It was my pleasure to have the chance to talk with author Patricia Damery, whose novel, Snakes, is one of my favorite books of the year. (You can read my review of Snakes here.) Patricia is a fascinating person, so without further comment on my part, here is our discussion.
Snakes is a tale about life’s insoluble contradictions. Angela, a Midwestern farm girl, leaves the confines of her family heritage to move to California to study marine biology and is transformed by life’s vicissitudes. Snake stories, symbols of transformation, are intertwined in this novel as Angela undergoes numerous rights of passages and comes to terms with life—her life—exactly where, when, and how it unfolds.
Where did you get the idea for this book?
The idea got its beginning many years ago when I joined a women’s writing group. In the first meeting, we did an exercise in which we were to meet our inner critics. The most surprising figure, the opposite of a critic, was an enormous Serpent. She told me to simply describe the patterns on her body, which turned out to be stories, many of which I had heard over and over growing up in rural Illinois. When I read these stories to my writing group, they encouraged me to keep writing, and the stories wove themselves into the novel Snakes.
During this same period, life in the Midwest was changing drastically. Small farms were being bought up, once thriving small communities becoming either ghost towns or bedroom communities. As I wrote the novel, I began to wonder if there might be some connection between these stories that were almost “rural legends” in which the snake seldom fared well, and the vast changes in the land and social structure. I researched snake mythology as well as snake books to understand how snakes get the many projections that are put on them.
Having spent the majority of my life in Illinois, I was familiar with both the snake “rural legends” you mention and the setting, which plays such a thematic role in Snakes. How did you research your settings? Have you spent a lot of time on a farm, or splashing in tide pools?
I grew on a small farm in Central Illinois in a culture that no longer exists. All of my friends’ fathers were farmers. We raised our own food, worked in the gardens and the fields, and raised animals. The churches and school were the center of social life.
As much as I loved the land, Midwestern life felt constricting (to use a snaky word!), so in my early twenties I moved to California to start graduate school, much as the main character Angela did. Although I went into psychology, I had a science background and had taught high school. My sister is a botany professor. I have been around quirky scientists who had passion about their subjects. And psychology is kind of a marine biology of the psyche, you might say!
I, too, have a degree in psychology, but I never thought of it as marine biology of the psyche! I like that description! But I’m interrupting; please, continue.
As a child, I was fascinated by the ocean, even though I was nine before I encountered a body of water that I could not see across (Lake Michigan). When I came to California, I drove immediately to the Pacific Ocean and explored tidal pools, completely mesmerized by the toughness of those intertidal creatures. I came to love the land (and water!) of California as I had that of the Midwest.
Do you have a favorite character? Which one, and why?
I end up loving all my characters. They try so hard to do their best, despite their flaws!
Farming Soul is the almost unbelievable story of my process of becoming a Jungian analyst and the concurrent process my husband and I endured saving a grape crop through biodynamic practices. Both my candidacy to become a Jungian analyst and our apprenticeship in biodynamics required developing a spiritual perspective and a major paradigm shift in how I view reality. We all are relatives, as the Lakota say, and this book is about the practicalities of what that means.
What do you think is the most important thing for your books to accomplish: to entertain, to educate, to instill moral values, or to enlighten? Why?
I write to understand mystery, whether It is the mystery of how we survive the loss of land to which we have always been attached , or the mystery of death or betrayal. I want my books to help transform what may also be intolerable by tapping into this mystery of the divinity in everyday life. I think this involves storytelling, entertaining. If the daemon within is not entertained, we seldom finish reading a book, or at least, we shouldn’t.
What inspires you?
Mystery and beauty inspire me, and they are related. Beauty is a portal, opening us into that which is ineffable and mysteriously compelling. Learning to tolerate this not knowing, living the inability to grasp the grandeur of wholeness, even when it is painful or dark, is part of the growing edge of being human. The process of finding this edge inspires me.
Let’s talk about you instead of your books for a moment. What made you choose to become a writer? Was it a favorite book, and if so, what? A favorite teacher?
I started writing “books” almost as soon as I could make letters. My mother saved several of the first little pamphlet-like books I wrote. My “audience” was my pet chickens. In these books, I wrote and illustrated stories and songs for them: The song I’d sing while searching for Henny Penny, (who later turned up with little chicks), Henny Penny’s love songs for Mr. Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, a silly story about making a cake with rotten eggs. Writing was a form of play, but it was also a way to express the feelings that I couldn’t in the rest of my young life.
