The year is 1989, and the Danvers High School field hockey team is on a losing streak. The squad’s 11 tightknit seniors — 10 girls and one boy — are about to launch into the world beyond high school, away from each other. But first, they try something new. It involves armbands made from an old blue tube sock, an Emilio Estevez notebook, something like telepathy and a little bit of darkness.
This is Danvers, Massachusetts, after all — once Salem Village, where residents were tried for witchcraft in 1692.
Poet and novelist Quan Barry’s latest novel, “We Ride Upon Sticks,” takes these elements, adds eye of newt and makes a delightful brew of humor, innovative storytelling and poignant character study.
While this story is about teenagers, it is not a young adult novel. A coming-of-age tale, an ode to team sports, a feminist manifesto — these descriptors all fall short of encapsulating this one-of-a-kind book. “Wild ride” seems more fitting. The Seattle Times spoke with Barry about imagination, the coronavirus pandemic, broadening the definition of the “sports story” and some obscure Salem witch trials history.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You play around with gender and gender roles with your characters. How do you approach writing gender?
A: Most of the sports stories that we’re used to hearing as a culture deal with men in sports. So I feel like we’re poised to have more stories about women in sports. I was also interested in creating girls who are not interested in being ladylike.
Witchcraft to me has always been about female empowerment. [Witches were] always women who didn’t fit inside the box of what it meant to be typically feminine — maybe it was older women, unmarried women, or women who didn’t have children. Maybe it was women who were powerful in weird ways that society wasn’t used to.
So 300 years ago, the girls in Salem Village didn’t have many options. Thinking about girls 300 years later, I thought, what kinds of options would be available to them? What kinds of ways would they begin to realize their own power? So I was very much thinking about the idea of gender and how gender changes the things that women can do, the ways in which women interact with each other.
Q: How did you go about weaving the witch trials into the story of the 1989 Danvers High School field hockey team?
A: Tituba is a person who lived [in Salem Village] and was a prominent figure in the witch hysteria, but who many people don’t know. I’m familiar with her story because I grew up in Danvers, so I was always surrounded by the history. Her story is still incomplete in many ways. We know she was an enslaved person. We don’t know her actual ethnicity.
I was interested in having the book be fun and humorous, but also in presenting my readers with actual history. I see a pairing between Tituba and the character Sue Yoon, who is a first-generation American living in predominantly white spaces and trying to figure out how to be who she wants to be despite the constraints of these spaces.
The title of the book is an actual historical quote from Tituba. She was the first person to really “confess.”And in many ways, as talked about in the book, she presented the blueprint for how to survive being accused: If you’re accused, and if you confess, they would show mercy and you would not be hung. [During her trial], at one point she was asked, “How do you and your coven, how do you all meet in Boston?” She said, “We ride upon sticks and are there presently.” It just shows me her imagination, her ability to think on her feet. I’m just really fascinated by her as a character.
Q: What inspires your imagination when you’re writing?
A: One of my strengths is language. And my other strength is just making stuff up out of whole cloth, painting myself into a corner and figuring out, imaginatively, how I’m going to get out. I don’t plan things out. I don’t outline things. I just start writing and I see what’s going to happen.
I knew what the structure [of the book] was — that each chapter was a different game and a different character. I knew it was going to follow the season, as they’re trying to make it to the state championship. But beyond that, I didn’t know too much about where we were headed. I do like to have a magical realism element in the work.
When you’re using magical realism, you can’t make the world unstable all of a sudden, like [putting] a door in the wall if you haven’t established that that’s a rule of this world. So the rule in this particular world has to do with the idea of hive mind, of community-think. By having that be an element in the work, it allows me to move nonlinearly.
Q: You played field hockey in high school. How does your experience with sports inform your writing, or your life in general?
A: I suppose I could say there’s certain things about discipline that I learned from playing sports. I was not a very good player. It’s just the truth. But for me, it was important. I was more academically focused, but it was important for me to do something that I actually wasn’t good at. And I think that that really helped shape me, and it helped me learn about failure or putting yourself out there and giving it your all, [even when] it doesn’t go the way you want it to go.
I suppose it helps me think in terms of my work and realizing that you write the book by yourself and it’s very much an individual thing. But when it comes time to bring the work out to the world, that is a team effort. It keeps me humble because I realize I couldn’t do this on my own.
Q: What are you doing to cope during the coronavirus pandemic?