"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.
Not in good health.
Unsure of herself. Withdrawn.
And a lot of times there is suffering.
Right. Sometimes her personal circumstances are those of travail, but often the context for the whole thing is a culture, society, or community that has some kind of crisis. That's the context in which these things unfold. Sometimes it's a crisis in the Church; sometimes it's economic.
There are these conventions, and I was really drawn to that as a storyteller. That's what I like to do; I like to find existing forms to work in. "Snow Falling on Cedars" was a courtroom drama; "East of the Mountain" was a mythic journey story. "Our Lady of the Forest" is an apparition story; it has a lot of the conventions of a spiritual story.
So much of the book has to do with miracles, redemption. What personally drew you to that kind of transformative experience?
Nothing personal. Fiction is about character development. Personal transformation is central to storytelling. So it wasn't so much something personal as something artistic, creative.
In the book two priests debate the nature of Mary-whether she was the "handmaid of God" or a symbol of female empowerment.
I had a lot of fun with dialogue in this book. And in particular the dialogue between the priests because they represent two different strains of the Catholic Church: the liberal young priest and the more entrenched, bureaucratic older priest, who has this predictable, conventional, conservative perception of who Mary is, and what she means. I thought we'd come to see them more clearly through the dialogue.
There's no way out of that. Ultimately your take on life is going to find its way into the book. That's inevitable and certainly that's there in this book.
Is it a fair to say the ending is a statement of how you see the human condition?
People have come away from the book with different ideas about what the ending is. From my point of view, what happens at the end is just more ambivalence. We don't ultimately know if the Virgin actually appeared; it's left up in the air. I think the power of it is in the ambiguity. The power comes from mystery, not from clarity.
But the other side of it is that I think all human beings are disturbed by the human condition. Just under the surface of our daily life are these questions: Why are we here? How come we have to die? How come there's so much suffering? A lot of people turn to God in the face of that. But I don't turn to God. I feel instinctively drawn to the Mother. The only place I can find tranquility in the face of the human condition is to rest my head against the Virgin's breast. I can see why so many people are drawn to Her. It makes complete sense.
Do you see any place in Western religions to worship the Mother?
Not any central place. There are tangents in Judaism and Christianity that allow for that, but under the umbrella of something that is essentially male. She's not central as she was for the Gnostics.
Have you gotten any reactions or feedback on the book from Catholics?
When I was working on the book, I thought, "This is probably provocative for Catholics. Maybe they will feel insulted or disrespected." But it's been the opposite. Fervent Catholics have come to me with glowing reviews; they're really glad that there's a book that takes on this material in a serious, not a melodramatic, way.
Your scholarship was very much in evidence; you really did your homework.
I was very uncertain about my knowledge of Catholicism, its theology and mariology. So I did a lot of reading and I got two priests to help me-really great priests.
What do you think about the enormous popularity of "The DaVinci Code," and the revisioning of Mary Magdalene?
It's amazing. People really yearn for the Feminine Divine. At some unconscious level they feel drawn towards God as a female. So a book like "The DaVinci Code" allows people the connection they can't find because the Catholic Church, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam don't allow for it.
The Catholic Church has never really promoted the notion of Mary as divine, but only accepted it begrudgingly because people insist on it. As the Catholic Church began to absorb so-called pagan religions around the world, it realized it had to acknowledge the Feminine Divine via Mary in order to embrace something that pagan peoples already accepted.
It's banal to say, but a lot of the problems in the world today grew out of the fact that we have suppressed the Feminine Divine. Male energy in religion manifests itself in politics and militarism and that's part of the problem with the world today. We're not going to solve problems in this world until, at a spiritual level, we embrace the Feminine. We're just not.
Does this attitude relate to your environmental interests?
I don't know. I've always lived in Washington State, and always spent a lot of time out of doors. In "Our Lady of the Forest," it's the rain forest, which did engender in the Coast Salish [a term that covers the tribes in the Pacific Northwest] people a deep animism, polytheism, or both. A lot of people who visit the rain forest come away with spiritual adjectives to describe it. It's just an inescapable fact of the place.
You keep using the word "spiritual" and your energy when you talk about the Divine Feminine is intense. The question comes to mind: Can you be spiritual without a belief in God?
Yes, definitely. For me, being an agnostic is a deeply spiritual proposition. To be constantly disturbed by questions of religion, God, and spirituality and not come to comforting, easy answers is an intensely spiritual way to live. Most people think of agnosticism as a turning away from the spiritual but it doesn't have to be. It can be a way of saying, "I'm not satisfied with any of the answers; I still have questions.
Would you consider yourself a spiritual person?
Yes, intensely-and miserably.