The Author's Corner
When Someone You Love is Wiccan
The Complete Idiot's Guide
to Celtic Wisdom
The Well Read Witch
The Complete Idiot's Guide
Embracing Jesus and the Goddess
When Someone You Love is Wiccan:
Talks to Carl McColman
TWPT: Tell me about the fascinating journey that has led you from your early beginnings in the Episcopal church up to the point in your life where you began your exploration of alternative spiritual paths?
CM: Actually, I was only active in the Episcopal Church for about 10 years, during my adult life. I grew up in a Lutheran home, and converted to Episcopalianism as an adult. As a Lutheran teenager, I had a profound mystical experience, which is not something Lutherans do, so from age 16 on I had to grapple with a discontinuity between my own spiritual experience and the culture of my faith community. Because Lutherans don't really "do" experiential spirituality, I wandered over to the world of charismatic Christianity: you know, speaking in tongues, prophesying, and so forth. While the charismatics were congenial to my having had profound spiritual experience, their theology was ultra-evangelical and centered on an almost paranoid fear of Satan. Again, my personal experience (of God as a source of mystical love) didn't jive with the religious culture I was connecting with.
So I became alienated from Christianity altogether as a young adult. But I was still a deeply spiritual person, and an avid reader, and many of the writers I was reading at the time were either Episcopalian or Anglican: CS Lewis, Morton Kelsey, Evelyn Underhill, even Alan Watts was technically an Anglican even though he wandered off to the east. So when, at age 25, I felt a tug to find spiritual community, I looked to the Episcopal Church, and found a community that balanced a rich liturgical (what we would call "ritual") life with a basically liberal theology. That worked for me for about a decade.
I should mention that I had read "The Spiral Dance" prior to becoming an Episcopalian. It's my understanding that many Pagans have a profound homecoming experience when they first learn about Paganism. That was not my experience. My inner life had been so dominated by my experience of mystical Christianity that it took me many years to acknowledge that, in terms of beliefs and values, I'm really a Pagan, not a Christian or even a Christopagan. But *spiritually* speaking, I still believe in the essential beauty and validity of Christian mysticism. I guess this means that theologically I'm a pagan, but mystically/spiritually I'm a Christopagan or even a Buddhist-Christo-Pagan!
So I guess the experience of "exploring alternative spiritual paths" has been with me all along. As a Lutheran, I spontaneously explore Christian mysticism and then charismatic Christianity; while I was alienated from church in my early adult years I began exploring a Paganism, and continued that exploration throughout the decade in which I was active in the Episcopal Church.
TWPT: Do you think that there are others who have been on their path for a number of years, whether they admit it or not, who seriously consider alternative spiritual paths at one time or another? Why is it that so many don't act on these impulses to explore outside of the box?
CM: Of course others consider alternative spiritual paths -- or at least consider leaving there current path to follow no path at all. Once when I was feeling particularly disillusioned with the Episcopal Church I mentioned this fact to a friend of mine who was a seminarian studying for the priesthood. She responded, "I think when people are honest about their faith, they will always know that on some level they could leave the church." That insight both validated me and electrified my sense of what it means to be an adult who is responsible for one's own spirituality. And I think this is true whether one is a Christian, Pagan, or whatever. And we live in a time when the ability to choose one's religious affiliation really is available to the average person: a freedom that certainly doesn't exist in theocratic societies or in political states where there is no separation of government and religion. Your question ponders, why don't people take advantage of this spiritual freedom? I would guess that, for many people, there's a black-white understanding of spirituality: one is either a "good" person (in other words, faithful to the religion of their upbringing) or else a "bad" person (a heretic, backslider, apostate, agnostic, atheist, or whatever). My mother is only 37 years older than I am, and to her, changing denominations within Christianity seems huge and momentous, while to me, changing religions altogether was a possibility that I could act on, even if it took me years to prepare for it. But why don't more people make such changes? Oh, for a variety of reasons. Many people I suppose are perfectly happy with a casual relationship to the church of their upbringing, and simply never question it.
Others have that black-white approach I mentioned above, and see their choices as only between being a faithful churchgoer or a "backsliding" secularist. Of course, given the fact that Christian church attendance is not keeping pace with population growth, it's evident that more and more people are choosing the "secular" option. But then again, for those of us born after World War II, the much richer option of abandoning one's religion of origin for another faith tradition have truly become available. Christians are alarmed at how rapidly their numbers (as a percentage of total population) are declining. So I think that the interesting question is not "Why do so many people stay?" but rather "What forces are at work encouraging so many people to leave?" And people leave their "home" religion to adopt a different sect within that religion (from Lutheran to Episcopalian), to adopt a different religion altogether (from Christian to Pagan), to adopt a more free-form spirituality (from Christian to "New Age") or to simply go "secular." I don't have statistics as to how those numbers break down, but I believe there are significant movements in all four of those options. The last Episcopal church that I was a member of was filled with ex-Baptists and ex-Catholics. In a way, I think the spiritual mobility of our culture reflects the increased physical mobility our society enjoys. A hundred years ago, it was a big deal to travel ten miles. Now flying over the Atlantic ocean is commonplace.
