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.
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.
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. http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/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 http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/psychic-science/ 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.
SAT: 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
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: http://amberfoxxmysteries.wordpress.com/
Amber Foxx’s first book in the Mae Martin series is available in both e-book and print (follow the links in the image):
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
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 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.