Welcome To The Writer’s Journey: Mary Mackey On Writing Advice and the Writer’s Life

Amazon River, Welcome to the Writer's Journey Welcome to my blog The Writer’s Journey and my People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series. Each month I interview agents; book designers; magazine editors; writers; people who have expertise in digital publishing, and anyone else who has important things to say about writing, publishing, publicizing, selling, reading and enjoying books. I also give writing advice and post about Brazil, the Amazon, the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Neolithic Europe, and other topics.

Read the August People Who Make Books Happen Interview: Designing Websites For Writers Part Two, Checklists. Interview with Professional Website Designer Linda Lee

Previously posted interviews in the People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series : 

Designing Websites For Writers Part One: Interview with Professional Website Designer Linda Lee 

How to Get An Agent And Other Tips for Writers: Interview with Celebrity Literary Agent Andy Ross.  

How To Design a Book Cover that Sells Books: Interview with  Genius Book Cover Designer Claudia Carlson

Helping Independent Bookstores Survive and Thrive: Interview with Amy Thomas owner of Pegasus Bookstores

Three Great Reasons To Still Print on Paper: Interview with poet and Catamaran poetry editor Zack Rogow

HOW TO FIND POSTS: This blog is indexed to take you straight to the things you want to read. To find a complete list of the  interviews in my People Who Make Books Happen series without scrolling through all my posts, you can go to the right hand side of any page on my website where you will find a menu labeled TOPICS.  Click on PEOPLE WHO MAKE BOOKS HAPPEN INTERVIEW SERIES to see a complete list of interviews  in The People Who Make Books Happen series. In a similar fashion, you can click on BRAZIL to see all posts I have written about Brazil, on WRITING ADVICE to see all posts that offer writing advice about things like overcoming writer’s block and digital publishing, and so forth.  Presently the TOPICS Menu offers you direct access to my  posts on the following topics: BRAZIL, DIGITAL PUBLISHING, GODDESSES, PEOPLE WHO MAKE BOOKS HAPPEN INTERVIEW SERIES, THE ENVIRONMENT,  WRITING ADVICE, COMEDY, NEWS, NOVELS, PERSONAL STORIES, POETRY, VIDEOS OF MARY MACKEY and READINGS.

 You’re warmly invited to in the conversation by posting questions or comments. I love to hear from you.




Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour to Host Poet Mary Mackey

August 20 5-6 PM on KDVS 90.3 FM Live and Streaming

old fashioned radioThis coming Wednesday at 5:00 PM,  Dr. Andy Jones will host Mary Mackey on his popular radio show Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour. Mary will be reading poems from her three most recent collections Travelers With No Ticket Home, Sugar Zone, and Breaking The Fever. KDVS 90.3 FM (Live and Streaming)


Music, Fun, and Poetry at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley

Ohmega Salvage logoOn Saturday, August 23, 2014, Berkeley, CA:  Mary Mackey and former California Poet Laureate  Al Young will read their poetry at the burgeoning cultural arts center Ohmega Salvage, one of Berkeley, Calif.’s oldest antique and salvage stores. Famed Berkeley slide guitarist, Freddie Roulette will perform along with other musical guests.  TIME: 1:00 PM; PLACE: Ohmega Salvage, 2407 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA. Free and open to the public.

Designing Websites for Writers Part Two, Checklists

Interview With Professional Website Designer Linda Lee

checklistWelcome to the People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series. This month I’m again talking to Linda Lee, professional website designer and founder of AskMePC Webdesign. This is Part Two of a two-part interview with Linda about designing websites for writers.  Last month in Designing Websites For Writers Part One, Linda talked about why every serious writer needs a website and what should be on it. In this interview, she is going share additional information about designing websites for writers and give us a list of do’s and don’ts. 

Mary: Welcome back, Linda. Could you please begin by telling us what’s the most important thing for a writer to have on his or her website? In other words, what’s absolutely necessary?

Linda: I’d be happy to. Here is my personal checklist for author websites:

1. Great Biography/About Page. Get help if you cannot write it yourself.
2. Book Sales Pages for each book. Each book you have needs its own page.
3. Social media connections, and author centric things like connecting to your Amazon blog, Amazon Central Author Page, or any online publications your write for. Connecting with Goodreads, Redroom and writing groups or groups that you are in or support like California Writers Club, and Women’s National Book Association, Litquake, or the San Francisco Writers Conference.
4. Media section/page. All your interviews, radio, podcasts, TV, listed and linked.
5. Event calendar for speaking events, lectures, personal appearances, and book signings.
6. Email sign up list so you can develop a solid email list of your readers.
7. Contact page so people can get in touch with you.
8. In addition to all of the above, your website should feature clear, easy-to-use navigation and sidebars set up correctly.

People want to know about you and your books and/or your writing. They want to know how to contact you and where to buy your books. They should be able to go to your website and do all of that with ease.

Mary: What are some things that are good to have but not absolutely essential?

