Brenda Knight, WNBA President, On Novels of Life and Death

brenda-knight-headshot-196x240Today I’m talking to Brenda Knight, the current president of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), San Francisco Chapter. WNBA was established in 1917, several years before American women had the right to vote. Brenda is a twenty-year publishing veteran who started out at HarperCollins, and the founding editor of Viva Editions, a division of Cleis Press. A writer as well as an editor, she has authored the American Book Award-winning Women of the Beat Generation, Rituals for Life and Wild Women and Books; and has worked with many bestselling authors including Mark Nepo, Phil Cousineau, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, and Paolo Coehlo. In her spare time (and it’s amazing she has any!), she volunteers for the American Cancer Society as a counselor for the newly diagnosed and leads writing workshops entitled “Putting Your Passion on Paper.”

Mary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Brenda. I understand that October is WNBA’s National Reading Group Month, and that on October 8th, the San Francisco Chapter is sponsoring an event at Books Inc, connected with San Francisco Litquake entitled Ghost, Bones, and Dust: Novels of Life and Death. That’s an intriguing title, but before we get to Ghost, Bones, and Dust, could you please tell us more about WNBA?

wnbasanfranciscoBrenda: WNBA is broad-based, non-profit organization with individual chapters in twelve cities plus individual members scattered across the country. There are  numerous corporate Sustaining Members plus Honorary Members drawn from the world of books and beyond. We give out three distinguished National Awards every year and sponsor major literary events in our chapter cities and elsewhere such as the WNBA National Reading Group Month event that is coming up on October 8 as part of San Francisco Litquake.

Mary: How is WNBA different from, say, PEN or The Authors Guild?

Brenda: Membership in PEN and The Authors Guild is limited to traditionally published writers Although most of our members are writers and editors, anyone who wants to help promote literacy on the international, national, and local level can become a member of WNBA.We not only celebrate women in the world of books, we’ve been dedicated to connecting, educating, advocating and leading in the literary community since 1917.

Mary: I was intrigued to learn that WNBA is a member of the United Nations.  Could you please tell us more about that?

Brenda: WNBA has been a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) member of the United Nations since 1959. We’re associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information, which means that among other things, we are committed to conducting effective information programs about UN Activities by publishing newsletters, bulletins, and pamphlets; organizing conferences, seminars and round tables; and enlisting the cooperation of the media.  In short, it’s our responsibility to support the United Nations in its goals and win support for those goals among members of the wider community.

Mary: What are some of the specific goals WNBA is trying to win support for?

Brenda: Our present goals include promoting gender equality, empowering women world-wide, and reducing child mortality rates. Plus, of course, we are always working to encourage reading and literacy.

Mary: Which brings us to WNBA National Reading Group Month. What is it?

Brenda: WNBA National Reading Group Month celebrates shared reading by promoting the formation of new reading groups and providing the members  of existing reading groups with suggestions for Great Group Reads. Great Group Reads are a key element in National Reading Group Month.

Mary: So, if I have this right, you’re putting out a list of great books that the members of the thousands of reading groups in this country will enjoy reading together?

Brenda: Exactly. In our opinion, these books are the best of the best for reading groups to read together.

Mary: How many books do you recommend each year?

Brenda: We recommend 20.

Mary: How are the books chosen?

Brenda: The great reads are chosen by a WNBA panel of writers, reviewers, booksellers, publicists, and committed readers. The titles cover timely and provocative topics, and always include under-represented gems from independent presses and less-known mid-list releases from larger houses. Authors are often surprised to hear that their book has been selected by the National Great Group Reads Panel.  

Mary: and pleased.

Brenda: We’ve never had any objections!

ghosts-bones-dustMary:  Now let’s talk about “Ghost, Bones, and Dust: Novels of Life and Death,” the National Reading Group Month panel WNBA is hosting on October 8th as the Kickoff Party for San Francisco Litquake. Where is it? When is it?

