Interview: M. Rickert
By John Joseph Adams
11 December 2006
M. (Mary) Rickert was born on December 11, 1959 in Port Washington, Wisconsin. She's lived in California and upstate New York, but now lives with her husband in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, about ten miles from the town of Fredonia, where she grew up. She finds it very surreal to find herself so close to where she grew up.
She is the author of many short stories, the first of which, "The Girl Who Ate Butterflies," appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in August 1999. She's published dozens of stories since then, mostly in F&SF, and her work has been reprinted in both The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror and Year's Best SF 9. Her story "Anyway," which was originally published in SCI FICTION, recently made the preliminary Nebula ballot. Her first book, a short fiction collection entitled Map of Dreams, was published by Golden Gryphon Press in November.
She has a fondness for cross-country train travel and writing strange and wonderful stories.
John Joseph Adams: Much of your work is informed by a very pronounced sense of loss, giving one the impression that you yourself may have suffered some tragic loss, and that your fiction might be a way of dealing with it. Is that so, or does it all simply come from the imagination?
M. Rickert: I'm glad you asked this because some people are under the impression that terrible things have happened to me, and they haven't. My stories are fiction.
JJA: So what about your stories is personal?
MR: Well, my stories are entirely personal, but that doesn't mean that they are, in any conventional sense of the word, true.
JJA: Although most of the stories in Map of Dreams were published originally in magazines as standalone stories, here they are presented as the work of Annie Merchant, the author character in the title novella. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?
MR: I was hoping to offer another possible viewing of the stories through the experience of Annie, someone who, within the novella, "Map of Dreams" finds her voice by addressing her deepest sorrow, the loss of her child. People don't lose the terrible things that happen to them, and neither does she, but the stories she writes, though imbued with this sense of the horrible, are also about recovery. Through this structure I tried to exercise some awareness of how these stories reflect on each other, as well as increase the dimensions within which they exist when read separately.
JJA: Map of Dreams is further broken down into four sections: "Dreaming," "Nightmares," "Waking," and "Rising." Talk about why you grouped the stories together in those sections, and talk a bit about the interstitial pieces that begin each section.
MR: The pieces that begin each section are intended to be read as mini-prologues, or bridges, an opportunity to shift perception of the stories that follow into the realms of Dreams, Nightmares, Waking, and Rising. Generally, short story collections are shaped like the tines of a fork—I have loved many collections shaped this way—but it was important to me that Map of Dreams have a shape that felt resolved. I hoped that there would be a certain benefit in reading the stories in the order they are presented, intending to create a layering of meaning, so that by the final story "The Chambered Fruit," which is a very sad story, there would also be this sense of hope. The last few words of the collection are an important comment on all that comes before.
JJA: I understand you originally tried to publish the novella "Map of Dreams" as a novel.
MR: Yes, though I don't remember how hard I tried. It was originally a little longer and cut for the collection.
JJA: Will we be seeing a novel from M. Rickert some time soon?
MR: I hope so.
JJA: Does that mean you're working on one now?
MR: I have something finished that is sort of a novel in two parts, or two short novels with unifying themes. I'm also working on something now that I hope will be a novel.
JJA: Several of your stories—"The Chambered Fruit" and "Angel Face" for example—are about or involve artists. Is writing your only means of artistic expression, or have you, like your characters, created visual art as well?
MR: For many years I had the urge to paint, and at various times in my life I would buy painting supplies. Then I would sit down and stare at the paper or canvas, waiting for inspiration. Eventually I would make a tree. For years I just kept making this very basic tree. When I moved to upstate New York, after living a relatively isolated existence in Sequoia National Park, I worked as an assistant to an art teacher and one day he gave me some paint, brushes, and a canvas. I came home, hammered a nail into the wall, hung the canvas and began painting. I called it "Self Portrait." It was composed of tiny triangles, little spots of color, and a lot of blue. It didn't look like a person or a face, and it wasn't intended to. I'm still fond of this painting, but it is very stiff, almost as though it had been done in markers or crayons. Later, I developed a little more skill with the brush. I'm not sure there's anything more beautiful than a beautiful brush stroke. I continued painting for a while, and sold some pieces, but honestly, I very quickly reached my meager limits in the medium.
