|Michelle Miller Allen: New Mexico Visions|
Step through a dream to find yourself in a Mesoamerican jungle where two shaman brothers rule a village. Michelle Miller Allen's critically acclaimed novel, Journey From the Keep of Bones, follows the karmic journey of two jaguar priests whose souls travel from their prehistoric village to modern New Mexico, changing genders along the way.
Miller Allen's visionary fiction derives from her real life experiences -- wandering with her poetry group, working as a paralegal, and hanging with shamans and channelers. Living in a tree house in the mountains of New Mexico probably didn't hurt either. Recently Miller Allen took time out from her current work (a second paranormal mystery) to talk to Crescent Blues about modern day knights in shining armor, finding balance in the writing life and a dog named Cu.
Crescent Blues: Is there anything you'd particularly like to say to open this interview and introduce yourself to our readers?
Michelle Miller Allen: I'm an old red-haired military brat living in a treehouse in the mountains of New Mexico with mah dawg. I drive a purple truck with the requisite horizontal crack in the windshield and smudge stick under the visor. I write visionary fiction, after dabbling in poetry and theatre for a couple decades.
My work has been published in various literary and arts magazines in the U.S. and Canada, including Prism International, Island, Center, Artspace, Women Artists & Writers of the Southwest. In 1992 my first collection of fiction, Hunger in the First Person Singular (Amador Books), won the New Mexico Press Women's ZIA Best Book Award. In 2003 my first novel, Journey From the Keep of Bones, won First Runner Up in the Coalition of Visionary Resources Best Fiction.
Crescent Blues: Can you describe the development of Journey from the Keep of Bones? Did it emerge from late night talks in coffee houses or after a particularly spectacular night of shooting stars?
Michelle Miller Allen: It came out of a blurry time in the mid-Nineties, when I was hanging out with Santa Fe channelers, dating an Albuquerque street poet, breaking up with an Albuquerque street poet, rebounding with a Knight in Shining Armour outside a Thai café off Central Ave (Route 66). Yes, there were many late night talks at the Flying Star coffeehouse and, strange you should ask, yes, a particularly spectacular night of shooting stars! Up on the Sandia Mountains with the Knight and his dog, stretched out to watch them and, having forgotten to bring a sweater, partaking of some animal warmth was involved. We counted 36 falling stars and shared a bottle of Guinness as I recall. The dog ate our hunk of cheese before we got one bite. Then, logically, these jaguar shamans started talking in my head the next day, and I took dictation.
Just your typical New Mexico experience.
Crescent Blues: Do you mind telling us a little about Journey? The bait catches the fish, if it's the right kind.
Michelle Miller Allen: Your boyfriend is a jaguar priest and you are living in a village which does not allow you, as a woman, to have a name. He takes off to swim the ocean (to see what he could see) and leaves you in the care of his evil brother, the other shaman. Things happen in the bedroom that piss you off, and you end up banished to live in a pile of skulls in the forest, taking psychotropic drugs and having visions which render you a jaguar priesTESS. Next thing you know, you're reincarnated in the 1990s in the New Mexico desert with a group of fringe-society singles, looking for love in all the wrong places. Only now you are a man and your old magic man is now a she. Only you don't remember all that. Except you have these very strange dreams and synchronistic encounters with people you'd rather never have met at all. The story unfolds...
Crescent Blues: In Journey, several of the characters are the artistic sort. How does this relate to your life? Are you the type that lounges in the after hours in a smock splattered by paint?
Michelle Miller Allen: In this novel are artists, counterculture characters, lawyers and paralegals. They say write what you know; these have been my dual world for a long time. I used to be "the type" who worked a day job with lawyers and spent my nights writing or at theatre rehearsals or poetry workshops or walking back alleys of Albuquerque with semi-homeless-but-sexy men. If you can put me in a type, from that, please do! In fact I do own a paint-spattered smock in which I do a lot of my writing and fabric arts.
