Synchronized Chaos Magazine Interview with poet Mary Mackey about her new collection Travelers with No Ticket Home
CRISTINA: I noticed that in the middle section some of the poems spoke to or addressed a character known as ‘Solange’, such as the environmentalist piece when she encouraged the river to break the dam. Please tell us more about her. Who is she, where did she come from and why did you decide to incorporate her as a character?
MARY: Solange is a mysterious, ambiguous character who appears in a number of my poems. I never consciously decided to incorporate Solange into my work. She just appeared spontaneously when I was writing the poem ”Sugar Zone.” “Sugar Zone” was published in my previous collection of poetry which is also called Sugar Zone. So, as you can see, the appearance of Solange was a very important event for me creatively. Solange takes on different roles at different times: she may be an incarnation of the force of nature, a priestess, a goddess, a shaman, an ex-lover, or even the wilder side of Mary Mackey. I’ve deliberately avoided pinning her down so that she can move fluidly from one poem to another. In the poem “Solange Encourages A River To Destroy A Damn,” which you mention, Solange is dressed in the garb of a priestess of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé and is speaking to the river as a shaman/goddess.
CRISTINA: Appreciated your romantic selections, “The Kama Sutra of Kindness.” Please share more about the title and word choice there…how did you choose to combine references to physical and emotional passion with the concept of kindness? (I love this, btw…sometimes people get so swept away in attraction that they forget the basics, such as being polite and considerate).
MARY: You can find any number of books that will tell you how to have sex, but few that speak about physical passion and tenderness. I believe real love combines both Eros (erotic love) and Agape (spiritual love). One of the most famous instruction books for erotic love is The Kama Sutra, which lists a variety of physical positions. The Kama Sutra also speaks about other aspects of relationships, but almost no one knows this. Some years ago, I decided that The Kama Sutra needed a companion volume entitled The Kama Sutra of Kindness. Kindness, tenderness, devotion, commitment: I believe all of these are as important to sexual and emotional happiness as any of the 64 positions in original The Kama Sutra. So far, I have come up with seven poems which express seven of the positions of kindness. All of these are collected in Travelers With No Ticket Home. I plan to write more Kama Sutra of Kindness poems.
CRISTINA: From reading these pieces, I got an impression of Brazil that was passionate and colorful, yet also scary/violent from people and wild animals and disease/poverty. Would you say that impression was accurate? Do you think the place is getting better to live, or harder due to income inequality?
MARY: Brazil is a stunningly beautiful country filled with warm, friendly, hospitable people. At the same time it is a scary place filled with poverty, disease, and violence. This basic contradiction is what makes it so interesting to write about. I’ve been going to Brazil with my husband for the past 25 years. I guarantee that if you spend any time in Brazil, you will want to stay and at the same time want to catch the next plane home. The good news is that poverty is on the wane and peoples’ lives are improving. For example, between 2000 and now 35 million Brazilians have escaped from poverty. In the last 10 years childhood malnutrition has been slashed by 61%. Brazil still has a long way to go, but that’s impressive by any standards.
CRISTINA: I have heard people who have visited Latin American countries discuss how the people seem more able to balance the past and present. That they are able to incorporate modernity and technology into their lives without feeling the need to discard traditional cultural practices, and can stay close to the land while participating in the modern economy. Basically that different values and ways of life can coexist, there isn’t such a dichotomy. Would you say that is true? I thought of that when you illustrated modern favelas and also touched on shaman type practices and ayahuasca.
MARY: I think almost all of us would like to believe that there are parts of the world where people are able to incorporate modernity and technology into their lives without feeling the need to discard traditional cultural practices, but I’ve never been anywhere, including Brazil, where this appears to be true. Brazil was actually one of the places where this mistaken idealization of indigenous people began. It’s called the Myth of the Noble Savage, and can be traced back in part to the French author Michele de Montaigne, whom I also mention in Travelers With No Ticket Home.
Like people all over the world, Brazilians are losing traditional cultural practices and being uprooted from their land by corporate farming (agribiz)—not to mention losing great swaths of the Amazonian rainforest to fire, logging, and mining.
CRISTINA: Why and how did you decide to incorporate mentions of Elizabeth Bishop’s work into this collection of poetry? What’s the connection there?
MARY: Elizabeth Bishop is a famous American poet. By famous, I mean that as well as writing brilliant poetry, she was Poet Laureate of the United State and winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. In 1951 she arrived in Brazil intending to spend two weeks. Instead she spent fifteen years. I deeply admire Bishop’s work and feel a close connection to her. Like me, Bishop loved Brazil and, like me, she wrote many poems about it. In 2010, I made a pilgrimage to Ouro Preto, Bishop’s adopted Brazilian hometown. In 2012, I lived for four months in an apartment in Rio that overlooked a park designed by Bishop’s Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares. I make reference to Bishop by name in several of my poems, but she is in the background of many more as an influence and an inspiration. A review of Sugar Zone, published in the Huffington Post, compared me to Bishop. I can’t imagine a greater honor for a serious poet.
CRISTINA: I see mentions of fado music and Carnival in various pieces. Would you say the musical traditions of the country enhanced your work? Are any of these pieces influenced by Brazilian music?
