Reva Basch (reva) Mon 24 May 99 15:54
Phil Catalfo interviews Mary Mackey, a novelist, a poet, a screenwriter, a scholar, a world traveler, and a raconteur. Her latest book, the Fires of Spring, is the concluding part of her Earthsong Trilogy, which includes The Year the Horses Came and The Horses at the Gate.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Thu 27 May 99 17:56
Well, hello there, everyone, and a very pleasant good day to you, wherever you may be. I'm delighted to have this opportunity to interview Mary Mackey, whose work I've admired for years and with whom I've had many wonderful conversations about literature, the art and craft of writing, politics, religion, and Life Itself. She is a polymath, a born storyteller, and a caring and playful soul, and y'all are gonna enjoy the heck out of this. Mary, to get this rolling, I'd like to ask you a kind of multi-part question: How old were you when you first became interested in writing? At what point did you first *see yourself* as a writer? Also, I describe you above as a "born storyteller," and I'm not just speaking rhetorically; I know that storytelling featured prominently in your childhood. Please tell us about that, and about the writer as storyteller. [That ought to keep her busy for a while...! :^)]
Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 27 May 99 21:32
The writer as storyteller. Ah, that's a good start. How young do you want to go? I don't have any prenatal memories of wanting to be a writer (or of anything else for that matter); but my parents read to me every night when I was a child, I was told at a very early age that I was related to Mark Twain (through the Clemens on my father's side of the family), and everyone I loved told stories. When I was a kid, my Kentucky relatives sat on the porch at the farm, chewed tobacco, swatted mosquitoes, and told about terrible events and amazing scandals many of which, I later realized, had taken place in the early years of the nineteenth century. One of my earliest memories is hearing about a kid who hid in the wheat to surprise his Daddy. His Daddy was surprised all right. He bailed him (or, as my Great Uncle Wid put it "wrapped the boy up in wire neat as a Christmas package). With a start like that, I was bound to be a writer. I never considered being anything else from as far back as I can remember. Even before I could read, I told stories. In fact I discovered at an early age that if I got a group of kids together, began a story, and then stopped at the most exciting part, I could get them to give me candy to continue. The truth is, I would have gone on anyway; but they never discovered that, and my first twenty advances all came in the form of chocolate. I've always thought that if I'd lived in the Neolithic, I'd have been the tribe storyteller, sitting around some smoky fire trading tales for skins of fermented honey and nice crisp hunks of roasted venison.
Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 27 May 99 21:33
Although I was a storyteller and although I wanted to grow up to be a writer, I didn't actually see myself as one until I was about eleven. I can remember the moment quite clearly. I was sitting in class, listening to the teacher explain geometry. Suddenly it struck me that the shapes she was drawing on the board (triangles, rectangles, etc.) were all around meyhidden in the outlines of leaves, in people's faces, in the patterns birds make when they fly south for the winter. That evening I wrote six poems about how beautiful science and nature were, how they touched and reflected each other. They were dreadful poems (rhymed, of course, and full of silly archaic words), but they were the beginning of my life as a poet, and oddly enough they reflected a theme that still pervades my work.
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Fri 28 May 99 11:42
Perhaps we can come back to discussing poetry, but first I'd like to go a little deeper with the storytelling. What is it, do you think, about storytelling that gives that particular form of communication so powerful a hold on us, that engages us so deeply? Why do we like to be told stories--not just when we're young, but throughout our lives? What makes for a good story--and, more to the point, for a good storyteller?
