I’m chatting with novelist Mary Mackey today about her new release The Village of Bones: Sabalah’s Tale. It’s historical fiction with elements of fantasy and science fiction.
Mary Mackey is the bestselling author of fourteen novels, including The Earthsong Series — four novels which describe how the peaceful Goddess-worshiping people of Prehistoric Europe fought off patriarchal nomad invaders (The Village of Bones, The Year The Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring). Mary’s novels have been praised by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Pat Conroy, Thomas Moore, Marija Gimbutas, Marge Piercy, and Theodore Roszak for their historical accuracy, inventiveness, literary grace, vividness, and storytelling magic. They have made The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle Bestseller Lists, been translated into twelve foreign languages and sold over a million and a half copies.
Mary has also written seven collections of poetry including Travelers With No Ticket Home and Sugar Zone, winner of the 2012 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award and finalist for the Northern California Book Awards. Garrison Keillor has featured her poetry four time on The Writer’s Almanac. A screenwriter as well as a novelist and poet, she has also sold feature-length screenplays to Warner Brothers as well as to independent film companies. This winter her original script for a short fictional film entitled Time Piece will be filmed in L.A. by director Renée De Palma. Time Piece, which takes place during the last months of World War II, is dedicated to disabled veterans and designed to raise money for those who suffer from PTSD.
At www.marymackey.com, you can get the latest news about Mary’s books and public appearances, sample her work, sign up for her newsletter, and get writing advice. You can also find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. Mary’s literary papers are archived in the Sophia Smith Special Collections Library, Smith College, Northampton MA.
Welcome, Mary. Please tell us about your current release.
The Village of Bones is a prequel to my bestselling Earthsong Series about Prehistoric Europe which also includes the novels The Year the Horses Came, The Horses at the Gate, and The Fires of Spring. In The Village of Bones, I take readers back 6000 years to meet a Stone Age society in harmony with the earth, Goddesses who walk on water, giant snakes that predict the future, passion, betrayal, a beautiful young priestess on the run, a magical child who needs to be saved from Beastmen, shape shifting, time travel, a sexy lover who’s not human, plus some very scary giant sharks.
Dorothy Hearst, author of The Wolf Chronicles, has said: "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."
What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired to write The Village of Bones after reading The Civilization of the Goddess and The Language of the Goddess—two amazing non-fiction books by the late Maria Gimbutas. Dr. Gimbutas was a professor of Paleo-archaeology at UCLA. Her research into European Stone Age societies has produced evidence of peaceful cultures which worshiped the Earth as the Great Goddess who brought forth all life. In these cultures, men and women were equals, genocidal warfare was unknown, and the Earth itself was cherished as sacred.
Excerpt from The Village of Bones:
The West Coast of the Black Sea: 4387 B.C.E.
Sabalah dug her paddle into the water and raced toward shore. Her arms were burning, her shift was soaked in sweat, and her breath was coming in gasps. She paddled with all her strength, not daring to look over her shoulder. She had to go faster, or she wasn’t going to make it.
Twenty-one seasons old and barren, the midwives had said. What a fool she’d been to try to run away from their words, but how could she have known? She’d gone down to the wharf this morning in a bad temper and a defiant mood, and now she was paying the price. When she set out, the sun had been shining and the Sweetwater Sea had been as calm as a lake. In front of her, sunlight still lay on the water in big golden puddles, and she could see the fishing boats bobbing gently beside the wharf in waves no more than a handspan high.
Beyond the wharf, Shara rose up, white and lovely, its twenty temples and hundred motherhouses perched along the south bank of the river like a flock of doves. As far as she could tell, nobody in the city had noticed the approaching storm yet. Why should they? There was no need to keep watch on the sea. This wasn’t storm season, and the city had never been attacked or invaded as long as anyone could remember.
Dear Goddess, she prayed, please let me get to safety before the wind hits! At least she was making progress. She was close enough now to see the procession of mothers and children winding their way up the honey-colored cliffs to the Temple of Batal. The ceremony that bound them together today was the reason she had gone off by herself for what should have been a quiet sail on a calm sea. She could not bear to watch them celebrate their love for each other, because she had no children and never would have any. She didn’t want a life dedicated to mothering other people’s. She wanted a baby of her own, and if the midwives were right and the Goddess had other plans for her, that was just too bad.