JJA: In the afterword to the book, Gordon Van Gelder says that "the juxtaposition of contemporary life in the Electronic Age with an appreciation of a life in balance with nature (what some would call a 'simple life') gives stories like 'The Chambered Fruit' their potency." Do you agree? Or if not, what does give it its potency?
MR: I'm not sure that, just because I wrote them, I'm the best person to understand what gives my stories their "potency." I don't know why people find certain stories more or less potent. I have no understanding of that at all, so if Gordon Van Gelder says he finds them potent for a certain reason, and someone else says she finds them not worth the time it took to read them, I can't really disagree. I can say that my conscious motivation when writing is usually emotion.
JJA: The events that set off "The Chambered Fruit"—a young girl being abducted by an Internet predator—hints at a fear of, or at least an ambivalence about, the Internet. This, along with the fact that you have no website and don't seem to participate on message boards or blogs, one might assume that you are not exactly an Internet junkie. True?
MR: Years ago I read Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, a study of various pagan religions. Someone in that book described how a sword used to carry a certain potency that has been lost over time, swords just not being very pertinent, but if the sword were exchanged with a gun, the ritual regained resonance. "The Chambered Fruit" is very consciously based on the myth of Persephone, who was abducted and taken to live underground. I chose to use the Internet as the modern day equivalent of the earth, a source of growth and opportunity, as well as malignancy.
It's true that I don't participate much on message boards, and I would never keep an online journal but this is because I have very little to say that I don't want to save to say in stories. Getting a website is on my list of things to do, however.
JJA: Some of your other stories—"Leda" and "Moorina" for example—deal directly with mythology, but almost all of your stories have a very mythic feel to them, even when wholly original. Is that an effect you strive to achieve?
MR: I'm not sure "strive" is the right word because it creates such a sense of reaching upwards, and when I'm writing I feel more like I'm sinking inward. I find myself pleased by your observation, while recognizing that the mythic is not something achieved. How does anyone achieve a dream or a nightmare?
JJA: Speaking of nightmares, the first story in the "Nightmares" section of the book is "Bread and Bombs," which seems to clearly be a reaction-story to 9/11. Was it very difficult for you to write, or did your anger at that the events of that day fuel your creative fires, thereby making it come easily?
MR: "Bread and Bombs" is definitely a reaction to 9/11. I'm sure anger was there but the motivating emotion of that story was fear. While writing it, my touchstone phrase was, "all my fears." I don't remember it as being particularly difficult to write, painful yes, but not difficult.
JJA: Were any of your other stories inspired directly from actual events—something you read in the newspaper, an anecdote related by an acquaintance, that sort of thing?
MR: "Night Blossoms" was inspired by my sister's experience with breast cancer. I'll take advantage of this forum to encourage people to always get a second opinion. Her first doctor actually dismissed the possibility of cancer and told her to return in a few months. She went to another doctor and was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Of course, none of that is in the story, and that's not what the story is about, but I clearly remember "Night Blossoms" being inspired by thoughts of breast cancer.
One night I watched a show on veterans of World War Two, and as I watched it, I knew that I was going to write a story about war. That fused with what I found to be the rather surprising statistic of mothers who voted for Bush in the last election, thinking he would keep their children safer. That story became "Anyway."
"Many Voices" was inspired by several stories I'd heard of women being criminally charged for acts committed while mentally ill. I read a non-fiction book of interviews with women in prison, but unfortunately, I don't remember the name of that book. (Too late to be part of this story, but an interesting piece of information is the article I read just this weekend, about how women prisoners, as recently as the eighties, were shackled while in childbirth.)
Once, at a public occasion, I heard a man describe how his son was beat up at school, how he was pressured to name his attackers but declined, saying he would take care of it himself, and how later, each of the boys who had taken part in the attack came up to him and apologized. That fused with my memory of a particularly pretty boy I went to junior high with. He was the son of the coach. I remember one day, in particular, some boys picking on this young man, not observing the approach of his father, as I did. This man's face was filled with love and pain for his son. They moved after that year. I don't remember the boy's name but he was definitely part of the inspiration for "More Beautiful Than You."
