A Report on Life and Writing

I’m 73, and have been writing since about age ten. I live in Tacoma with my wife, Melinda, and our three children: Evan is 19; Chloe is 14; and Isibella will be 12 on June 28. Thanks to modern technology, I now have four books available for sale.

 I have always been fascinated by fragmentary information. In 1965 I created a suite of poems entitled “Aeolian Transformations” out of the fragments we have of Sappho. (I think it exciting that more fragments of her work have been found among the Oxyrynchus papyri, and I know from shoptalk that a complete manuscript of her poetry may still exist.) My first poem to be published was in 1960, in Transfer, the San Francisco State lit mag. I did not think I had written much poetry over the last 52 years—until I counted, about two years ago, and discovered I have more poems than are in Yeats’ collected poetry. Then I put together Theodyssies and Paradoxologies. I thought up that title many years ago. Unpack it; it tells much about what I explore.

I helped create the NROOGD out of the fragmentary information my friends and I had in1967 about Gardnerian Wicca. Hippie Commie Beatnik Witches is who we were. That was worth writing, especially because there are few accurate and honest inside accounts of how a religious group was created. We did not need permission or authorization to do that, although I suppose we were touched by the little finger of the Goddess once in a while. I also needed to write it in order to clear the ground for A Tapestry of Witches: A History of the Craft in America.  I’ve been collecting the materials for it since the 1970s. I have now finished and released Volume One, which covers the history from the pre-Gardnerian groups (back to 1893) to the mid-1970s. I have Volumes Two and Three blocked out; it won’t take nearly as long to finish them. I am hoping for decent sales on these; I know there is nothing similar in existence. Such would be quite beneficial for my family.

The earliest material in my Goddess Murder was also built from fragments. In 1971, with surprise and delight, I found a ten-volume set of The Ante-Nicene Fathers at Holmes Books at Third and Market in San Francisco, diagonally across from the offices of Scientific American Books, where I was then a well-paid manuscript editor. I bought it for $50 (which then had the buying power of $500 now) and constructed a “Gospel of Simon and Helen” out of the fragments of actual Gnostic writings I could glean from the heresiologists. I think I made out a better case for their beliefs than they ever made for themselves.

I later created two more apocryphal gospels, one of fragments about Mary Magdalene in the 1980s, then “The Gospel of Diana” about 1991. It was very strange having the voice of a hereditary Italian Witch in the 1870s speaking in my head, telling me things I had not known about religious history. And then it all insisted on becoming part of “A Tale of Love, Witches, and Gnostics,” set in an alternative history. Can you imagine what a genuine interface that could integrate the Craft with a Gnostic sort of Christianity would have to be like? That’s what Diana told me. And in a recent expansion of the novel, I have incorporated an “Acts of Mary,” constructed out of yet more fragments about her and speculations about a theology of Christianity more plausible than the high Christology that is, at least for me, useless for staying sober.

Why use this theological research as materials for a novel? Because a novel enables speculative explorations that go way beyond the acceptable boundaries of scholarship and that may provide useful, testable hypotheses. And because I can never in any way be a “true believer” in anything; I am always aware that, however much we may know, our knowledge is infinitesimal relative to an infinite universe. Thus I am not going to present whatever conclusions I may yet arrive at as a new Revelation from On High. As some of my friends know, I once had an opportunity to be a “cult leader” if I had been crazy enough to want that. I did not, and I believe I discharged myself honorably. But I do hope that what I write might provoke serious thought and perhaps even serious action.

My agent friends had assured me that the novel was much too original, did not fit into any of the subgenres of the novel, that no publisher would touch it. And my silly mentors in the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State had told me that one should strive to be as original as possible. How very unrealistic that was—until now. I’m a little sorry to see the legacy publishers going bankrupt because they could not see this revolution coming, but I’m glad their monopoly on publishing has been destroyed.

What had gone wrong with literary publishing in America was that it had been controlled in recent decades by tycoons who were interested in money, not literature. (Bob Wilson—Robert Anton to you peasants—once commented that authors and publishers should never have anything to do with one another, since their interests are diametrically opposed.)

Back in the Golden Age, a literary editor was expected to make money for the company, but he had some leeway in how to do that. If he had a quota of ten books for the year, nine had to be certain money makers, but the tenth could be a gamble. How did an editor know those first nine were certain to make money? Editors could not and still can’t foretell the future any better than anyone else. They merely used pattern recognition, like meteorologists. If a novel is a western, it is known how well westerns sell. If this particular novel is a better than average western, then it will probably sell a little better than average. And so on. That’s statistics, boring but reliable.

Now, that tenth book. An editor might have liked a new book precisely because it was original, unprecedented, something new under the sun, right? At least, we were taught to strive for such originality in my creative writing program at San Francisco State. But if the novel did not fit into a standard genre, there was no way to predict how well it might sell. The editor naturally hoped that something with artistic merit might have an audience, and back then he was allowed to take that chance, about 10 percent of the time. If he was right, if the novel was a hit, a best seller, it would pay off handsomely—and every other publisher would immediately try to find something just like it to publish. Sometimes it even became the bellwether of a new genre. On the other hand, at least 90 percent of that 10 percent would be bombs, but a good editor was allowed to take that chance.

What ended the Golden Age?  Once almost all of American publishing was bought up by the Germans (Bertelsmann) and the English (Rupert Murdoch, almost as great a malevolent asshole as the Koch brothers), the corporate executives decided that editors would no longer be allowed to take chances, that every book an editor signed had to make a profit. An editor could do that only by signing books that were predictable, that is, were more of the same, competent works ground out by hack writers to entertain the masses. An honorable profession, of course.

Choose words to shape their feelings.

Tell them what they love to hear.

Help them laugh, cry, feel good.

Earn your fair share of wealth, fame, power.

But don’t pretend to be a poet.

 

 


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