Birdsong and the Transcendent

I wasn’t planning to post this week, but walking back from Maundy Thursday service at church this evening, I was struck by  the abundance of birdsong. It was dusk, so that was not surprising, but the birdsong added an extra touch of beauty and contemplation to the day. Birdsong was present during the service, too: during communion I could hear birds twittering in the bushes on the other side of the stained-glass windows, and a flock of wild geese called as the priest recited the Eucharistic liturgy, adding a lovely counterpoint as if all creation were participating in the service.

from tgreyfox's photostream

from tgreyfox’s photostream

I noticed birdsong last Sunday as well, on my way home from church. On both occasions it brought to mind the opening of my new all-time favorite film, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), which begins with a quiet, contemplative scene in a park on the outskirts of Rome. A woman sits on a bench, we hear birdsong, then an a cappella women’s chorus. And then the scene shifts abruptly to a loud nightclub—an intentionally grating contrast.

The film, which I saw (twice) a few months ago, moved me very powerfully, and I suppose one measure of that is how often I think of it during especially contemplative moments. But it also made me more attentive to the occasions for mindful contemplation of the world, of the present, of the moment, of nature and of other people, so that the current, so to speak, flows both ways.

The point of all this is my realization that, for me at least, birdsong is a gateway to the transcendent, a symbol of the earthly joy that C.S. Lewis speaks of as a pointer to the reality of a transcendent nature and being. Without birdsong and birds—and the trees and plants that support them—the world would be a very poor place indeed. I thank the Creator for the gift of birds!

Happy Spring.


Squirrel in Rain

A couple of weeks ago, I looked out one of the upstairs windows and saw a solitary squirrel on the neighbor’s lawn across the street. It was raining steadily, not hard, more of a gentle rain, but enough that I wouldn’t want to be out without an umbrella. The rain didn’t seem to bother the squirrel, though. It bounded across the grass, stopped and dug, bounded, dug again. I suppose it was looking for nuts and seeds, but I kept wondering why there were no other squirrels around. Were the rest of them snug in their nests, saying to themselves, “It’s all very well for him, let him go out in the rain and get wet, but not me”? Or were they scattered elsewhere, equally busy, intent on gathering food, just in a different place?

Eastern Grey Squirrel, photo by, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eastern Grey Squirrel, photo by, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s not the first time I’ve wondered how animals feel about being out in the elements: rain, snow, extreme cold or heat, high winds. Do they notice? Of course, they’ve got those nice fur coats to insulate them and to waterproof them, I suppose, to some degree. Yet cats certainly seem to notice cold, and generally to dislike being wet. Are they the exception? Do domesticated pets feel these things more than their wild cousins?

I suppose I could go looking for answers on the internet, but I’m feeling too lazy. Unlike the squirrel out in the rain, I’m ready to sit with a hot cup of tea and hibernate on the sofa.

Interview with author Clea Simon

Today I am pleased to present an interview with one of my favorite writers, Clea Simon, author of the Theda Krakow, Dulcie Schwartz, and Pru Marlowe mysteries.

Clea SimonSAT: Tell us a bit about your writing journey: when you started to write, your journey to publication, and so on.

CS: I have always loved making up stories and have been writing stories since I could read. But it took me a while as an adult to think my stories had any validity. I became a journalist and wrote three nonfiction books in part because of this: I felt like if I was conveying information, then I had a reason to write. But I largely read fiction. It wasn’t until Kate Mattes, who owned the now-closed Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass., told me, “You should write a mystery” that I started my first one, “Mew is for Murder.” I think in some way I needed permission.

SAT: Why do cats feature in most of your books?

CS: I’m not sure, except that I love cats and have long lived with them. When I started writing the Pru Marlowe pet noir, I didn’t intend for the protagonist to have a cat. I wanted to write a tough, dark heroine. But as I was writing it turned out that she had an even tougher tabby.

SAT: The heroine’s psychic abilities in the Pru Marlowe series come off to me as very realistic in the way that animal thoughts are portrayed. Did you do any kind of research for this series, for example, reading about how animals think and perceive the world?

CS: I do. This fascinates me — learning, for example, how parrots see or how ferrets express agitation. It’s just such a different language. Cats, of course, I know from experience, but other animals I have to research.

SAT: Are there are particular books or websites you consult for researching animal psychology?

CS: Not one particular one. Because of my background in nonfiction, I like to think I’ve got pretty good research skills. Plus, when I wrote “The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats” (St. Martin’s), I amassed a pretty great personal library of books about animals and I’ve got some great friends. Vicki Constantine Croke, who writes about animals, is often my first go-to person: she has connected me to some wonderful experts. Sometimes, it’s just a question of calling around: Who has a ferret? Who works with rescue dogs? There’s always somebody who is willing to share expertise. So many writers get things wrong that the experts are usually really grateful when one of us at least makes the effort! That’s why I try to always say in my acknowledgments that any errors are all mine.

SAT: Dulcie and Pru are such very different personalities. Which do you resemble the most? In what ways are you different from either?

CS: I think they’re both sides of my personality — as are all my characters, probably! If I can’t relate to a character, even a killer, then I don’t know how I’d write them. That said, I’m not nearly as tough as Pru (or Wallis) nor as studious as Dulcie. I do live a bit too much in my head, though, as she does — and in books.