Many years ago, while waiting at a train station a strange man began a conversation with me. When I told him I wanted to be a writer, he told me I would never be one, that I was just a silly girl. That became the inspiration for "The Harrowing."
JJA: Talk about the complex structure of "Cold Fires." What effect were you trying to achieve?
MR: I remember that I was just trying to have fun. I love stories within stories, and I thought it would be fun to write one. The structure is basically a frame story built around the characters' individual stories. The inner stories needed to function in the way the central part of any story functions, they had to be entertaining but also relay important information about the main characters. I felt that for the entire story to be most effective the internal stories should not have proper endings as that would deplete the energy of the whole piece, the drive towards conclusion. No part of that story, though composed of three stories, could survive very well without the others, and I think this was important as well, to create the sense of something whole, not fractured.
JJA: One of your stories not included in the collection, "You Have Never Been Here" (Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology), was called in an interview the "quintessential slipstream" story by co-editor John Kessel. Talk a bit about the genesis of that story and how you felt about how it turned out.
MR: I had just finished reading The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, by Simon Wiesenthal. While a prisoner in a concentration camp, a dying Nazi soldier asked Wiesenthal for forgiveness for his crimes against the Jews. Years later, he wrote about the experience. This awakened an old question of mine; can someone who has lived a horrible life and done horrible things have a moment of spiritual realization? Can an intense exploration of hell deliver heaven? What would this small moment feel like, would it feel small, or would it feel boundless, beyond borders of space and time, beyond the borders of body and mind? What would it be like to become, even for just a few moments, a completely different person than the one you've always been? What if you really came to understand reality in an entirely different way than the way you had been previously understood it? Is the worst prison of all the body?
This is the story I wrote for Sycamore Hill, the writing workshop facilitated by John Kessel and Richard Butner. I don't generally workshop my stories, and I wanted to bring something that I felt would benefit from a workshop experience. I'm actually rather fond of it, but I understand that it is not universally accessible.
JJA: I understand you struggled with your writing for a long time before making your first sale, mainly because you were trying to write mainstream literary stories, but they kept insisting on turning toward the fantastic.
MR: I think the main reason my apprenticeship has been such a long one is that I just wasn't a very good writer. How could I be when I had no understanding of my strengths and weaknesses?
JJA: How did you come to understand your strengths and weaknesses?
MR: I think through the practice of mediation, Aikido, and Tai Chi, I finally started paying attention in a really significant way. For a long time I wrote poetry, and one day I sat and looked at what I had written over the years so that I could pull out the best of it and assemble what was certain to be my award-winning collection. What I discovered instead was that after all those years of writing poetry I had produced maybe two or three decent poems. It was sort of upsetting. It was also sort of wonderful to be able to see it so clearly. From that point on I devoted myself to fiction writing, though I'd like to make clear that I don't think all that poetry writing was a waste. I just came to understand that my strength wasn't there.
During the same period of time I developed patience. I noticed when I was feeling irritated with a story, or just trying to hurry through it, and when I saw that happening, I stopped writing, and went for a bike ride or took a walk. I started to distinguish between the feeling I had when I was writing someone else's truth, and when I was writing my own. I began to trust that feeling, though it is still very odd to me that my writing voice can be quite dark. It was not the voice I expected to have. Previously, I had a tendency to the shut the door against the dark. Through the practice of awareness I learned not to dismiss an acknowledgement of evil, and not to judge myself for admitting its existence.
JJA: Do you have a career besides writing? If so, please tell us about it. Also, what sort of careers did you have in the past?
MR: Since this past spring, when we moved from upstate New York to Wisconsin because of my husband's job, I have been just writing. I would like to say that this is a tremendous gift from my spouse, and an awe-inspiring sacrifice on his part, as there are certain adjustments we have to make because of my very limited income. Previously I have worked the usual assortment of odd jobs, bookstore clerk, relief night auditor, director of an after school playgroup, personnel assistant. Prior to the Bohemian years, I worked for almost a decade as a kindergarten teacher in a school for gifted children.
JJA: What's your educational background? Did you study writing in school?