MARY: The music of Brazil is a major influence on my work, particularly rhythms of samba and the drumming associated with the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. Candomblé drumming is designed to induce visionary, spiritual, and mystical trance states. In my poems there are frequently visionary and mystical elements: paths that lead into other worlds, dream-like hallucinations. In other words, I frequently try to create the same effect for the reader that Brazilian music creates for the listener.
Poems in Travelers With No Ticket Home that are most strongly influenced by Brazilian music include: “After Carnival,” “Corcovado,” “The City of Apocalyptic Visions,” “Defective Instructions For Becoming a Shaman,” and “The Martyrdom of Carmen Miranda.”
CRISTINA: Why is the collection entitled ‘Travelers with No Ticket Home?’ Seems to be a commentary on the human condition…or are you making a specific comment about that culture and area? Although you have another poem with that title, I thought of that while I was reading the last piece about Carmen Miranda, as she had traveled out of her homeland and couldn’t ever truly find her way back, culturally.
You’re right. The title of this collection is more than a reference to tourists who feel lost in the chaos, beauty, and unpredictability of Brazil. It’s a comment on the human condition. I selected the title Travelers With No Ticket Home carefully because I wanted a title that could hold multiple meanings. For example, we are all travelers with no ticket home to our childhoods. Refugees who flee to foreign lands often have no ticket back to the place they came from. When we live or travel abroad for extended periods, we sometimes feel like strangers when we return to our native land. The dead are the ultimate travelers with no ticket home. And then there is climate change. Thanks to it, we are all traveling into a new reality with no way to get back, so in some ways all of humanity is becoming a traveler with no ticket home.
Link to Purchase Mary Mackey’s Travelers With No Ticket Home
Paper: $15 E-book: $2.99
Author of Immersion
Interview by Catharine Bramkamp
Immersion was first published in 1972 by Shameless Hussy Press, and according to the summary on amazon.com it is: “a ground -breaking novel, cinematic, poetic, and hallucinatory which tells the story of a young woman named Kirsten who rebels against traditional female roles and wages a desperate struggle for intellectual, spiritual, personal, and sexual liberation in the jungles of Costa Rica.”
The publishing journey of Immersion is as exciting as its plot. Immersion was the first novel in the world published by a Second Wave Feminist Press, Shameless Hussy. Mary Mackey wrote the book in the late ‘60s and sought publication during a time when the publishing industry was still not taking women’s writing seriously. As late as 1978, “a powerful editor at a major New York publishing house told me in all seriousness: ‘Women have peaked. The fad is for women is over, so we’re not interested in publishing any more novels by women.’ ”
Mary explained the journey with Shameless Hussy Press as positive but challenging. “One of the low points was that no one knew what to make of the book. Since at the time there was no category of ‘women’s fiction’ or ‘feminist fiction,’ it got shelved next to books about science fiction or gardening. I’ve calculated that Immersion was about 15 years ahead of its time. You’d think being on the cutting edge would be a plus, but often it’s an obstacle. I’d written a novel that would be important in the history of women’s literature, but most of what became that history hadn’t taken place yet.
In the years since, the publishing landscape for women’s literature has changed for the better—no one suggests that ‘women have peaked.’ As we know, women buy more books than men and read a great deal more fiction than men.”
Mary pointed out that the subsequent 12 novels she wrote after Immersion were all published by major houses like Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, and Putnam, “so I’ve benefited greatly from this” change in attitude.
The next high point for Immersion came 40 years later in 2012, when Immersion came out as an ebook and the Authors Guild simultaneously re-issued it in hard copy. “Suddenly I was getting emails from readers all over the world and it was being adopted as a text for courses in Women’s Fiction, Women’s Studies, and Environmental Literature. At present it’s selling in much greater numbers than it sold 40 years ago. Better yet, large numbers of people are reading it. This feels like a resurrection.”
Power, Resistance, and the Mouths of Snakes: An Interview with Mary Mackey
by Jane on July 31, 2013
The Understanding between Foxes and Light contributor Mary Mackey in conversation with George Wallace
Mary Mackey is the author of six poetry collections including Sugar Zone (Marsh Hawk Press 2011)—a winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence—and thirteen best-selling novels. Immersion (Shameless Hussey Press, 1972) was the first novel published by a Second Wave feminist press. Mary’s works have been translated into twelve foreign languages. Discover more at her website and Facebook author page.
GW: You have traveled extensively to Brazil with your husband, Angus Wright, who writes about land reform and environmental issues. You have studied Brazilian literature. And you have demonstrated an impressive ability, particularly in the poetry collection Sugar Zone, to create poems that use incantation to evoke the lyrical space that lies at the conjunction between Portuguese and English. Your poem in our anthology The Understanding Between Foxes and Light, “Solange Encourages A River To Destroy A Dam,” seems to be clearly in that zone—a fierce and incantatory invoking of the Xingu, a river in Brazil, to strike out at the harnessing interference of human society with nature, with the visceral force of a holy woman smoking a cigar.
What’s the back story to this poem? What are the controversies surrounding building the Belo Monte Dam? Who is Solange?
