Secret Lives – author interview and book excerpt

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Secret Lives Book Tour


About Secret Lives

Secret Lives is a big novel about big issues—aging and death, the way our society treats its senior citizens, women’s friendships, the powers of love, the theory and practice of magic, the rebirth of the Goddess and Her ancient religion. It’s about the untidy mysteries of human life. As the baby boom generation ages, the issues in Secret Lives become more significant to readers and also more recognizable. Issues that used to matter only to their parents are now starting to pop up in the boomers’ own lives. This novel will thus appeal not only to the large audience that reads pagan fiction, but also to mainstream readers who love a good, complicated story and may have heard about pagans and gods and goddesses. As they read, they will learn a great deal.

Each chapter is a standalone story, although there are two arcs that comprise two stories and three stories. The bulleted notes that follow the barebones outlines and show how the stories are braided together and explain many of the allusions. An event may be foreshadowed in early chapters, for example, be the major plot of another chapter, and be resolved or echoed in later chapters. Likewise, people who appear as minor characters in some chapters become major actors in other chapters.

You can read more about Secret Lives at

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Dr. Barbara Ardinger



Q:  Will you share with us how you came up with the idea for this book? 


Back in the late 1980s I took a class with Long Beach WomanSpirit (which is mentioned in Secret Lives and in the FREE READER’S GUIDE). The class was about crones. A crone is an old, honorable name for an elderly woman. She is hopefully a wise woman, someone who has lived long enough to have learned a few things about life and about people. Crones are well into menopause. Well … there were half a dozen women in the crone class who were in their early thirties. “Oh,” they all said, “crone is a state of mind.” But it’s not a state of mind! I got so frustrated trying to explain that fact to these girls that I decided to write a book about very active elderly women. And that was the start. From a sort of essay, the book turned into stories, and as I wrote I added more stories.

Q:  Do you plan your stories first with an outline or does it come to you as write it?


No, I didn’t start with an outline. As I think back, I remember observing elderly women—remember, this was twenty years ago—and hearing stories about my friends’ mothers and paying attention to how older women are treated in our youth-oriented society.


Then these women started appearing in my dreams! What happened, basically, is that I went into a sort of alternate reality while I was awake and sitting at my typewriter. I watched and listened and starting writing. No, I wasn’t their secretary, but to this day I am convinced that the people in Secret Lives are real. Not real in this reality, but real wherever they are. As a writer, I’m in charge of the craft of writing, so while I watched and listened to them, I was also in charge of spelling, punctuation, syntax, etc. I also did real library research as I wrote the book, especially on the dialect and customs of the Ozarks, the home of two major characters and their very complex family history.


Q: Do you know the end of the story at the beginning?


Because this novel consists of 27 separate stories that are all braided together, I was never quite sure where anything was going until I got there. The prologue is set in 4400 BCE in the area of Europe near the Black Sea called Old Europe by archeo-mythologist Marija Gimbutas (an authority on Goddess culture) and ends in a diaspora as the people leave their home to escape an invasion. The rest of the novel is set in Long Beach, California (where I live), in 1989-90. There’s another diaspora in the first story, which tells how one of the major characters escaped from the Nazis and came to southern California, and the book ends with a third diaspora as the women move out into the world, perhaps to organize new Goddess circles and tell more people about the Goddess.


Q: Do you have a process for developing your characters?


I pretty much let them develop themselves, though I often give a nudge here and a bit of a push there. The women of Secret Lives are very strong-willed. You don’t want to mess around with them. Some punks try it in the first chapter, and the women do magic and create a dragon to protect the neighborhood.


Q: It is said that authors write themselves into their characters. Is there any part of you in your characters and what they would be?


There are little bits of me and half the people I’ve ever known in these women. They are rounded and opinionated and not necessarily politically correct. But they are majorly entertaining. One purpose of this novel is to help introduce a mainstream audience to spiritual feminism, so there are a lot of conversations among the women and their friends. There are a professor of history and a novelist in Secret Lives, but they’re not me (well, not quite), and some of the characters went to the same college in southeast Missouri that I went to. I’ve been to mainstream metaphysical churches like the one I parody in three chapters. I’m also extremely sympathetic with the mischief-making crone and the talking cat, but if you ask if they’re like me, I’ll deny it!


Q: What is your most favorite part about this book?


Two parts that were the most fun to write were the interior monologues and conversations of residence manager of the retirement residence where many of the characters live. She is and talks like the compleat bureaucrat, with hilarious redundancies. At one point she proclaims that she has no imagination and never has had one. Another part that was fun to write was Chapter 8, in which a very minor goddess arrives in Long Beach. The chapter is a sort of rewrite of Little Red Riding Hood. The goddess meets two very wolf-like, horny old men. And—well, I gotta confess—writing the sex scenes was fun. One is two people in their eighties. Yes, as the talking cat says, he can still get it up. The scenes with the Green Man—a very sexy fellow who is fully human at the same time that he manifests an archetypal figure—nearly took over the book for awhile as I fell under his spell.