MR: Though I took many classes, I never got a college degree. During that period in my life, I belonged to a poetry writing workshop. Later, I took a novel writing class at a community college. I also attended the Squaw Valley Writing Workshop. While living in New York, I took a fiction writing workshop taught by Douglas Glover. He's the one who told me that I was a gothic writer. I didn't even know what he was talking about. The only thing I knew about gothic was that it had something to do with architecture. He also taught about the value of layering time in fiction, how that creates a resonance, and resonance necessarily creates a vibrancy that can make fiction "come alive." More recently, I have attended the Blue Heaven Novel Writing Workshop facilitated by Charles Coleman Finlay, and The Sycamore Hill Writing Workshop facilitated by John Kessel and Richard Butner. At both workshops I learned a lot, and was greatly humbled.
JJA: How does your writing process work? Do the stories come out in a rush, or do you work on several at once, or one at a time, etc.?
MR: Generally, I'm rather focused on one thing at a time, though there's often stuff in the drawer that I later go back to. I have certain stories that have been written in a single sitting, or several sittings over several days, and others that I've tinkered with, made adjustments to for months. Lately, I seem to be writing with not much sense of where the story is going, or how it will end. When I'm writing this sort of story ("Journey into the Kingdom" and "The Christmas Witch" were both written this way) I am extremely careful about cutting anything in the first draft, and I always have a record of whatever cuts I do make, in case once I figure out where the story is going, I need those parts. When I'm writing this way, I go to what's already been written to understand where the story is going. For instance, at some point while writing "Journey into the Kingdom" I realized that I had opened it with this man in the coffee shop and thought I should cut that, since obviously I wasn't writing that story at all. Instead of cutting it, though, I realized it was an important part of the bigger story.
JJA: Do you have any literary inspirations? Or if not influences per se, who do you just plain like to read?
MR: Right now I'm in a fairly big non-fiction reading period. I'm currently reading The End of Faith, by Sam Harris; Evil, An Investigation, by Lance Morrow; My Wars Are Laid Away In Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, by Alfred Habegger; Literature and the Gods, by Roberto Calasso; Witches, Ogres, and The Devil's Daughter: Encounters with Evil in Fairy Tales, by Mario Jacoby, Verena Kast, and Ingrid Riedel; and The 9/11 Commission Report. Ask me this question in six months and my answer will probably be the same, as I'm reading all of these quite slowly. As far as fiction goes, I'm reading several anthologies, as well as White Crosses, by Larry Watson and The Antelope Wife (second time, I love this book) by Louse Erdrich. A book I've read and loved relatively recently is Strange Piece of Paradise, by Terri Jentz. This is the non-fiction account of Terri's having been attacked, as an eighteen year old, by a stranger with an axe. It's also about the power of story to heal. Not cure, necessarily, but heal. Another book I just loved, and feel more people should know about is The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment. This is the story of Sara, a shop girl, who gets involved with wealthy Philip. When the depression leaves them broke, they travel to the South Pacific as art collectors. There they discover a tattoo culture of islanders. Sara takes up the needle herself, returning to New York thirty years later, as living art. I found this story to be mythically resonant and a powerful tale about making art. Finally, I loved Cynthia Underwood Thayer's A Brief Lunacy darkly-disturbing, if you like your horror psychological, as I sometimes do.
JJA: What are you working on now? Anything new forthcoming?
MR: Other than the possible novel, I have a novelette, "The Christmas Witch" coming out in the December issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and another story on the docket there. A story I read an excerpt from at WisCon, "Holiday," will be in the Ellen Datlow-edited issue of Subterranean Magazine.
JJA: On Amazon.com, you made a rare appearance on the Internet by posting a brief note on Map of Dreams's discussion forum. You said that you're planning your next short story collection to be a series of stories inspired by various holidays. The aforementioned "The Christmas Witch" and "Holiday" sound like sure bets to be included; what else can you tell us about that?
MR: I picture this as a small book, called "Holiday" with a beautiful cover and inside art for each holiday story. I love this idea, but I'm not sure if anyone in publishing will like it. Still, using this idea as a model has inspired my most recent fiction, including the stories already mentioned, as well as "Journey into the Kingdom," "You Have Never Been Here," and "Memoir of a Deer Woman," which is the docket story at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. When everything is said and done, I'm still a kindergarten teacher at heart. We kindergarten teachers are big on themes.