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 28 May 99 18:43
Great questions, Phil I think the most important thing storytelling does is let us try on different lives. During the time we're reading a well written story we can be a different gender or race, live in a different culture at a different time, have experiences we would never be able to have in real life, take great risks without consequences. Furthermore, a good story teller allows us to see into the human heart. We can see the world from the point of view of a criminal or a saint, understand how desire rules (and sometimes destroys). I can never live in a provincial nineteenth century French village, but for a few hours I can be Madame Bovary. I'll never know what it was like to be raised in China, but if I read Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club", I can begin to understand the taste and texture of daily life there. So in a very real sense, stories foster compassion. They develop understanding. They let us look at something movies can only touch in passing: those invisible parts of the human soul: feelings, philosophies, thoughts, fears, lusts, loves, great insights. When we're reading stories, we're getting an emotional education. Which, by the way, is one reason violent stories can have such a bad effect on children. Of course stories do more than educate. They entertain us; they allow us to escape pain and boredom. That's why we listen so eagerly, not just when we're young, but all our lives. The good stories delight us. The great stories change us profoundly. What makes a great story? I don't think there is any one quality. Some stories (like those of Gina Berriault) are so beautifully written that when you read them you feel your mind expand and you experience that great pleasure that beauty almost always brings. Some (like Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace") have surprising twists that remind us that things are not always as they seem. Some (like Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Illich") comfort us when we're grieving. Some (like "Romeo and Juliet") create characters so vivid we feel we know them as well-if not better-than we know our own families. Some (like O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night") are even of practical use since novelists and short story writers were writing about alcoholism, dysfunctional families, and the power of dreams long before modern psychotherapy. Then there are the strange, surreal stories: Djuna Barnes "Nightwood", Kafka's "Metamorphosis"; Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland."
Mary Mackey (mm) Fri 28 May 99 18:44
I could go on forever here. But let me say that from the *storyteller's* viewpoint there are two great kicks: the first is the fun of creating something. I've often been asked if writing is better than sex, and all I can say is that it is just as good and a whole lot more reliable. The second pleasure of being a writer is the way the process of writing brings order into your life. Not that writers are famous for leading ordered lives. But at the moment of writing, your thoughts flow in an ordered, beautiful way. When you're hot, you feel like you just made a touchdown, pitched a no-hitter. Even if you don't ever get it published, for a few minutes there, you feel like a rock star with a million groupies.
Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 30 May 99 17:22
"What makes a good storyteller" is probably the most difficult question you've asked me so far, difficult because it implies there's some abstract, quantitative answer. But a good storyteller, in my experience, is not much interested in abstraction. Storytellers like the concrete, the tangible. They'd rather tell you a story than talk about stories, which is why they are storytellers rather than literary critics. Often they are outsiders with a slightly strange perspective on things. They see stories everywhere; narrate everything in their heads; have particularly vivid imaginations, and don't tend to fit into political, religious, and social systems. Above all else, their lives are lives ruled by the thought "what if?" Let me give you a concrete example from my own life, not just because it's what I know best, but because-like all storytellers- I don't want to talk about stories nearly as much as I want to tell them.
Mary Mackey (mm) Sun 30 May 99 17:23
Almost every time I get into an airplane, I wonder "what if this thing crashes?" Now I know a lot of people are afraid of flying and that, as we take off, a lot of them are thinking this thought. But I not only have the anxiety, I also experience a kind of elation. I think "what a great story it would be if we fell to earth from 30,000 feet!" I imagine the sudden bucking of the plane, the captain announcing the emergency, the oxygen masks dropping. I imagine the sudden silence as the motors stop, and then the sudden terrible plunge, people crawling back up the blue seats screaming and praying. I see the woman next to me (who has just calmly opened a bag of salted peanuts) breaking her fingernails on the window as she tries to save herself. I imagine the luggage bin latches giving way and the hammering of the luggage as it pounds down on the two of us. As I sit there imagining the smell of sweat and fear and fuel and terror, I remember a time when I was flying out of the Costa Rican jungle in a small plane (the kind with the worst repair record on the planet). I was about twenty-two and wasn't afraid in the slightest-which just goes to show you how stupid you can be when you're inexperienced, because the plane was overloaded, and anyone could have seen that it was only held together with rust and duct tape. Before we took off, it had been refueled by little boys who had run out of the jungle clutching old plastic bleach bottles filled with whatever it is planes run on. Apparently, the boys hadn't kept at the bleach-bottle bucket brigade long enough, because as we approached San Jose, we ran out of gas. The engine coughed and sputtered and finally died. We should have crashed, but we didn't. Somehow we glided in and landed, and everyone got off safely including the woman who was carrying three live chickens tied together by the feet. This kind of meeting of memory and imagination happens to me dozens of time a day. Stories are born at that (almost invisible) point where "what if?" collides with "what was."