1. Adding a slideshow highlighting your books and interesting things you are working on is fun and eye-catching.
2. You should add a photo to every page and every post for visual interest.The internet is a visual medium and you need those pops of color.
3. Adding videos you  have created and or adding videos from other sources to your site is another good tactic.
4. You can add podcasts to your site using audio plugins.
5. You can add clips of you on TV or clips of interviews that have been filmed. You can also post links to the written interviews people have done with you as well as the full text of those interviews.
6. Testimonials and Reviews are most helpful once you start getting them.
7. Using plugins, you can conduct polls which will interest and engage your readers.
Those are just a few fun extras.

Mary: I know that you design sites so that the people who own them can update them without having to go through a webmaster every time they want to make a change. How hard it is to learn how to manage your own site?

Linda; Once I became the webmaster for clients, I found that the most tedious and not very fun part of the job was doing updates and minor changes on pages for these HTML websites. That is when I found out about WordPress and started learning how to design websites using WordPress. I wanted to be able to train my clients to do their own updates, so they could use their sites without having to email their webmaster, to change a word, or update a page or a photo or a paragraph. WordPress created software which you can use with the ease of a word-processing document. You can login, do updates, write new articles and make changes yourself. You do not need to learn code or HTML. Normal not web savvy people can learn how to run their own websites.

You could buy WordPress for Dummies, but that’s the hard way. When you’re learning how to update your own site, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed that you can’t even figure out what questions you should be asking. There are other options. Personally, I’ve found a direct student-teacher relationship works best, because you can ask your instructor to clarify things as you go along. I offer remote training classes via the internet and WordPress boot camps locally to help train my clients and others who are interested in learning to update their sites. I’ve found that most people can do the basics after my two hour training. It has been very satisfying to watch clients, many who are intimidated by the web, learn how to run their own websites.

Mary: Do you have any plans to expand this?

Linda: Yes, in the near future I plan to make it possible for people to subscribe to an online forum called WordPress Total Training which will provide them with ongoing support and training.  One of the great things about WordPress is that over 200 million websites use it. Depending on what you want, a lot of free help or paid help is available.

Mary: What are the worst mistakes people make when they create sites?

Linda: Worrying too much about the design or colors and taking years sometimes to get a site up and running.
Get the site up! You can make changes along the way.  Another major mistake is building the site and then never using it.  I’d say this is the number one mistake. I see so many websites that are launched, and the person is excited and ready to go gangbusters, and then they abandon their site.They lose interest or they get overwhelmed. There is no new content, no new blog posts or articles. You click and find out that everything is two years old and out of date.

If this happens to you, get some help. Take a refresher course.  Ask people for suggestions. Get your excitement back.
When you are active with your site, it can be fun. You will have readers and comments and you will want to be there.
You need to stay active with your website.  You need to post at least once a month and stay connected to your site.

Mary: Could you please leave us with a general list of the do’s and don’ts of website design.

Linda: The Don’ts:
1. Don’t make it complicated. You have 5-10 seconds to keep a reader on your site. If they cannot find what they are looking for, they will bounce.
2. Huge graphics and photos that take up the entire page are a trend right now. I’ve found that most people do not enjoy this. They want to find what they came to your site for.
3. Don’t use too many colors in a web site. Keep to a simple color scheme
4. Do not have videos or audios or music that starts automatically. People hate that.

5. Do not make people have to sign up or click something to get to your main site.Why would you want to put roadblocks up for your readers?
6. Do not put a bunch of ads on your website that are intrusive and overwhelm the site.

The Do’s

1. Clean,  simple layout and navigation. Make it easy for your reader to find what they are looking for.
2. A clear menu bar.
3. A clear message for your website.
4. Social media badges for easy access and connecting.
5. A Blog section
6. Add new content at least once a month. Once a week is ideal.
7. Make sure your links are easy to notice and are underlined.
8. Use lots of images and graphics for visual pop.
9. Keep it to 3 key colors for design.

Mary: Before you leave us, what’s the most important advice you can offer a writer who is in the process of designing and managing his or her own website?

Linda: Stay realistic about your website. Good websites take time to build. If you want the best results out of your site, be patient. By adding new content, and staying attentive to your website will build your page rank in Google and gain followers over time. It is not an instant process.

Mary: Thank you Linda. You’ve given us a lot of very useful information. Just a reminder: My previous interview with Linda Lee can be found at Designing Websites For Writers Part One.

Dear Readers: Join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen. You are warmly invited to ask Linda Lee questions or leave a comment. See the other interviews in this series for information about How To Get An Agent, How To Design A Book Cover That Sells Books,  Helping Independent Bookstores Survive and Thrive, Three Great Reasons To Still Print On Paper, and more. This is where the experts hang out.

And remember to come back next month to read another interview.



Jonah Raskin reviews Mary Mackey’s “Sugar Zone”

11 Sugar Zone, Cover, poems by Mary Mackey - CopyRead Jonah Raskin’s review of Mary Mackey’s Sugar Zone just published in Culture Counter Magazine by clicking here. Raskin praises the poems in Sugar Zone calling them “fluid, organic,” “magical,” and “tightly designed,” drawing on “the force of the Amazon itself.”

