"Our Lady of the Forest," tackles themes of suffering, transformation, and miracles, and in an interview with Anne Simpkinson he showed how deeply immersed-intellectually and personally--he is in spiritual matters, and how enamored of the Divine Feminine he is.
You're Jewish with Buddhist leanings, writing about a Catholic phenomenon with an idea of the Divine Feminine. So my first question is.
How does that all fit together? Well, it was clear to me that my parents were agnostics at best, and probably atheists. But they felt tied to Jewish culture, kept a connection to it, and in their own very fleeting way passed some of that on to their kids--but not enough to make any of it stick.
A few years ago, I did an article for the L.A. Times that goes into how I came to Buddhism. Basically, it has to do with a childhood friend whose family fled Tibet in the '50s. There are four sects of Tibetan Buddhism, one of them is the Sakya sect. The Sakya Lama came to Seattle and settled in our neighborhood. He had five sons, and the second son became my best friend. As a teenager, I started to look at Buddhism, and studied Tibetan language and literature in college.
My writing teacher in college was Charles Johnson, who's very heavily into Buddhism now. So that's another important person in my life who has brought me to Buddhism. But I'm not a practicing Buddhist.
Have you ever practiced meditation?
I have meditated a little bit, but not in any significant religious way. I don't practice any religion.
How did you get interested in the Divine Feminine?
I was working on "Our Lady of the Forest," and looking at Gnosticism. My mind became open to the so-called Feminine Divine. One of the things that drove this book was Gnostic cosmology. As I understand their myth of the origin of the universe, at the center of things is the Mother Goddess. Off on the periphery is our God, Jehovah, who's just a neurotic, angry sub-deity.
Because he's bored, he creates his own planet and little mud creatures to play with. The Mother Goddess gets wind of it, goes over there, and says, "What are you doing? I'm the Creator."
He says, "I'm bored." She says, "If you really want to be entertained, breathe your Spirit into these mud creatures you've created, and they'll become a lot more interesting." So he does. But at the moment he is breathing life into Adam and Eve, he realizes that he's been tricked because he's lost some of his power to us. It's been breathed into us, and he can't get it back. So now he's jealous of us, hates us, is completely obsessed with us, and spends the rest of his existence tormenting us. In the Gnostic tradition, the explanation for the existence of evil and suffering is God. He's the Source of it all. That's why they were considered heretics.
[I find] that explanation of the existence of suffering and evil really compelling and disturbing-and it's in the book. Critics talk about Hawthorne and Faulkner, and this and that, but no one has really picked up on the Gnostic element.
Well, that started strictly as a fictional device, a strategy for storytelling. I knew that an apparition of Mary would act as a catalyst in the lives of characters who needed redemption, salvation, a miracle or transformation. It seemed like a great dramatic situation. I'd heard of Bernadette, Lourdes, Fatima.
I'd finished my last book. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. I was reading, working on short stories and essays, and I happened to read about Bernadette, and I thought it was interesting.
You happened to read about Bernadette?
Yeah. I was in a bookstore just combing around. That's what I do between books; I just read a lot and think a lot about what I want to do next. And I came across the story of Bernadettte and it seemed so great for storytelling.
When I looked at Fatima, LaSalette, and Garabandal, Medjugorje, I saw that there are certain conventions they all share. There was an arc, an existing narrative.
There are similarities in the instances of seeing the Virgin. Usually the visionaries are young people.
Right. It's often a girl-though not always.
She's not well educated, often poor.
Sometimes illiterate often frail.