SAT: Both the Dulcie Schwartz and the Pru Marlowe books contain elements of the paranormal, a cat-ghost in Dulcie’s case and a (sometimes unwelcome) psychic ability in Pru’s. What led you to include these elements in your mysteries?

First in the Dulcie Schwarz series

First in the Dulcie Schwarz series

CS: Dulcie’s first paranormal experience with Mr Grey, the scene that opens her first book, “Shades of Grey,” is something that happened to me… almost. I had lost my beloved gray cat, Cyrus, to age and kidney disease. I missed him terribly — but then one day, I swear I saw him. He did not tell me that anyone had been murdered, though. At any rate, the story just grew from there. As for Pru, well, don’t we all feel like we really know what our animals are telling us? And that this makes us a little crazy?

SAT: What is it about mysteries that appeals to you as both reader and writer?

CS: I love the puzzle aspect. But I think the secret to mysteries – at least to good ones – is that they’re about the characters. With a series, you get to revisit people you’ve come to know and, hopefully, love. That’s very appealing to me as a reader and very much so as a writer.

SAT: What’s next for Clea Simon?

CS: Well, I am pleased as punch to have just been contracted for two more Dulcie books — and that’s not including the one that is now in production (“Stages of Grey,” which will be out in October). I am also working on the next Pru book, and my contract covers another one after that so that carries me into 2016. Beyond these books — four still to write, five to see light of day — I don’t know. I really hope that my publishers will want to stay with me. I am beginning to think I would like to write something different. A stand-alone or maybe even a non-mystery. But I can’t see leaving crime fiction behind, and any mystery I write will certainly have kitties in it somewhere. So we shall see!

Read more about Clea and her books at:

Clea’s most recent releases are:

grey howlGrey Howl: A Dulcie Schwartz feline mystery

A prestigious literature conference is convening in Cambridge and Dulcie Schwartz is the university liaison for the event, meeting and greeting some of the finest minds in her field.

But events do not run according to plan when one scholar’s presentation is sabotaged while another visiting professor disappears. As Dulcie and her boyfriend Chris struggle to solve problems and soothe egos, a strange apparition starts to haunt the bi-annual event. And even Mr Gray, the ghost of Dulcie’s late, great cat,,appears to be overwhelmed, leaving Dulcie to manage an increasingly backstabbing crew of professional rivals, one of whom may be a killer.

And, just released:

panthers play for keepsPanthers Play for Keeps: A Pru Marlowe pet noir

When Pru Marlowe takes a dog for a walk, she doesn’t expect to find a body. But Spot, a service dog in training, has too good a nose not to lead her to the remains of the beautiful young woman, and despite her own best instincts, Pru can’t avoid getting involved. The young woman seems to have been mauled by a wild cat – and Pru knows there have been no pumas in the Berkshire woods for years. And while Wallis, Pru’s curmudgeonly tabby, seems fixated on the idea of a killer cat, Spot has been sending strange signals to Pru’s own heightened senses, suggesting that the violent death was something more than a tragic accident. As motives multiply, a cougar of a different sort sets her eyes on Pru’s sometime lover, and another woman disappears. With panther panic growing, Pru may have to put aside her own issues – and her own ideas of domesticity – to solve a savage mystery.


The Ideal Bookshelf

I’m thrilled to welcome one of my favorite mystery authors, Sandra Parshall, as a guest on today’s blog. Her award winning series features veterinarian Rachel Goddard, a passionate, strong-willed character with hidden vulnerabilities. The writing is flawless, the characters three-dimensional and memorable, and whenever I’m in the midst of one of her books, I find myself haunted by the depths of the story, unable to get it out of my mind. If you are new to the series, you should read the books in order, beginning with HEAT OF THE MOON. Just be aware that you may not be able to put this book down.

Today Sandra offers some thoughts on the ideal bookshelf. Please join me in welcoming her to the blog.

Sandra ParshallWhile browsing the new books section of my neighborhood branch library, I came across a delightful book titled My Ideal Bookshelf , edited by Thessaly La Forge. For page after page, more than 100 writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative people talk about the books that have meant the most to them — the books that would make up their “ideal bookshelf” and represent who they are.

Which books changed their lives? Which made them the people they are today? Which books are their beloved favorites, the ones they read again and again? Each entry is illustrated with a painting by Jane Mount of that person’s ideal bookshelf.

Naturally, I went for the writers first. Robert Crais is a prime example of someone whose life has been shaped by reading. When he was growing up in Baton Rouge, he read “everything I could get my hands on” and picked up The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler at age fifteen because “the cover had this really hot chick on it.” Reading that book was the beginning of his love for detective fiction and his fascination with Los Angeles. It helped to make him the writer he is today. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human born on Mars who is a loner hero, further influenced Crais’s writing and his outlook on life. Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat, a collection of his Los Angeles Free Press columns about the television industry, spurred Crais to leave Louisiana for Los Angeles and begin a career as a writer for Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice.

 Francine Prose has a shelf filled with the works of Anton Chekov, who “saved my sanity, or what was left of my sanity” during a “messy time” in her life. Reading Chekhov is almost a religious experience for her, uplifting in the same way as gazing at great art.