Q: What struggles have you had on the road to being published?


I first wrote Secret Lives—with the first of the five titles its had–on an IBM Selectric typewriter. When I got my first computer, I had to retype it (thank goodness it was shorter than it is now) in WordPerfect 5.1. Then I bought a new computer and had to retype it in Word. I have had copies of the book on paper (from the typewriter), 8-inch floppies, 5-inch floppies, 3-inch disks, and now on a CD. Through the years, I also added a few stories. One character, for example, was too virtuous and kinda boring, so I gave her midlife crisis.


The big NYC mainstream publishers to whom my first literary agent sent the manuscript said they loved it and loved my writing ….. but no one would ever want to read a book about old women, no matter how interesting they were. (I still have a couple of those rejection letters.) The biggest publishers of pagan books said they didn’t publish fiction. (They lied.) Nowadays, with the baby boomers aging and ads for menopause “cures” and Viagra and Cialis all over the TV, people are beginning to see that older people are still lively and active and interesting. Jessica Tandy won her Oscar in 1990 at age 89, and “Golden Girls” was a popular TV show, so we know that there’s interest in characters like mine. In addition, the mainstream has now heard of paganism and there’s more tolerance in some areas. (Extreme fundamentalists are not my target audience.)


Q: What has been the best part about being published?


I’m thrilled when someone says, “I know someone just like so-and-so,” or “Sarah’s story brought tears to my eyes,” or “Could all that dancing furniture and other magic really happen at a psychic fair.”


Q: What do you want readers to remember and carry with them after reading your novel?


Let’s all be kind to each other and appreciate people with different ideas about reality and the world. I want readers to remember these old women and look around them with more love of all older women.


I also want to invite readers to visit the FREE READER’S GUIDE on my website. It’s like a DVD commentary track, with explanations of the literary allusions (some of the chapter titles), annotations, and references (to old movies, TV shows, history of the mid-20th century, real people mentioned in the book, etc.). Also comments.


Q: Do you have plans to write another book?


I have the covers of all eight of my books lined up on one of the walls in my office. They’re in plastic box frames. My first book, Seeing Solutions (which was published by Signet in 1989) is about six inches above the floor. The book covers go up like a column. The cover of Secret Lives is about three inches under the ceiling. I take that as a sign that I don’t have to write another book. However ……… I still have one more book in a three-ring binder. I’m not sure I have the energy to retype it right now.



Book Excerpt


From Chapter 3 of Secret Lives:


Sarah’s son has cooked up a big real estate deal in Yorba Linda and moved her out of her home and into the Center Towers Retirement Residence in Long Beach.


Herta looked Sarah straight in the eye for a long moment. Neither woman blinked.

“Your daughter and granddaughter are very concerned,” Herta finally said. “They tell us your other children are also very concerned because you’ve been ‘depressed.’ Well, that’s understandable, since almost all your treasures were packed up and put away when you moved. … But, frankly, there seems to be nowhere else you can go. Your children are willing to take you in, but none of them really have the room. Or the time.”

“I lived that way before I came to the Towers,” Sophie said. “A couple months with Doris, and her at work all day long, then pack everything up and move down to Sissie’s, then a couple months and, wham, back with Doris. It’s no way to live. I can tell you that. Never a room to call your own. Never your own friends. Watching daytime TV because there’s nothing else to do. Practically everything you own in a suitcase all the time. Waiting for your kids to find time to do for you. I never knew where to call home. That’s why I let the social services find me a place here.”

“I lived with my nephew and his wife,” Bertha said, petting the feather boa as she spoke. “I did their cleaning—well, I helped Lupe, the maid. Taught her some English while I was at it so she’d know what’s what. And I had to put up with their tight-ass Republican friends.”

“So,” Herta resumed, “you don’t have much of a choice. Your son is willing to support you as long as you live. And you do have friends here. But I guess you know that by now.”

“Why, I guess I do.” Sarah looked at these strangers who were spending time with her and actually listening to what she had to say. She was being cared about and cared for as if she really mattered. “I think you are my friends. Even though I don’t hardly know all your names.”

“Sarah, what do you want?”

She took another sip of her tea and looked down at herself in the wheelchair. She considered the days and weeks and months and years ahead, knowing that she was getting older, weaker, knowing she’d always be afraid she’d fall down again. She thought about her children, living and dead, and her Jake, whom she missed every night of her life, and every morning. She was grateful that her children and grandchildren (and even the greats) came to visit, phoned, sent her pretty cards, but she realized that they all had lives of their own. She saw that some of these women lived in this old folks home and seemed to be happy here. But maybe they’d never lived the way she had, out in the country (back then) with clean air and clean land.

How could she ever learn to be happy in that bare little room with no kitchen in this old folks home with a hospital pressing down on top of it? How could she be happy with endless days of nothing useful to do?

“What do I want?” She looked around at her circle of new friends. “I want to die.”





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