Today we're talking with Barbara Ardinger, author of Secret Lives
FQ: The characters are so funny, at times, among the beauty of what they’re saying and doing. Are any of the characters specifically based on you and/or your friends?
Before anything else—many thanks for your lovely review. As an author yourself, you know how gratifying it is when a reader gets your work.
There are tiny bits of me and nearly everyone I know in the characters of Secret Lives. I suspect that I am most like the Goddesses two “thoughty” devotees, Cairo and Brooke, but I think there must be some of me in Bertha, too. I’ve been a bit of a rebel all my life. Brooke grew up in St. Louis, so did I, she and some other characters went to college at Southeast Missouri State in Cape Girardeau, where I earned my B.S. and M.A. Though the university changed the name of the team and mascot some years ago, I renamed the school Sagamore State after the old mascot, “Chief Sagamore.” Brooke’s avoidance behavior in Chapter 19 echoes things I did in a similar circumstance. The story about the trip to the Ozarks in the VW bug is true—we stopped in a small town and they didn’t know where to put the gas in the car. Other characters contain hints of people I know, and some of the people mentioned (especially in the chapters about Jacoba’s breast cancer) are real people, some with their names changed. Frances J. Swift thinks and talks like every corporate memo I ever read (and I’ve read a lot of corporate-speak). I think it’s this verisimilitude that makes the characters seem so real.
FQ: There are many who see the hideous treatment that our beloved family members are receiving in retirement homes. Is this a subject you would really like people to ‘get’ when they read this novel?
It certainly is. I have known people—most of them elderly women like Sarah—who were sold out of their houses and parked in shabby places like the Towers. For a few months while I was writing Secret Lives, I was a companion to an 82-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s. She and I made a good team: she was talking to invisible people and I was watching and listening to invisible people. After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother lived with her two living daughters—a month here, a month there, a month back again. Sophie echoes my grandmother when she says she never knew where to call home. (Gramma finally found a place in a senior citizens’ village near St. Louis.) Hannah’s nightmares about the floors falling out of her mother’s house are taken directly from nightmares I had after my grandfather died. I have also seen physicians give very poor care to old women, though that is—thank Goddess!—changing today.
Twenty years ago, elderly women were still at the bottom of the social totem pole. The metaphysical Great Chain of Life, which was a popular paradigm during the 18th and 19th centuries went sort of like this—mud (earth), women, noble animals (the lion), men, angels, God. Well, we neopagans and witches are very grounded. Our religion is an earth-based religion. It’s said we worship the ground we walk on. I was also present several times when we constructed a labyrinth on the beach at Laguna Beach; Cairo’s story is a true one.
FQ: You speak about various areas of study such as, numerology, astrology, and even the Theosophical Society. Are you a researcher on these particular subjects? Or, studied them in college?
I read a lot. I’ve studied these topics and more. My numerology teacher at the time I started writing Secret Lives (1990) was a French woman born in Egypt whose accent made Maurice Chevalier sound like Walter Cronkite. (Does anyone recognize these two men’s names?) I spent several years as a member of Edgar Cayce’s association and even got a sweet kiss on the cheek from one of Cayce’s sons, who was an elderly man. I’ve tried to learn astrology, but I just don’t speak the language. Thankfully, I have a dozen friends who are experts and explain things to me. I have read much of the early New Thought literature (written around the turn of the 20th century and earlier) and much of the literature of the late 19th-century Occult Revival of Europe. Bits and pieces of all these things are given in the novel. Rev. Donnathea is an entirely admirable mainstream metaphysical teacher. I’m sure we’ve all met teachers like Rev. Debbee and students like Gwennie.