MM: The back story of this poem is that the Brazilian government is planning to build a huge dam on the Xingu River, one of the major tributaries of the Amazon. Construction of the Belo Monte Dam is already underway despite the protests of indigenous people, farmers, and riverbank dwellers who at this very moment are risking their lives to stop it. If completed, Belo Monte would be the third-largest hydroelectric project in the world and would require diverting nearly the entire flow of the Xingu through two artificial canals to the dam’s powerhouse, leaving communities along a 100 km stretch of the Xingu without water, fish, or a means of river transport. In addition the Belo Monte Dam would cause irreversible harm to areas considered of extreme importance for the conservation of the rainforest and biodiversity.
Solange first appeared in the collection Sugar Zone. My poems frequently embrace ambiguity allowing them to resonate on many levels at once. Thus the answer to the question “who is Solange” is: Solange may be a shaman, a goddess, a priestess, an ex-lover, a force of nature or even a manifestation of the wilder side of Mary Mackey.
In this poem Solange talks to the Xingu River as if the Xingu were a mãe-de-santo, which is the name given to priestesses of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. Candomblé is currently practiced by some 25 million people in Brazil. When a mãe-de-santo goes into a trance by whirling to the rhythm of drums (“who is that dancer whirling and blind”) the gods of Candomblé descend on her and “ride her head” allowing her to speak to her followers in the voices of the gods.
Besides calling the Xingu a powerful priestess who speaks in the voices of the gods, Solange tries to encourage the river by calling her a jagunco (a “hitman”), a jararaca (“a poisonous pit viper”) and a boca da cobra (the mouth of a snake seen just before it strikes)—all images of power and resistance.
GW: What part of your exploration of ‘humans in nature’ is politics? What part is spiritual? Personally symbolic?
MM: In my poems, I rarely make a distinction between the spiritual, the political, and the personally symbolic. Poems that are solely political can work, but they tend to be didactic; poems that are purely spiritual often lack vital connections to the living Earth which we all inhabit. Poems that use only a personal set of symbols can be quite powerful but they can also be diary-like or beautifully obscure (both of which I often enjoy, but which I don’t care to emulate). My goal is to combine the spiritual, the political, and the personal in one seamless, lyrical whole that is both intellectually interesting and emotionally moving.
GW: In practical, social, linguistic and intercultural contexts, discuss how Brazil has become your particular destination of inquiry?
MM: My husband and I have been traveling to Brazil almost every year for the last twenty-five years. I’ve fallen in love with the culture of Brazil, its music, and the lyrical beauty of Portuguese. Since my early twenties, I have been involved in environmental issues in a very personal, direct way. For example, during the late 60′s and early 70′s I lived off and on in a remote field station in the rainforests of Costa Rica, 90% of which have now been cut down despite Costa Rica’s extensive national parks program. I have personally watched the gradual, unremitting destruction of the tropical rainforests. Brazil is a country where all these interests comes together. When I’m there, or when I recall my time there, my thoughts often take the forms of poems or images that will someday become poems.
GW: Your father was an ethnobotanist. You lived in ‘remote field stations in the jungles of Costa Rica’ in your 20′s. You obtained a PhD in comparative literature and married a professor of Environmental Studies. You’ve been termed ‘a feminist who changed America.’
MM: My father wasn’t an ethnobotanist. He was a physician. However, when I attended Harvard, I had the good fortune to fall under the influence of Richard Evans Schultes, the father of modern Ethnobotany. I date my interest in the tropics of Latin America from the work I did in the Harvard Botanical Museum Economic Botany Collections under Professor Schultes’s direction.
GW: The subject of your prose and poetry ranges from Neolithic culture to the American Civil War, the 60′s civil rights and anti-Vietnam war era in America, to the haunts of the goddess Inanna in ancient Sumer. You’ve written comic novels about Los Angeles and historical novels examining earth-centered goddess-worshiping cultures invaded by patriarchal nomads. What is the common thread that integrates all that?
MM: There isn’t a single common thread in my poems and novels, but rather a series of threads or themes that combine to weave different patterns. One is the theme of parallels between the past and the present; one, that of strong women overcoming adversity to take control of their lives and make a contribution to society; one, of the Earth as a sacred, living entity; one, of social and environmental justice; one, of a redefined feminism that goes beyond race, gender, and cultural definitions to view humans as a single species living on this planet among other diverse species; one, of compassion without reservation; one, of friendship and loyalty; one, of play, joy, love, and laughter.
GW: Your novels are published by Doubleday, Simon & Shuster, Bantam and Harper San Francisco, to name a few—a remarkable track record in commercial literature. Yet you remain devoted to something considerably more than a passing involvement in poetry and what it has to offer an imaginative and inquiring mind. How come?
MM: I’ve never felt a need to choose between writing novels and writing poetry although the process of creating the two is not the same. Novels take years to write and call more on my rational and organizational skills. I experience poetry as more immediate and more intense. Poetry is an art form that doesn’t demand compromise. You can experiment, take chances, do unusual things. And then there is the fact that I love writing poetry. I take great pleasure in slowly crafting a poem, considering and reconsidering every word and every line break.
GW: Garrison Keillor reads your poems a lot. Have you met him? What do you think of his effort to get poetry to the segment of the American public he reaches? What is your perception of the possibility of serious and/or experimental literature to reach popular American audiences?