Crescent Blues: Is New Mexico alive and thriving in New Age culture and the place to be for young artists and writers?
Michelle Miller Allen: I'd say yes. New Mexico is as open-minded as its desert landscape is broad and wide. You can see the weather for hundreds of miles on any day, rain over there, sun over here, you can follow the weather in your truck. And psychologically that applies also; you can make your own niche here, as an artist or writer or musician. It's a good place to simply do your work.
D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O'Keeffe started the artistic mecca here, and many have followed and continue to do so. I came here in 1979 to be near creative people in a beautiful setting. It was the best decision of my life, and all followed from there. Albuquerque will always be a cow town that grew up, yet so many cultures live there, and so many have moved there from NYC and California that it has taken on a lot of the amenities of a city without a lot of the hassles. New Mexico is very supportive of the arts and spiritual pursuits, and a place one moves to not to make a living but to create a life.
Crescent Blues: You have the dramatic skill of a playwright and the eye of a photographer to create vivid characters and situations. Is this natural ability or did you develop it.
Michelle Miller Allen: You are born with certain propensities or talents and then you choose whether to develop the skills to put those talents into form. I have studied theatre and have a strong affinity with the visual arts. I dabble in some visual arts but mostly have absorbed a lot through osmosis from very close visual arts friends about their work and their lives. This spills over into my work as a writer.
Crescent Blues: Were any of your characters drawn from reality?
Michelle Miller Allen: I like to take a real person and extract or add elements and ask the question: "If X were to go down this path instead of the one he's on, what would he become? What would happen?"
Two of my characters in the book are drawn from real people, some of the situations are drawn from real events which I have fictionally manipulated. There is so much rich material in "real life," it's rather like the question about why explore other planets when there is so much we haven't explored on our own. I only say that metaphorically, I am not opposed to space travel! I try to do as much of that as I can, in fact!
Crescent Blues: In creating the dramatic tension for Journey, how did you create the bridge between the ancient and contemporary worlds?
Michelle Miller Allen: For me as a writer, the interest and tension was in finding out how the events in the ancient world would impact the characters' karmic experiences in the contemporary world. I also wanted to do so in a way that was not predictable or obvious. Some of the tension is in sorting out which man was reincarnated as which woman and vice versa. But more of it was in thinking through the concept of "karma" and how value judgments about one's decisions and behavior play into a relevant karmic result.
Crescent Blues: Is it hard for you to balance your life as a writer? How do you manage it?
Michelle Miller Allen: It's a trick I've developed over a long time. First, since I am easily tempted to spend my entire life in my head and always examining the underpinnings of people's actions, motives, emotions, I learned that I needed to keep one foot in the writing world and one foot in "the real world" of consensual reality.
I have always led a rather schizzy life, with two sets of companions, those in the world of commerce and those like me, creatives. From very early days I consciously did not want to spend my time only with other writers, however; that was too myopic and even boring. (We are awful egoists: you have to be, daring to put yourself out there the way we do.) So by always going back and forth between social groups and occupations and geographies as I live in the woods, I do some portion of my work in the city -- albeit less now that I mostly operate from my computer -- and by doing other creative things along with writing, I keep a balance. I also have always been very careful to guard my privacy, my solitude, and to not have children, and to only be with a partner who understands and supports all this odd behavior.
Crescent Blues: What was the hardest aspect of writing Journey? How did you overcome it?
Michelle Miller Allen: Discipline, focus, keeping at it, finishing it while having to earn a living. My late husband helped me overcome the problem when we moved out of the city into a rural area with few distractions. Finally I could stop looking for love, set up a schedule, have a guard dog to keep the world at bay and work steadily to get it done.
Crescent Blues: Journey is classed as visionary fiction. Can you give us a blithe definition of this type of fiction and point us in the right direction to find more of this intriguing genre?
Michelle Miller Allen: A blithe definition: While reading it you begin to relax and think to yourself, "Ah! I'm not crazy after all! These folks have even weirder ideas about the nature of reality than I do!"