Scott Spencer’s ideal bookshelf ranges from Enemies, a Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer at one end to A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene at the other, with the works of Alan Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, John Cheever, Bruce Jaye Friedman, Vladimir Nabakov and Doris Lessing in between. The volume that represents his youthful ambitions, though, is Evergreen Review. When he was growing up on the working class south side of Chicago, that literary publication gave him a glimpse of a “dazzling bohemia that I would one day be a part of.”

As the essays in My Ideal Bookshelf prove, the written word can also have a profound effect on people who have never aspired to be writers themselves. Tony Hawk, a professional skateboarder, has found inspiration in books as varied as Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called “It”, about a shocking case of child abuse, and Endurance, Alfred Lansing’s account of the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica that kept a ship of explorers helplessly adrift in Earth’s harshest climate for six months. These books taught Hawk that the human spirit can triumph over adversity and turn life’s worst experiences into something positive.

My Ideal Bookshelf  is filled with such testimony to the power of books, and browsing only a handful is enough to restore the flagging spirit of any writer who doubts that sitting alone at the computer, tapping out words on a screen, is a worthwhile way to spend her time. Books can change lives, and by changing lives they can change the world. The beauty of being a writer is that you never know when a book, a paragraph, a sentence you’ve created will touch another human being’s heart. I was stunned when a woman told me that after reading my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, she understood her troubled relationships with her own mother and sister for the first time. Could any writer ask for more than that?

My own ideal bookshelf would be crammed with works that have affected me. I grew up in a poor family, a family of non-readers, so I can’t explain where I got my love of reading and writing. The public library saved my life by showing me a world beyond the dreary one I lived in and giving me hope that I could be part of that greater world someday. Like Crais, I read everything I could get my hands on, ranging from Dostoevsky to Graham Greene. The writers who most influenced me, though, were Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, not because they wrote about exotic places but because they showed me that my own life contained the seeds of stories worth telling.

Poisoned Ground 300Today, I can hardly believe that after all the years of struggling to break into print, I am sliding my own sixth published novel onto a shelf with five that came before it. It might not measure up to the groaning shelves of authors with twenty, thirty, or more volumes to their credit, but it’s the book collection that makes me smile with pride.

What books would you place on your ideal bookshelf to represent your life and the person you’ve become?


Sandra Parshall is the author of six Rachel Goddard mysteries, set in Virginia. Her 2006 debut, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her latest title is Poisoned Ground (March 2014). A longtime member of Sisters in Crime, she has served on the national board and managed the SinC members online community for many years. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a veteran Washington journalist, and their cats Emma and Gabriel. Visit her website at



Unusual Pets in Mysteries

Two of my favorite mystery writers feature unusual pets in their sure-to-please-animal-lovers stories. Last week I mentioned Clea Simon‘s great way with cats, but her “Pet-Noir” series with Pru Marlowe includes much more than your typical domestic fare.

Photo by Mika Hiltunen via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Mika Hiltunen via Wikimedia Commons

My favorite non-cat regular in this series has to be Frank the Ferret, who lives in the local deputy’s desk drawer and has considerably more smarts than his rather dimwitted keeper. Many the clue’s been passed from Frank to Pru, who has the rather unusual talent of being able to tune into animals’ thoughts. Since Frank is so much smarter than the deputy, we may safely assume that he’s actually happy with his living arrangements. If he weren’t, Pru would sense it, and happily assist with his break-out.

Sandra Parshall‘s Rachel Goddard mysteries are somewhat darker, but veterinarian heroine Rachel and her boyfriend, local sheriff Tom Bridger, still always manage to see that justice prevails. Between them, Rachel and Tom have the usual cat and dog pets (see the recent “interview” given by Tom’s dog, Billy Bob in Dru’s Book Musings), but the member of their household who stands out the most in my mind  is Cicero the parrot.

photo by Selvejp via Wikimedia Commons

photo by Selvejp via Wikimedia Commons

In a recent book, Cicero saved the day when his alarmed squacks alerted Rachel to a nighttime fire in her house set by the villain du jour. Cicero’s narrow escape added to the reader’s anxieties (and to Rachel’s as well). Every book seems to feature at least a cameo appearance by Cicero, who has quite the personality.

What other unusual animal characters do you know of that have appeared in mysteries (or any other fiction, for that matter)? I’d like to know!

Clea Simon’s most recent release is GREY HOWL in the Dulcie Schwartz series, with a new Pru Marlowe soon to follow. Look for her interview here on the blog the first week of April.

The latest book in Sandra Parshall’s Rachel Goddard series is POISONED GROUND. Root for Rachel as she confronts a no-good developer! If you haven’t read this series, you’ll enjoy it the most if you start at the beginning with the page-turning novel of suspense that explores the dark past of Rachel’s family background: Heat of the Moon. And look for Sandra’s guest appearance here on the blog next week.

Cats in Fiction

First in the Dulcie Schwarz series

First in the Dulcie Schwarz series

I like cats and I like reading novels. Judging by the number of cats I see on book covers, I’m not alone. Here are some of my current favorite series where cats are among the continuing characters.