“The poems I like best,” Raskin says, “are about ghosts, hosts, disappearances and reappearances. They embody the richness of Brazil itself that’s inhabited by prowling jaguars and purple snails: the nation that pulses with the blood of the great anaconda and that’s polluted by the smoke of burning rainforests.”

Raskin notes that Sugar Zone “offers apocalyptic poems, private poems and poems about the limits of human expression . . . You might finish the book feeling you’ve made a terrifying and exhilarating journey, that you’ve searched the depths of your own soul and that you’d go back again with the poet herself as guide and translator who dishes out catastrophe and beauty, the sweetness of sugar cane, and the bitterness of Brazil itself.

Click here to read Jonah Raskin’s the full review of Sugar Zone.

In 2012, Sugar Zone received the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature.

Designing Websites for Writers Part One

Interview With Professional Website Designer Linda Lee

Linda LeeWelcome to the People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series. This month I’m talking to Linda Lee, professional website designer and founder of AskMePC Webdesign. This is Part One of a two-part interview with Linda about designing websites for writers.  Linda designed my website (http://marymackey.com/), but I’m not getting any discounts for interviewing her. I hired several website designers who didn’t work out before I found Linda. She proved to be easy to work with and very competent, so I decided to persuade her to share her knowledge about website design.

Mary: Linda, could you please begin by telling us why a writer needs a website? Why should someone go to all the expense and trouble of setting one up when anyone can get a Facebook Page for free?

Linda: I believe that it’s vital for every serious writer to have a website. With a website you can create a solid presence and identity as an author in ways that merely having a Facebook page will not do for you.

Mary: What’s the one of the most important things a website can do for you?

Linda:  A website can connect you directly with your own domain name. That domain name can be the name you use as an author. For example, if Shakespeare probably would have gone for shakespeare.com. If your author name is taken already, you can add the word “Author” as in shakespeareauthor.com. This is effective on several fronts. You have the keyword, “author” in your domain name. On the other hand,  if anyone looks for you in the search engines by your name  alone, it will still  pull up your website. They do not have to use the word “author.”

Mary: What are some of the other important things?

Linda: You can have a Sales Page for each one of your books on your website. This is important for the people who will be doing searches by your book titles. A title search will not take them to your Facebook page, but it will take them to the book’s sales page on your website where they will find a description of your book and all the ways they can buy it.

You also need a Blog. When you have a blog  on your website, every time you publish a post, it “pings” all the search engines and they re-crawl your website.

Mary: Why is it important to have the search engines constantly re-crawl your website?

Linda: Google pushes fresh content to the top of search results. When you regularly have new activity on your website, readers will see your site more often and more easily. In other words, regular activity such as blogging allows your readers to find you.

Mary: What if you just have frequent Facebook posts? That’s new material too, yes?

Linda: Yes, but people have to either join Facebook or be your friend before they can even read the short messages you post on Facebook. In contrast, the search engines also rank your website, so over time your site will come up more often as you keep adding new content. Facebook is not set up like this.  With a website you have  total control over both your website and your message.  There is no “clutter” or noise from other sources mixing in with your identity and message. Also, there are no ads and none of the major privacy issues your readers may encounter on Facebook.

A website is  a must in today’s publishing world. It is the first impression anyone will have of you as a professional author. For example, a reader reads your book and googles it.  A conference organizer hears about your book and googles it and cannot find a website for you. Someone in the media hears about your book and googles it. What do they find? How are they going to contact you? How are they going to learn about you and your work?

Mary: Could you please tell us some other things you can do if you have a website?

Linda:  You can create a site that reflects your ideas and style, visually as well as verbally. You can make it appealing and easy to negotiate. You can post free chapters for people to read and get feedback. You will be able to connect all your social media identities in one place using badges people can click to follow you. Finally, you should own everything you put online. If you are using a free website as your main identity, you will have no control over that in the end. Things change swiftly online and you want to own and keep all your own things in one place. Your website is the place to do that.

Mary: You’ve given us a lot of information. Just so we don’t get lost, could you please summarize why, in your professional opinion, it doesn’t work for a writer to just use Facebook as his or her website?

Linda: Let me list the main reasons for you:

Why not just use Facebook as my website?
•    Facebook is set up to be a place to connect with people. It is not the right place to use to promote yourself all the time. No one likes that.
•    Your website is all about you and your books and your journey as an author. Readers will go there to find information about you and your books   That is the purpose of a website.
•    People leave Facebook
•    Your messages easily get lost in the “noise” of Facebook.
•    If you are a serious author, publishers and agents expect you to have a website.
•    Often times now, they will not even consider your work until you set up a website. Why ? Because they need to see how serious you are about your writing career. A website has almost become step one. They want you to start building your audience and brand before they sign you.
•    You do not have control over Facebook, and they own your content. This is in their TOS. (Terms of Service).

