sport accessible but also familiar, depending on the reader?
It was never a struggle, but I didn’t struggle so much with the idea of people not knowing field hockey and thinking about how much I had to give them or not give them. What I struggled with more was how much of the games to actually show because in some ways, honestly, the field hockey to me is a vehicle for talking about these teen girls and their lives.
And so the truth is I read maybe the first chapter of Friday Night Lights. So I can’t really tell you how much of it is actually their lives and how much of it is actually football. But for me, I knew that as a writer I just couldn’t be like, “She runs down the field. She takes her kicks.” How many times do you want to see that? The idea of actually showing people games, to me, just was not that interesting because it just wasn’t that interesting.
So, it was more about that. I actually didn’t want to be writing about the actual sport itself that much. And so I was trying to figure out how I could give them enough to have readers understand that it’s a whole season. And even the whole thing with the big game at the end, I didn’t have that much of an interest in the big game. It’s not really about the big game.
Was that the plan from the outset or is there a version of this where it is more of a sports novel?
I’m not really an intuitive writer in the sense that I, generally speaking, don’t plot anything. If I have the structure in place, then I just go with the structure. And I knew the structure was first person plural, and I knew each chapter was a different game, and I knew each chapter was a different character. And then I just go with it.
So as I started to get closer to the end, I was like, “Yeah, what’s going to happen here? We’re getting closer.” And then as I began to get closer to it I began to realize, “Oh, I can do this thing right, a leap in time.” And it will allow me to do certain things. I don’t think it’s a spoiler but I think it’s about them trying to get to the state championship. And yes, they get to the state championship. And so I knew that that was going to happen. But as far as how that was going to happen, I didn’t have any plans about that.
With the first person plural, I feel like you got the benefits of both that collective voice and you could zero in on specific people. And then you also had the element of a first person plural voice that’s looking back on this from a few decades, so you were able to organically move forward in time and comment on certain things. Did you had that pretty much in mind, all from the beginning?
I knew that it was going to be first person plural. I didn’t know who that first person plural was going to belong to, but I figured it out pretty quickly. At first, I thought it was going to be the freshmen girls’ team, because there’s a way in which oftentimes freshmen women are obsessed with senior women and they know everything about them. But that didn’t work. Then I thought for a while that maybe it was going to be the entire school was going to tell the story of this team.
Obviously, I was thinking about The Virgin Suicides. I think there’s something about teen years being told collectively that made sense to me. But those two things didn’t work. The freshmen girls didn’t work and the school didn’t work. It was just too big. And then I realized, “Hey, there’s no I in team.” I will say though, I don’t want to give anything away, but I do… Because people have asked me, “Who is the we?” I think it’s the team, but I also think it’s bigger than that. I think personally at the very end of the book I think it gets bigger than the team, it’s a bigger collective.
There are points in the novel where the collective voice is talking about how there’s been this shift, as far as power dynamics in relationships and questions of consent are concerned, over the last 30 years. As someone who has seen some of these debates play out over time as well, I thought that was a really organic and a really thoughtful way of handling all of that. So I’m curious, how did that become something that you knew you wanted to address in the novel, and address in that specific way?
I would say broadly, I knew that if I wrote about the 1980s I would have to write about the 1980s, warts and all. So it was true that when you go back and you watch some of those teen movies, they are problematic. There are a lot of problematic things that were happening in the 80s with respect to all kinds of stuff. And so I knew I can’t just write a bubble gum, eighties book. There has to be real social criticism in it about what the 1980s entailed for a lot of people.
And so I always knew that from the get-go. And then I think I knew intuitively. I like to make the joke that I see the book as being like a green smoothie. So a green smoothie, you got spinach in it, so that’s the social criticism, but then you also have an apple, you also have blueberries and that’s what makes it taste good. So I have the humor in there that makes the social commentary hopefully go down smoother.
Throughout the novel, there’s a question of whether this is a genuinely supernatural book or whether this is more of a question of self-actualization and actually just becoming one’s best self. I spent a lot of the novel wondering if something terrible was going to happen? Was there always a redemptive theme in mind or was that a question of what is this book’s theme almost being built into the structure of the book, always something that was in mind?
I don’t know at what point I thought of it in terms of Dumbo. But in Dumbo, he theoretically has this magic feather and he thinks it’s going to make him fly. But the question is, does he really need the feather? Does he not need the feather? And so I think you’re right about this idea of self-actualization.
And so I knew it was going to be a book about female empowerment. So my very first novel is set in Vietnam and it’s third person, but it’s basically the idea that I wanted to talk about Vietnam from a woman’s perspective. We all assume when we think of Vietnam here in the United States, we only think of the war. We only usually think about men. So I wanted to be like, “No, Vietnam is more than that; what is a woman’s story in Vietnam?”
And here, most team sports stuff is for men. It’s football, it’s basketball. I mean, Bend It Like Beckham came out many years ago, but there really hasn’t been a woman’s team sport book or movie in a long time, even with the American soccer teams doing really well. So usually when it’s sports for women it’s soccer. I’m sorry, it’s ice skating or it’s gymnastics. That kind of thing.
So I knew that I wanted it to be women team sports, and again, this idea of them figuring things out. And so I also knew as a theme, thinking about the witch trials, which I know a lot about because I was raised in the area. I’ve always been fascinated, why did these teen girls and young women do what they did? And I took classes on it in college, their theories. A lot of the theories are economic theories, that there were factions fighting about power and land and various dynamics economically.