I've really explored your question in terms of people leaving Christianity. But I suspect similar forces of spiritual mobility are at work within all religions at least in the United States. Meanwhile, forces such as respect for one's elders, tradition, resistance to change, fear of divine retribution, and simple spiritual inertia work to keep people in the religion of their upbringing, as well.
TWPT: Was there any one thing that convinced you that you needed to explore beyond your spiritual roots and investigate what it was that your heart was trying to tell you about the spirituality that lay just beyond your vision?
CM: My experience. One of the reasons why my theological position is mostly a Pagan one is because Paganism validates and celebrates the prime authority of each individual's personal experience. Religions that are based on a code or a scripture are really based on someone else's spiritual experience, wouldn't you say? Now, I don't want to knock the importance of learning from our elders or celebrating the body of knowledge (spiritual and otherwise) that we receive from those who have gone before us). But just as science is based on the fact that an experiment ought to be repeatable, so too I think the spiritual experience of our forebears stands or falls with how well it resonates with our own experience (now, I also believe in taking things the other way. One of the ways in which we judge the merits and value of our own experience is by seeking to understand it in light of the experience of our forebears). So you may be wondering, "What was it about my experience that impelled me to read Starhawk or Adler or to seek out Pagans to circle with?"
There, I don't think the answer is reducible to "any one thing" but rather reflects a cluster of ideas and experiences that collectively shaped my emerging Pagan identity. My love for nature, which began as a boy. My belief in the importance of mystical experience. My interest in psychic and paranormal phenomena. My political and social views, which are largely ecofeminist and therefore more Pagan-friendly. My desire to connect with the spirituality and wisdom of my Celtic ancestors. My interest in Native American lore and wisdom. But all of these ideas or interests were validated by my intuition saying, "Yes, explore here" and that in turn was validated by my belief that spiritual truth was not just an idea to which one submitted, but rather an experience which one could live. And that, in turn, arose out of my mystical experience at age 16.
TWPT: Tell me about the effect that reading The Spiral Dance by Starhawk had on your spiritual path and about some of your first impressions of Pagan ritual as you began to actively participate. Do you find that books are underrated as to the profound changes that they can bring about in the reader and why is that?
CM: I read The Spiral Dance in late 1983, I was 22 years old and still "in between" my participation in the Lutheran and Episcopal Churches. At that point in my life I was a deeply spiritual person and was politically quite left of center, with my views largely falling along ecofeminist lines. As you know, Starhawk's contribution has been in her ability to articulate Witchcraft as an ecofeminist religion. So it electrified me. I might also add, it scared me, I still had too much internalized Christianity within me at that point in my life, and I didn't feel safe simply leaving the church and going to study the craft. In the early '80s finding Witches was still rather a challenging thing to do, and I didn't make the effort to take on the challenge. It was easier for me to seek spiritual community in the Episcopal Church, and so I followed the path of least resistance. Of course, that eventually came around to bite me, but from the perspective of 17-20 years later I just figure I had some unfinished business with the church that I needed to work through before I could become a fulltime Pagan. Anyway, the effect that The Spiral Dance did have was that it made me serious about learning about Paganism. From there I read Margot Adler, I read Janet and Colin Bord, Raymond Buckland, Tanya Luhrmann, Scott Cunningham... It took me seven years from the reading of The Spiral Dance to participating in my first circle, but those seven years were filled with research on a variety of levels. From an early age (thanks to my adolescent dalliance with charismatic Christianity) I had been indoctrinated that Witchcraft was evil. I needed to do enough research to assure myself that this indoctrination was untrue before I took the plunge to actually participate in a ritual. And remember, throughout that seven year period I was an enthusiastic and committed student of Christian mysticism. I think many people embrace Paganism because they were unhappy with Christianity. For me it was the other way around: I became unhappy with Christianity only after I embraced Paganism.
What were my first impressions of Pagan ritual? I loved it! My first ritual was Mabon 1990 on a remote mountain bluff in eastern Tennessee, with an Appalachian herbalist and her husband. Wow. It was a mystical experience to rival the one I had had at church camp 13 and a half years earlier.
Are books underrated? I don't know. As a writer, naturally I hope that my books (and books in general) will make a difference in peoples' lives.