Mary: Facebook owns all the content I put on their site? I didn’t know that! I’m going to have to try to plow my way through their Terms of Service and see what it actually stipulates. Like almost everyone I know, I just clicked on it without reading it. While I am recovering from finding out that I’ve signed my rights away to Facebook, tell us about your career. How did you start designing websites? What qualifications does it take? If you were looking for someone to design a site for you, what would you look for?

Linda: I started working online in 1998. Before that I was sales manager for a national recruiting firm. At the time, I had young children and wanted to work from home, so I started selling things on eBay and doing quite well. Then I discovered e-books, bought a huge reseller package of over 300 titles of “how to” e-books, and started selling them. I was selling over 500 e-books a week. It was crazy. This taught me how to sell online, how to set up ads, how to take photos and create a good sales page. How to set up downloads and troubleshoot problems online. It also taught me how to set up effective sales funnels and tools to work effectively online.Then eBay banned e-books. Overnight many of us were out of business.

I realized I needed to create my own website so that I owned everything and that could never happen to me again. I learned HTML and web design self-taught and  built my own site. In the process, I discovered that I had a knack for building websites, and my new career was born.

Mary: If you were looking for someone to design a site for you, what would you look for?

Linda: The first thing I would do is look at the designer’s own website and portfolio. Then I would check their references and testimonials. When looking for a website designer, you need to be sure to click on the websites they list in their portfolio. Do not be afraid to email those websites and ask how they liked working with the website designer. I have found many dishonest people who list sites that do not exist or sites that someone else designed. Or when you click to check a particular website, it turns out to be a different website altogether. So make sure to do due diligence.

Next, get a contract. Do not rely on emails or promises. In that contract make sure all the details and costs are spelled out. Make sure there is a time frame for completion that you both have agreed on. Many a person has come to me after their web designer flaked out or quit in the middle of the project, never to be seen again; so make sure you can phone them. Do not allow them to use email only. Get that contact information and be sure it works.

Mary: What’s the difference between designing a website for a business and designing a website for a writer?

Linda: The design process itself is not different. Design is the fun part of creating a website. Colors, general appearance, slideshows, social media connecting, branding– all of those constitute the fun part. The design part of my job is to create a site to each client’s tastes. This means that, as your web expert, I need to understand, your goal. What are you trying to achieve with this website? Questions about your tastes and your goals are the most important questions I ask in my consultations.  I need to know what components are needed and the long term plan you have for you website. Once I understand your goals and plans, I can draw on my experience to help you get where you want to be with your website. Studies show that you have 5-10 seconds to keep someone on your website. Your mission, and the main purpose of your website, needs to be to capture the reader and have your site be clear and easy to understand when the reader lands on it.

I have worked with professional technology companies that just want a strong branding presence. Their sole objective is the need to build trust for their brand, show a great modern “storefront,” and be found online. They are not trying to sell their products online. They are selling their business acumen and professionalism. They are also giving their clients their background and qualifications. This type of website is almost like a visual resume.

With an author’s website, everything is much more personal. Who are you? What do write about? What makes you and your books interesting and why would I want to read your work? Authors need to catch the reader’s attention. You can have humor as well as information about yourself on your website. In fact, you should. As a writer, you are your brand. So your site needs to be reflection of you.

Mary: How do you go about designing a website for a writer?

Linda: The basic components are the same for everyone, but when working with writers, there are certain features that are important to include. I’ve turned these features into a checklist for myself since I have done so many sites for writers.

Mary: We are going to discuss your checklists in Part Two of this interview. In the meantime, could you please give us urls to two or three sites you’ve created for writers and tell us what you like about them?

Linda: I’ll start with your website:  http://marymackey.com/

Your old site was not a good reflection of your ongoing, longtime success as a writer. When we designed your new site, we highlighted all your books with an extensive Book Overview Page. Each book listed links to the individual Sales Page, and then links to various places readers could purchase it. I don’t  create an Overview Page for all authors because they may only have one or two books. When a writer like you has so many titles, an Overview Page is critical.

Your readers want to be able to see all your titles on one page. New readers need to be able to find all your books in one place and not have to work to find new titles and spend time on Google searching for titles. Your website needs to be the ultimate location where your readers can find everything in one place and take it from there.

Mary: Many writers do things in addition to their writing. What kind of site would you build to blend those together? Could you give us another url that combines writing with other activities?

Linda: One of my clients is Michelle Chappel. Michelle is a musician, author, teacher and speaker. Her site is at  http://michellechappel.com/ The site I designed for her was picked as one of “15 Brilliant Websites That Will Inspire” by lifehack.com. On it we were able to highlight all her albums, and combine her other talents all in one place and capture the spirit of what she sings about and teaches.

Another fun website we did this year, is for a children’s book author, Elizabeth B. Martin at http://elizabethbmartin.com/
Elizabeth is an artist and writes children’s books. She brought me her website design ideas which she had drawn herself and laid out in a PDF. We took her drawings and used them to duplicate exactly what she had in her mind for her website. This included a flip book on her website for each book she had written. Children can go to her website and read the flipbooks of her actual books.  It is fun! We both felt that we had captured the whimsical side and fun of her work and brand.

