On Wednesday evening, the Boston.com Book Club chatted with author Quan Barry about her magical novel “We Ride Upon Sticks.” The live streamed discussion was moderated by Hannah Harlow, the owner and operator of The Book Shop of Beverly Farms.
During the conversation, Barry spoke about her own roots in Danvers and the inspirations behind the novel, which follows the 1989 Danvers high school field hockey team in their quest to become state champions. The story chronicles their escapades on and off the field after they make a pact to the forces of darkness in their determination to reach the finals. Barry steeps their lives in both 1980s culture and the history and lore of the Salem witch trials, all while packing local landmarks and details of the North Shore onto every page.
Below, a recap of the conversation, which you can watch the recording here, and see what readers wrote in response to our question last week — What defines the 1980s era for you?
The novel was almost set in Salem
The author, who herself attended Danvers High School and played on the 1989 field hockey team, said growing up in the town, you are very aware of the history of the witch trials and the fact that Danvers was originally known as “Salem Village,” where the 1692 trials began.
But, Barry revealed she almost set the story in Salem and a conversation with a friend proved pivotal in the ultimate path the book took.
“I was telling her, you know I don’t really know that much about Salem, like where the teenagers hung out in the ’80s or what was ‘in’ then in Salem,” she recalled. “And she said to me, ‘Well why don’t you write the book in Danvers?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s because nobody really knows what Danvers is to the witch trials,’ and she’s like, ‘Well why don’t you tell them?’”
Using Danvers, Barry said, allowed her to lean into her own adolescence in the ’80s in her hometown. She estimated that 99.9 percent of the places and references in the book are real, drawing from her own memories and experiences.
“Happily I didn’t have to do any real research for this book, because I came of age in 1989, my field hockey team, we made it to the state championship — I knew all that,” she said.
Coupled with the rich history Danvers has, it also allowed her to be more specific in the book than she otherwise would have been able to be, she said.
“It helped me take the book in places I maybe wouldn’t have been able to do if I had to do more research about Salem in order to set the book in Salem,” she said. “So it was just a freeing moment to realize, wait, I can actually write this book about Danvers and about its history.”
How a ‘collective voice’ narrates the book
Barry said she always knew she wanted the narrative to be written in the first person plural, but she wasn’t always sure who it was that was telling the story. She initially experimented with a few ideas, including on where it was told from the perspective of the freshmen girls on the team.
But those attempts didn’t work.
“I do see the first person plural as being the team telling their story — and my joke is that there’s no ‘i’ in team,” the author said. “So it makes sense to me that they kind of form a coven, they form a hive mind, so it makes sense that it would be this collective voice.”
But at the end of the book, Barry suggested that the voice of the narration shifts to something much bigger.
“Right at the very, very end of the book, as the eclipse is happening, to me, the voice becomes bigger than just the team,” she said. “And I will let people think for themselves who that bigger collective team might be.”
Why write about a girl’s sports team
In the novel, Barry captures not just the nostalgia for the ’80s, but the feelings of trust and spirit among the girls, which are so essential in team sports. The author said she was partly drawn to writing about the field hockey team and its teenage members to address the lack of representation of girls sports teams in books and movies.
“There was that movie ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ many years ago, but that’s almost 20 years,” Barry said. “There really hasn’t been that much since. It’s true that since the women’s national soccer team has been really successful, I’m hoping that there’s just more team sports about women. So I definitely saw that there was an absence, and I wanted to address that in some way shape or form.”
Barry used humor to rethink a ‘problematic’ era
With each chapter of the novel focusing on a different member of the team, Barry tackles a range of issues throughout the novel, including sexism, racism, homophobia, and body image struggles.
Barry said she sought out to intentionally rethink the ’80s and “complicate them.”
“When people think of the ’80s — it was just funny hair and Madonna and good music and that kind of stuff,” she said. “But you know, the AIDS crisis is getting going, crack cocaine is ramping up, there are all kinds of ways in which the ’80s are problematic. If you go back and you look at a lot of those ’80s movies — which a lot of us love, like ‘Sixteen Candles’ — there’s a lot of stuff in those movies that is not cool.”
Drawing on her own time with the 1989 Danvers field hockey team allowed her to do a lot of rethinking about what has changed — and what hasn’t.
