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Take Five: Brunonia Barry and The Fifth Petal

It’s our pleasure to introduce you to New York Times bestselling author and regular Writer Unboxed contributor Brunonia Barry’s latest novel. The Fifth Petal [1] will make its debut on January 24th. Brunonia’s novel is already making waves. It is a January 2017 Library Reads Selection, a February 2017 Indie Next Pick, and made Boston Magazine’s “The Must List.” Congratulations, Brunonia, and thank you for agreeing to join us for an interview today!

“…The superlative Barry (The Lace Reader, 2008; The Map of True Places, 2010) creates a vividly eerie, time-bending landscape that stretches  back and forth between the Salem witch trials, the Goddess Murders,  and the present-day mystery. Barry fans will welcome the return of  beloved characters and the introduction of new ones into a  contemporary Salem appropriately fraught with remnants and reminders  of its dark and twisted history. This spooky, multilayered medley of mysteries is sure to be a bestseller.”— Margaret Flanagan, Booklist Starred Review


Q1: What’s the premise of your new book?

When a teenage boy dies suspiciously on Halloween night in 2014,  Salem’s chief of police, John Rafferty, husband to gifted lace reading  psychic, Towner Whitney, wonders if there is a connection to Salem’s  most famous cold case, a triple homicide dubbed “The Goddess Murders,” in which three young women, all descended from accused Salem witches, had their throats slashed on Halloween night in 1989. As he  investigates this dark chapter of Salem’s past, he finds unexpected  help in Callie Cahill, the now-grown daughter of one of the victims.  Neither Callie nor Rafferty thinks that the main suspect, Rose Whelan, once a respected scholar who now suffers from mental illness, is guilty of the murders as many of Salem’s citizens have come to believe. But exonerating Rose might mean crossing paths with a dangerous force. Were the women victims of all-too-human vengeance, or was the devil raised in Salem that night? And can Callie and Rafferty find the real killer without becoming victims themselves?

Q2: What would you like people to know about the story itself?

The Fifth Petal is the story of a modern-day Salem witch hunt.There were no witches in Salem in 1692, but they thrive here now in great  numbers, finding the city a safe shelter, not in spite of our dark history but largely because of it. Neo-witches from all over the world have relocated to Salem, and their ubiquity provides an ever-present backdrop for our city’s tourism industry,especially at Halloween when our population of just over 40,000 swells to almost 3,000. It’s an odd mix of twenty-something costumed partiers, families with strollers  and Golden Retrievers, bloodied and scary monsters, and a sprinkling of religious zealots who make an annual  pilgrimage in an attempt to save the souls of any and all they can.  I’m often uneasy walking through these diverse crowds, because I find  myself wondering if the whole thing could happen again. As someone  who has both accused and accusers hanging from my family tree, I am haunted by the generational guilt many of us feel about what happened here. The truth is, Salem, having learned history’s lesson, is probably the least likely place  to initiate another witch-hunt, at least not in the same way. But there are many forms of hysteria, and fear of the “other” has seldom been as rampant as it is today. So with this book, I wanted to ask:  What if it did happen again? Who would be targeted now? And why?

Q3: What do your characters have to overcome in this story? What challenge do you set before them?

Each of my characters is “other” in some way. Both Callie and Rose  survived the complex trauma of the triple homicide. Callie is plagued  by ominous, frightening visions that she can’t control or understand.  Both Rose and Callie are obsessed with finding the killer, but Rose’s  mental state makes her ill-equipped to hunt down a murderer and often  puts her directly in harm’s way. Rafferty is a recovering alcoholic  who left his job as a New York City detective for what he believed  would be a simpler way of living, only to find that quotidian life in  Salem is far from simple, and that the thing he was really trying to  escape was himself. Towner Whitney, from my first book, “The Lace  Reader,” has dedicated herself to helping victims of domestic violence  and sexual abuse, as a way to heal the wounds of her past, but it’s a difficult task. The city itself is a character undergoing significant  changes, from a sleepy seaport and aging industrial city to a tourist destination with a real estate boom that is threatening some of Salem’s less affluent citizens and the city’s diversity as a result. Salem’s elite, who would just as soon see all these murder investigations go quietly away, struggle with justifying their exploitation of the city’s mass murder history versus protecting real estate prices and collecting tourist dollars.

Q4: What unique challenges did this book pose for you, if any?

It’s both interesting and challenging to write a fictional story about a real place, especially a place where you actually live. This book took me five years to write, which tested my determination to continue. I wanted to quit more than once, but I couldn’t escape the obligation I felt to explore the issues before me. I made the mistake of pitching the book before I was ready to write it, and the pitch intrigued my then publisher, so I dove in quite unprepared. But as a book evolves, it often becomes something else entirely, especially when you write the way I do, which is to “discover” a story rather than craft it. If my discovery goes well, then I will have come to understand something that has been otherwise incomprehensible to me, in this case what our culture does to those we consider “other.” I did a great deal of research about diverse elements that appeared in the narrative: colonial Salem and the witch trials, geology, Celtic mythology, music therapy, sound healing, tree lore, and modern treatments for mental illness. And of course, it would be difficult to write about Salem without adding an element of magic, especially when dealing with modern-day witches. It was important to me that the story’s realism be equally strong. Of course, creating and maintaining that balance is sometimes difficult.

Q5: What has been the most rewarding aspect of having written this book?

Five years are a long time to work on a project alone, so for me, it was thrilling to have a sense of community with a great team of people all working hard to bring this book to life. I had some invaluable editing help early on, and my new editor at Crown is one of the best out there. And I love the cover that the design team created. They were able to visually represent the beautiful and mystical elements of the book and yet blend those together with the dark and sinister. The efforts that everyone at Crown has made on my behalf are far more than anything I expected. I’m also very grateful for all the support the book has received from libraries and Independent bookstores. They have really been spreading the word and creating a lot of awareness. But the biggest reward, as always, has been the feedback from readers. I love the conversations we have had so far, and I’m looking forward to meeting more readers on tour and online in the months to come.


Mystery, magical realism, and mythology- sounds like a must-read, no? For more information about Brunonia Barry and her books, please visit here [2].



About [3]

Writer Unboxed began as a collaboration between Therese Walsh [4] and Kathleen Bolton [5] in 2006. Since then the site has grown to include ~50 regular contributors--including bestselling authors and industry leaders--and frequent guests. In 2014, the first Writer Unboxed UnConference (part UNtraditional conference, part intensive craft event, part networking affair) [6] was held in Salem, MA. Learn more about our 2019 event, ESCAPE TO WuNDERLAND, on Eventbrite. [7] In 2016, the Writer Unboxed team published a book with Writer's Digest. AUTHOR IN PROGRESS: A No-Holds-Barred Guide to What It Really Takes to Get Published [8] has been well-received by readers who seek help in overcoming the hurdles faced at every step of the novel-writing process--from setting goals, researching, and drafting to giving and receiving critiques, polishing prose, and seeking publication. James Scott Bell has said of the guide, "Nourishment for the writer's soul and motivation for the writer's heart." You can follow Writer Unboxed on Twitter [9], and join our thriving Facebook community [10].