And I’ve known some very thoughtful Theosophists who would read my version of the transmigration of souls and laugh out loud. Theosophy posits the theory that life—a soul—arises in the mineral kingdom, moves to the vegetable, then to the animal, next to the human, then ascends to the angelic realm. I write in the FREE READER’S GUIDE on my website that Madame Blavatsky, the circle’s familiar, was born in the fluorite mine and moved to a mugwort bush. (These are both associated with mental power.) Next she was a Russian bear (the real-life occultist was born in Russia,) then she was the famous occultist and author. Next she became the cat in my novel. People might think she’s going backwards, but we need to remember that catus felis, the domestic cat, is the highest form of life on the planet. After her nine lives as a cat, Madame Blavatsky will start climbing up the nine levels of the angelic hierarchy. Yes—this is nonsense. But that’s the point of parody!
FQ: Being allowed to “make the choice you want to make for yourself” where death is concerned presents a scenes which are truly beautiful. Do you believe that this should be an option for all?
I believe that a person facing death should not be kept “heroically” alive with tubes and drugs and machines. If it’s time to go, then a person should be allowed to have a dignified death. I learned this as an AIDS volunteer and when some close friends died. This is why our women celebrate Sarah’s life and create sacred space for her to make her choice. They don’t do anything to encourage her or discourage her.
I also think I accept the fact of reincarnation, though I’m not totally sure. I’ve had spontaneous views of a couple of my earlier lives and believe them; at the same time, I do NOT believe that I was Cleopatra in an earlier life, which I was told because I wrote my doctoral dissertation about her. And two of my boyfriends were Caesar and Antony?? I think not! I’m very curious to know what happens when someone who dies “wakes up” in another realm, but even though I love the movie Ghost, nobody really trustworthy has come back to tell us.
FQ: The debates that arise from your novel such as God versus Goddess and The Church versus other religions are extremely strong. Can you offer readers a bit of information about these tough subjects, and how you feel about these debates that still go on?
As I—and many other neopagans—see it, the Goddess is the grandmother of God. The basic situation shown in the prologue is accurate and true. People were living in an egalitarian civilization in Old Europe when Indo-European horsemen arrived from the Caucasus Mountains and the Russian steppes bringing their sky, solar, storm gods with them. This is documented in the work of Marija Gimbutas and others. Lucia Birnbaum, another respected scholar, writes that the earliest people walked out of eastern Africa before 50,000 BCE taking their “black mothers” (black ancestral goddesses) with them. They turned left to populate Asia and went north and turned left to populate Europe.
We neopagans are not out to do battle with other religions. We do not proselytize, we do not seek converts, we do not preach to the masses. There are, of course, a few fundamentalist pagans who will have nothing to do with the standard-brand religions, but I’ve never heard of any neopagan jihadists or evangelists. I keep hoping we’re working up to a critical mass and that we’ll bring more lovingkindness to the planet. That’s why I write about pagan festivals and gods and goddesses in my last nonfiction book, Pagan Every Day, where I also write about Christian saints, Jewish holidays, Muslim prophets and events, Mormon history, Black Islam, and holidays from the Eastern religions.
FQ: I was very proud to see that all characters are given their voice in this novel. From witches to horrific doctors to the subject of lesbianism - this really feels like a novel promoting choice in everything. Is this a correct statement?
Yes. Choice based on intelligent observation and clear thought is a good thing. We have free will and e can make life choices. But we always need to consider the unintended consequences of any choices we make.
FQ: When your shaman is resting on her staff, the picture of many women and men resting on their canes in their elder years pops into mind - reminding me that this is the generation with the power, intelligence, and history that we should be honoring and not tossing into homes. Are you an advocate for senior citizens?
A formal advocate? No. But I’ve met many elderly people and listened to their stories. I’ve spent time in “old folks’ homes” and modeled the Towers on several of them. I also believe Santayana when he says that if we don’t remember history we’ll be condemned to repeat it. I read the newspaper in the morning and watch the news on TV, and I keep thinking the U.S. is heading in the same direction as some earlier fallen empires. We need to listen to our wise elders. Of course, some of our elderly people are not wise, so it’s a matter of distinguishing between those who know history and those who don’t, those who are wise and those who are demented. It would be good if we could keep the latter out of government.