MM: I met Garrison Keillor in person several years after he started reading my poetry on The Writer’s Almanac. I have great respect for him and for his unstinting support of writers. For years he has been bringing serious poetry to popular American audiences in an unprecedented way. When he reads my poems on the air, about 2.5 million people hear them. I am not sure there will ever be a large audience for purely experimental literature, but I agree with Keillor that it’s a mistake to underestimate the intelligence of the American public.
GW: What’s your family relationship to Mark Twain? How cool is that? How does one make of relationships like that something more than what Kurt Vonnegut called a “granfalloon,” and instead a meaningful element in the stream of your existence?
MM: I’m related to Mark Twain through the Clemens side of my father’s family. He was my father’s grandmother’s cousin. Supposedly we had letters from Twain before the house where they were stored was destroyed by fire. I grew up knowing about this relationship and I think it was one of the primary things that inspired me to become a writer. After all, I reasoned, if a member of my own family could write novels, maybe someday I could write them too.
By the way, Kurt Vonnegut comes from my hometown Indianapolis. I used to shop Vonnegut’s, his family’s hardware store. My connection with Mark Twain, which is a blood relationship, is not the sort of imaginary association Vonnegut was speaking about in Cat’s Cradle. But if I tried to associate myself with Vonnegut as a fellow Indianapolisite and Hoosier, that would be a classic granfalloon.
GW: You’re said to have grounded your comic novel about Hollywood pecking order, The Stand In, on Twain’s Prince and the Pauper. But I think of other classics of the genre, from The Carpetbaggers, Barton Fink, and What Makes Sammy Run to Who Shot Roger Rabbit? Where does The Stand In fit into those and other works in the genre?
MM: Most of your examples are of films. I hope to see The Stand In made into a movie someday, but at present it only exists as a book, so it doesn’t fit into the genre. It and my other comic novel Sweet Revenge don’t resemble my other works which is why I wrote both under the pen name “Kate Clemens” (“Kate” for Katharine Hepburn whom I admire; “Clemens” for Mark Twain aka Samuel Clemens). I have a playful sense of humor which I rarely express in my poems and more serious novels, so it was great fun to give it full reign.
Find Mary’s poem “”Solange Encourages a River to Destroy a Dam” in our anthology The Understanding between Foxes and Light.
ASK THE AGENT
Literary Agent Andy Ross Interviews Mary Mackey on E-book Publishing
Mary Mackey Talks About E-book Publishing
Mary Mackey is the author of six collections of poetry and thirteen novels, including New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle bestsellers. Her books have been translated into twelve foreign languages and over a million and a half have been sold in hard copy. This spring, nine of her novels and her latest collection of poetry Sugar Zone were simultaneously re-released as Kindle e-books. By the end of the summer they will be available on Nook, Kobo, iPad, and Android. We are going to talk to Mary today about how she got these books back into print and what her experience has been.
Andy: Nine of your novels and Sugar Zone, your most recent collection of poetry, were recently published as e-books. How did this happen?
Mary: The short version is that my agent Barbara Lowenstein first negotiated two deals: one with Amazon.com, which publishes Kindle books, and another with Vook, which publishes e-books in the Epub format on all other platforms. She could only do this because she had retained my electronic rights when the books were originally sold to traditional publishing houses. The moral of this story is that every writer needs a great agent to draw up contracts and make deals with publishers.
Andy: How did you get your books into Kindle and other e-book formats? Did you do it yourself?
Mary: No, thank heavens, I didn’t have to. Barbara’s assistants worked with me for several months to get the files ready, and then Amazon did the actual conversion. I had to proofread everything to catch errors and make sure nothing was left out.
Andy: Were most of these books out of print before they were published as e-books?
Mary: Yes, it was a kind of resurrection. Even A Grand Passion, my novel about ballet which made The New York Times bestseller list had been hard to get. But the strangest experience was having my first novel Immersion available again after being out of print for 38 years. Shameless Hussy Press had published about 1000 copies, but very few were still available and those were so expensive I could rarely afford to buy one for myself. Then, bang. Immersion came out as an e-book, and suddenly people who would never have stumbled on it in a bookstore were buying it.
Andy: How are the books selling?
Mary: Very well. They’ve only been available for a short time, but every month at least a third more units have been sold than in the previous month. The first month Amazon sold over 700 copies. This approaches bestseller status for newly released e-books if you don’t count blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Andy: I understand that when most authors publish e-books, they only sell a few copies. To what do you attribute your success? How are people finding your books among the more than a million books available on Kindle and the ten million in other e-book formats?
Mary: We think there are several factors. First, I’m a writer with a well-established readership. I already have a reputation—fans, readers who have enjoyed my work in the past and are interested in anything new I might write. Some of my novels, like A Grand Passion or The Year The Horses Came have a cult following Second, I’m a current writer. I’ve had two novels and a collection of poetry published in the last five years. If people have read The Widow’s War (Berkley Books, 2009), they might search for me by name and find my other books all priced at $2.99, and think: “Why not take a chance? I liked her other books, and if for some reason I don’t like this one, it costs me less than a small Frappuccino at Starbucks.” I mention the price because it’s the third factor and vitally important. To sell a lot of e-books you need to set a price low enough that everyone can afford them.
