Featured Member Interview – Mary Mackey

Interview by Susan Allison

After interviewing novelist and poet, Mary Mackey, I am moved to write a poem, dashing off lines quickly in what I call a “divine download.” I find nothing more exhilarating than this creative process, and I’m grateful for Mackey’s inspiration. Mary’s own inner voice has been whispering stories and poems to her for decades. Even before she could read, Mary made up stories and told them to her friends: “I must have been four or five, and I quickly discovered that if I stopped at an exciting point, they would give me candy to continue. Poetry came later. I wrote my first poem in the Fourth Grade on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I’ve been fascinated by words from a very early age–the way they trip off your tongue and dance in your head. I think language is the great human art form, created by a collective effort of billions of individuals over vast expanses of time.”

I’m impressed that Mary Mackey is an equally successful poet and novelist. She is the author of eight collections of poetry, the latest being her favorite, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams: New and Selected Poems 1974-2018, published by Marsh Hawk Press. In Jaguars, Mary writes of life, death, love, and passion with intensity and grace. Her poems are hugely imaginative and multi-layered. Part One contains forty-eight new poems including twenty-one set in Western Kentucky from 1742 to 1975; and twenty-six unified by an exploration of the tropical jungle outside and within us, plus a surreal and sometimes hallucinatory appreciation of the visionary power of fever. Part Two offers the reader seventy-eight poems drawn from Mackey’s seven previous collections including Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 Oakland PEN Award for Literary Excellence.

Speaking of her latest book of poetry, The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, Mary says,It’s been a wild ride this Fall. On the day Marsh Hawk Press published Jaguars…, the entire first edition sold out. Six weeks later Jaguars made Small Press Distribution’s Bestseller List. Although I had achieved some success as a novelist, I thought poets were supposed to live in miserable obscurity in an unheated garret; but apparently, after over 40 years, I’ve finally found an audience interested in poems inspired by Mirabai, Blake, Saint John of the Cross, Second Wave Feminism, and the singing of frogs in tropical rainforests.”

Mary has also published fourteen novels, has been on the New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists, and her novels have been translated into twelve languages. She does have favorites: “I’m very fond of my most recent novel The Village of Bones because the characters do surprising things and the story revolves around the idea that your enemies sometimes can be converted by loving kindness. But I also like an early novel of mine, McCarthy’s List, because it’s so outrageously funny and (unfortunately) so relevant since it deals with a woman taking revenge for sexual harassment in comic ways (at one point she sends her attacker an exploding parrot). I also love Season of Shadows, an historical novel set in the Sixties, which combines a strong friendship between two women with several love affairs, the Civil Rights Movement, international politics, and a bomb-building-cell of the Weather Underground.”

Mackey never set out to be a poet or a novelist, but just wanted to write poems and stories and has continued to do so for decades. I ask her if she can write poetry and prose simultaneously, or if she focuses on one genre: “I write my novels on a computer. They take a long time—usually two or three years, and since I write historical fiction, a lot of research is involved. Writing a novel takes organization, logic, and patience. Poems on the other hand come to me quickly. I always write the first drafts out in longhand in a special notebook in order not to interrupt the flow. My poems are more personal, more connected to my subconscious and to my dreams and visions. When I am writing novels, I rarely write poems. When I am writing poems, I am almost never writing a novel. Yet although I often write the first drafts of the poems very quickly, I spend a long time crafting and revising them. I put my novels through at least twelve revisions. I usually revise my poems from eight to twenty times before I will let anyone see them.”

Wanting to know more about her craft, I ask Mary to explain her writing process: “I usually close my door, turn off my phone, and write five to six days a week from about 9:00 am to about 2:00 pm. I have long had a deal with myself that, if I can’t write, I have to spend those hours writing about why I can’t write. I can almost guarantee that if you spend two hours writing about how you can’t write, you will start writing something interesting out of sheer boredom. In addition, many years ago I developed a trance technique to inspire me. At these times, when I am in a “liminal state,” partly waking and partly dreaming, I have access to a vast trove of images and ideas. If I am having trouble with a scene in a novel, I go into a light trance and run the whole scene in my mind like a movie. With poems, I call up the images and metaphors that dwell in the deepest parts of my conscious mind—almost in my subconscious—and then I write fast and freely, recording everything that comes up whether or not it is useable. Later, I am meticulous about cutting and polishing my poems, but when I am in a trance, I make no judgments nor do I exclude anything no matter how silly or irrelevant. I think that this technique is what gives many of my poems a mystical, visionary, even prophetic quality.”