Mary: Thank you, Linda. I look forward to hearing you give us more information about website design for writers in Part Two of this interview which will be appearing next month in People Who Make Books Happen. Meanwhile, I’m going to click on the sites you’ve mentioned to see what they look like. Are there links on your website to other sites that you’ve created ?

Linda: Yes. You can find over a fifty  examples of  websites I’ve designed on my Portfolio Page at  Askmepc Webdesign.

Dear Readers: Join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen. You are warmly invited to ask Linda Lee questions or leave a comment. See the other interviews in this series for information about How To Get An Agent, How To Design A Book Cover That Sells Books,  Helping Independent Bookstores Survive and Thrive, Three Great Reasons To Still Print On Paper, and more. This is where the experts hang out.

And remember to come back next month to read Part Two of Designing Websites For Writers




Mary Mackey Helps Goodreads Launch Ask The Author Program

Mary Mackey Is Now Answering Readers’ Questions at Goodreads.com

question marksGoodreads.com has just launched Ask The Author, a program which allows readers to ask direct questions and get direct, personal answers from their favorite authors. Mary Mackey has accepted Goodreads’ invitation to participate in Ask The Author and is now answering questions about her novels and poetry as well as general questions about the craft of writing, the joy of  reading books you can hold in your hands, the digital revolution in publishing, how to get an agent, and other topics her readers are interested in discussing with her. She is also inviting readers to ask her questions about her new Blog Interview Series People Who Make Books Happen. Ask her a question by going to her Goodreads Author Profile Page and scrolling down to Ask The Author.

Other authors who are helping  Goodreads launch Ask The Author include: Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, Michael Cunningham, James McBride, Ayelet Waldman, Anne Lamott, Frances Mayes, Michael Pollan, Jeff Kinney, Hugh Howey, Richelle Mead, and Kevin J. Anderson.

To ask Mary question, visit her author’s profile page by clicking here (or use the search box at the top of the Goodreads site to search for “Mary Mackey.”) Scroll down her Goodreads author profile, and you will see a space called Ask the Author. You can also select “More answers from…” to view all of the questions Mary has answered in the past. When Mary answers your question, the question and answer will appear on her profile as well as in the newsfeeds of Mary’s followers, and you will be notified on your Goodreads homepage and by email.

Hear Mary Mackey Speak about How To Travel Like A Writer

California Writers Club Mt. DiabloSaturday June 14, 2014, Pleasant Hill,CA  CA: Mary Mackey talks about “How To Travel Like A Writer.”  The Mt. Diablo Branch of the California Writers Club has invited Mary to speak to them about how traveling like a writer can make trips more interesting and exciting. She will address topics such as “How Travel Can Give You Ideas,” and “Why You Photos of Paris Will Be Like No One Else’s.  TIME:  11:15  am (lunch); PLACE: Zio Fraedo’s Italian & Continental Restaurant, 611 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill, CA 94523,(925) 933-9091,

Travelers With No Ticket Home Gets Rave Review

Travelers With No Ticket Home Porms by Mary MackeyPoet and performance artist Richard Loranger has just given Travelers With No Ticket Home, a rave review in his blog Hawk Eye. Travelers With No Ticket Home is my most recent collection of poetry, published by Marsh Hawk Press in April 2014.  To read other reviews of my novels and poetry, you’re invited to visit the Review Page on my website. On the Video Page, you will find recordings of me reading poems from Travelers With No Ticket Home.

Here is Loranger’s review:

REVIEW :: Travelers with No Ticket Home by Mary Mackey

Whenever Mary Mackey writes, she makes worlds. Whether you pick up one of her historical novels (The Notorious Mrs. Winston), her speculative early culture fiction (The Earthsong Trilogy), or her poetry (Sugar Zone and many others), you are guaranteed immersion in a universe that radiates from the focus of action outward. Her latest book of poetry, Travelers with No Ticket Home, is no different, except in that we journey without a guarantee of return. In this collection, Mackey transports us through several scapes, each as vivid as the last though vastly different in and of themselves. As she has in her previous two collections, she takes us through Brazil and into the heart of the Amazon. She travels with us there, but she is no tourist, as she and her husband, a professor of Environmental Studies, have been visiting regularly for over twenty-five years. This is her world, her backyard, a Rio and a rainforest that she knows, and she brings us to it with razor details swimming in verdant language (some of it Portuguese). So soon enough we find ourselves

nesta cidade dos sonhos

in this city of hallucinations

the air is like cola quente / hot glue

and the buildings are stuck waist-deep

in asphalt tão suave / so soft

you can chew it like gum (“Travelers with No Ticket Home”)


suspended on a black mirror that reflects the sky

we pass our fingers through clouds

as if they were the souls of birds (“A Estação das Chuvas / Rainy Season”).