Andy: How can authors who don’t already have an established literary reputation help readers find their e-books?
Mary: The algorithm that Amazon uses to decide which books to recommend to readers is a secret, but certain things seem to help. For example, my books are highly rated. They’ve been given a lot of stars by people who liked them and been reviewed numerous times, mostly quite favorably. In addition, readers have tagged each novel with words they associate with it. For example, A Grand Passion is tagged with the words “ballet,” “bestseller,” “dance,” “historical fiction,” “Russia,” “romance,” “passion,” etc. Getting good reader tags is important because they guide other readers to your books. Anyone publishing on Kindle should also establish and maintain an Amazon Central Author Page. I say this with guilt because I need to find time to update mine. Other things that help are getting both your name and information about your work out there on the web, getting reviewed, establishing an author presence on Facebook, using Twitter, blogging, and so forth.
Andy: Is there anything else an emerging author can do?
Mary: Yes, be patient. Don’t publish your work as an e-book until it’s polished. Readers enjoy good writing. They like to read books by authors who care about craft and structure and who can create crisp, fast-moving plots and interesting characters. If you’re self-publishing and can afford it, hire an editor. Great editors are like great agents. They’re invaluable. If your book is really good,sooner or later the word will get out.
ASK THE AGENT
Literary Agent Andy Ross Interviews Mary Mackey on Writing Poetry and Fiction
Mary Mackey on Writing Poetry and Fiction
Mary Mackey is a novelist, a poet, and a teacher. We interviewed her last year in this blog upon publication of her historical novel, The Widow’s War. Mary’s new book of poems, Sugar Zone, is being published this October by Marsh Hawk Press. Her poetry has been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, and Marge Piercy to name but a few. She is the author of 13 novels and her work has been translated into twelve languages.
Mary will be giving readings of Sugar Zone throughout the month of October in the Bay area and New York.
I thought it would be a lot of fun to talk to Mary and compare the creative experiences of writing poetry and fiction.
Andy: Mary, let’s start by talking about a poem in your new poetry collection Sugar Zone. Here it is:
The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 5
in the flame
of a single candle entire cities
my hands tremble on you
my fingers pass through you
your tongue tastes like apples
your flesh is fog
above our roof the jealous moon
has torn a hole in the sky
Could you tell us a little bit what went through your mind when you were composing this poem?
Mary: This is a love poem, the fifth in a series about the spiritual dimensions of passion. For thousands of years, poets have been writing about how passion can seize us, pull us out of ourselves, and unite us not only with another person but with the Divine. As I wrote this poem, I had a vision of lovers creating a moment where time stopped for so long that entire cities could appear and disappear in the flickering of a candle.
Andy: In plain English, what are you saying here?
Mary: That’s a hard question. When you put a poem into plain English, it’s no longer a poem, but let me try: I’m saying that passion combined with love is one of the paths to the Divine. I’m not the first poet to say this. Saint John of the Cross, one of the most important mystical philosophers in Christian history, wrote passionate love poems to God.
Andy: This is a gorgeous poem. I think I had to read it out loud several times to really appreciate it. But having read your fiction, I’m a little surprised that this has come out of the same mind as the person who wrote The Widow’s War. That novel was also beautifully written but it was an adventure, a popular novel. It would make a good big budget movie. Are you a literary schizophrenic?
Mary: No, I’m not even all that unusual. Marge Piercy, whose work I admire greatly, has been writing both novels and poetry for over 40 years. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 11. For the first 15 years of my literary career, I was known primarily as a poet. Poems and novels come out of different parts of my brain.
Andy: Other than Marge Piercy, who are some other poets you admire who also write fiction?
Mary: Thomas Hardy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Auster, are some of my other favorite poet-novelists.
Andy: Your novels have been on The New York Times bestseller list. Your last novel The Widow’s War made The San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list. All told, your novels have sold well over a million and a half copies. So why did you choose to write the poems in Sugar Zone instead of writing another novel? Are you nuts?
Mary: Probably. No, seriously, I wrote those poems because they came to me with an urgency that told me that right now I would not be happy writing anything else. I have the great luxury of being able to write what I want when I want to write it, not because I’m rich but because I’ve always had a day job. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of biographies of authors, who were forced to write pot boilers to put food on the table. I like regular meals, so I decided to get a Ph.D., become a professor, write whatever I wanted to write, and teach college students for a living, which I did. This was a good choice because I love teaching. I think it’s important for writers to do something besides write. You need to get out in the world, experience life to the fullest, have a few Hemingway-like adventures.
Andy: What do you get out of poetry that you don’t get when you write a novel? Certainly not money. You’ve said that. I’m sure your agent couldn’t care less about this part of your writing life. I don’t represent poets. I have a mortgage to pay.
Mary: You’re right about the money. During my first ten years as a writer, I only got paid once for a poem: $1.75. My last book of poetry Breaking The Fever, actually made money thanks to Garrison Keillor who read three of my poems on The Writer’s Almanac, but I couldn’t retire on my poetry income unless I lived like Gandhi. What I get out of writing poetry is joy. When I write a poem, I feel elated, as if I had gotten in touch with some deep, hidden part of myself. I don’t write poems that read like a diary, but there is more of the real me in my poems than in my novels. Writing poetry is my spiritual practice, like meditation. It gets me in touch with my unconscious.