If you are computer savvy, just go to Google and type in the phrase and you will find a lot of information, websites, book lists. I think even Amazon has a list under that heading.
Crescent Blues: Is Journey meant to be a political satire or social criticism for women's rights, or something more than this? Would you describe it as modern allegory?
Michelle Miller Allen: There are those, some among my friends, who argue that everything is political, while others argue that everything is sexual. Politics was the last thing on my mind while writing it, but sex was definitely in the forefront. I suppose it is a book about sexual politics since it does deal with gender swapping and power plays between the sexes. I come from a feminist background but am more concerned about male/female relationships that are based in equality and compassion. More humanist than feminist, I'd say. Although I cringe at all "isms."
I wanted to write a book about the status of men and women as I see it, in our time. I wanted to say some serious things but also wanted to have fun in a way that might have a healing quality. A lot of what I see is from at least an ironic point of view, not so much satirical, as I tend to feel a lot of tenderness while I'm laughing at us. I guess this comes out mostly in the places in the book where I deal with the self-help relationship books, and my portrayal of De-Jah, the bad-boy shaman, and when I show Maxine's nerves in the presence of the bisexual Adrianne.
Crescent Blues: Pick five writers, not three thousand, and tell us how they influenced your writing in regard to Journey.
Michelle Miller Allen: Doris Lessing: in particular her play "Play With a Tiger," which is also a chapter in The Golden Notebook, in which a man and woman gestalt every possible combination together.
Joseph Campbell: his work on the hero's journey, and in particular a book based on his work by Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. The anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis: his work, Millennium, served as a huge influence in my thinking about and depicting The Other.
Dean Koontz: the way he depicts dogs and their relationships with humans. He gave me the courage to consider Seamus as a three-dimensional character, not "just a dog."
Annie Dillard: her poetic attention to language and our relationship with the natural world.
Crescent Blues: How did you become a writer? Was it through systematic education or persistent dogged application like Steinbeck or a mix of things?
Michelle Miller Allen: I was born a writer. Once I understood that, at age 18, everything was suddenly clear. I was a strange child -- stood apart, observed, could not enter. I was taking notes. I knew I knew things. I secretly drew stories and hid them under the mattress my whole childhood. And read, read, read, read. At age 11, I read the entire sci fi section at the base library. Which was a pretty big section, since it was the airmen's favorite genre.
Still, without encouragement at the right place and time, who knows what I might have chosen to do? I intended to become a psychiatrist. My environment and family were not creative or encouraging of any bohemian pursuits. Fortunately it was the Sixties. A wild-minded mentor took me in hand and gave me a push into creative writing, where I really belonged. I moved in and out of academia but always had mentors. I'd say a mix of both the literary worlds and the counterculture worlds. The mix is evident in my work, I think.
Crescent Blues: How has Journey changed your own journey in life? Has it influenced you internally or externally within society?
Michelle Miller Allen: Yes to all the above. I have been forced to be more public about my wacky belief system, and as a result I have met some amazing people. Personally, it has opened me up in many ways, I am more vocal about my speculations on the nature of existence than I used to be, and about spiritual seeking. My husband's death and the publication of my book happened within weeks of each other. Both experiences catapulted me into a new reality.
Crescent Blues: Do you have any bright words of wisdom for a struggling scribe? Is all the sweat, frustration and derision worth the price of success?
Michelle Miller Allen: I was just looking in a journal I kept at my first writer's conference under my first writing mentor (Breadloaf, 1970, Miller Williams). I was distraught in that journal because he told me that, although I was a good writer, everything I had written to date was crap, that everything I would write for the next decade would be practice and crap, and that everything he wrote before the age of 35 he had thrown out. I was appalled.
Now, 35 years later, I understand. He was absolutely right.
It's a long road, the learning curve is beyond anything you can imagine. Patience, delayed gratification, live, love, risk risk risk, find your own path, forget what the experts tell you, learn the rules, memorize them and then break every one.