Brenda: The Great Group Reads panel Litquake Kickoff Party will be held on October 8th from 2:00 to 4:00 pm at Books Inc., the West’s oldest independent bookseller, which is located at 601 Van Ness in San Francisco (Opera Plaza). Lara King, an Edgar-winning mystery novelist, and five best-selling authors will discuss their books and the joys of shared reading. Refreshments will be catered by Max’s Opera Café.

Mary: Refreshments and good books. A great combination. Who are the five authors whom people will meet at this event? I believe I know one of them rather well.

Brenda: Cara Black, author of 14 books in the Private Investigator Aimee Leduc series, which is set in Paris; Patricia V. Davis, author of the bestselling Harlot’s Sauce: A Memoir of Food Family, Love, Loss, and Greece; Jessica Chiarella, author of the stunning debut novel And Again; Mary Volmer, author of Reliance Illinois; and Mary Mackey, New York Times bestselling author of 14 novels including The Village of Bones, the prequel to your Earthsong Series. The Panel will be moderated by Laurie R. King, New York Times bestselling author of the Mary Russell series of historical mysteries.

Mary: I’m honored to be one of the authors featured at this event. So, everyone, please come to Books Inc. on October 8th, celebrate WNBA National Reading Group Month, and buy books from the West’s oldest independent bookseller. We need to support literacy, reading groups, and our independent bookstores!

Sept 21 Mary Mackey at University Press Books in Berkeley

University Press Books Berkeley, CAWednesday, September 21, 2016, Berkeley, CA: Celebration of the paperback edition of The Village of Bones. Mary will read selections from The Village of Bones and sign books. There will be time to have fun, browse the books in one of the West Coast’s finest bookstores, and talk to interesting people. TIME: 5:30 to 7:00 pm. PLACE: University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley CA

Mary Mackey Reads Tomorrow Night At Modern Times In San Francisco

Modern Times logoThursday, September 15, 2016, San Francisco, CA: Mary will read selections from The Village of Bones and sign books at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco’s Mission District. TIME: 7:00 PM. PLACE: Modern Times Bookstore, 2919 24th Street, San Francisco, CA

Women’s Visionary Fiction: Visions, Magic, Prophecy


cosmic dustLike all visionary fiction, Women’s Visionary Fiction gives us visions, magic, prophecy, spiritual experiences, the ability to see the future, to walk through the past, to hear the dead speak, and see other worlds that exist behind the thin veil that separates us from them. But Women’s Visionary Fiction gives us something more. That something, simply stated, is women.  Women write this fiction. In it, all the world, visible and invisible, mystical and real, is seen through female eyes.

In Part II of this series, I want to take you inside one novel written by a woman, and show you how the visionary aspects unfolded. The novel, which was only published a few weeks ago, is The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale. I am the author, and I know it inside out, having researched it for three years and put it through at least twelve complete drafts.

As the subtitle suggests, The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is written from the viewpoint of a woman named Sabalah, a young priestess who lives six thousand years ago in a Europe inhabited by Goddess-worshiping people who are on the verge of being invaded by marauding nomads who are about to bring male gods, warfare, and genocide to lands that have known peace for thousands of years. It’s an epic adventure of magic, prophecy, and passion that involves a perilous journey, a deadly threat, and a lover who is more than human.

So what, you may ask, are the visionary elements that make The Village of Bones Women’s Visionary Fiction, as opposed to simply Visionary Fiction?  Well, first, as you can probably guess from my name (Mary), I am a woman. But more to the point, I wrote the first draft in a trance that produced a novel deeply saturated with female consciousness.
I didn’t write all of The Village of Bones in a trance, of course. You need your entire mind and all your rational facilities to structure and polish a novel, not to mention that I can’t type on my computer with my eyes closed. But the visions I describe in The Village of Bones are visions I saw as clearly as if someone had been running a movie inside my head, and the director of that movie was definitely a woman.