Clea Simon has to be the queen of mysteries that include cats. Her Dulcie Schwartz series is an academic semi-cozy that features the ghost of Dulcie’s recently departed and much-loved pet, Mr. Grey. Dulcie isn’t sure at first of what’s going on, and Mr. Grey’s appearances are deftly handled, with a nice degree of subtlety. As the series progresses, Dulcie becomes the unwilling custodian of a new kitten, but by the end of the third book, Dulcie and the new kit are beginning to forge a bond, even as Mr. Grey continues to grace her (and the kit?) with his ghostly wisdom. Fans of academic mysteries in particular will enjoy this series, which features graduate student Dulcie wrestling with her Harvard dissertation as she navigates the sometimes politically charged waters of the University’s English department. Ms. Simon’s knowledge of the Boston/Cambridge area gives us a good taste of local color in this most prestigious college town.

dogs don't lie

First in the Pru Marlowe series

Ms. Simon’s new series features a very different sort of heroine and a different twist on the paranormal slant. Where Dulcie is often full of hesitancy and self-doubt, Pru Marlowe is often surly and seldom out to please her fellow humans, as befits the heroine of this self-titled “pet noir” series who name cleverly echoes that of Raymond Chandler’s famous gumshoe. While Dulcie sees her cat’s ghost, Pru can hear animals’ thoughts. Though some of these thoughts drive her crazy (especially the inane twitterings of birds), she’s far more sympathetic to the four-footed among us, and her urgency to fight for the lives of animals who have been wrongly accused of murder gives readers a heroine to root for and a cause to celebrate.

Like Dulcie’s ghostly sightings, Pru’s talent is handled with surety and flair. The animals’ thoughts feel authentically animal-like, far removed from any suggestion of sentimentality, cutesiness, or anthropomorphism. One of the best realized characters in this series is Pru’s wonderfully grumpy cat, whose personality in some ways reflects Pru’s own.

No murders, just mysteries. Love is a mystery. Every person is a mystery. Every life hides a secret. The first Mae Martin psychic mystery Published December, 2013

A recent voice on the cats-in-mysteries scene belongs to Amber Foxx, author of the new series of “murderless mysteries” featuring psychic and healer Mae Martin. In THE CALLING, the first book in Ms. Foxx’s series, Mae’s very first intuition of her psychic stirrings occurs at a young age when she sets out to find her mother’s cat, which has escaped their house on the very first day of their move to a new neighborhood. Unlike Pru, Mae doesn’t hear the cat’s voice in her head, but she can see in her mind a cat’s-eye view of the discombobulated feline’s hiding place and is able to figure out where the cat has gone. Later in the book, a grown-up Mae reluctantly exercises her psychic gift to locate her neighbor’s injured cat—an act that turns out to have far-reaching ramifications for her reputation in the small-town, small-minded community.

The second Mae Martin psychic mystery Coming in 2014

The second book in the series, SHAMAN’S BLUES, features yet another cat, this time one who has been traumatized. This time, Mae doesn’t have any success, but a new friend in her life, the frustrating and often enigmatic Jamie, turns out to have a natural gift for healing this particular soul-injured pet. It’s a nice way of showing Jamie’s personality and talents on multiple levels, handled with great subtlety and sensitivity.

Here’s hoping to read many more in all three of these series. Brava to both authors!

How about you? What are some of your favorite novels with cats?

Book Review: The Calling by Amber Foxx

“Love is a mystery. Every person is a mystery. Every life hides a secret.” So reads the tagline for Amber Foxx’s new Mae Martin psychic series, which further advertises, “No murders, just mysteries.” These books don’t fit neatly into any genre, a plus in my opinion. Ms. Foxx writes about deep things in life—love, vocation, where each of us fits here on the earth—but she writes about them in page-turning prose that involves us deeply with each of her full-realized characters. These stories are hard to put down, engaging the reader at multiple levels. On the most mundane, we want to know what happens next; the narrative is unusual and gripping, not in the sense of a “thriller” with car chases and life-threatening scenes, but in a deeper sense, as Mae struggles with life-defining decisions as her reawakened psychic abilities conflict with the safe, comfortable life she has established with her loving family in small-town North Carolina.

No murders, just mysteries. Love is a mystery. Every person is a mystery. Every life hides a secret. The first Mae Martin psychic mystery Published December, 2013

In this first book of the series, aptly titled THE CALLING, Mae’s psychic gifts refuse to stay hidden as she feels repeatedly called to exercise them in the service of saving lives, both human and feline. Initially, Mae feels a calling to simply become more than a mother and housewife; a chance opening for a physical trainer at the local gym prompts her to apply, but the job requires a short course taught at a nearby college followed by an exam for certification. Another seeming chance has Mae catching a ride to the college with a woman whose studies include a course in psychic phenomena. Mae’s ride encourages her to sit in on the course, and suddenly Mae is finding interest and encouragement for an ability she has previously been taught to keep hidden.

As events unfold, Mae finds her life spinning out of control, decisions escalating until they’re out of her hands. Lost in new territory, suddenly danger looms on every side. THE CALLING is a book you don’t want to miss and that you will be unable to put down.