Certainly many books, both Pagan and otherwise, have made a profound difference in my life (including books I've written! <smile>). But by the same token, I think there's a lot of crap getting published in the name of Witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism. Such books are the cynical product of non-Pagan publishers who see our community as nothing more than an exploitable resource from which they can make a quick buck. I don't know why Pagan and Wiccan authors choose to write books that depict our path as silly (one bestselling book has a "Doodlebug Love Spell" in it. Seriously!) or that encourage the use of hexes and cursing, or give teenagers the trivializing message that spellcraft is all they need to find spiritual happiness. But obviously, such books do exist, aimed at a vulnerable segment of our population that is susceptible to the specious ideas contained within such works. As a writer, I know it takes a lot of hard work to bring scholarly and ethical excellence to my work, and especially when deadlines are looming, there's a real temptation to cut corners. I fear that some of the writers in our community have given in to this temptation in a big way, and they are the natural prey of the profit-worshipping publishing world. The result is a body of Wiccan/Pagan literature that not only promulgates spiritually questionable values, but actually paints our religion in an unflattering light. Many non-Pagans dismiss the Pagan community as intellectually naive and the premises of our spirituality as fundamentally flawed, thanks to the plethora of books that continue to put forth inaccurate history, dysfunctional psychology, and weak ethics all in the name of "Wicca" or "Witchcraft" or "Paganism." We Pagans need to be demanding better literature from our writers and their publishers. If we tolerate and accept crap, then crap will remain a major ingredient in our intellectual diet. And that's a shame.
But back to your question. Yes, books can facilitate profound change. But I believe there are probably more efficient ways to effect such changes. I do believe it's better to learn one's spirituality from a teacher, rather than a book. Now, Francesca De Grandis says she'd rather recommend a good book over a bad teacher. And I agree. But between a good teacher and a good book, I say go with the teacher. Books cannot provide individualized feedback. They don't respond to the fluctuations of our emotional and spiritual processes as we mature as Pagans. If a student doesn't have access to a teacher, a book is better than nothing; and when a student does have a worthy teacher, good book s are essential supplemental tools for the learning process. But any book that gives the message "You don't need a teacher, all you need is this book" is doing our community a disservice. Such a message benefits the publishing community -- not the student or the Pagan community as a whole.
So I don't know if books are underrated, but I do believe that books should only be one part of a person's overall spiritual practice.
TWPT: Many who leave something that has been so deeply ingrained in their psyches tend to have much guilt and feelings of condemnation as it becomes apparent that they can no longer go back to what they knew before. Were there any inner conflicts as you moved away from what you had known onto this new path?
CM: Absolutely. The "guilt factor" is one of the reasons why it took me seven years from reading The Spiral Dance to actually participating in a Wiccan circle, and then another seven years before I intentionally and consciously disaffiliated myself from active participation in the Christian religion. I think all religions have some sort of internal mechanisms to dissuade participants from leaving. Many Wiccan groups proclaim, overtly or implicitly, that their particular brand of magic is "the real thing." In other words, if you leave you're turning your back on true magic and will just spend the rest of your life floundering around with all the other wannabes out there. That, in my opinion, is just a kinder gentler version of the "leave-and-you-go-to-hell" message found throughout Christianity.
Alan Watts described the threat of hell as a scarecrow. It's a scary thing, but on close inspection you see that it's not real. It's a con job. But to face the scarecrow requires a variety of tools, from a clear understanding of human psychology to a basic sense of the history of world religions to a willingness to trust one's inner experience rather than the received dogma of the church. It takes time to assemble the various tools necessary to deconstruct the scarecrow. And in the meantime, the scarecrow just keeps on scaring you, so for many people the process of moving past the scarecrow can be heart-wrenching. It certainly was for me. I had to get furious at God, furious at the church, mad enough so that the anger gave me the courage to face down the fear.
TWPT: Have there been an external conflicts created as it became apparent to those around you that you were venturing beyond the boundaries of the church?
CM: Well, my 80-year-old parents wish I were a still a nice little Christian boy.
And I don't discuss religion with my in-laws, some of whom are staunchly conservative Presbyterians. But as a Pagan writer, I've chosen to be out of the broom closet, and to support that choice, I've chosen to live and work in settings that accept and/or support my spiritual path. I am a Pagan and a vegetarian living in the buckle of the Bible belt: Atlanta. Ironically, in my day to day life, I experience more social conflict about my vegetarianism than about Paganism. I guess that's because I hang out with a lot of carnivorous Witches. <smile>
TWPT: Has writing always been something that you aspired to in your life? When was it that you decided that writing books and sharing your ideas with the world at large was something that you wanted to seriously pursue?
CM: When I was in the eighth grade one of my English teachers praised my writing, and that's when it got 'on the radar screen' as a potential vocation. At first I saw myself writing fiction, but it only took writing one novel (which I haven't even attempted to publish) to put that dream on the back burner.
Yeah, part of me would still love to write fiction, but it's a low priority.