Was She me? That’s a good question. I developed this creative trance technique several decades ago, and I still  don’t know whether the someone who gives me visions is my Muse, a Goddess, a spirit, or simply my own imagination. All I know is that when I called up the story of The Village of Bones, I saw female things: A Sea Goddess, dressed in coral and foam, who told Sabalah she would give birth to a magical child. A Huge Snake Goddess floating in mid-air who warned Sabalah to take her newborn daughter Marrah and flee west to escape the nomads. A powerful Oracle, neither completely male nor completely female, who gave Sabalah a sacred text called the Mother Book, which contained all knowledge past and present, and which could destroy all humanity if it fell into the wrong hands.

As I entered this prehistoric world of visions and prophecies, I saw everything through Sabalah’s eyes. Dolphins that would let you ride on their backs. Great temples sacred to the Bird Goddess built in the shape of birds. Powerful beings with psychic powers who could shape-shift. And one of the most powerful of all these strange beings was a not-quite-human woman.  

I tell you all this to let you know that Women’s Visionary Fiction is not simply a category or a sign in a bookstore that tells you what kind of books you can find on the shelves below. Women’s Visionary fiction, in my case and in the case of other women writers I have spoken to, is not only ecstatically visionary. It is crafted from women’s lives and emerges from the deepest recesses of their unconscious. It is, in short, the stuff women’s dreams are made of.

Read Part I of “What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction?”

•    Syllabi for courses in Women’s Visionary Fiction, Women’s Visionary Poetry, and Women’s Visionary Film can be found on Mary Mackey’s Educators Page at
•    To get the latest news about Mary Mackey, Women’s Visionary Fiction and The Village of Bones, click here.
•    Mary Mackey, Ph.D. writes novels, poetry, and film scripts. A Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Sacramento, she is the author of thirteen novels and seven collections of poetry including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award. Garrison Keillor has featured her poetry four times on The Writer’s Almanac. Her novels have made The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists and been translated into twelve languages. Her visionary novel The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale is a prequel to the three novels in her best-selling  Earthsong Series (The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring). Mary welcomes your questions and comments at  where, you can sample her work, read her interview series People Who Make Books Happen, and sign up to get the latest news about her visionary fiction and poetry. You can also Like her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @MMackeyAuthor. Mary’s literary papers are archived at the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library at Smith College in Northampton, MA.

“What Is Women’s Visionary Fiction (Part II)” originally appeared on the Visionary Fiction Alliance Blog as a guest post by Mary Mackey.


Swimming In The American River

The Distant Cataract About Which We Do Not Speak (By Mary Mackey)

     Sunset Sacramento on American RiverThe air is full of drifting cottonwood seeds; the water is turning from translucent green to puddled copper; it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit; and once again I am about to sneak up on the ducks disguised as one of their own. Donning a blue baseball cap and a pair of sunglasses, I slip into the river, sink until my nose is just above the surface, and begin to do a slow, underwater breaststroke toward a flock of mallards.

The water comes from Sierra snowmelt that has been held behind Folsom dam like a cache of liquid ice. Even in mid-July, it is still so cold, it takes my breath away, but over the years I have learned that, if I grit my teeth and keep swimming, my body will gradually acclimatize. 

The mallards do not notice my approach. They never do. Perhaps ducks are nearsighted, perhaps they have a limited ability to sort out foreground and background, perhaps they are too busy dunking under to grab a beak-full of duckweed, or perhaps they just don’t give a damn. I have never been sure why they always fail to notice the weird thing moving toward them, particularly on days like today when I approach against the current. Logically, I can not possibly be a log or even a lost beach ball.

I swim nearer. No one looks up. The mallards continue to quack and duck their heads under the water. Over to the left, a male is engaged in a display of splashing and wing beating aimed at impressing a female who appears to be more interested in grooming her tail feathers. I take a few more strokes and float silently into the middle of the flock. The water is so clear I can see tadpoles scattering beneath me in all directions. The shadow of a large fish, a carp perhaps, slides under my feet. I am now close enough that I could reach out and grab the legs of the nearest drake, but I am a duck-observer, not a duck-eater.