Andy: What’s the difference between writing novel and a poem? Talk about the creative process a little bit.
Mary: Writing a poem is more immediate experience. I write most of my poems out in longhand in one sitting and then start putting them through revisions. I’ll sometimes revise a poem 20 times before I am happy with it. Occasionally a poem will come to me without a word that needs changing. Ideas for novels also come quickly, but the novel itself takes a long time to write—three years of daily work all done on a computer. Writing a novel is like planning a huge convention: you need to be highly rational and well-organized; you have to work within the limits of plot and character, and you have to think about whether or not your publisher is going to be able to sell your book; because publishers, agents, and booksellers do indeed have mortgages to pay. But with poetry, anything goes. It’s more like play than work.
Andy: Does the craft of writing poetry bleed over into writing novels? Do good poets make good novelists?
Mary: I like to think my novels are better written because I write poetry. I love language, I’m sensitive to the rhythm of sentences, I’m in touch with the unconscious impulses of my characters. But you also have to resist poetry when you write novels or you will spend three pages ecstatically describing a sunset, neglect the plot, mess up the pace, and bore your readers.
Andy: Mary, it seems to me that in America, poets get no respect. I remember in the Soviet Union where free expression was not permitted, poets were authentic superstars who would draw thousands of people to their readings. That doesn’t really happen here. It doesn’t happen in the new Russia either. Does poetry thrive on adversity?
Mary: Under an oppressive dictatorship, poetry often becomes the last stronghold of freedom of speech because dictators underestimate its power to inspire ordinary people to resist oppression. Poetry can be very dangerous.
Andy: How do poets make money as poets?
Mary: Most don’t. The most common way for a poet to survive in America is to teach. Well-known poets are paid to do poetry readings, lecture, and give workshops, mostly at colleges, universities, and at writer’s conferences. If you write poetry, don’t give up your day job.
Andy: I can’t write a story to save my life. But my clients who write fiction never run out of stories to tell. I assume that it’s a gift from the muse and that I have not been so blessed. Is this true? Is the gift of poetry the same gift or different?
Mary: They are both the same gift expressed in different ways.
Andy: Will you ever write another novel?
Mary: I am working on one right now. I have more ideas for novels and poems than I’ll ever be able to use in one lifetime.
Literary Agent Andy Ross Interviews Mary Mackey about Writing Historical Fiction
September 7, 2009
Mary Mackey is the author of a new historical novel, The Widow’s War, just published in paperback by Berkley Books (a division of Penguin). It is the story of a woman’s life and struggles set against the backdrop of the approaching Civil War. As in many of Mary’s other sweeping historical epics, it portrays a strong and courageous woman caught up in historic times.
Maxine Hong Kingston said of The Widow’s War: “We thrill to the story of Carrie Vinton, as she courageously takes the side of freedom over slavery.”
Mary has been a professor of English and Creative Writing at California State University for over 30 years. She has published 12 novels and 5 books of poetry. Her works have been translated into 11 foreign languages including Japanese, Hebrew, Greek, and Finnish. Her best selling novel, A Grand Passion, sold over a million copies and made The New York Times bestseller list.
Mary will be reading and discussing The Widow’s War on Friday, September 11, at 7:00 PM at Book Passage Corte Madera, California.
Andy: Mary, I want to talk to you today about writing historical fiction. It is a genre that I love to read and that you, it seems, love to write. But first I’d like you to tell me a little bit about your new book, The Widow’s War, which has just been published by Berkley Books.
Mary: Well, we might start with the fact that Carrie Vinton, the heroine, is a widow because she’s just shot her husband.
Andy: Wow. That starts things off with a bang. I presume she had good reason, yes?
Mary: A whole list of good reasons. This is a novel about the first African-Americans to fight in the Civil War. They’re a fictional cavalry unit, but they could have existed. The story that surrounds them is filled with Afro-Brazilian magic, heroism, history, and a passionate love affair that borders on obsession. But it also explores the subject of betrayal: personal betrayal, political betrayal, and, of course, sexual betrayal.
The heroine, Carrie Vinton, is an American who was raised in the jungles of Brazil by her father, a botanist. Carrie is passionately opposed to slavery. In the fall of 1853, Carrie finds herself alone and pregnant in Rio de Janeiro after William, her abolitionist fiancé, disappears. William’s stepbrother, Deacon Presgrove, arrives in Rio, tells her William is dead, and convinces her to marry him for her baby’s sake.
After they return to the states, Carrie finds out she’s been tricked: Deacon is a fortune-hunter who’s married her for her money and William is still alive. From that point on, the novel is one series of betrayals after another. Believing that Carrie is dead, William has emigrated to Kansas where he is running slaves out of the slave state of Missouri on the Underground Railroad. Carrie goes to Kansas to search for William. This isn’t the Kansas Dorothy went back to after she returned from OZ. This is a Kansas convulsed by a violent civil war that raged for seven years before the official Civil War broke out. Two years earlier, in 1854, President Pierce had signed a law which gave the residents of the Territory the right to vote to determine whether or not Kansas would come into the Union as a free state or a slave state. Almost immediately fierce fighting broke out in the Territory as proslavers flocked over the border to vote and abolitionists, mostly from New England, emigrated to Kansas to bring the state into the Union as a free state.