My college degrees are a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in English with a concentration in Professional Writing and Editing. That was a nonfiction writing program. My Dad saw me being a technical writer, but that never interested me so I didn't pursue it. Throughout my twenties I not-very-seriously wrote fiction, and worked as a bookstore manager, so I wasn't even using my degree. Then, at age 31 I was in a serious car accident, broke my jaw in three places, broke several teeth, and pretty much got startled into reevaluating my life. I realized that I had (to use a Christian concept) "buried my talent." So I began writing again, only this time I saw myself writing nonfiction spiritual literature rather than fiction. That was about the time that the Indigo Girls had a song where they sang "If I have a care in the world, I have a gift to bring." For me, my care was sharing my spiritual journey with others, in the hope that it might be of some small service. The writing is simply the most efficient tool by which I bring that gift to others.
TWPT: Tell me about some of your earlier books and what you hoped to accomplish by seeing them in print?
CM: My first two books are much more Christian than Pagan. My first title, "Spirituality: Where Body and Soul Encounter the Sacred" was published in 1997, the year I left "active duty" as a Christian. So it was written while I was still a churchman. But I admit at the very beginning of the book that Neopaganism was an important element of my spiritual life, and Pagan ideas and attitudes dance throughout the book even though it is mainly a Christian statement on spirituality. As my first book, it reads too much like a textbook and so it didn't really meet its objective, which was to support spiritual seekers wherever they may be. So my second book, "The Aspiring Mystic: Practical Steps for Spiritual Seekers" is basically my attempt to fix all the mistakes I made in the first book. The material is still basically the same -- liberal Christian mysticism with a bit of Pagan perspective stirred in -- but the tone is much warmer and the overall feel of the book is far more friendly and accessible than the first book. Ironically, this book's highest praise has come from Pagans like Francesca De Grandis and Judy Harrow; I do think it's a book that Pagans can enjoy and benefit from, as long as they are willing to tolerate its monotheistic perspective. It was written in 1998-9, after I had left the church, but it still does have quite a mainstream spiritual feel to it.
My turning point came with my third book, "Embracing Jesus and the Goddess." This is my most honest and personal book, and was quite difficult to write.
My editor really wanted a book written for a liberal
Christian audience, and so that's the direction I took, but again it has
made more of a splash in the Pagan community. Unfortunately, the book came out
*literally* the same week as 9-11-01, and so it was simply ignored by the media.
This book is really my farewell love letter to Christianity. In it I explain
why patriarchal Christianity is no longer a tenable spiritual position,
and I detail the ways in which I see Jesus as a "Witch" (not
in a literal sense, but certainly in a metaphorical sense). The book has been very warmly
accepted by the Christopagans online, although it is not really a
Christopagan book as such: I don't advocate a blending of Christianity and Paganism
except in terms of
Like I've mentioned earlier, no matter how spiritually Christopagan I might be, theologically I'm really more truly Pagan -- and "Embracing" relects this, as it is a spiritual rather than a theological work (Gus DiZerega's "Pagans and Christians" came out at about the same time, and I think it and "Embracing" complement each other beautifully, his book being the theological statement while my book is the spiritual reflection). In writing this book, I also wanted to offer support to any person, anywhere, who is trying to find his or her own path in a way that draws from the treasures of more than one tradition. And I wanted to take my stand for tolerance. And, truth be told, I guess I hoped I would freak out a few Christians with my "If Jesus were here today, he would be a Witch" statement. But I don't know if that ever really happened.
This question asks about my "earlier" books, and I would consider the first three (out of seven) to fall within that category. So I'll stop here. :-)
TWPT: Tell me about the process that you go through when you begin work on translating an idea you had for a book into the finished product? Do you set aside a large block of time out of your life to work on it or is it just molded in and around your daily life?
CM: Well, a little bit of both. My first four books were written while I had a 'day job' -- I was a buyer at New Leaf, a large wholesaler that specializes in metaphysical products. In fact, it was working at New Leaf that gave me the idea to write "The Well-Read Witch." I really admire people who write and work full-time; I found it most frustrating; fortunately, my wife and I have living simply down to an art and she's been extremely supportive of my career, so when I got the offer to write the Idiot's Guide to Paganism I quit the day job. That's supposed to be a really stupid thing to do; but I've really been blessed. Before the advance on the book ran out (!), I found a job as a part-time Tarot reader and metaphysical teacher at a bookstore here in Atlanta; thankfully, the money is good -- not as much as I was making at New Leaf, but quite lucrative for a part time job, and of course it allows me more time to write. So, yes, my writing still is squeezed in around all the other demands of my life, but I'm fortunate that those demands are less than that of a typical 40+ hour week.
As for the process of writing a book, I guess the main point is that there's never a time when I'm not writing. I'll stay up til 2, go to bed, and be up again at 4 or 5. If my muse speaks, I listen. But then there are other days when I'll take little "vacations" from writing and just sit around and watch Star Trek DVDs. But that's not being lazy; it's giving the subconscious breathing room to work out an idea or problem. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and every book seems to get rewritten a half dozen times before the manuscript ever gets delivered to the publisher!