For a moment, I relish my presence among them. Again, I wonder why they are not seeing me. Does the bill on my baseball cap make me look like a large mallard? Does their universe include the possibility of a bright blue duck with no eyes or tail feathers?

Suddenly, a female with six tiny ducklings trailing behind her paddles toward me, freezes, and does a double-take. That THING is definitely not a duck! She gives a terrified squawk and my cover is blown. Instantly all hell breaks loose. Quacking in panic, the ducks scatter like swimmers who have just realized that the log floating toward them is actually a crocodile. Most of the flock takes to the air; the mothers lead their ducklings into the reeds and disappear.

 Finding myself alone again with only a few floating feathers to keep me company, I turn and begin to swim back toward the island, still keeping a low profile. Sometimes on the return trip, I see other animals. I can not get anywhere near the four-foot tall blue herons who are too smart and much too wary to be taken in; but once a green heron actually perched on my cap for a moment, perhaps mistaking me for a small, blue island. On another occasion, near dusk, I looked up and there on the bank, staring at me with unguarded curiosity, was a large buck with a fine rack of antlers. Once, only once, I saw a coyote playing catch with a stick.

Only a week ago as I swam in a warmer backwater, something sneaked up on me. It was not, thank goodness, a rattlesnake. I have only seen one of those in the seventeen some years I have been coming here and one was enough to last a lifetime; but it gave me quite a start nevertheless. I was swimming under the cottonwoods toward a patch of ripe blackberries that can only be pillaged by water, when I heard a huge smack behind me. I did exactly what the ducks do under such circumstances: I squawked and began to paddle toward safety only to discover that I was sharing the lagoon with a large beaver.

I have no idea why she was out in mid-afternoon. As a rule, beavers are crepuscular creatures. When we paddle our canoe back to the boat launch after sunset, we often encounter as many as twenty of them: large, plump, shadowy balls that slap their tails on the water like a rhythm band as we float by. But this one was up early, and she did not enjoy sharing the lagoon. For a few minutes she swam circles around me, slapping and diving. Then, to my great relief, she slid under water and disappeared. I have never heard of anyone being attacked by a beaver, but I got a good look at her, and just for the record, beaver teeth, when seen up close, are formidable.

But today, I make it back to the island without encountering anything more than a small muskrat and a swarm of Bluetail flies. Stumbling out of the water across a spread of small, unreasonably sharp stones, I towel off, sit down in a lawn chair, pick up the thermos, and pour myself a cup of iced tea. In a few minutes my husband, who originally introduced me to this place, swims up and joins me. We sit, chatting, drinking tea, eating cold melons, and waiting for the sun to set; and in the distance, as always, we hear the sound of The Distant Cataract About Which We Do Not Speak.

Of course, it is not really the sound of a cataract. It is the roar of rush hour traffic, half of it crossing the Howe Avenue Bridge, half of it crossing the bridge at Watt. We are sitting on an island in the American River, right in the middle of Sacramento, the state capital, a metropolitan area of well over a million people, but my husband and I like to preserve our mutual delusion. We have agreed to imagine we are not a five- minute drive from our home and a twenty-minute walk from the university where we both teach, but instead in some remote part of California where just out of sight a magnificent waterfall foams down into a green pool.

The American River Parkway makes this fantasy amazingly easy. For over thirty miles, it runs through the heart of the city from Folsom Lake to the point where the American River joins the Sacramento. This is a town where if you float in a canoe or sit on an island below the levees you can not see houses (except in a few places where, alas, the zoning restrictions are being violated). This is a town where some state employees kayak to work; where, no matter how hot it gets, you can get goosebumps and blue lips just by going for a swim.