William and Carrie are reunited but their happiness is short-lived. Attacking Carrie’s home, proslavers kidnap William, Carrie’s newborn child, and thirteen fugitive slaves. Desperate to fight for what she believes in, to get her child back safely, to prevent innocent people from being sold back into slavery, and to be reunited with the man she loves, Carrie arms a cavalry unit of African-American soldiers and leads them on a rescue mission into the slave state of Missouri. These soldiers have been trained by John Brown, the same John Brown who attacked Harper’s Ferry in 1849. Brown believed armed insurrection was the only way to end slavery and he was very active in Kansas at the time.
I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so I’ll leave you with William with a noose around his neck and Carrie riding into Missouri to try to save him.
Andy: Can you be bribed to tell us if she makes it in time?
Mary: Afraid not.
Andy: Okay, then, the next question: This is your second book that takes place in the time of the Civil War. Your first was: The Notorious Mrs. Winston .[ picture of book. ] What caused you to become interested in this historical period?
Mary: My great-grandfathers fought on opposite sides during the Civil War. One died for the Union at Shiloh; the other was a Confederate Army surgeon. I grew up hearing both points of view, and by the time I was twelve, I had decided that slavery was a great evil, and that if I had been alive in that period, I would have been a abolitionist. Of course, I’m not the only person interested in the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of people are still drawn to the subject. It was one of the great turning points in American history, and many of the issues it raised are still with us—racism, for example. You can’t understand American in the 21st Century if you don’t know what happened when this country was almost ripped apart in the mid-19th century. In the 1850’s slave owners came very close to controlling Congress. If Kansas had come into the Union as a slave state, all the western states, including California, might have become slave states. The North might not have won The Civil War; we might be two countries instead of one. You might say we escaped by the skin of our teeth.
Also, as a novelist, I’m always trying to create a plot that’s exciting—one that sweeps the reader along. There are few periods more exciting than the years just before and during the Civil War.
Andy: It seems to me that historical fiction as a genre has an enduring attraction. I have always loved it because it seems to focus on the heroic virtues (and vices) of humans. In the best works, I always come away being uplifted by these kind of epic themes. What is it about the genre that allows you to –well- get away with these kinds of portrayals. After all, most contemporary literary fiction seems to dwell on more intimate and private subjects.
Mary: I love writing historical fiction because it allows me to set my stories in times when people face serous adversity. I think you really get to know a character—or a real person for that matter—by the choices they make under stress. When the going gets tough, does the person endure or fold; show compassion or shove the children aside, jump in the lifeboats, and save him or herself at the expense of everyone else?
At present in the industrialized world, most people have few opportunities to show how heroic (or how deeply wicked) they are. We live sheltered lives. If we drink the water that comes out of our faucets, we aren’t likely to die of typhoid; most women survive childbirth; the majority of babies don’t die in infancy; our homes are warm in winter; most of us have never really gone hungry, and although we may deplore the violence in our cities, an army is not likely to attack the town we live in, burn the buildings, and massacre all the men and boys (which is what actually happened in Lawrence, Kansas in 1863).
Writing historical fiction gives me wide-ranging, exciting possibilities that allow my characters to be heroic or foolish on a grand scale with important consequences. I have an opportunity to examine the point where personal life and history intersect. Tolstoy does this masterfully in War and Peace. Dickens does it in A Tale of Two Cities. I learned from them that historical fiction can also be literary fiction.
Andy: So now here is the big question. What is the greatest historical novel ever written? Or let me rephrase that. What is the greatest historical novel ever written other than War and Peace?
Mary: I’d say Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past), all seven volumes of it. It’s not usually classified as historical fiction, but it covers the first decades of the French Third Republic and fin de siècle. Published between 1913 and 1927, it has a timeline that begins in the early 1870’s. Proust is one of my mentors. He’s influenced the way I think about psychology and style. He taught me that concrete detail and well-developed, complex, vivid characters can recapture the past and make it come alive.
My next favorite piece of historical fiction is Mary Renault’s novel The Persian Boy. I’ve read it several times and each time I go back to it, I’m impressed by how beautifully Renault integrates the history of Alexander The Great’s conquest of Persia with the intimately personal, first-person narrative of Alexander’s lover, the eunuch Bagoas. Like Proust, Renault has strongly influenced my writing, particularly my pre-history novels The Year the Horses Came, The Horses At the Gate, and The Fires of Spring.
Andy: Lately, when I have tried to sell publishers any book, fiction or non, publishers seem obsessed about the books not being too long. It seems that the internet has created a generation of readers with ADD. But historical fiction seems to be able to get away with more words. I see 800, 1000, 1400 page historical novels. Got any thoughts why this is so?