“The book in many ways is sort of like a green smoothie,” Barry joked. “When you make a green smoothie, you’ve got spinach in there, but hopefully you also have apples and you have blueberries and you have other delicious things. So because I’m using humor, I hope that it also gives me an opportunity to make real social criticism in this book … But because it’s comic, it allows people to rethink these things and to let them into their space in a way, which if it wasn’t comic, people might resist and not really hear what’s being said.”
Why an ’80s hairstyle became its own character
There are several physical attributes for characters in the book that get their own anthropomorphic characterizations, including ‘The Claw,’ ‘Le Splotch,’ ‘The Chin,’ and ‘The Contusion.’ Barry said it’s a tool she knew she wanted to utilize early on as a way to help differentiate her 11 main characters.
But the physical characterization’s work on another level as well, doing character work and, at least in the case of ‘The Claw,’ taking on the role as the character’s identity.
“We all have that,” Barry said. “It’s the thing that says exactly what we’re all thinking but we’re not saying it. So it’s completely unfiltered. I don’t think I realized how much character work I was going to be doing when I first created it, but that was the reason why it exists.”
Addressing identity as a person of color in white spaces was an important issue in the novel
Growing up in Danvers, which was predominantly white, as a transracial adoptee, Barry said it was important for her to tackle issues of race in the novel.
“I know that I had a very particular experience and my experience growing up was not the experience of most people of color,” she said. “But it was important to me in creating this book to address that. What that is to be a person of color in predominantly white spaces, what that does — how one sees oneself, how one creates an identity. So I very much wanted to have a character who was in that position. Then thinking about the two Asian characters similarly — what is it to be a child of immigrants, for one of them. And then I had a character who is transracially adopted, and again, what is that experience like?”
Witchcraft and magic are a vehicle for self-discovery and empowerment
Barry said because she’s from Danvers, she’s always been fascinated by the Salem witch trials and wondered about what motivated the teen girls in 1692.
“A lot of it, to me at least, has to do with the idea of opportunity,” the author said. “They didn’t have a lot of agency, they didn’t have a lot of power in their lives but suddenly they did. Suddenly they could just say, so and so is a witch, and people would listen to them. And for about a year, they were rockstars in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.”
In writing “We Ride Upon Sticks,” Barry said she wanted to see what would happen if you could take those same girls and transplant them 300 years forward in time.
“What kinds of opportunities do they have, how do they get into trouble, what are the ways in which they are still — even though it’s 300 years later — what are the societal forces that are still trying to make them act ladylike and to be feminine?” she said. “And how do they try and come into their own, despite the fact that there are still these pressures in the 1980s.”
Barry said she sees witchcraft in the novel functioning as a device the teens believe gives them their power.
“They have that as the tool, but they come into their own and maybe they don’t need it anymore,” Barry said. “Or maybe they do, who knows.”
We asked readers what defined the 1980s for them. Here is a sampling of what some of them said.
- “Big hair!!”
- “Michael Jackson”
- “When Harry Met Sally”
- “Jon Bon Jovi – it’s the hair”
- “E.T., Prince, Pudding pops, Shoulder pads”
- “Thriller – MJ”
- “Moment not to be captured but to live in the moment!”
- “Ellios pizza”
- “Sweet Child O’ Mine (Guns N’ Roses)”
- “New Wave”
- “Europe – The Final Countdown”
- “Shoulder pads, hair spray, leg warmers, walkmans, Prince, MJ, video rentals”
- “Come on Eileen”
- “New Kids On the Block”
- “Ferris Bueller”
- “NKOTB, Beat Street”
- “Never Gonna Give You Up”
- “Back to the Future”
- “Laura Branigan – Self Control”
- “Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Indiana Jones”
- “Van Halen”
- “Ronald Reagan!”
- “Madonna, neon, jelly shoes”
- “Coming to America. Michael Jackson. The Bangles, Teddy Ruxpin, Cabbage Patch dolls”
- “Being at the end of the Gen X generation and not being offended by anything!”
- “Huey Lewis, MJ, Madonna”
- “Valley Girl and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Preppy.”
- “Troop Beverly Hills and all the Top 40s from 80-89!!!”
- “John Hughes Films”
- “Top Gun”
- “The Grateful Dead”
- “Romance of Bollywood films
- “An American Werewolf in London”
- “Heavy metal bands!”
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