Both very real and, yes, hallucinatory, her tone and word choice convey the impact of the places she deems to take us on several levels at once, the experience steeped in emotions, scents, cultural filters, shocks and epiphanies and the cycle of life lurking in every corner. This terrain is gorgeous and epiphanic, yet Mackey pulls no punches; whether stewing a monkey in cream sauce (everyone’s favorite image from “In Those Days Rivers Could Not Cool Me”) or lamenting for

…this city of despair where the poor live

in cardboard packing crates and children

are born to be shot (“Where I Left You”),

she remains uncompromising in her vivid and deft recounting.

Despite what I’ve said, lest you imagine this merely a travelogue, as the title implies these are places from which we might not leave, or which might not leave us. Perfectly in line with that conceit, this book takes us beyond the physical world to journeys into the affairs of the human heart and spirit. For Mackey also ventures more than a few steps into the experience of madness (via fever, drugs, and the world-beaten brain); explores the deep dusk of grieving, where lost ones “move toward us slowly like swimmers / floating toward the top of a pool that has no surface” (“Dreaming of the Dead We Have Loved”); and lifts us into the more ecstatic realms of human love. These latter pieces are given a section and a series title of their own, The Kama Sutra of Kindness, and it is indeed a kindness to place these toward the end of the book, lightening our journeys after treks through myriad daunting terrains.

There is, in fact, an ecstatic quality to much of this book, regardless of tone and subject, and this is precisely how Mary Mackey seems to travel – by throwing herself into life and place. And as language is itself a vessel, a carriage, a mode of travel, it carries that same excitement, an intoxication by which she transports us into the realms of the jungle, the realms of the mind from which there may be no complete return. As she notes in “After Carnival,” “how easy it is to give ourselves to the gods, o meu bem / how hard to take ourselves back”. Do yourself a well-deserved good, and book a one-way trip with Mary Mackey right soon.


Helping Independent Bookstores Survive and Thrive

Interview with Independent Bookstore Owner Amy Thomas

Amy Thomas owner of Pegasus BookstoresWelcome to the People Who Make Books Happen Interview Series. This month I’m interviewing Amy Thomas, owner and in her own words “President for Life” of Pegasus Books, who is going to tell us what independent bookstores do for us and what we can do for them. There are presently three Pegasus Bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area: two in Berkeley and one in Oakland. For the last 45 years, Amy’s independent bookstores have not only survived; they’ve thrived, becoming community centers where authors come to read and readers come to listen, browse, meet other readers, and buy books.

Mary: Amy, how did you become the owner of an independent bookstore? Was it always your dream to sell books?

Amy: I graduated from U.C. Berkeley in June 1980, got married in August, and in October, walked down the street to my favorite bookstore Pellucidar on Shattuck and Haste in Berkeley and got a job. I wasn’t thinking about a career in anything. I loved being around books, I liked all the chores associated with it, and I admired the man who was running the stores at the time. So, I just kind of stayed, doing this job and that job, having babies in between, and working nights and weekends while my husband went back to school.

Besides owning several bookstores, my boss had a remainder company: Western Book Distributors. In 1994 he sold his stores and Western to a woman he had known years before. She was not prepared for any of it, as it turned out, and after about a year or so he offered to take the stores back from her if I would agree to buy them from him.  I was startled,  since he knew how much money I made; and he was startled by my reaction having thought that maybe my family had money or something. In any event, he waited nearly a year until, with the invaluable assistance of the local Small Business Development Center, I found a bank that liked my story, and in 1996 I became the owner of Pegasus Books, which at the time consisted of four stores: Pegasus on Solano and in Walnut Creek, Pendragon in Oakland, and Pellucidar. 

I closed the Walnut Creek store almost immediately. A few years ago, I decided the rest should all have the same name. So now there’s Pegasus on Solano, Pegasus in Downtown Berkeley, and Pegasus  in Oakland.

Soon after I purchased the stores, I discovered I was quite interested in business, and feel fortunate to presently be running a business I believe in so fervently.

Mary: Why do you believe so fervently in your business? Why does a community need bookstores? What purpose do they serve?

Amy: A bookstore is a third place, a lit-up place on the street that should, if operated correctly, be equally appealing to people of every kind. As it says in our manifesto, we curate a collection of 300,000 worldviews, give or take. We offer this collection for review free of charge. Bookstores are stimulating places, for children and adults equally, which makes the vibe fun and interesting.

Mary: What do you love most about owning Pegasus Books?

Amy: There are so many things and they are so intertwined that it’s hard to know what to place first. My co-workers have supported me as well as the business through tough times and good times. Somewhere along the way, something in the zeitgeist shifted, and we started saying “yes” to everything – yes to our staff who brought and still bring an amazing amount of energy and fun to projects they dream up; yes to customers, who wanted us to be as competitive as possible to keep their business; yes to authors, both local and national, who wanted places to stock or celebrate their work; yes to partnerships in the community, whether by supporting any school that asks, sponsoring library read-a-thons, engaging with other local merchants through Buy Local Berkeley, or by serving on local business association boards.

Mary: Pegasus celebrated its forty-fifth anniversary this spring with a festival called Pegapalooza. How have you managed to stay in business for over four decades when so many other independent bookstores have gone under?