Then in seventh grade I had an English teacher, Mrs. Ebbs, who emphasized writing. While almost everyone else bemoaned the six weeks we had to write a one-page theme a day, I was in my element! I learned to write that year. Mrs. Ebbs told us to write about what we know, to notice detail, to learn to use metaphor, to expand our vocabulary. She would read one or two of our papers aloud each morning. One day she read one I had written about the men coming in for dinner (mid-day meal on the farm), and then she said I was the best seventh grade writer she had ever had. I needed that validation. There was great deal of illness in my family, I was depressed, and my grades were not the best, so to be told I was a good writer carried me a long way—into the present, really. Writing is the way I have always dealt with the pain of love and its loss, including of the land and of a way of life.
She sounds like a wonderful teacher.
She was. Mrs. Ebbs’ statement gave me confidence in my writing abilities and skills.
If you couldn’t write, what would you be doing to express your creative self?
If I couldn’t write? I would practice the piano more, or do more photography, or I’d learn to paint.
Other than your own book, what is your favorite work of fiction, and why?
I have loved many books, but the ones I think of now are Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River. Both are written beautifully and have good storytelling, really important elements to me. They also enter into that land of the in between. I also have always loved Marilynne Robinson’s feminine writing in Housekeeping, a model for my own at the time I read it many years ago.
Where, and when, do you write? What are your writing rituals?
I get up early, 5:30 am, and spend two to four hours writing. It is my favorite time of day. I do this five or six days a week. My husband built a studio for me in a building I share with our goats, my muses!
What do you do when you aren’t writing?
I am a Jungian analyst in private practice of psychotherapy, and my husband and I farm a biodynamic organic ranch. I serve on the Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche committee, the professional journal of the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco and do presentations and workshops. My grandson is a year old now, and I spend time with him, something very important to me.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received as a writer?
That my work was a page-turner, a good story. I hold storytelling in high esteem.
Where can our readers find you on the Internet, and where can they buy your books?
You can purchase my books on the Fisher King Press website or on Amazon. I also maintain two blogs, one for my books, patriciadamery.com, and one for our ranch, harmsfarmlog.com. Our ranch website is harmslavender.com.
Would you share an excerpt of Snakes, please?
This is from early in the book, when Angela’s Midwestern mother comes to visit Angela in northern California for the first time. The two of them have gotten around early awkwardness in the visit by retelling familiar snake stories they have always loved, but this time the stories have hit Angela in a more sober way. In this excerpt, she is reminiscing about reading to her two sons when they were young.
Here, then, is the excerpt:
Since the boys were very young, I have read them mythological stories of our native America. Trent always loved one Zuni story about a beautiful young maiden who continually washed in the sacred pool of Kolowissi the Sea Serpent. She did this because she could not stand dirt or dust on herself or her clothing. Kolowissi did not like his pool dirtied, so he decided to punish her. He changed himself into a baby. When she came the next day, she found the baby, and thinking him abandoned took him home. When she fell asleep, he returned to his serpent form. His coils filled her room. Her father bargained with Kolowissi to release his daughter, but she had to give herself to the Serpent and go live in his house of the Sacred Waters. The maiden bid her people goodbye and walked away burdened by the heavy head of the enormous Serpent on her shoulder. Kolowissi was so long that even after the maiden had walked many miles with his head on her shoulder, the snake still wasn’t completely uncoiled from her room. Eventually Kolowissi abandoned his snake form and changed into the figure of a brave young man. The maiden wouldn’t speak to him, however, because of her fear and shame. But she did listen to him and soon learned he was the Sea Serpent, that he loved her too much to return her to her people, and that they would live in the Waters of the World. As she followed her husband, she forgot her sadness and her home and she lived with him ever after.
“Lived with a snake!” Trent used to say. “She married a snake?”
“Kolowissi is a god,” I’d explain. “He can take any form. But his favorite is that of a serpent.”
“She forgot her family?” Trent asked.
“Well, she went on without them.”
“But why did she have to leave?”
“All children leave eventually,” I’d say, hugging him, “when they’re ready. She had to. She dirtied the sacred waters and she had to pay.”
“By marrying a snake?”
“It was her fate.”
“What is fate, Mom?”
“The natural result of how things go. Like, if you are too clean, your fate may be to put up with the dirt and not dirty up someone else’s water trying to be too clean.”
“Oh,” Trent said. “Oh well. At least he turned into a brave young man.”
“Yea, ” I said, “but he was still a sea serpent inside.”