TWPT: I'm always curious as to the effect that being an author has on the author himself. Does the spotlight that invariably comes with being an author and having your books available all over the world change you in some ways and does it alter how you relate to the world at large?
CM: Well, even though as of this writing I have six books out and the seventh one at press, I think I've been fortunate to have dodged the spotlight so far.
Part of that is because up until the last year I've really focussed on writing more than speaking or teaching, which means I've mostly been this hermit squirreled away in my little house here in the Atlanta suburbs, busily writing or tinkering with my website, and as such I've been pretty oblivious to what the world at large thinks of me or my work. Of course, that's changing: now that I'm full-time self-employed, I'm looking to expand my outreach. Already I'm doing more and more teaching here in Atlanta, but the folks who take my classes quickly get to know me and have a real clear sense that my feet are made of Georgia clay. As for how I relate to the world at large, I don't know that it's made that big of a difference. You know, I was in Ireland last year and never once found any of my books in bookstores there. And even the bookstores in Atlanta often don't have my books (hopefully that just means they sell out quickly!). So yes, it's gratifying knowing that people all over the world have access to my ideas, and on the other hand I'm nowhere near as visible as someone like Deepak Chopra or even Silver Ravenwolf. So that helps keep me humble.
This question is a bit of stumper, actually. So I read it to my wife and asked her opinion. She mentioned two things: first, that being a writer has made me a more confident speaker, which is true. And second, she has noticed how amused/embarrassed I get when someone 'gushes' over me (thankfully, that doesn't happen too often). But she said, other than those two things, I'm still the same Carl. Which is reassuring, really.
TWPT: Tell me about how The Idiot's Guide to Paganism came about. Did the publishers approach you with the idea or was it something that you suggested to them as a subject that might have some interest among Idiot's Guide readers.
CM: That's a funny story: My literary agent first sold a manuscript to the Idiot's Guide Series back in the late 90s: I think her first one was the Idiot's Guide to Catholicism. So when she got the deal for that book, she called all her authors and said, "I've got a relationship with an editor at the Idiot's Guides, so if you're interested, come up with a concept and I'll pitch it to them. This was back in '97 or '98 I think. So I pitched "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Paganism and Witchcraft." At the time, the editor said that concept was a little too far out there for them. Well, I basically forgot about it and went back to work on whatever book I was writing at the time. And then, about two years later I'm in a bookstore, and lo and behold, there is "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft," written obviously not by me. So, feeling a little perturbed, I called my agent and asked her to find out why my someone else wrote this book. It turned out that when the Idiot's Guides people decided they wanted a book on Witchcraft, they didn't consider me because -- ta da! -- I'm a guy. So the editor tells my agent "We wanted an actual Witch to write this book" or something along those lines. Remember, the Idiot's Guides are not edited by Pagans, but by people whose main experience is in computer books. So they had no clue that "Witch" and "male" could coexist in the same person! Anyway, the story ends happily: it turns out that "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft" became one of the bestselling Idiot's Guides. And so they decided they wanted to follow up with a general guide to Paganism, and they called my agent and said, "If your author is still interested, we'll give him first shot at this book." And that's how the opportunity came to me.
With my second Idiot's Guide, to Celtic Wisdom, it was totally my idea. The Idiot's Guides people felt that my writing style meshed really well with their style, and so they basically said, "If you want to write another one, and you have a good idea, we'll go with it." So I pitched a book on Celtic Wisdom, and they liked the concept, and so gave me a contract.
TWPT: The titles of these books almost make you not want to pick up a copy because you don't want to appear to be an idiot. <smile> When you set out to begin work on this guide what were some of the guidelines you set for yourself as to what you wanted to accomplish with the title? What assumptions if any do you make about the reader who picks up a copy of this book?
CM: You know, like so many folks I did at one time have a bias against the "Idiot's Guides." But when the opportunity came to me to write the Paganism guide, my agent sent me their author's manual, and I must admit they have a great concept and a pretty solid system. Idiot's Guides are not meant to be great works of art or literature; they are designed to be simple, straightforward introductions to subjects written especially for busy professional people. And even though the acquiring editor may not be knowledgeable about the various subjects covered in the guides, it's her job to locate an author who is an expert, and then back up the author with one or two technical editors who are likewise knowledgeable in the subject. The tech. editor(s) review the author's work to make sure the facts are right and that all the necessary material is covered. So it's really a good system for making sure a basic level of quality is attained in the book. Meanwhile, the format of the text is designed to be quite user-friendly, and the tone of the books is intelligent but playful. All of which I find very appealing. Really, if I could change just one thing, it would be the title! But on the other hand, I think it's important not to take spirituality too seriously, and a book with such a tongue-in-cheek title kind of supports that position.
TWPT: What kind of feedback have you received on this title and do you have any plans to follow it up with say a book called The Idiot's Guide to Wicca or was this a one shot deal?