Amy: For one thing (and prosaically, it is probably the most important thing)  we have a specific mix of stock: new, used, remainders, cards, music, etc. This means our profit margin is simply more forgiving than that of a store that sells only new books. We have had very hard times, one of the worst not too long ago, and while we seem to have turned the ship around, it left me feeling that there is no magic bullet to keep a business going. Sales rise and fall inexplicably, and yet our vendors expect to be paid on time.  

Also, we live in the Bay Area, which is obviously a very expensive place to run a business, and our landlords expect to be paid, recession or no. People love the stores and do shop there by the hundreds, but they also love e-books and buy tons of books from internet discounters. My staff like working at the stores, but they also must live in the expensive Bay Area. So there is a lot of tension there, which makes for sleepless nights but also makes us dig even deeper to find the energy to do new things better, and keep things as lean as possible without affecting customers too much.  

Mary: Do you see e-books and internet sales as a threat, or do you see some way they can be to your advantage?

Amy: There is no business reason for us to promote e-books, since we make a vanishing fraction of  the price of the book. We do sell books, on our site, via the Kobo device or app, but have not seen any reason to put much energy into that business. Internet sales are a threat insofar as they, like the chain stores before them, rely very heavily on discounts to acquire market share. For almost two decades, and still in some states, they were not compelled, as I am, to collect sales tax, so their price advantage was always an additional nearly 10%. The major Internet vendors, have also frequently supported the idea that books should be free or very cheap, and that has had a tremendous negative effect on our whole industry: publishers, authors, and bookstores alike.   

Unfortunately, customers just see cheap books and think of the low prices as a greater good. I see the wreckage of important, interesting jobs that are vital to the life of our literary culture.

Mary: Pegasus Books regularly hosts poetry readings, book signings, workshops, and other events. What kinds of events bring in the largest crowds? When people come, do they buy books?

Amy: The biggest “names” bring in the largest crowds, but we have had very satisfactory events with authors who have connected in a real way with their readers who come out in numbers to hear them. We also do a series of what I call entertainments (First Person Singular, Happy Hour Stories) which are literary in nature but are not directly about big book sales. We do however find that once in the store, people find books they want. We are offered loads of offsite events, but have to pick through to find ones that seem as if they will strike the right balance between sales and staff time.  

Our poetry readings are so well curated and so well attended, that we find them very satisfactory from a financial point of view.

Mary: As a poet, I’m very glad to hear that. So, what’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened at one of your stores?

Amy: Gosh, many strange things have happened at the stores, probably stuff I don’t even know about (and please don’t tell me!). We did enjoy the woman who, after being nudged awake after a rather long nap in the store, pointed to a sign in the window and said indignantly, “It says Eat, SLEEP, Read!” We also enjoyed our visit from Legolas, the elf. The stores are in nicely urban neighborhoods, so we have seen our share of odd behavior.

Mary: Describe Pegasus Books in ten years. What changes do you think we’ll we see?

Amy: I hope we will see bookstores continuing to find excellent books, using all available technology to discover those books and deliver them to customers fast. I envision a future where bookstores have established more realistic terms with publishers so that they can sell books at reasonable prices and still make a reasonable profit, stores that work with and support other independent bookstores and businesses, stores that thrive in a world where people value authenticity and connection. I see my own stores continuing to be places where staff and customers come together daily to talk about literature.

 I am less good about imagining major changes, because what we do at bottom is so deeply traditional. Hundreds of different people produce thousands of titles yearly, and another few thousand people read catalogues, ARC’s (advanced reading copies),  and other kinds of copy to find excellent books. I don’t see how that could be streamlined without losing lots of books in the process. I would like to believe that in ten years my stores would once again exist in a world filled with both general and specialty bookstores in order to further this process of letting as many titles as possible see the light of day.

Mary: What can authors do to help bookstores like Pegasus thrive? What can book lovers do to make sure independent bookstores don’t disappear?
Amy: It would be helpful if authors could list either their local bookstore or indie stores in general on their sites. So many only list Amazon.  It would also be helpful if more authors could make common cause with the indies who are facing really horrendous business practices by the internet competition. Authors Kate DiCamilloSherman Alexie, Ann Patchett have all spearheaded initiatives to get people into indie bookstores.

Book lovers who also love bookstores simply need to shop at them. They can help the indies by weighing the often slightly higher cost against the value of having this kind of business in their town. A bustling bookstore just gets better and better when it can afford to have plenty of stock and be able to support community efforts and host events.

Mary: So your message is: “buy books from your local independent bookstores if you want them to survive and thrive?”

Amy: Exactly. It may sound obvious, but it’s vitally important, not just to bookstore owners but for everyone who loves all the great things only brick-and-mortar bookstores can offer: a sense of community; the luxury of browsing; staff picks; author events; a helpful, knowledgeable staff; a quiet place to spend time, and so much more.