To me, at the end of the day, that might’ve been true but I feel like it was about agency for a lot of these young women. It was the only time in their life when they were powerful. They really wouldn’t have had a lot of power. And so you said thinking about 300 years later what kind of power do teen girls have 300 years later? Do they use it for good, their power, do they use it for evil?
I don’t know if I’d thought of this consciously, it just ended up happening, because I’ve heard from a lot of people since the book came out. It came out at the very beginning of the pandemic. It came out March 3rd and I was fortunate to do two book events and then my whole tour was canceled. But I’ve heard from a lot of people about how it was the book they needed during the pandemic, because it was fun. It still had things to say, but it was uplifting. I want to say, feel good in a productive kind of way.
That wasn’t necessarily my intention, but the more I was writing it the more I was like, “I like these characters. I want good things for them.” When I was thinking about the book before I began it, there was always that question of how dark will it go? Will these girls actually do something that will be terrible? Would they kill a pet? And then I realized that, and obviously everybody knows this, but if you go too dark you risk losing your reader. Like, “Oh, they just did something.” And so I think that they go right up to the line. They do things but you’re still rooting for them.
In terms of the history and economics referenced in the book, one of the facts that I found really fascinating was I was familiar with the guy who had died by having rocks stacked upon his chest. I had not realized that there was an economic reason for that, which I found really fascinating. Were there other things about the witch trials that you had hoped to put into the book that didn’t really fit?
When I write a book I like books that I actually learn something, I’m not just entertained but I actually learn something. My last book, again about Vietnam, and I was trying to show American audience in particular, Vietnam is so much more than war. And I give them a hundred year history of the last hundred years in Vietnam.
The next book that I’m working on is set in Mongolia and it follows Buddhist monks. So I will hopefully teach people the history of Mongolia. Mongolia was the center of the world during the time of Marco Polo. It’s Genghis Khan, it is Karakorum, it is where all these people are coming because again, it’s this silk road and with all this amazing stuff happening. It is, it’s the center of the world.
And so this book, the thing about the witch trials, it was important to me to actually include everybody’s name who actually was hung or killed in some way. So there’s a whole section where you get everybody’s name. All you have to do is say that you’re a witch and you’ll live. And if you don’t say it, then if you don’t admit it and stick to your guns, then you will be killed. What would you do?
The line is said in the book, but the original title is We Ride Upon Sticks And Are There Presently. And basically when it shows up in the book, you learn that that is an actual quote from the woman Tituba, who was the enslaved woman who was owned by the Reverend Samuel Parris.
And basically what happens is she is the first person during the trials to actually admit to being a witch. In many ways she writes the blueprint for other people to realize, “Oh, all we have to do is admit it and they’ll show mercy and we’ll live.” And so when she admits in court to being a witch… She’s just so inventive. I love her. They then start asking her specifics about it. And they’re asking her, “What does the devil look like? Who is he?” She’s in court, and scholars have commented on this, when she’s describing the devil she’s basically describing her master. She’s like, “Oh, he’s about 5′ 10″, he wears this.” So I picture her in court looking over at him just describing what her master looks like.
And then at one point during her inquisition they asked her, “Well, how do you get to Boston?” Because supposedly that’s where the coven does all their work. And she says, “We ride upon sticks and are there presently.” And so, that in my mind, that was always the title of this book.
The legendary Sonny Mehta was saying that he didn’t understand why I was standing by this title. He said, “The shorter title is so much better.” I see their point and I’ve come around to We Ride Upon Sticks, but it is true that that full title to me… And like I said, it gets said in the book, but there’s just something in thinking about this woman, Tituba in there and being an enslaved person and just having her words in their entirety be the title of my book. But I understand for marketing reasons and things like that why it was shortened, but I do miss that longer title.
The book’s been out in the world for a year now. Especially given the events of the last year, has your perspective on the book shifted at all since it’s been out for a while?
My first book is very lyrical and it’s very sad, but there are children who die in it. It has to do with war and struggles and those kind of events. And people are shocked, like, “How did you write that book and then you write this comedy?” You know what I mean? And then it’s true that my next book is a much slower narrative about Buddhist monks. It is not a comedy.
The way that my thinking on this has shifted is, I never thought of this as a throwaway book. I never thought of it that way, in that sense. But I have maybe thought of it as being, not as “important” as my book about Vietnam, or what have you. And important is such a crazy word. It sounds weird to talk about my work as being important. I don’t know what other, better, word should sit there, but just thinking that because that book is serious, that is the real work writing this book.
But I would say the way that my perception of it has shifted is knowing that this book has touched a lot of people. I’ve heard from a lot of folks. Way more people have read it than my first book. And I’m not saying that sales or something like that speaks to “success,” but it’s just a realization that there’s a place for everything and that comedy does have its place.
I think too, just in general, thinking about the books that I read or the things that I follow, there’s just not that many comedies out there that are “literary,” like literary fiction, and there’s a real place for it, I think. And we think of this book very much as being literary fiction. People asked before it came out if it was for young adults. And I would say, “No. Young adults might like it, but it’s not Young Adult.” It doesn’t fit either in that genre of a cult, it’s not a witch book exactly. It is literary fiction. I just think that there is room for comedy in literary fiction. So that’s something that I’ve come to appreciate more in the last year.
Photo courtesy of Quan Barry.