Still feeling defiant, she dug her paddle into the water again and felt the boat lurch forward. She was close enough now to see the fishing nets drying on the beach. I’m going to make it! she thought.
The instant the words formed in her mind, the sun went out like a lamp, the air turned green, great black clouds boiled over her, and bolts of lightning flashed so close the mast of the boat seemed to jump sideways. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that a giant wall of water higher than the walls of the city had risen out of the sea. Above it, there was nothing but churning darkness.
As the darkness engulfed her, the boat bucked and rose out of the water like a kite. The linen sail shredded and the mast snapped like a dry stick. Into your hands, oh Goddess, she prayed as her body arced through the air and slammed into the great wave. And then everything was water, fury, salt, terror, and drowning.
Later, she sometimes wondered if she had died at that moment. How else could she explain the peace that settled over her when she finally stopped struggling and let the wave pull her under, or the feeling that she was no longer in her body, but outside of it looking at it as if it belonged to someone else?
Slowly, she sank toward the bottom until she seemed to float above a garden of stones. Her shift billowed around her like a cloud. Over her head, just below the tossing waves, schools of fish flew like flocks of wingless birds. So this was death. A simple return to the Mother. Nothing to be feared.
Or perhaps this wasn’t death. Maybe she was merely crazed from lack of air and hallucinating the way the pearl divers of Shara sometimes did when they came to the surface with pearls in their mouths and couldn’t remember their own names or recognize the faces of those who loved them; because the next thing she knew, she was being sucked back up toward the surface through a tube of churning foam.
As her head broke out of the water, the pain and fear came back. She fought to breathe, but the air was such a mix of rain and saltwater that each time she inhaled she felt as if she were still drowning. Kicking her feet, she flailed at the waves, but she wasn’t strong enough to resist the force of the storm. She could feel herself getting weaker. She was going to go under again, and this time she wouldn’t be able to fight her way back to the surface.
Suddenly, her right hand struck something solid. Grabbing for it, she found herself clutching the broken mast of the boat. The wooden spar bobbed up and down in front of her, hitting her in the forehead and chest. Ignoring the battering, she wrapped her arms around the mast and pulled herself on top of it.
As she lay there, panting and gasping, the storm suddenly stopped—not all of it, just the part that was raging around her. One moment, she was fighting to stay on top of the mast so she wouldn’t drown. The next, she was drifting in a tranquil circle of green water. Within a space about the size of the floor of a temple, the wind had died down so completely that she could hear the soft lapping of the waves beneath her, but when she looked outside of that circle of peace, she could see the storm still beating its way toward shore. It was as if a wall of transparent fury enclosed her. Where the waves still roared and the wind still screamed, everything was dark and terrifying. But where she floated, there was a green-gold light that seemed to come from no obvious source.
Trembling with cold and fear, she took a deep breath and allowed herself to relax her grip on the mast. This was too real to be a dream. She could feel the splinters of the mast digging into her chest, taste salt in the water she was coughing up.
As she lay there giving into the sobbing that had been bubbling up in her throat ever since the boat capsized, a woman emerged from the wall of crashing waves and walked across the sea toward her. Sabalah abruptly stopped crying and stared at the woman, stunned. This was impossible! She had to be dreaming! But if it was a dream, it was different from any dream she had ever had.
The woman kept walking, stepping over the waves as if they were furrows in a field of wheat. Her flowing dress was blue as a summer sea; her hair long and green, twined with seaweed and pearls. Her skin was dark and light at the same time, her eyes so bright, they glowed like the last flash of the sun when it falls into the sea in midsummer.
Sabalah closed her eyes and clung to the mast trembling. Was she going mad? Was she dead after all? A sweet scent suddenly filled the air like the perfume of roses blown across water. Don’t be afraid, the woman said. I’ll do you no harm. Open your eyes and look at me.
“I’m afraid if I look into your face, I’ll die,” Sabalah whispered.