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 31 May 99 07:39
(offering Mary chocolate for some more stories...)
Phil Catalfo (philcat) Mon 31 May 99 15:58
Mary, remind me never to get on a plane with you. :^) Anyway, all seriousness aside...your remark that "the process of writing brings order to your life" reminded me that *listening to (or reading)* a story also brings order to your life. That is, any story is an attempt to order the universe--to express a kind of cosmology. Sometimes the expression comes out in the form of a "moral," sometimes not, but it seems that stories tend (or purport) to represent a way of seeing the world as being structured a certain way, of having certain laws and dynamics and relationships inherent within it. (Some stories, of course, are about the *lack* of same.) I think that's part of the appeal stories hold for us--have held for us since time immemorial. Prehistoric people no doubt told stories to help explain the world to each other (and themselves), and pass on what they'd learned. No? I'm thinking too of the many, many nights I spent years ago when my kids were little, telling them stories at bedtime--stories that they insisted I make up on the spot. My stories weren't always good; indeed, they tended to be somewhat repetitive (and it got so that the kids sometimes "graded" them). But they could not rest until they'd had a story, and I relished the fact that my storytelling was able to give them a sense of peace and security such that they were able to fall asleep. I realize that I'm supposed to be the interview*er* here, but I couldn't resist sharing those thoughts. And I want to encourage others who may be reading this to jump in with comments and questions as well. Meanwhile, I'd like to ask you to tell us a bit about how your career as a writer evolved. In the 1970s, you published two novels and three collections of poetry; since 1980 you've published seven more novels but only one more collection of poetry. (For the record, Mary has also written screenplays for three feature films.) I don't want to read too much into those statistics, but it seems that for the past two decades, while you have no doubt continued to write poetry, you've concentrated on writing novels. In the context of our discussion about storytelling, what differences do you see in how you're able to tell stories in the two respective formats, poems and novels? Do you have a preference (again, in terms of storytelling)? Do you feel you've evolved from one kind of storyteller into another? Do you feel any more or less constrained by one form vs. the other? Are you still able to work successfully (i.e. to your own satisfaction) in both? Is there another Mary Mackey poetry collection on the horizon? How about more Mary Mackey novels? (Man, am I the Question Bombardier, or what?)
Reva Basch (reva) Mon 31 May 99 16:05
Yes, and you're doing a great job!
David Gans (tnf) Mon 31 May 99 16:06
>my first twenty advances all came in the form of chocolate. !!! >in a very real sense, stories foster compassion. They develop understanding. Oh, yes! >They let us look at something movies can only touch in passing You don't think movies are storytelling? >I've often been asked if writing is better than sex, and all I can say is >that it is just as good and a whole lot more reliable. Heh! Mileage may vary on this, but I haven't put nearly as much energy into my storytelling skills :^)
David Gans (tnf) Mon 31 May 99 16:06
Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 1 Jun 99 16:24
David, of course I believe movies tell stories. I teach film. I've written screenplays; I belong to the Writers Guild; I've adapted my own work and the work of other writers to the screen; and every bit of this experience has led me to believe that a good story is the soul of a good (or even great) film. What I was trying to say earlier, is that written stories deal with the non-visible aspects of human experience much better than movies. This doesn't mean written fiction is better or worse than film, just different. As a writer in both forms, I experience this difference a lot. For example, when I write a story I can say: "Tom walked across the room and picked up a cracked white cup. It reminded him of the cup his father had thrown at his mother on the day he walked out, but it also reminded Tom of something else: a dream he had had of a great towering iceberg. He suspected the dream was connected to his childhood fantasy of being an arctic explorer and five consecutive Saturday nights spent watching "Titanic." But it might have also had something to do with his growing lack of interest in having sex with Bambi. Tom looked at the cup morosely, wondering if he would soon be needing a prescription for Viagra." In the screenplay version, Tom picks up the cup and looks at it, period. Unless the scriptwriter wants to use a voice over (which is often clumsy), the audience won't know precisely what Tom is thinking, dreaming, remembering, or fantasizing. Of course there are ways to get around this in a screenplay, but imagine the time it would take.
