C.S. Malerich is the author of the novel Fire & Locket. In addition to writing, she has taught mythology to undergrads at the University of Maryland and pursued interests in folklore, cultural studies, and public health, sometimes all at once. Her fiction explores intersections of liberation and justice, with an infectious dance beat. Her latest novella is The Factory Witches of Lowell and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for the The Factory Witches of Lowell series?
I was reading a lot of Marx, and the feminist historian Silvia Federici, who studies witch hunts in the context of the emergence of capitalism. One of the neat things that the fantasy genre can do is make metaphors into literal story conceits; I wanted to do that with the Labor Theory of Value and the concept of private property, as well as a decentralized, more communal style of witchcraft. Could I explain the relationship between coworkers, their skill, their tools, and their bosses in a magical way? That's what hooked me. That’s how I developed the magic system for the story.
From there, I knew I wanted to set things amid a historical labor struggle. I'd heard Marisa Tomei do a reading from Howard Zinn’s People's History of the United States, from a young mill operative in Lowell telling her coworkers that she was going out on strike. She sounded so determined and class-conscious! I did a little cursory research and learned that, though the mill operatives lost that strike in real life, the young girl whom Zinn quoted, only 11 at the time, was Harriet Hanson, who grew up to be a supporter of abolition and women's suffrage. For decades, labor organizing continued throughout the textile mills in New England, culminating in the successful Bread and Roses Strike of 1910. But I decided I wanted to give Harriet and those young women a win back in 1836. That's where I started outlining and drafting.
Are Hannah, Judith, or any of the other characters in the novella inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Judith has a lot of Harriet Hanson in her, in her fortitude and sense of justice. I took anecdotes from Harriet's own life and gave them, in modified form, to Judith. (Lydia—superficially—is also based on Harriet Hanson. Her physical description came directly from a portrait of Harriet.)
I was also inspired by Sarah Bagley, one of the strike leaders and an absolutely committed labor organizer. Usually, the mill operatives quit in their mid-twenties, started families, or took other jobs like teaching. Bagley stayed because she wanted to continue organizing, and she eventually started the pro-labor newspaper The Voice of Industry because the editorial line of The Lowell Offering (which Harriet Hanson wrote for) was more neutral. I imagine Judith and Hannah at the end of Factory Witches sticking around in a similar way, to help the next generation of workers organize and continue the struggle. Harriet's mother—the real Mrs. Hanson—was also a boardinghouse keeper and supporter of the mill girls. She lost her job because she wouldn't order her daughter to break the strike in 1836. Lucy Larson is inspired by Lucy Larcom, a successful poet, and writer in her own right. Other characters—Kirk Boott, the overseer Curtis, the Boston owners, Reverend Miles—are historical figures who I embellished to a greater or lesser degree. There was a real Dr. Green in Lowell who treated the mill operatives, and wrote about his concerns for their respiratory health.
How did the novella evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
The biggest addition was the romance. In the first draft, you could read Hannah and Judith as close friends only. A fellow writer—wisely, I think—suggested I change that since it was clear to him that they were in love.
The story also got longer. I'd planned to write a short story. But I kept finding new directions I needed to go so that I could believe that this strike was winnable. There were also story episodes, like Abigail's attempt to break the strike, that needed to go in that weren't present initially.
How familiar were you with early industrialized cotton mills and the working conditions? Did you have to do research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Factory Witches of Lowell?
I had no familiarity with the history of cotton mills, particularly in the U.S. What attracted me to the Lowell history was that it was very well-documented, so I had plenty of material to draw from. I started my research with The Belles of New England by William Moran, and with Harriet Hanson Robinson's memoir Loom & Spindle, and went from there. I had the first draft written by the time I visited Lowell. The Lowell National Historic Park preserves a good amount of the physical space: visitors can walk along the canal, tour a boardinghouse and a (still operational) mill, and hear the looms thundering away first hand. Youtube videos of weavers were a great help, too.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
Queer people and relationships exist wherever you find humans, of course, but my favorite discovery was a lesbian couple living out in Vermont in the 19th century. Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake met in 1807, and had a 40-year relationship. They lived together, set up a cottage business as tailors, and were recognized by their community as a couple. That's the kind of future I want for my Hannah and Judith.
Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America by Rachel Hope Cleeves documents their life through their personal letters, as well as those of their neighbors and relatives.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory, and The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. The first one because well, it's witchcraft + social movement, and what's not to like? The latter two are for book clubs, which are great for pushing me into different genres and authors I wouldn't otherwise pick up. I do have a soft spot for romantic comedy and escapist fiction, so I'm very excited for The Wedding Date. The Cold Millions features the IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who I'm looking forward to learning more about.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Hard question! But here goes. Five authors who've had an outsized influence are:
Homer, who is not really a single individual or an author. But whatever tradition of oral poets created it, The Iliad changed the course of my life.
Anna Sewell (Black Beauty) because the world looks really different when you view it from the beast of burden's perspective.
J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), for the depth and realism of his world-building.
China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, The Iron Council, Embassytown, UnLunDun), for not only busting my imagination out of the traditional Tolkien-esque/high-fantasy box, but for wearing his working-class sympathies on his sleeve.
P. Djeli Clark (The Black God's Drums, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, Ring Shout, "With a Golden Risha"), for showing me a path: how can you weave together history and folklore into compelling stories that are emotionally real, serious, and also enjoyably readable? I'm figuring it out, but he has it pitch-perfect.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I watched the animated movie relentlessly as a little kid, and read the book at least once a year as soon as I was old enough. For me, it's the perfect mix of magic, wistfulness, and silly, silly comedy.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
The book I should have hidden from my parents was Monster by Christopher Pike. In sixth grade, all of my classmates were reading Pike's horror novels and I wasn't any different—I think it was the first time I read anything that had that much violence, and his novels also included a lot of (non-graphic) sex, which I'm glad I got exposed to somewhere in my very-Catholic-school education. What upset my mom was that my younger brother was having terrible nightmares, and she suspected it was because he saw the cover of that book with my stuff. It's one of the few times I can remember my parents scolding me.
What is a book you've faked reading?
The complete catalog of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. I've never read one of them, but I have seen enough film and PBS and A&E Literary Classics' adaptations that I can fake my way through a basic conversation about any of those books.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Is there a book that changed your life?
The Iliad, because without it I would not have become a Classics major, nor probably arrived in the Washington, DC-area in the manner I did (I was doing a master's in Greek and Latin at the University of Maryland). And that was all because I loved Achilles' story so much, I was determined to read it in the original ancient Greek.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Lately it's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist. Baptist puts the experiences of enslaved African Americans front and center and then traces the many, many ways white institutions grew rich on their suffering. It's a powerful indictment of the idea that slavery's effects are all in the past, and incidentally a compelling case for reparations.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It's a compelling piece of science fiction that delves into colonialism, the tension between religious faith and the scientific method, and how people heal from trauma. Even though it's told from two timelines, so you have an idea from the beginning how it ends, I was never sure what was going to happen next. Reading it was such an emotional experience, though, I'm not sure I'll ever knowingly put myself through it again.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional artforms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
This past summer, the Bristol Old Vic streamed their production of the musical The Grinning Man. I was completely unfamiliar with the story or the source material (a Victor Hugo novel), but my best friend told me about it. I can't quite explain it, but it hooked me...it's just a great piece of gothic social commentary. Listen to Louis Maskell singing the song "Labyrinth" if you want a taste.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
Can I go back to 1969 and warn Fred Hampton that the FBI is going to assassinate him? Because I would love to live in the timeline where Hampton survived and continued to organize the Black Panther Party and the Rainbow Coalition. Also, I'd love to just have a conversation with him.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Q: Aside from writing, what did you aspire to do as a kid?
A: Though I went through the veterinarian phase and the actor phase, I *really* wanted to be the first female Catholic priest and work my way up to pope. Thankfully, that didn't pan out, because I'm very happy now in my secular household.
What are you working on now?
Unionizing my workplace, and a short story for Neon Hemlock Press's next anthology. If you're looking for more queer sci fi and fantasy, check them out!