Yes, it's worth it. As a writer, if I had lived these years denying my art, postponing my work, not writing, there would have been no point to any of the heaven and hell.
Crescent Blues: When you casually meet people in the store or at a coffee shop, how do you introduce yourself? Do you keep a packet of cards in your purse, gold-lettered in bold, "Brilliant Writer," or are you a bit more diplomatic and elusive?
Michelle Miller Allen: It's funny how you change about all this. Yesterday I stopped in a local store to find a video -- The Pledge with Jack Nicholson, one of my faves -- and was very engrossed in frustration that it was no longer on the shelf. (It's a small country video store. Turns out they discontinued it in inventory because I was the only one who rented it last year.)
At the cash register the owner shouts out to me, "Hey Michelle, what's that political satirist's name on CNN?" I shrugged, irritated at being bothered in midst my search. Two women who were talking with him turned and stared and said, "Is that Michelle, as in the writer?" Again, all I felt was vaguely annoyed, where was my video?
So...if someone asks what I do I say I'm a writer and they perk up and ask what do you write and I say "novels." They say "what about?" and I try to describe what I do. And if we find reason to connect further, I hand them a card regarding my little production company since I wear (and make) many hats. This conversation is always the same. Maybe someday I'll meet someone with a different question?
Crescent Blues: What is the hardest part of bringing out a book? Surviving the editor? Shaking hands? The last chapter?
Michelle Miller Allen: So far I have loved my editors. I've been fortunate with that. They have been so important to a finished product. The hardest part for me is doing book signings. Some of them go very well; others are slow and drag out and I just want to go home. The other hard part is how long it can take between finishing a book and it getting published. Years. Years and years. Talk about delayed gratification! Arrggghhh!
Crescent Blues: What do you like about being a writer? What's it like to win recognition in a book competition? Is it very important?
Michelle Miller Allen: Best of all is the time spent writing, the way you lose yourself, lose time and place and go into that white heat. It's better than sex, even. Winning recognition has been a good thing, a helpful thing for marketing the books. But the high of winning is nothing compared to the act of writing.
Crescent Blues: Is your dog as smart as the one in the book? How influential are animals on human relationships?
Michelle Miller Allen; Oh crafty one, asking about mah dawg! Seamus is drawn from a dog my husband and I had, Cu -- a beautiful and extremely intelligent golden retriever. I hardly fictionalized Seamus at all; I didn't really have to ask for Cu's permission or get his lawyer to sign a waiver, now did I?
Now I have another dog, Shaka Zulu, a part Sharpei part German Shepherd. He is phenomenal. Very intelligent, also musical and on a mission to tame all rocks on the planet. (They are very much alive and he knows it and they need to be disciplined!) I cannot imagine life without a dog.
I use both the dog and then domestic and wild cats in the novel. A cougar lurks in the contemporary chapters, as does the jaguar lurk in the ancient chapters. To me they are symbolic of our animal aspects our shadow, intuitive self, dreaming self, self-preserving self, wild self. I also play with domestic cats, in the urban scenes. Our wild animal has been largely tamed, or rendered dependent on us, and serves as an opposite force, to keep us safe and at home, while the cougar and jaguar compel us into the danger of the forest, into places of power or even death.
Crescent Blues: Curiosity killed the cat, but keeps us alive -- what's up for the next project?
Michelle Miller Allen: I have written a murder mystery with Celtic mythological and paranormal elements. It features the mythological Green Man. My agent loves the book and is seeking a publisher but it will require a less-genre-obsessed one, I'm afraid, than the ones we've met so far. Currently I am writing my second paranormal murder mystery using the same sleuths, which takes place mostly in Ireland and involves bog sacrifice. The other book I am working on is a small nonfiction book about dying, grief, creativity and synchronicity. I am also plotting an autobiographical romantic mystery novel which takes place on the west coast of Scotland.
Click here to learn more about Michelle Miller Allen.
Click here to read pogo's review of Journey to the Keep of Bones.