Mary Mackey (mm) Tue 1 Jun 99 16:26
Now on to our beloved Question Bombardier's questions. How did my writing career evolve? Well, the first thing you have to realize is that I wrote five novels before I got one published. So the stats, poetry vs novels, are a bit off. For a number of years, I've been publishing more novels than poems, but I'm still writing poems regularly and am in the process of putting together a new collection entitled "Flesh and Bones." I'm also working on a new novel which has the working title "October at Fools Hope." It's a contemporary story, set in California (no planes crash). Meanwhile, I find myself more and more capable of putting poetic language into my novels. In "The Fires of Spring," my latest, there are descriptions of Europe 6000 years ago which I believe are lyric enough to stand alone as poems. There are other passages that recount the experiences of priestesses in trance- states: magical, mystic rhythmic passages that have he impact of poetry. Lovers embrace and turn into spinning rings of fire; an evil diviner named Changar becomes a yellow-eyed spider with feet like a tick; bread turns to knives; twins speak to each as they float in the womb; Keru opens his eyes and his sister, Luma, falls into them. I think a lot of contemporary poetry comes to us in novels, mainly because so few collections of poems are published by major publishing houses, and so few people have easy access to the small presses. Open Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things" or Frazier's "Cold Mountain" and you'll find long, passages that only need line breaks to be recognized lyrical poetry. Oddly enough, I still write all my poems out in longhand; but I haven't written a novel in longhand since "Immersion" (my first). If you think carpal tunnel is bad, you should try near terminal writers' cramp. My poems are always more personal and much more confessional than my novels, particularly the ones in "The Dear Dance of Eros." They're not so much stories as moments of minor revelation, cosmic thunderclaps that demand to be written down quickly before they disappear. Writing a novel is more like planning a large convention while a teamsters' strike is in progress. It takes at least a year (often two) for me to do the research, and at least two years for me to write a final draft, since I'm also teaching full time. I craft the story very carefully and spend a long time developing the characters using a system I devised years ago. I also spend a lot of time in a self-induced trance state which frees up my imagination so I can actually see and hear the story I'm telling before I write it down. Sometimes I even put a sign on my door that says: Writer in Trance. Please Do Not Disturb. After I get a first draft, I polish and polish. I'm fanatical about detail: the rhythms of sentences, pace, all the nuts and bolts of fiction-writing. I can wax lyrical over why I put a comma in a particular place. But I will spare you.
Reva Basch (reva) Tue 1 Jun 99 17:33
Don't spare us!
Beloved Question Bombardier (philcat) Tue 1 Jun 99 18:12
You can tell us more about your comma protocols if you like, but I wanna ask you about your trance states. Can you, do you, deliberately induce it when you're writing? Do you need to "get out of the way" and "let it happen"? Are there some particular meditative techniques you use to go into the trance? Do you come out of the trance deliberately...or when the scene (or chapter) is done....or when the characters tell you to beat it...or what? Also, I've always been intrigued when I've heard novelists say things like, "Well, I *tried* to kill that rasty character Farnsworth, but he just wouldn't let me kill him," or "I tried to make Leslie fall in love with Chester, but she just wasn't interested"--i.e., novelists professing that their characters had minds and wills and fates of their own. Not just that the practical necessities of the plot wouldn't work out if the writer followed his/her original intentions, but that the characters *refused to go along*. Have you had that experience? What can you tell us about that? Along similar lines, I remember reading years ago in an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez that, when he was writing his classic "One Hundred Years of Solitude," he was emotionally overcome when he finally wrote the scene in which The Colonel died--a scene which, if I remember correctly, he'd been putting off writing for some time. He finished the day's work and went to his wife and wept; when she asked him what was wrong he said, "The Colonel died." Do you often have that kind of intensely emotional involvement with your characters, and with the sudden and sometimes tragic turns their lives take? (I'd imagine that writing in a trance state would *heighten* this effect.) If so, how do you handle it? Bombs away, cap'n.