Amber Foxx

If you didn’t catch my interview with THE CALLING’s author, Amber Foxx, you can read it here. And if you’d like to read yet another review, here is an excellent one from Goodreads. Amber’s website and blog may be visited at:

Interview with author Amber Foxx

Please welcome guest Amber Foxx to this week’s Saints and Trees. Amber writes the mystery series featuring healer and psychic Mae Martin. Amber’s professional training and academic studies in various fields of complementary and alternative medicine, as well as her personal experience and travels, bring authenticity to her work. She divides her time between the Southeast and the Southwest, but Truth or Consequences, New Mexico is HOME.

No murders, just mysteries. Love is a mystery. Every person is a mystery. Every life hides a secret. The first Mae Martin psychic mystery Published December, 2013

No murders, just mysteries.
Love is a mystery. Every person is a mystery. Every life hides a secret.
The first Mae Martin psychic mystery
Published December, 2013

It is my great pleasure to interview Amber today:

SAT: THE CALLING, the first book in your Mae Martin series, is such an original and fresh story. What sparked the idea for the series? Did it start with the character of Mae or something else?

 AF: The idea started in several different ways. The part of me that that loves mysteries created a red-haired heroine named Mae Martin back when I was a kid reading Nancy Drew books. I wrote a little mystery book when I was eight or so and sent it to my grandfather. He was a poet and English professor, and he encouraged me to keep writing. I don’t remember the plot but I remember Mae’s name and hair color, and that she lived in a trailer.

The part of me that likes to explore mysterious phenomena taught a course like the one Bernadette and Charlie teach in The Calling. The more I read in the research literature on psi or parapsychological events, even though they are subtle and undramatic when described in scholarly journals, the more I was intrigued by the way reality isn’t what our practical everyday minds take it to be.

The spark to start writing The Calling came from my frustration over the unprofessional behavior of a colleague at a college where I was teaching. He seemed immune to getting into trouble over it. The character of Charlie gradually formed from this. I didn’t know what to do with him, though. For a long time all I could see was an image of his office door. I finally opened that door and went in and started writing to see what was inside. Result: the long-discarded opening scene of the first version of the book. The other two parts of my writer-mind showed up and brought in Mae and the mysterious phenomena, though in that scene Mae was nothing but a phone number on a scrap of paper on Charlie’s desk.

As for writing murder-less mysteries, that idea had been on my inner back burner for maybe a decade. Life is full of mysteries, but most of us, if we’re lucky, will never encounter murder. It’s hard to justify an amateur sleuth’s involvement in murder after murder. Some authors succeed with it, but I’ve read others who don’t.

After the first version of what became The Calling I set it aside and experimented with a sequel that involved murder and embezzlement and all sorts of crimes, because that’s what mysteries are supposed to be about, but I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t want Mae to be around a lot of violence and crime. It would change her in ways that I feel would hurt her. That’s not to say there may not be some darker books in the series, but no murder mysteries. Life is tough enough without finding bodies all the time.

Amber FoxxSAT: Where do the various spiritual and psychic practices and experiences in the book come from?

AF: A combination of research and personal experience. Santa Fe and Truth or Consequences attract a lot of alternative healers. I also met quite a few people who did this kind of work when I lived in Norfolk. I participated in an exploratory group of women healers there. A crystal healer I met in that group intrigued me, so I read about the uses of crystals and started collecting and using them. Virginia Beach has the Edgar Cayce Center, and that attracts a number of psychics and healers, some questionable and some genuine, to that part of the world.

An authentically gifted seer who had the specific variant of the psychic gift that I gave Mae is described in my blog post Are you Psychic.

I’m a yoga therapist, and part of my training with Integrative Yoga therapy involved energy work with the chakra system, as well as Ayurveda, anatomy, psychology, mudras, meditation, pranayama, and adaptive yoga practice. A fellow yoga therapy trainee and I had profound psychic exchanges while practicing energy work on each other. Each of us saw images in the other person’s body that reflected psychological issues neither of us had shared yet.

The Apache material is mostly from personal contacts. I had a friend who was an Apache medicine woman. She shared as much as she might with an outsider to the tribe. I’ve also done some reading. T or C being former Apache land, our Geronimo Springs Museum sells a great selection of books on Apache culture and spirituality.

The Psychic Science post on my blog lists a number of books and journals on psychic phenomena and healing. I didn’t mention Shaman’s Drum in that, though it’s in the works-cited page for The Calling. Sad to say it’s gone out of print. Shaman’s Drum, the Journal of Experiential Shamanism, was fascinating. I’ve kept all the back issues and use them for reference for various practices that come up.

For some of the more off-beat things, I like to walk around Santa Fe and pick up flyers and brochures for various practitioners, the stranger the better. Don’t take me wrong. I love the alternative healing culture of Santa Fe. I just get a kick out of how truly remarkable a few parts of it are. I marvel at what’s out there. Muffie in Shaman’s Blues was inspired by an encounter I had in a restaurant in Santa Fe many years ago.

SAT: Where did Mae come from? In what ways does she resemble you? In what ways is she different?

 AF: She is based mostly on a close friend from the mountains of North Carolina who disliked living in Northeastern North Carolina. An odd coincidence is that after I wrote certain things, my friend would have those things happen in her life without knowing I’d written anything. She wasn’t a healer when I first wrote the book, but then studied Reiki. Other events in her life have followed events in the series in progress, too. After I wrote them. I didn’t tell her she’d inspired my protagonist until the book was published, so it’s truly coincidence. She took it as the compliment it was meant to be. Mae is my only character who I could say is that close to a single individual, and even then, there are a number of differences.