Over the years, we have seen Hmong families in brightly embroidered, traditional dress picnicking on the banks. We have come upon a circle of Somoans, up to their chests in water, drinking cold beers and singing “On The Boardwalk” in perfect  harmony. When we launch our canoe, we often find ourselves having conversations in Spanish with recent immigrants from Mexico or Central America. About 75,000 Russians live in Sacramento county, many of them Baptists. We have watched them build huts of reeds and flowers and carry flowered crosses out into the water as part of their baptismal rituals. African-American congregations baptize here too, dressed in white robes. Like the Russians, they sing hymns and pray. I am always moved when I hear them. This, I think, is the spiritual heart of the river.

Once, during a January when it looked as if the levees might break, my husband and I came upon a pile of candy wrapped in gold foil, pineapples and oranges sliced in half, several beheaded guinea fowl, a pack of matches, and a handful of popcorn: traditional offerings made to the goddess Oxum by devotees of the African-Brazilian religion Candomblé. On another occasion, we went down to the river to launch our canoe and found the parking lot occupied by a Russian Orthodox priest and his congregation. The priest appeared to be blessing the river with incense. A procession made its way to the edge of the river bearing banners painted with holy icons. I believe their prayers were in Old Slavonic.

But nothing can compare to a night in early August when my husband and I came to the river and found it full of small, floating lanterns. A Japanese priest stood at the boat launch chanting as the lanterns drifted toward him and his congregation. We found out later that this is a traditional ceremony for souls lost at sea, but that now it is done to commemorate those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. Above the lanterns, a full moon rose into the sky, bright and large as a second sun. The flames swirled in the current, the night primroses blossomed, the beavers were silent, and for a few moments the American was a river of light.

Note by Mary Mackey: This description of my swims in the American River was originally written for My California (Angel City Press), an anthology published to raise money for the California Arts Council and school writing programs statewide.  






How to Archive Your Literary Papers

Earthsong SeriesA few months ago, I packed up six drafts of my recently published novel The Village of Bones and sent them to Smith College along with thirty-eight boxes of other materials that span my writing career. I have been saving these materials for well over forty years; and after fifteen years of inventive procrastination, I finally gotten around to archiving them. The result is that I now have a clean basement (who knew the floor was made of concrete?) and the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library in Northampton, Massachusetts has my Literary Papers.

What are “Literary Papers?” Well, “The Mary Mackey Papers,” as Smith calls them, include among other things: copies of all the foreign and English language editions of my novels and collections of poetry; multiple handwritten drafts of my works; copies of every magazine with my written work; fliers for most of the readings and lectures I’ve done; photographs of me from age two to the present; literary correspondence from famous writers like Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Marge Piercy, and less well known writers who should be better known; posters almost too big to mail, and chapbooks so small that if you gasped, you might inhale them.

Smith even asked me to send them my juvenilia, a term for the things I wrote when I was a child; so I have had the fun of finding my first novel (a science fiction piece written when I was nine about a little girl who outwits alien robots) and my first collection of poetry (handwritten on lined paper when I was eleven).

As you can see, “archiving” your literary papers means much more than simply placing copies of your books in a library. A university archive is like a safe or a time capsule. Smith is going to put every scrap of my materials in a specially constructed part of the Special Collections Library where they will be preserved in a climate-controlled environment and protected from insects and mold, not to mention floods, fires, mudslides, and earthquakes. Thus, The Mary Mackey Papers will be available to the general public, students, and scholars of the future for all eternity, or at least until climate change makes the human race extinct.

I want to encourage every woman writer reading this to think about archiving her literary papers. (Actually every male writer should too, but that’s another issue.) Please don’t think: “There’s no use my trying to find a place to archive my work. I’m not important enough. No one will want my papers.” Almost every woman I’ve told about the archiving process has said this, including famous poets and best-selling novelists. On the other hand, when I mention archiving to male writers they tend to say: “That’s a great idea. Of course my work should be preserved for posterity.” Or sometimes: “I don’t think anyone will want my papers, but I’ll give it a try. All they can do is say ‘no.’”

The men are right. If you contact an institution about archiving your papers, the worst they can say is: “No, we can’t take them.” But if you don’t try, your work may end up in a dumpster. You need to archive your papers now, while you are alive and can made all the important decisions. Don’t leave archiving your papers to your heirs or they may dump your old love letters in with the rest, and you may end up being known to future generations as “Snookums.”