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 2 Jun 99 15:48
I use trance as a tool. Some time in the early seventies, I started reading a lot of biographies of writers and poets. I noticed that many of them (Hemingway, Rimbaud, Plath, Dylan Thomas) led sad lives: lots of alcoholism, suicide, neurotic love affairs, bad drugs, and general misery. The reason is simple: a writer must constantly be in contact with her unconscious in order to write. The unconscious is where the Muse hangs out. Drugs, alcohol, sex, and insanity are all doors. Still, it bothered me that suicide was to writers what black lung was to coal miners, and I wasn't thrilled with the idea of ending up face down in some New York gutter with tracks on my arms and Wild Turkey on my breath. So I decided to see if there was a more gentle way of bringing forth unconscious material at will. I tried many things, and in the end developed a trance technique which combines elements of self-hypnosis, Tibetan Buddhist visualization, yoga, and some nifty little tricks I thought up myself.
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 2 Jun 99 15:49
My trances are highly structured. I go into them deliberately. I do specific work while there. I have even reached the point where I can take notes and remain in trance (back in the old days, I occasionally opened my eyes to discover that the paper had run out and I had written an entire poem on the roll of my typewriter). The exact process I used during trance is hard to describe (much of it is non verbal so describing it is rather like trying to teach someone how to ride a bicycle by talking about it), but I am in complete control of the situation at all times. I do not have to "get out of the way and let it happen." I go in and out when I want to, stay as long as I wish, even play down there if I feel like it after the work of the day is done. It's important to understand that this is not meditation (which I do at other times). Nor do I come out of these trances with finished stories or poems. I bring up raw material which must then be meticulously crafted.
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 2 Jun 99 15:50
The answer to your question "do characters take on a life of their own" is yes. The reason is fairly simple. When you develop a character, you give that character a specific past and a specific temperament (I keep files on my characters that sometimes run to twenty-four pages single-spaced). If you then try to get a character to do something that doesn't fit those traits, it won't work. For example, in my novel "The Horses At the Gate" the city of Shara is inhabited by peaceful people who have never known war. For perhaps 3,000 years they've lived in peace, writing songs, making pottery, and farming. Suddenly, they're attacked by an army of highly trained nomad warriors who are about as compassionate as ants. My problem as a novelist was to figure out what Marrah, the Sharan Queen, would do. My first impulse was to have her be a pacifist. Every time I did this, the Sharans got stomped. Not acceptable. I then tried to have her and her people fight back, but that didn't work either. They were terrible at it. The nomads had their heads on pikes in no time. I had to write about twenty different versions of the chapter before I found a form of self- defense that fit both the Sharan culture and Marrah's psychological make-up. Moral: if you want to get Roskolnikov to kill the old lady, make him intellectually arrogant, lower his blood sugar, and make sure you leave a lot of axes lying around.
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 2 Jun 99 15:50
Last of all, you asked if I get emotionally involved with my characters. Yes. But not as involved as I get with real people. I'm always aware of the difference between fiction and reality.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 2 Jun 99 17:19
How do you put yourself into the trance, and did you figure it out on your own or did someone teach you how?
Mary Mackey (mm) Wed 2 Jun 99 21:47
I read about it and then figued out how to do it in a way that is gentle and quite relaxing. Later, I sat in on a Silva Mind Control weekend that some of my friends had put together and learned to appreciate the value of a guide. I think trance is best learned one on one since (as I said above) so much of it is non-verbal. Also, in retrospect, I think it can be dangerous to play with these things without proper guidance. All the major mystical religious traditions have rules to protect beginners.
poignantly unctious (judyb) Thu 3 Jun 99 07:41
This is fascinating, Mary. Do you write your novels with your eyes closed, as in the example of the poem written on the roller of the typewriter?
Mary Mackey (mm) Thu 3 Jun 99 09:16
I do the creative, imaginative work with my eyes closed. But this is merely the raw material. While I am doing it, I take notes because when you come out of a trance it is hard to remember things (just as it is hard to remember a dream soon after waking). My novels are written in a very conventional way: eyes open, computer on, rational brain engaged. Since poems are shorter, more immediate, and present fewer organizational problems, I have occasionally written an entire poem while in trance. However, even these need to be revised. Trance work gives you diamonds mixed with mud.
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