Nonsense, the woman said with a touch of impatience that reminded Sabalah of her mother. Open your eyes right now.
Sabalah opened her eyes and saw that the woman was standing on the water so close to the mast that the hem of her robe was touching it. Repressing an urge to scream in terror, she summoned all her courage. “Who are you? How can you walk on water?”
You don’t recognize me?
Sabalah shook her head and felt saltwater drain out of her ears.
The woman’s laughter was like the sound of a wind chime. I am Amonah, Goddess of the Sea, and water is my path. I can walk above it or beneath it as I wish.
“Could I walk on water too?” It was a crazy question under the circumstances, but Sabalah was in no condition to think before she spoke.
The Goddess laughed again. No, my child. You would sink like a stone.
Sitting down beside Sabalah, Amonah let Her feet dangle in the water. They were bare except for toe rings of rose-colored coral. She must have weighed nothing, because the end of the spar didn’t tilt the way it would have if a flesh-and-blood human being had sat there.
I have news for you that will bring you great joy. Amonah’s tone was casual as if She and Sabalah were two friends sitting on a bench in Shara sharing a piece of honey cake and talking about the weather. You’re going to bear a magical child.
“But I can’t. I’m barren.” The word “barren” was bitter in Sabalah’s mouth.
For a third time the Goddess laughed. Not anymore. Leaning over She gave Sabalah a kiss on the cheek. At the touch of the Goddess’s lips, Sabalah felt her womb leap in joy.
Rising to Her feet, Amonah again stood on the water. She was fading now, becoming transparent. “Wait!” Sabalah cried. “Please don’t go. Tell me who the father of my baby will be. Where will I find him?”
“Don’t worry. The father of your baby will find you.” . . .
What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m working on a sequel to The Village of Bones. In it, Sabalah, the heroine of The Village of Bones, is searching the dark forests of Northern Europe for the man she loves. She’s carrying a dangerous book of prophecy which can destroy the world if it falls into the wrong hands, and as she tries to flee from danger, she accidentally runs straight into the arms of strange, dangerous, half-human creatures left over from the Ice Age.
When did you first consider yourself a writer? I thought of myself as a writer very early in life. I began telling stories to other children before I could read. Recently, when I was going through my papers to send them off to be archived in the Sophia Special Collections Library at Smith College, I found my first novel, a hand illustrated book written on blue and red lined paper entitled Saturn’s Mystery Ring. It was dedicated to my mother, and I wrote it when I was nine years old.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
For many years I was a Professor of English at California State University Sacramento where I taught Creative Writing and Film. I wrote twelve novels during the years when I was teaching full-time. I found time to write by being very organized and only focusing on the task at hand. When I wrote, I didn’t think about my classes. When I taught, I didn’t think about my writing. I was totally there, totally available to my students.
I loved teaching and enjoyed helping younger writers find their voices and get published, but since I retired for CSUS, I’ve been able to write full time. My typical work day involves writing for about five hours beginning in the morning around 9:00 am. In the afternoons, I do errands, hang out with my friends, take walks with my husband, and do other things that have no connection to writing.
I follow this schedule every day, six days a week. The seventh day is my vacation day. On that day, I kick back and do something fun like going to a movie or taking a trip to the seashore. I think it’s extremely important to balance life and work or you run the danger of burning out. In my experience, burnout is one of the major causes of writer’s block.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk? My most interesting writing quirk is that I use a trance technique to enhance my creativity. It’s a personal technique that I created years ago, and it keeps my mind flooded with ideas, images, characters, plots, and all sorts of other riches. Thanks to creative trancing, I have not had writers’ block since I was in my late twenties.
I have never taught this trance technique, but recently, the Visionary Fiction Alliance persuaded me to describe it. I’ve just written a guest blog post for them entitled “Using Creative Trance to Write Visionary Fiction” that went live on their website on October 10th.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? A writer. I’m related to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) through my father’s family. My parents used to read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn to me when I was a small child. I remember thinking: “Writing is something people in our family do. I want to write stories too.”
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
A page a day is a novel a year.
Thanks for being here today, Mary!