CM: Well, as I said above, the Wicca Idiot's Guide had already been written. In retrospect, I'm happy to have written the Paganism book -- the Idiot's Guide to Wicca is very spell/magick centered, which gave me freedom to slant the Paganism Guide toward a more mystical/spiritual perspective. I did write my second Idiot's Guide, to Celtic Wisdom, due out in May 2003. That probably will be my last one, but you never know.
TWPT: In The Well Read Witch you take a different approach to the book. This volume is basically filled with short book reviews. What was it that prompted you to write this book and what were you looking to accomplish?
CM: In 1997 I began working at New Leaf, a large metaphysical wholesale company located in an Atlanta suburb. New Leaf carries over 30,000 different book titles on every imaginable spiritual subject. Which means in Wicca and Paganism alone, New Leaf carries hundreds of titles. This was right at the time when I was leaving the Christian Church and coming into my own as a "full-time" Pagan, and all of a sudden I was exposed to all these books, and found the sheer volume of material overwhelming. So I had the idea: wouldn't it be great to put together a guide to the best Wiccan writing? And so I developed the proposal for "The Well-Read Witch." Ironically, it didn't find a publisher for several years. Originally I wanted it to review only a small number of books -- maybe a hundred -- with an in-depth review for each one.
But the more research I did, the more I realized there was no way I could ever narrow down my list to just 100 books. I didn't just want to include books that were explicitly Wiccan/Pagan, I also wanted to cover books on shamanism, meditation, world myth, environmentalism, herbalism, etc. etc. etc. So I decided to make it closer to 400 books. With that many books covered, the mini-review format was pretty much necessary to keep the overall length of a book manageable. I'm really happy with the result, I think it's a very user-friendly guide. I've had more than one elder thank me for introducing them to a book or two that they were unfamiliar with. I figure if even elders can learn something from this book, then it's certainly got some value. The only problem, of course, is that books like this quickly get out of date. I originally wanted The Well-Read Witch's website (www.wellreadwitch.com) to be a place where I could post new reviews, but thank the Goddess I've stayed quite busy since that book was published, and really haven't had the time to post more than just a handful of reviews.
TWPT: Even though the reviews were rather concise, from the feedback that you have received has this book made an impact in what your readers have been considering adding to their personal libraries or given them new directions to explore that they might not have been thinking about before?
CM: I'd say both. Obviously, that's a very personal matter that varies from reader to reader. One reviewer at Amazon.com complained that he knew all the books I recommended in the subject areas that interested him. Well, since they were the subjects he had already found interesting, is that really a surprise? I hope that he (and others) might explore areas that may not have interested him in the past, and find some new treasures to enjoy. With over four hundred titles listed, if a person read one title a week, it would take about eight years to make it through all the books mentioned. That's quite a rigorous education.
TWPT: What kind of relationship do you feel should exist between the author and his readers? Do you have any responsibilities towards those who pick up your books and use them to as lesson material along their own paths?
CM: Of course I have responsibilities. I have the responsibility to harm none: that's the bottom line, of course. And I take the Rede seriously and interpret it conservatively. To me, non-harm means speaking only the truth, it means being careful with my facts and sources, it means acknowledging the source of any material that is not my own, it means promoting views and values that support the highest good for all. In addition to harming none, I have the responsibility of writing in such a way that my work benefits my readers, and the Pagan community as a whole, and most of all is a gift to the Goddess. I'm painfully aware that trees die in order for my words to find their audience; that means I have the sobering responsibility to make sure those trees did not die in vain.
As for my relationship to my readers in general, I think the main thing is to be meticulous about the responsibilities mentioned in the last paragraph, and then simply trying to be of service to the greater community. Naturally, being a Tarot reader and teacher in addition to writing, I have some face-to-face contact with at least some of my readers (as well as with others who haven't read my books but are interested in this or that class). I try to bring the same level of integrity to my psychic and educational work that I bring to my writing.
Finally, I think I have a responsibility to keep it real. I write out of my own experience -- even my Idiot's Guides have my personal stamp on them -- and so I work to make my words true to my path. That may mean that my writing is not for everyone; so be it. Those who do find that my writing speaks to them will be relating to a voice that is authentic.
TWPT: Tell me about the relationships that you have had with the publishers who have made your material available to the public. How much input do they have into the final product that we as readers hold in our hands?
CM: It varies from publisher to publisher, as well as from editor to editor. Of all my books, "Embracing Jesus and the Goddess" went through the most changes, driven largely by how my editor and I disagreed on the book's audience. I really saw it as a book for Pagans, while my editor (who came from publishing liberal Christian books at Harper San Francisco) saw it as a book for liberal Christians. In the end, I tried to make it a book that could speak to both parties. On one level, I'm sorry I wasn't more assertive with the editor, because as I surmised the book has been simply ignored by the Christian community but does have a devoted if small following among Pagans and Christopagans. On the other hand, I do think the final product came out well, so I suppose the editor deserves some of that credit.