FQ: Do you hope that the next generation comes to realize that they are being handed down the power to fight the evil that seems to be becoming more and more rampant every day?
I don’t like to use a word like “evil.” There’s a lot that’s lousy in the world—all we have to do is watch Eyewitless News to see big and little wars and gangs and crime. There are gangs in Long Beach. The scene that opens Chapter 1 echoes threats that women get all the time. My hope for the younger generation is that they learn to kind to other people and learn to make choices that are useful and helpful to themselves and other people. But our kids have a lot of awful history to overcome.
FQ: Who do you believe are some of the strongest women from history? I know that you mention Hypatia - THE librarian (my favorite) - is she among the toughest? And, do you believe that strong women will continue to be ‘taken-down’ even after all this time?
The list given in Chapter 25 names a lot of my heras. (“Hera” is the feminine form of “hero.”) The women are identified in the FREE READER’S GUIDE on my website. Cleopatra of Egypt was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Zenobia was a Syrian queen who led a failed revolt against the Roman Empire. Hypatia really died as described. Pope Joan may have been real. Eleanor of Aquitaine was married to and imprisoned by Henry II. Tamara was the “king” of Georgia in the Caucasus at the end of the 12th century. Everyone knows about Joan of Arc. Queen Jinga Mbandi was an Angolan queen who tried to drive the Portuguese out of her land. Harriet Tubman was an African American humanitarian who used the Underground Railroad to take slaves out of the South and worked for women’s rights after the end of the Civil War. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a Mexican nun and poet. Clara Schumann was the sister of Robert Schumann and is believed to have written much of the music he took credit for. Isadora Duncan is said to be the creator of modern dance. Hildegard of Bingen and Dame Julian of Norwich were medieval Christian nuns and mystics. St. Theresa was a Spanish nun, mystic, saint, and reformer of the Carmelite Order. Mother Theresa was an Albanian Catholic nun and founder of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India. Simone Weil was a French philosopher and social activist who is said to have starved herself to death in sympathy with the inmates of the Nazi concentration camps. Susan Griffin is the author of Woman and Nature (1979), a beautiful and important early feminist work. My intention with this list was to name women who have been overlooked in most of the history books.
FQ: I have to know… I love Madame Blavatsky - who is the cat based on?
The cat is sui generis, one in herself. For purposes of the plot, I wanted a powerful, smart-alecky character, but why did this character have to be human? A talking cat, along with the magic, is part of the magical realism of the novel. I also thought about the familiars that witches have traditionally lived with. She looks like one of my earlier cats, but none of my cats have ever spoken English. She’s a realistic feline because I live with two Maine coon cats (Schroedinger and Heisenberg) and observed their behavior as I wrote. But my cats don’t dance the lambada or sing songs from Marx Brothers movies, either.
FQ: On a personal note: I read in your Author’s Note that acquisitions departments over time have said to you that no one will want to read about crones, goddesses, and magic - I truly believe that you will prove them all wrong in 2011. Much luck and love to you,
Many thanks. Twenty years ago, no one was the least bit interested in senior citizens, especially not in old women. As the boomers begin to retire, however, “old age” is increasingly important. Just look at the ads on TV—“cures” for menopause, Viagra ads, ads for retirement villages. We can also look at some recent history. Jessica Tandy won her Oscar at the age of 89. The Golden Girls was a popular TV show. Older actors like Chloris Leachman and others are still working. In the U.S. Congress, many of our female senators and representatives, like Nancy Pelosi, might be of retirement age, but they’re not nearly ready to retire. Two of our three female Supreme Court justices are nearly old enough to be crones (Sotomayor is 57, Kagan is 51, Ginsburg is 78), but they’re smart and active. The door of respect of older women is open a tiny crack now. I’m hoping to give it a shove and open it wider.