Dear Readers: Join this conversation about People Who Make Books Happen. You are warmly invited to ask Amy questions or leave a comment. See the other interviews in this series for information about How To Get An Agent, How To Design A Book Cover That Sells Books, and more. This is where the experts hang out.

How To Stay Safe In Rio During The World Cup

Rio de Janeiro BrazilIf you want to stay safe in Rio during the World Cup, there are some things you can do to make sure you come home happy and in one piece. In the United States, Rio de Janeiro has a reputation for being scarily violent despite its beautiful beaches, friendly people, and warm climate. I’ve been going to Rio for the past twenty-five years, and I can’t count the times people have said to me: “You’re going to Rio for six weeks? Are you crazy!”

So how dangerous is Rio? Well, in my experience, the level of violence isn’t that much worse than in many big American cities except in the slums (which the Brazilians call “favelas.”) Still, whether you’re headed to Carnival, the 2014 World Cup in Soccer, or the 2016 Olympics, there are some things you need to know in order to stay safe. I love the city. It features prominently in my poetry and novels, but there are hazards you might not anticipate.

The first thing you should do is read the US Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs advice about Safety and Security in Brazil. This page is updated constantly and provides other handy advice re passports, visas, vaccinations, etc. The State Department posts advice for every country in the world. I never go anywhere without reading about my destination ever since I accessed the page about Moldova when I was about to leave for a research trip for my novel The Year The Horses Came. To my horror, I discovered I was about to walk into civil unrest that involved machine guns. Right now among other things, the Consular advice on Rio includes a warning about exploding manhole covers. Who knew?

After you’ve read the US State Department Consular advice about Rio, there will still be some dangers that only a long-time visitor to the city is likely to know about. Here are my three top tips to stay safe in Rio during the World Cup:

Number One: Traffic.   Rio has long had a reputation for violence, but in my 25 years of traveling to and living in Brazil, I’ve found that the number one danger in Rio is traffic. Buses run red lights at 30mph while there are people in the crosswalks; cars careen around blind corners at high speed; motorcycles come roaring down one-way streets the wrong way. Never cross a street without looking both ways more than once (I favor 4 times), and always assume that the vehicles coming toward you will not stop. Never stand in the street. Yes, you will see Brazilians doing it, but it’s their country and maybe they have special spirits protecting them. If you get into a cab, fasten your seat belt. Given the way the cab drivers dart between buses and trucks, you may also want to close your eyes.  Rio’s cabbies make New York City cabbies look like ads for traffic safety. As for renting a car, I’ve never had the guts to try driving in Brazil, although my husband has on occasion. Note that outside the city, roads sometimes suddenly end in 2 foot deep pits that will blow all your tires. Don’t speed. Better yet, to stay safe in Rio, don’t drive.

Number Two: The Ocean.  Rio has some of the world’s most beautiful and most famous beaches, but beware. The water is sometimes polluted and can give you nasty skin rashes (inquire locally).  This rarely happens at Copacabana, but there the surf can be a real danger. The waves looks small, manageable, but they pack terrific force and the currents are vicious.  I was once wading up to my knees in little waves, when a slightly larger one came in and knocked me off my feet so hard that the entire front and back of my left leg was purple with bruises for a week. I’ve known people who went in for a dip and were sucked out to sea. The waves also sometimes come to shore in a way that make it nearly impossible for you to get out of the water. My husband once nearly drowned about 10 feet off the beach. Yes, there are lifeguards. Yes, they are competent and dedicated, but you can get into trouble very fast. To stay safe in Rio, watch where the locals are swimming and follow their example.

Number Three: Robberies. It’s probably not news to you that tourists frequently get robbed in Rio, but there are some things you can do that will make it less likely that the victim of a robbery will be you. The basic strategy I follow is to look like a missionary who may want to collar you and tell you the Good News. Wear your older clothing and before you leave home, remove all jewelry that looks valuable. Take off your little gold earrings, your bracelets, even your wedding band if you can face not wearing it for a while. In the place of your valuable jewelry (and by valuable I mean anything that remotely looks valuable even if it is only worth $10), don costume jewelry. I have three seed necklaces and  two cheap-looking silver rings that I always wear when I’m in Rio. I always make sure that I can get both of the the rings off my finger fast if someone asks me for them. I’ve heard stories of people getting their fingers cut off by robbers, but I think these are mythical. Still, better to be safe in Rio than sorry at the Emergency Ward of the local hospital. By the way, health care is pretty good in Brazil and they tend not to charge for drugs. Instead, they give them to you. As a Brazilian doctor once said to me: heath care is a human right.

How dangerous is Rio? Probably a 6 or 7 on a world scale of 10. Staying safe in Rio during the World Cup isn’t all that hard, but you need to be alert.

Join this conversation by leaving a comment and telling me your stories about your trips to Rio de Janeiro or other parts of the world. Do you have any tips for staying safe?

(At the request of those who subscribe to my Blog, I am re-posting this information which appeared earlier under the title “How Dangerous Is Rio?” The information in this new post has been expanded and updated for people going to Brazil to attend the 2014 World Cup in Soccer.)