On the other end of the spectrum, New Page has given me very broad editorial freedom. They really have trusted me with both of the projects I've done for them.
The Idiot's Guides editors have given me plenty of freedom in terms of my content, but of course they have very strict protocols regarding their style. So with those books, it was a matter of making my stuff fit into their mold.
TWPT: Your latest book, When Someone You Love is Wiccan, is aimed more at those outside of Wicca, what were your goals as you wrote this manuscript and did you approach the subject differently since you were talking to those who presumably did not have a background in Wicca?
CM: When I worked at New Leaf, I saw how well the books aimed at teenagers were selling. It occurred to me, "Most of these books are selling to kids from non-Pagan homes" (all the kids I know whose parents are Wiccan think the teen-witch books are stupid. After all, they've been exposed to the real thing). Which means that nearly all the kids buying these books have two (or more!) parents who could conceivably be very freaked out when they discover they have a kid who's into Witchcraft. And that's where the idea of "When Someone You Love is Wiccan" first arose. Although the book is aimed at anyone who may know someone interested in Wicca and Paganism, I've often felt that the *primary* market will be family members: parents, siblings, spouses, or others who may have lots of questions about what this spiritual path called Wicca/Witchcraft is all about.
As for how my approach was different: as one of my reviewers pointed out, this is a *pre-101* book. In other words, I assumed that the average reader's knowledge of Witchcraft ends with the wart on Margaret Hamilton's nose. So I begin by acknowledging all the stereotypes that have come out of Hollywood, and then step by step deconstruct the misconceptions before going on to discuss in the most basic of terms such things as the Wiccan Rede, the Sabbats, and the role of magic in the Craft. It's very much a simple, easy to read book. People I know are reading it in a single sitting, and that's exactly how it was meant to be read.
TWPT: Do you feel that those who are outside of Wicca are actually searching for material such as what is presented in your new book or are they relying primarily on their misconceptions and the misinformation that is handed out via the media and churches across the country? How hard is it going to be to correct these ingrained images of what Wicca is and is not?
CM: Oh, naturally most people will rely on their misconceptions. That's human nature. There will be a few folks who take the initiative to do their own research, but I would guess they would represent only a small percentage of the cowan population. I really think that most of the sales of "When Someone You Love is Wiccan" will come from Wiccans and Pagans who buy the book and then give it to their loved ones and say "Here, read this."
New Page is promoting the book to Law Enforcement Agencies, Teacher's associations, and other groups who may be in a position to deal with situations where disputes have arisen because of a person's practice of Wicca. But once again, I think the book will make its biggest impact in terms of the everyday person who buys it his or her family is dealing with one or more Wiccan members.
TWPT: You mentioned Gus DiZerega in one of your previous answers and we have spoken to Gus in one of our previous interviews here on TWPT. Gus had some interesting ideas on interfaith efforts regarding Wicca and Christianity. Explain to me the importance of interfaith dialogues as it pertains to Wicca and its relationship to the wide variety of religious movements throughout the world? Can Wicca exist within it's own world with no contact between it and the rest of the religious world?
CM: You know, there's a saying: "Get Involved! The World is run by those who show up." In other words, I think that Wicca trying to remain unsullied by politics or public activism is a mistake. For too many people, Wicca is little more than a hobby, something they do for fun in their living rooms or backyards and which they feel should be kept alienated from the messy issues facing society at large. But Wicca is not a hobby, folks! It is a spiritual path, a mystical journey. It makes a difference not only in the lives of those who practice it, but it also makes a difference in the lives of all those who are related to us, including our Mother Earth herself. We who claim to worship the Mother: who will be her advocate, if not us? Who will be the champions of religious freedom, if not us? Who will take a stand for alternative healthcare, and the freedom to consult legitimate psychics, and the rights of our children to receive a public education that isn't tainted with religious propaganda, if not us? So I think Wiccans have an obligation, as Wiccans, to be involved in the arena of politics and public debate.
As for interfaith dialogue, I think the great value there is that Wicca will increasingly be accepted by at least the liberal wings of other faiths. When Christians see Wiccan representatives participating in the Parlaiment of World Religions (Covenant of the Goddess and Circle Sanctuary are among the Pagan groups that participate in the Parliament), it sends a message that our path is every bit as real and valid as theirs. On another level, I think Wiccans need to be humble enough to admit that we can learn a thing or two from the innovative leaders of other religions. Just because we don't see eye to eye on every fine point of dogma doesn't mean that there is nothing to be gained from dialogue and sharing of information/research/theory. Quite the contrary.
Many people have a romantic love affair with the secrecy element of Wicca and Paganism. Now, I support the idea that discretion is a virtue when it comes to sharing or not sharing one's spirituality with others. But I don't see the benefit of secrecy. I'm an "open source" kind of guy. Just as the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered community has been strengthened by coming out of the closet, so too I think Neopaganism can only benefit from participating in the public arena.