So how do you go about archiving your papers? Well, that depends. If you are younger, you probably don’t have much. In fact, everything you have may be in digital form, so you need to begin printing some of it out. Not all of it, but a few drafts, important emails, etc. You should also start saving fliers from the readings you do. And don’t throw away those poems you wrote when you were nine. Keats kept his early poems. Keep yours.

If you are over fifty (or already very well-known), you need to make a general list of what you have and estimate how much room it takes up. Then you need to find out which libraries, universities, or museums already collect the kinds of things you have.

Next, you need to send a brief email to places you think might be interested in archiving your papers. Introduce yourself, describe the highlights of your collection and its significance, attach a very brief bio, and ask them if they are interested in seeing more. My initial email was three paragraphs, sent out with the subject line “Interested in a literary collection?”

Archiving your papers is particularly important right now. Literary correspondences are occurring in emails; drafts of novels and poems are being stored in the Cloud; news of readings are coming via MailChimp. According to the archivists I have spoken to, the life of digital material is about five years. Then bit rot sets in, and the files are no longer readable.

In other words, the entire literary life of the twenty-first century is being written on water. Let’s see that it’s written in stone.

If you do archive your papers, that is to say if you place them in a climate-controlled environment in a university or museum archive, I have a present for you: I have created A Guide To Women Writers’ Archives on my website. Send me your information, and I will put you up there with Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, and Maya Angelou.

woman reading a book in a library

Mary Mackey is a bestselling author who has written seven volumes of poetry including Sugar Zone winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. She is also the author of fourteen novels some of which have appeared on The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists. For more information about Mary’s books, including her recently published novel, The Village of Bones, please visit her website.

This article was originally posted on the Women’s National Book Association, San Francisco Chapter, website. To see it in its original context CLICK HERE.



Lowenstein Associates has just published The Village of Bones, Sabalah’s Talethe Prequel to my best-selling Earthsong Series. If you buy the novel before May 15th, you can get a FREE Kindle edition of The Year the Horses Came, which is the next novel in the Series.

“Mary Mackey’s The Village of Bones, gives us the vivid adventures of The Clan of the Cave Bear, the magic of The Mists of Avalon and Lord of the Rings, and the beauty of Avatar. Filled with the belief that love drives out fear, it contains stunning twists that will leave you wanting more.”   –Dorothy Hearst, author of the Wolf Chronicles

A perilous journey, a stunning prophecy, a dangerous love that could destroy humankind: In 4386 B.C., a young priestess named Sabalah conceives a magical child with a mysterious stranger named Arash. Sabalah names the child Marrah. This child will save the Goddess-worshiping people of Europe from marauding nomad invaders called Beastmen, but only if her mother can keep her alive long enough to grow up. Warned by the Goddess in a vision of the coming invasion, Sabalah flees west with Arash to save her baby daughter, only to discover that she is running into the arms of her worst enemies. In the dark forests of northern Europe, other human-like species left over from the Ice Age still exist. 

Click here to buy the Kindle e-book.
Click here to buy the paperback edition.

Click here for your FREE Kindle e-book edition of The Year The Horses Came.


Interview With A Witch

Mary Mackey Interviews San Francisco Witch Starhawk

StarhawkMary: Welcome to People Who Make Books Happen, Starhawk. I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time about your work as a Witch, and am pleased to be able to help you celebrate the publication of your new novel City of Refuge.

A novel-writing Witch is not the kind of Witch you come across every day. In fact, people often have a stereotyped image of a Witch as an old woman in a pointed hat who flies around on a broomstick. What does it mean to call yourself a Witch in 2016? What does the title “Witch” mean to you and how does it differ from the stereotype?