The only way Mae resembles me is her love for running and her work as a personal trainer, something I did for many years. Otherwise, we’re different. Mae loves being a mama. I never wanted children. Mae has little education. I have four college degrees. Even my psychic abilities are entirely unlike hers. (See Are You Psychic.) It works for me to have my protagonist inspired by someone I know well and think the world of, someone I hold in unconditional positive regard through all her life’s journeys.

SAT: During the course of the first book, Mae has to make some difficult choices. As someone who read an early draft, I know that some of these choices and situations changed as you continued to revise. Without giving away too much, can you tell us how you wrestled with that as a writer?

 AF: Once I decided to tell the whole story in her point of view rather than use Bernadette, Randi and Dana as POV characters, the conflict and loss and growth had to take place centrally in Mae’s life, and secondarily in the others’ lives. In the first version, Mae’s role was a psychic tracking down a missing person. Mae’s personal growth took place as part of the story but at very little cost to her, overall, while Bernadette and Dana had big life changes. I had to raise the stakes for Mae in the revised version. I wanted her to be a character readers would follow for a series, which meant they had to be rooting for her through some major struggles. I had to make her life more complicated and challenging.

One way I did that was to change Mae’s stage of progress as a psychic and healer. In the first version she was well established and comfortable with her abilities. She’s a beginner in the final version. Instead of being exclusively a mystery, it also became, as one reviewer put it, Mae’s “psychic coming-out story.” I added a mystery in her own life as well, about her family. Her mother had always been in the back of my mind, the way an actor creates a biography for a character she’ll play without that story ever being in the script. Bringing Rhoda-Rae onstage, rather than storing her in the unspoken offstage space, was a key part of setting up the central conflict about Mae’s gift. The original missing person plot became a subplot in the story of Mae’s calling.

My critique partners deserve credit for helping me see my way through all these changes.

Amber Foxx 2SAT: One of the things that appeals most to me on a personal level is the mixture of acceptance and skepticism that Mae brings to her gift and to her encounters with the new world of spiritual reality that gift opens for her. I like the fact that Mae is a strong and independent person who isn’t easily taken in by spiritual charlatans, a type that can be found in any setting from the most traditional church to the most New Age sort of movement. At the same time, she is eager to learn from those who demonstrate wisdom. How much of that reflects your own personal beliefs and approach to spiritual matters?

AF: That does reflect my beliefs and approaches to spiritual matters, but there is a big difference. I had that outlook delivered the easy way, though positive role models. Mae learns it the hard way, through seeing negative role models.

My father attended the Episcopal church, and my mother usually slept in. Neither said the other was wrong. They were open-minded about spirituality, and shared a sense of humor about it.

My non-Catholic parents sent me to a Catholic school for the education, and my older sister and I came home from first grade and kindergarten delighted with all the stories we’d heard. One day we were lying on the floor of the playroom drawing cartoons of God and the angels as a kind of comic strip and my mother walked through.  She looked at what we’d done and said, “Don’t believe everything they tell you at school, and please don’t talk about it to the neighbors.”

When I was in my teens and exploring yoga and Buddhism, my father told me about his journey of choosing a church by going to every Christian denomination he could think of before settling on the one where he felt at home. He had faith, but it wasn’t solemn or dogmatic.

I remember driving somewhere with him and laughing together at a radio evangelist who was selling “prayer cloths,” pieces of fabric this man had prayed over that were supposed to work miracles if you put them on your body. This preacher, who presented himself seriously to his followers, was one of my father’s comedy favorites.

In my early teens I worked on a community theater production of The King and I that had a huge papier mache gold Buddha as a prop. I can’t remember if this was my idea or someone else’s, but I think it was mine since it went in my classroom. My father helped me, my sister, and a friend from her class to get the Buddha after the play closed. We strapped it on the back of my father’s red convertible and set it up on the teacher’s desk before religion class first thing in the morning. Weirdly, one of my best friends happened to have an incense burner with her—I have no idea why. We lit the incense in front of the Buddha and waited for the nun to arrive to teach. Would she laugh? Be angry? She walked in. Stopped. Took a beat, and then said, “My, aren’t we getting ecumenical.”

Later that year she kicked me out of religion class for asking what would be left of the church if you took away all the rituals. I never got the answer, but I got an extra study hall for the rest of my years at that school, and never had to go back to religion class. My parents didn’t mind.

I’ve been lucky to find real spiritual teachers—an Apache medicine woman, Micmac and Cree elders, some of my yoga and meditation teachers, and a Taoist-inspired Episcopal priest. What they all have—or had—in common (one of these teachers has passed on) is the same thing my parents had: a sense of humor, and acceptance of other traditions.

Over the years I’ve met people who were convinced of things I found hard to swallow. I’ve tried respond to their unusual beliefs with an open mind that looked very carefully at what comes into it. After all, people don’t always believe that some of my experiences could be real, either.

Mae comes to her approach to spirituality through struggle and opposition. I had it handed to me

The second Mae Martin psychic mystery Coming in 2014

The second Mae Martin psychic mystery
Coming in 2014

SAT: The second book in the series, Shaman’s Blues, is dominated by the character of Jamie, surely one of the most memorable creations I have encountered between the pages of a book. Where did he come from?