TWPT: How will those who are already grounded in the Wiccan religion benefit by reading your new book?
CM: Well, they won't really learn anything, remember, this book is even more basic than Scott Cunningham! But what Wiccans might get from it is one idea of how to approach sharing your faith with non-Wiccans in a gentle, open, non-defensive manner. Coming out of a closet is, like anything else in life, shaped by our expectations, anxieties, etc. When Wiccans present their spirituality in an open, undefended, positive way to non-Wiccans, there is less of a chance of having an ugly scene ensue. Our confidence can be reassuring to our non-Pagan loved ones. But if we act like Paganism is something to be ashamed of, you can rest assured that our coming out experience will be at risk of turning into a big emotional blowup.
TWPT: Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel that will signal the acceptance of Wicca in the general populace as a legitimate religious belief system or is that too much to wish for at this juncture of Wiccan development?
CM: You know, ten years ago I was frustrated by the lack of Wiccan/Pagan scholarship, and now there's all sorts of wonderful resources available, including the writings of Ronald Hutton, Gus DiZerega, Judy Harrow, and others. Ten years ago I wouldn't have believed that Wicca would so quickly find a presence at the Parlaiment of World Religions. So I do believe we'll enter the mainstream, and probably faster than anyone could guess. But of course, that will occur at different times in different parts of the country and the world. Atlanta will take longer to become Wiccan-friendly than Minneapolis!
But then again, Atlanta has a coven that has had IRS tax-exempt status since the 1970s. So even in the Bible belt, we can see real progress.
TWPT: Tell me about some of the face to face contact that you have with your readers and with the community in general? What do the teachings that you do or the tarot readings that you conduct bring to the mix when it comes time to write a new book? Do you feel that your contact with the community through these kinds of events helps you define the kinds of materials that you might present next?
CM: Obviously, every time to talk to a person, whether in the context of a class or a reading or just chatting about one of my books, I'm looking for information to help me with my next book. The book that I'll be writing the first half of 2003 arose out of a conversation I had with the publicists at New Page Books and a couple of occult store owners from New England. So input from readers has been quite important for me.
The thing to remember: authors/teachers/psychics are human too! I love to take a class, to read a book, to go have a pint of Guinness with some of my students or just with a few friends. Just getting to know what issues are important in people's lives, what unanswered questions they're wrestling with, and where they hope to take their spiritual journey is vitally important in terms of helping me focus the direction where I'll be taking my writing. I see the role of the writer as a participant in the grand discourse of a community or society. It is only by getting to know what issues are important to my friends, students, clients, readers, and the community in general, that I can hope to find something to say! I feel tremendously privileged to be part of the first century of the Neopagan/Wiccan movement.
Even if my books are all forgotten a hundred years from now, I hope that my words will have been of some service to others.
TWPT: Has the internet had any influence on how you as an author relate to your readers and the public in general?
CM: Well, I've had a website in some form since the summer of 1996, before my first book was published. I tend not to participate in newsgroups or mail lists, I find they distract me from my professional writing... although I really do enjoy interesting and thoughtful emails (and I am always lurking on a half dozen or so lists, just to keep my pulse on what's being said out there in cyberland). I love maintaining my website, it's helped me to reunite with old friends, to make a number of new ones, and hopefully it helps potential readers find out about my work.
I think we still don't have the foggiest idea just how big of an impact the Internet will have on society. Certainly it has been a major tool used by the Neopagan community. Five years ago, meeting a boyfriend or girlfriend on line was considered pretty dicey. Now it's commonplace. Five years ago it was edgy to buy a book online. Now we buy cars and houses online. Bottom line: who knows what the next 5, 10, 20 years will bring? One thing is for sure: we can count on the impact that the Internet has on society as a whole to be mirrored in the impact it has on spirituality. I think, as a Wiccan writer, I'd be a fool not to be online daily.
TWPT: As a look ahead what do you have on the drawing boards for your next project? Are there any last bits of wisdom or some thoughts you might like to share with our readers as we close out this interview?
CM: Well, I just finished "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Celtic Wisdom" which should be out later this year. My new project, which I mentioned in passing above, is a book on the ethics of spellcraft. I also want to write a book on the Tarot, and a book on the spirituality of the Charge of the Goddess. So I have lots of ideas gurgling about in my cauldron. Also exciting: I've just begun working with a publicist who will be marketing me outside of the Atlanta area. So hopefully I'll have a chance to meet more folks in other parts of the country.
As for bits of wisdom: gee, I don't know. Trust your intuition. Do something creative every day. Stick up for yourself. Always choose to keep a positive attitude and have fun. And fall in love with something or someone, at least three times a day. How's that? :-)
TWPT: That's great Carl. I just want to take this opportunity to thank you for your openess and your willingness to participate in this interview. We here at TWPT wish you much success with your future projects and on your walk along this chosen path.