Starhawk: For me, being a Witch means having a commitment to the ancient, earth-centered spiritual and healing traditions of Old Europe and the Middle East, and serving the well-being and development of the community that is practicing and regenerating this spiritual path. It is also a way of identifying with and reclaiming the heritage of the many, many women and men who have been persecuted down through the ages for holding to the old belief that the earth is sacred.

Mary: How did you become a Witch?

Starhawk: I first met Witches when I was researching an anthropology project in my Freshman year at UCLA back in 1968.  I began studying with them—and when I became part of the second wave of the feminist movement in succeeding years, it seemed to that an ancient religious tradition with a focus on the Goddess, that offered roles of responsibility and leadership to women, was an  important aspect of empowering women.  When I moved to San Francisco in 1975, I began training with Victor Anderson of the Feri Tradition and was initiated—I went through a ritual of commitment and empowerment.  In the early ‘80s, a group of us began what became the Reclaiming Tradition, bringing together deep magic, personal and collective healing, political action and practical earth healing.

Mary: Can you briefly tell us about the Wiccan Religion and Contemporary Paganism? For example, when did Wicca become an officially recognized religion in the United States?

Starhawk: The contemporary Pagan revival has many strands—the interest in occultism and Eastern spirituality going back to the 19th century in England and US, the writings and teaching of Gerald Gardner and his followers in England in the 50s, the interest in Eastern and indigenous spirituality in the ‘60s, and the feminist movement in the ‘70s and ‘80s where we began searching for alternatives to patriarchy.

The US doesn’t officially recognize religions—the body that does is simply the IRS, which awards the non-profit religious organization status.  The Covenant of the Goddess received that status in 1975, and many other Wiccan and Pagan organizations have done so since, including various groups within Reclaming’s extended network. Many Wiccan and Pagan organizations have taken part in interfaith organizations—including the Parliament of The World’s Religions, and have also mounted successful campaigns to get Wicca recognized by the military. Ongoing campaigns include the efforts spearheaded by Patrick McCollum to get Wiccan and Pagan chaplains for prisoners in California and other states.  Slowly, we are gathering more widespread recognition.

Mary:  How has being a Witch influenced your life and your work?

Starhawk: My deepest spiritual experiences have always taken place in nature, and discovering that there was a spiritual tradition that honored nature as sacred, for me, was like coming home. Wicca teaches that the Goddess is immanent in the natural world and in human beings, and for me, this is the ground of my spiritual practice, my political work for social and environmental justice, and my creative work as a writer, film maker and permaculture teacher and designer.

City of refuge, StarhawkMary: Your new novel City of Refuge is a sequel to your earlier novel The Fifth Sacred Thing which is often assigned in courses on Woman’s Spirituality. Could you please briefly describe both novels? What is the most important thing you want your readers to take away from City of Refuge?

Starhawk: Both The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge are set in the mid-twenty-first century, when, after environmental and social meltdowns, Northern California has become a matrifocal, multi-cultural, ecological balanced society, devoted to peace, art, and connection.  Southern California has become the opposite—militarist, racist, with huge divides between rich and poor. When the Southlands invade the north, the people of Califia struggle with the question of how to defend themselves without becoming what they are fighting against.

The Fifth Sacred Thing, StarhawkFor me, The Fifth Sacred Thing came directly out of the research I had been doing on the period you yourself write about in your Earthsong Series novels about the Goddess-worshiping cultures of Neolithic Europe: the shift from the early matrifical cultures of the Goddess to patriarchal, warlike cultures. I was asking myself the question: Could it have been different? Could those peaceable early cultures have resisted the takeover without changing so drastically into something resembling the invaders? Or, even more crucial, could we do that now? Is it worth trying to develop a society rooted in peace and cooperation if it is doomed to be conquered?

City of Refuge begins where The Fifth Sacred Thing leaves off. The invaders have been ousted, and much of their army has defected and joined the Califians. The book centers around a different question:  How can we build a new world when people are so deeply damaged by the old?

Mary: How, if at all, has your perspective on nature, society, and spirituality changed since you wrote The Fifth Sacred Thing in 1993?