 AF: I don’t know. He showed up. I didn’t invite him. He has a life of his own. It even surprised me that he was Australian. I had to do a lot of research to understand him so he could come through authentically, but I didn’t consciously invent him. Even people from his past seem to have showed up whole.

He first popped up as a minor supporting character about five chapters into the first version of Soul Loss, which is now in major revision as book four in the series. It was going to be book two or three, but he began to take up too much room. It took me a few messy, unfinished books to realize what I needed to do with him.

Strangely, since his character was so intense, I didn’t have a clear idea what he looked like at first. Then when I was reading a book about Australian life and culture I found a picture of this extraordinary face. It was as if I recognized him, not just his features and his hair, but his expression, his smile, and the way he was looking up at the camera. That’s Jamie.

Everyone who’s read the book pre-release has had a strong response to him. One of my beta readers called him “the loveliest, most frustrating, and most complex character” she’d ever read. If there really are characters in search of an author, I’m grateful he chose me. I think of him as a gift I’ve been honored with the care of.

Thank you so much, Amber! This is fascinating stuff.

Read more about Amber and her books at:

Amber Foxx’s first book in the Mae Martin series is available in both e-book and print (follow the links in the image):

No murders, just mysteries. Love is a mystery. Every person is a mystery. Every life hides a secret. The first Mae Martin psychic mystery Published December, 2013

No murders, just mysteries.
Love is a mystery. Every person is a mystery. Every life hides a secret.
The first Mae Martin psychic mystery
Published December, 2013

The Calling 
The first Mae Martin psychic mystery (
Published December, 2013)

 When an extraordinary ability intrudes on an ordinary life, ready or not, everything changes.

A down-to-earth North Carolina country girl, Mae Martin-Ridley is a former high school athlete whose interests run to sports and fitness, not spirituality or mysticism. The last thing she ever expected to be was a psychic or a spiritual healer. Obeying her mother’s warning, Mae has been hiding her gift of “the sight” for years. When events compel her to use it again, the unforeseen consequences spread to affect every aspect of her life—work, marriage, and family. To qualify for a new job Mae takes a class in Norfolk, Virginia, where she meets people who not only accept her abilities but push her to explore them further. She struggles with the shadow side of her gift. Though she wants to use “the sight” to help people, it gives her access to secrets she could regret uncovering. Torn between those around her who encourage her and those who condemn or doubt, Mae has to find her own path.

The second Mae Martin psychic mystery Coming in 2014

The second Mae Martin psychic mystery
Coming in 2014

Shaman’s Blues
The second Mae Martin psychic mystery
Coming in 2014

 Mae Martin gets a double-edged going-away gift from her job as a psychic and healer: beautiful music by a man who’s gone missing, and a request to find him. When she arrives in her new home in New Mexico, aiming to start life over as she comes to terms with her second divorce, she faces a new challenge in the use of
her gift.

Her new neighbors are under the influence of an apparently fake psychic who runs the health food restaurant where they work. When Mae questions the skills of the peculiar restaurateur, the woman disappears—either to Santa Fe, or another dimension. The restaurant’s manager asks Mae to discover which it is. Finding two missing people proves easier than finding out the truth about either of them, or getting one of them, once found, to go away again.

Magnus Bane and Lord Akeldama: A Meeting of Minds (second in an occasional series)

photo from

photo from Steve Allen’s website (click for link)

Just as Steve Allen’s TV show from the 1970s, A Meeting of Minds, brought together greats separated by time and geography, enabling Cleopatra, say, to chat with Thomas Paine, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Acquinas (1st episode), I have often fancied the idea of bringing together fictional characters from different authors, enjoying the thought of their virtual tea parties.

Take Magnus Bane and Lord Akeldama, for instance, the delightful and ultimately endearing characters from (respectively), Cassandra Clare‘s Shadowhunter universe and the steampunk world of Gail Carriger‘s novels. Both are immortal, gay, and sartorially savvy.

clockwork angelMagnus is a warlock (an immortal being in Ms. Clare’s universe), whom we first meet in the modern world of New York City where he gives lavish parties and enjoys dressing in flamboyant outfits. When he meets handsome Shadowhunter Alec Lightwood, however, he falls seriously and hard. In Ms. Clare’s Shadowhunter world, warlocks are considered “Downworlders”—disdained by Shadowhunters like Alec and his family as outsiders at best, enemies at worst—so the smitten warlock has an uphill battle finding acceptance, let alone love. Magnus also appears in the parallel prequel series beginning with Clockwork Angel, which is set in a steampunk Victorian London.

Steampunk Victorian London is also the milieu where we first encounter Gail Carriger’s Lord Akeldama, a vampire whose personality smartly blends Wooster and Jeeves—Bertie on the surface, but a mind like a steel trap beneath. Given the avowed influence of P.G. Woodhouse on Ms. Carriger’s delightful fiction, it is not a surprising combination. Beneath Lord A.’s constant frivolous banter resides one of London’s most powerful movers and shakers.soulless

By the end of each series’ first book, Magnus Bane and Lord Akeldama have easily evolved into this reader’s favorite series characters. Each appears first in his surface persona—smooth, urbane, perhaps shallow—then rapidly proves his worth in sticky situations, helping the series protagonists at serious personal and professional risk. As the books continue, we see the vulnerabilities and pathos of each character, vulnerabilities deeply concealed beneath the armor of clothing and manner. Their gay orientation adds to the poignancy and pathos of the outsider status already dictated by their natures as vampire and warlock.