Mary: I suspect readers are willing to buy and read long historical novels because historical novels are offering them a history populated by human beings who love and suffer in ways that haven’t changed all that much over the centuries. Also, I think many people (myself included) like to learn history in an enjoyable, painless way. Reading primary, or even secondary, historical documents can be a complex, difficult, boring process. I do it all the time, and even though I’m a trained academic researcher, I often find myself exhausted as I try to sort through events and make sense of them. Good historical fiction spares the reader this process. Ideally, the author tells a good story and in the process of reading that story, you learn a lot of history, but you learn it without having to spend two or three years consulting hundreds of books and articles. Better yet, you remember it. Once I read The Persian Boy, I never forgot that Alexander The Great made it all the way to India in his attempt to conqueror the world.
Andy: When I saw the movie Zorro 2, there was a scene that took place when California was admitted to the Union in 1850. The scene included Abraham Lincoln and a Confederate general. So my question is when the historical record clashes with telling a good yarn, who wins out?
Mary: History, at least in my novels. I think my readers rely on me to be accurate. That said, I’m writing fiction, which means that, among other things, I’m inserting fictional characters into real history, so sometimes I rely on possibility rather than on the exact record. For example, in The Widow’s War, I have a fictional pro-slavery senator named Bennett Presgrove help a South Carolina Congressman nearly beat an abolitionist senator nearly to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The beating is a real, historical fact—one that shocked me when I discovered it– but in real life, the South Carolina Congressman conducted his infamy solo. At the end of the novel, I have an Author’s Note. In it, I tell the reader what’s fact and what’s fiction. I would never consider putting Abraham Lincoln next to a Confederate general in 1850. If I were reading a novel that did this, the entire illusion of being transported back to another era would be ruined for me. Even small mistakes in the historical record bother me. For example, I’ve read novels set in prehistoric Europe where people sit around drinking tea.
On the other hand, some novels intentionally set out to distort history or change history. For example, there is a whole genre of science fiction alternate history novels that take as their subjects things like the South winning the Civil War or Hitler dying as an infant. As long as the author tells you at the beginning that this is the game plan, I don’t mind. Fiction is just that: fiction. The joy of fiction is that you can do anything you want with it as long as you are honest with your readers.
Andy: I know you have been writing about the Civil War period now. But have also written about Czarist Russia and European pre-history. Are there any other historical periods that you find really appealing?
Mary: My doctoral dissertation was on the influence of the Darwinian Revolution on the 19th century novel, which is why the 19th century always attracts me, but I’m also particularly interested in ancient Rome, Britain as the Roman empire was crumbling, the Middle Ages in general, 17th century France, and Latin American just before and during the Spanish and Portuguese conquest. I read about these eras constantly, although I don’t know if I will ever set a novel in them.
Andy: So what is it with the God damned Tudors? It’s like one novel after another about Elizabeth, Henry, Mary Scots, that stupid rogue Essex, the Boleyn girls. Is there really anything new to say about these people? Why do they seem to have such an enduring fascination?
Mary: I think some of the appeal is celebrity gossip. “OMG! Henry the VIII beheaded 2 of his wives!” Plus the women wear really beautiful clothes and are very rich and live in palaces while the rest of us are trying to pay the mortgage. I have nothing against these novels. They provide entertainment and escape, and in the best cases they bring history to people who would never read it otherwise. Some are very well-written and well-researched. I particularly enjoy the work of Philippa Gregory. I think the problem with the Tudors is that they are being mined to death. It’s like the Jane Austen craze. Jane Austen is a great writer, but you can only take so many rewrites of Pride and Prejudice. I’m reminded of great songs that are played until you can’t stand them. At this very moment, someone who has never heard it before is listening to Stairway To Heaven and being blown away by it. But when I hear it for the 6,000th time, all I want is earplugs. It’s the same with the Tudors.
Andy: Ok Mary. I want to write an historical novel. I’m thinking of doing a kind of mystery. Maybe Sherlock Holmes teams up with Otto Von Bismarck. Maybe a murder in the Hapsburg court. A lot of scenes with generals in cool outfits doing the waltz. Is this a good idea. What periods of time do you see really working right now for a successful novel?
mary: Right now I’m hoping that the Civil War period is the best for a successful novel. Seriously, Andy, if you’re planning to write a historical novel, you should start by finding a period you love and set your story in it. If waltzing generals in cool outfits make you happier than Roman emperors in togas, go for the waltzing generals.
Historical Novels that Mary recommends you read:
Mary Mackey suggests you read all of Andy’s suggestions (below) plus:
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
The Persian Boy by Mary Renault
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Eagle in the Snow by Wallace Breem
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
Cold Mountainby Charles Frazier
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
The Year The Horses Came by Mary Mackey
The Widow’s War by Mary Mackey
Ten Historical Novels that Andy recommends you read.
Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears
The Dream of Cicero by Iain Pears
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
The Three Musketeers s by Alexander Dumas
Saints and Villains by Denise Giardino
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Lincoln by Gore Vidal
The Notorious Mrs. Winston by Mary Mackey
The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
“From a Garage Letterpress to ePublishing: A Q&A with Mary Mackey” A blog interview with Mary about ebook publishing Vook.com
Hear Denny Smithson interview Mary Mackey on KPFA radio, August 13, 2012
Lisa Stowe interviews Mary Mackey on The Story River
Eileen Malone interviews Mary Mackey about Mary’s novel The Notorious Mrs. Winston