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A Conversation with Ami McKay, author of ‘The Witches Of New York’

Oct 31, 2023 | Community, Park

A Conversation with Ami McKay, author of ‘The Witches Of New York’

Email Headers 5.16.23 (41)

In preparation for the spooky season, we connected with Ami McKay, author of The Witches Of New York, to discuss why she chose to set her enchanted Gilded Age tale in and around historic Madison Square Park.

 

In your 2016 book The Witches of New York, Madison Square Park and the surrounding neighborhood play a central role as the “cauldron” of magic and witchcraft in 1880s New York City. Why did you choose to locate this story in and around Madison Square Park?

A “cauldron” is the perfect way to describe the novel’s setting. I love it! 

My love affair with Madison Square Park began with the Edith Wharton novella, “New Year’s Day,” which starts with a pair of my favorite opening lines: “She was bad…always. They used to meet at the Fifth Avenue Hotel.” What a dishy and enticing way to start a tale! So, when I decided to set “The Witches of New York” in the early 1880s, I knew that the hotel, and Madison Square Park adjacent to it, would provide the perfect magical landscape for my Witches. 

I’d soon discover that historically, the park already had loads of its own magic going on in 1880:

  • The Statue of Liberty’s torch was displayed there in an effort to raise funds for the statue’s base. 
  • Magic lantern shows were projected on a giant screen on the rooftop of the Erie Railroad ticket building (where the Flatiron is today). Crowds of people used to gather in the park in the evenings to see images of natural wonders from around the world, read the latest news headlines, or wait for election results. 
  • Cleopatra’s Needle was being moved through the city to Central Park, and in October of that year, a huge parade celebrating the cornerstone of the obelisk’s destined resting place marched right past the hotel and MSP. Over 50,000 people lined the streets to see it.

It was all too enchanting to resist.

Do you have a personal connection to the park? Any favorite memories of time spent there?

I have NYC roots in my family tree that go back to the 1600s, so even though I grew up in Indiana and now live in Nova Scotia, I’ve always been drawn to New York. The city keeps finding its way into my novels and will forever be in my heart. My great-great grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda-Mackintosh, was an early graduate of the Woman’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary founded by Drs Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell in 1868. I’m currently writing a novel about Sarah and her classmates.

Whenever I’m in New York, no matter the time of year, I make my way to Madison Square Park. I take a notebook, grab a snack, and plant myself on a bench for hours. I drink in the conversations, contemplate life and art, and smile at passing dogs. It feels like home.

You clearly did a lot of research for this books about the Madison Square neighborhood and the park. How do you think the park has changed in the last 143 years?

I absolutely adore that the park has become a destination for public art installations. Encountering new work there, in a space that holds so much history, feels intensely special, but at the same time quite natural, and intimate. Maybe Liberty’s torch started something all those years ago?

What inspired this story? Was witchcraft a big thing in Victorian New York? 

When I was researching my first New York novel, The Virgin Cure, I went on a tour of the Tenement Museum where the guide talked about women living in the tenements in the 19th century, telling fortunes to help make ends meet. I was inspired to include a character in that novel who was a fortune teller, and The Witches of New York follows her daughter’s story ten years later. 

When I began the research for Witches, I not only did a deep dive into the Spiritualism craze that was at its height in the US in the decades after the Civil War, but also searched instances of “witchcraft” mentioned in New York newspapers of the 19th century. I was quite surprised to find several instances of people accusing their neighbors of witchcraft in the late 1800s. Then again, people still love labeling strong, smart, opinionated women who are working for change as “witches.” That just made me even more determined to tell this particular tale. 

I haven’t read the sequel, “Half Spent Was the Night,” yet – does Madison Square Park figure prominently in it as well?

Yes, “Half Spent was the Night” includes both the park and the hotel. It’s a short, Yuletide novella, something like Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but with witches. 

 

Intrigued? Check out The Witches of New York wherever books are sold. For more information on Ami and her works, visit her website

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