Wouldn’t it be delightful to bring the two of them together for a Victorian vampire-and-warlock tea party? Just imagine the witty conversation—and the personal entanglements. Would Magnus overcome Lord A.’s broken heart? Or would the two of them end up as platonic allies? Wouldn’t it be interesting to combine Gail Carriger’s steampunk folks with Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter characters?

bane chroniclesMs. Clare’s more recent series of e-stories, The Chronicles of Magnus Bane, shows that I am not the only reader to come away from the series with Magnus as one of my favorite characters. Since The Chronicles of Magnus Bane are being published only in e-format and I have yet to purchase an e-reader (decisions, decisions!), I am ignorant of his further adventures, yet I am glad to have them to look forward to.

Likewise, I hope to visit Lord Akeldama again when Ms. Carriger’s new series featuring her original protagonist’s daughter comes out later this year.

Meanwhile, here’s to both authors for giving us such rich and memorable characters!

photo from Gail Carriger's blog Retrorack, where she states, "First, the person most likely to dress up and match such an event is, naturally, Lord Akeldama."

photo from Gail Carriger’s blog Retrorack, where she indicates that this would be suitable attire for Lord Akeldama
(Click image to link to blog)

Bill Cunningham

Anyone who knows me face-to-face knows that I’m as far from a fashionista as it is possible to be. I dress for comfort, wearing the same sets of clothing week after week: cords/jeans, knit top, and usually a sweater, in a color range chiefly confined to black, brown, blues, and greens. But recently I watched a film on fashion photographer Bill Cunningham which touched me deeply: Bill Cunningham New York (directed by Richard Press, 2010).

image from

image from

For over 30 years, Bill Cunningham has produced the weekly New York Times feature “On the Street.” As the title suggests, Cunningham’s work chronicles in photographs the street life of the great city, typically organized around a common sartorial theme. Each week’s theme arises naturally out of Cunningham’s observations, something that suddenly seems omnipresent to his trained but impartial eye: things such as a particular T-shirt graphic, a certain color, a distinctive style of shoe that everyone seems to be wearing.

While his subjects include fashionistas, celebrities, and socialites, Cunningham’s lens makes no distinctions of class. His modus operendi is to simply photograph whomever happens to strike his eye, whether  rich or poor or in-between, whether flamboyant cross-dressers or “ordinary” people going about their daily affairs.

image from

image from

“Self-effacing” isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when speaking of the fashion world, yet that is how Bill Cunningham comes across as the documentary’s crew follows him on his daily rounds, an impression that is only reinforced by the film’s direct interviews. Self-effacing not in the usual sense, which implies a degree of self-consciously holding back, but naturally so. His existence, in fact, strikes me as downright monastic.

At the beginning of the film, Cunningham lives alone in a tiny little closet of a room jammed full of file cabinets containing archival negatives and magazines, his only personal space a bookshelf or two and a small bed. (By the end of the film he has moved into somewhat larger digs because the building’s owner has decided to convert the old apartments into office space.) Every morning he gets up to ride his bicycle through the streets in search of people to photograph, a mode of transit which allows him the optimum mobility for navigating the city and the optimum flexibility to stop and shoot whomever happens to catch his eye. Unlike his subjects, Cunningham’s dress reflects the same monastic traits of simplicity and self-effacement as his living quarters and means of transportation: typically attired in casual pants and a smock-like blue jacket.

Like the true monk who has found his vocation, Cunningham exhibits unadulterated joy. His existence is focused solely on celebrating others with no concern for self. His delight in fashion comes from his delight in noting the ways that people express themselves artistically and aesthetically through their clothing; there is not the least trace of snobbishness in his attitude. With true wisdom, he says that for many of his subjects, clothing is their “armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” Near the end of the film, he states: “He who seeks beauty will find it.” That is his mission in life and quite obviously the source of his great joy.

Equally at home among socialites, gender-bending cross-dressers, and ordinary folk on the street, Cunningham looks to find beauty in every person; like the Biblical Creator who delights in creation, Cunningham seems to delight in every person he sees or meets, joyous to proclaim that “it is good.”

Early on, Cunningham displayed a strong sense of ethics. When the magazine he worked for in the 1960s took the photographs he had made of ordinary women wearing designer clothes as an occasion for mockery, he quit in indignation. Mockery was the exact opposite of his intent, which was fueled by fascination with the way that women in “ordinary,” middle-class circumstances would adapt the runway creations of designers to the needs of their own lives and the expression of their own individuality.

Towards the end of the film, the interviewer asks Cunningham about religion, and we discover that he attends Roman Catholic mass every Sunday. When asked whether religion is an important component of his life, Cunningham takes his time thinking it through before he finally says, “It’s a good guidance in my life. It’s something I need.”

Bill Cunningham’s life exemplifies a true sanctity and love for others, a joyous exuberance, and love for the world. Here’s to him!

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