I find her writing process unique and fascinating, and also want to hear about her publishing experience: “There is a different story connected to the publishing of each book, and things have changed so much over the past forty years, that the way I got novels published as a young author is probably no longer relevant to writers today. The short version is that the Gatekeepers were strict and the gates opened rarely, but once you got in, you were taken care of in a way almost unimaginable in 2018.”

“My first novel Immersion was published by the legendary Shameless Hussy Press. After that, I wrote five novels no one would publish. Then I wrote McCarthy’s List. I sent it to an agent. The agent liked it. She convinced Doubleday to publish it. Subsequently my novels were published by Putnam, Simon & Schuster, Bantam, Penguin, Kensington, New American Library, and Berkley Books. These publishers sent me on books tours. They advertised my novels here and overseas. They made one of my novels—A Grand Passion– into a New York Times Bestseller. Those days, unfortunately, are over. I have the deepest sympathy for contemporary writers who are trying to get novels published. So much talent is going to waste, and American literature is the poorer for it.”

“Poetry is a cheerier story. My poetry collections have been published by small presses that give me cover control, that never change or edit my work without consulting me, and who do their best to promote and sell my books. My last four collections, including The Jaguars That Prowl Our Dreams, have all been published by Marsh Hawk Press, the best publisher I have ever had. Marsh Hawk, which is a non-profit press, has been dedicated to highlighting the breadth of affinities between poetry and the visual arts for almost twenty years. Their covers are beautiful, and they stand behind their authors with advice and advertising. They’ve put together a book tour for me in the New York City area for next May. I think that it is partly due to Marsh Hawk that Jaguars has made the Small Press Distribution Bestseller List.”

Mary Mackey has so much electric energy, and I’m sure she is working on new projects:

“Marsh Hawk Press is doing an anthology entitled The Chapter One Project, featuring the memoirs of outstanding poets from diverse background recalling the ways by which they found their start as writers. I recently wrote a piece for Chapter One entitled Fever and Jungles: On Becoming A Poet. In it, I discuss how very high fevers and the time I spent in the rainforests of Costa Rica and the Amazon made me into a poet. This piece is part of a longer memoir I am writing. Fever and Jungles will go live on the Marsh Hawk Press Blog December 1st. Among other things, it contains a description about how having a fever above 106 once caused me to speak in rhymed couplets for several hours.”

“Also, my readers would like me to write another volume of the Earthsong Series. I have a rough outline of a new novel for the series and am playing with a plot set in the Goddess worshiping cultures of Prehistoric Europe that will take up where The Village of Bones left off. In addition, I’m writing a series of poems, which I have in a folder marked Cassandra. Although I’m not sure that will be the title of the collection, I think Cassandra is the perfect spokeswoman for an era when some people, against all evidence, continue to deny that climate change is happening. As you’ll recall, Cassandra saw the future and warned people what was coming, but no one believed her.”

In many ways Mary Mackey reminds me of Cassandra, the prophetess in Agamemnon, and I believe her! I hope her words have inspired you as they have me. As a former college professor, she leaves us with practical wisdom: “The best piece of advice I can give you is: don’t give up. I kept a huge pile of envelopes on the top shelf of my bookcase in my office at CSUS. Below them were copies of all my published books. When students came in, I would point to the envelopes and say: ‘All of those envelopes are full of pages describing why I can’t write, why I’ll never be a writer, why I have nothing to say, and why I might as well throw in the towel, go back to school, and learn something useful like anesthesiology.’ Every writer has doubts. Every writer gets stuck. The trick is to just keep on going. It’s very hard to be a writer. There are so many easier, more pleasant things to do—things you might actually get paid for. But if you like to write, keep on writing those poems and stories only you can write.”

Mary Mackey has a B.A. from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The University of Michigan and is related through her father’s family to Mark Twain. At present, she lives in northern California with her husband Angus Wright.  You can find her work and more information at marymackey.com

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