Starhawk: I have a great deal more knowledge around practical earth healing, permaculture and ecological design, and much more experience in situations of intense conflict, such as the global justice mobilizations of the early part of this century, of supporting the nonviolent resistance in Palestine to the Occupation, of aiding relief efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  I have a wider breadth of experience, and probably seen more nuances. For me, a novel centers around a question, not around answers, and I continue to hold these great questions. I don’t expect to find clear answers in my lifetime, but in wrestling with the questions, we may find a way forward.

Mary: Both The Fifth Sacred Thing and City of Refuge are post-apocalyptic novels. Do you think we are headed for a planetary apocalyptic melt-down?

Starhawk: There’s a proverb, reputed to be Native American, that says:  “If we don’t change our direction, we’re going to wind up where we’re headed.” It doesn’t take a prophet to see where we’re headed toward destruction.  We’re already past the tipping point on climate change. We’re experiencing a concentration of wealth and power and a militarization of everyday life on an unprecedented scale, and the two crises are really the same one—the ultimate end of a patriarchal war culture that places profit and weapons over caring and nurturing. But I also believe that we have the tools, insights, and technologies to turn it around, that we still have the potential to use the resources we still have now now to create the resources we need for a new world, one in balance with nature and where we prize interconnection over domination. 

It’s a question of political will.  I believe that making this transition is the biggest challenge we face in the coming years, and that all of us have come into life at this time to make our own unique contribution to the change.

Mary: What is the most important thing we can do to meet that challenge on both a personal and global level? Can we build a City of Refuge?

Starhawk: To meet that challenge, I encourage people to educate themselves, to become ecologically literate and socially adept, to learn about other cultures and explore multiple perspectives. I also encourage everyone to give yourself time to have your own connection to the natural world, to spend some time each day listening to nature and observing the plants, trees, animals, sky, water and soil.  And then—take action.  Ask yourself what you most deeply care about, and put yourself at its service. Organize, or join with others. Stand up against the destruction, but do it with an awareness of what we want to create. And don’t lose hope!

Mary: For many years you have taught classes in non-violence and earth-based spirituality. Could you briefly describe the classes you are currently offering and tell people how they can enroll?

Starhawk: I currently teach a lot of workshops, give many talks and discussions, and direct an organization called Earth Activist Training, where we teach permaculture—ecological design—with a grounding in spirit and a focus on organizing and activism.  We also give courses in social permaculture—applying ecological and systems thinking to human relationships and group dynamics. People can find out more information on my website,, and on the Earth Activist Training site.

Mary: Will you be doing any public readings from City of Refuge this spring?

Starhawk: I’ll be doing lots of traveling, talks, and readings throughout this spring and next year as well. My full schedule can always be found at, and people can also sign onto my mailing list to get advance notice of events.

Mary: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.

Starhawk: It’s been a pleasure.

Starhawk is one of the most respected voices in modern earth-based spirituality. Besides being a practicing Witch, she is the author or co-author of twelve books, including The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, long considered the essential text for the Neo-Pagan movement, and the now-classic ecotopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thingnow in development for film and television. Her most recent novel City of Refuge is the long-awaited sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing. Starhawk’s papers are archived at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

Join this  People Who Make Books Happen conversation with Starhawk. You are warmly invited to leave a comment. People Who Make Books Happen is where the experts hang out.

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Come Celebrate National Poetry Month With Mary Mackey

POETRYTuesday, April 19, 6 pm, Montclair Branch/Oakland Public Library,  Mary will be reading from her new and collected poems to celebrate National Poetry Month. Reading with her will be poets Grace Marie Grafton; John Rowe; Sheryl J. Bize Boutte; Grace Morizawa; William Winston; and Carol Pingree. Linda Brown, Past President of the California Writers Club will MC. TIME: 6:00 to 8:00 pm. PLACE: Montclair Branch/Oakland Public Library, 1687 Mountain Boulevard, Oakland, CA  94611. Free and open to the public. Open mic after the reading.