Rachel Pollack was born in Brooklyn, New York, and she holds an honors degree in English from New York University, a Masters in English from Claremont Graduate School and has taught English at New York State University. Rachel is considered one of the World’s foremost authorities on the modern interpretation of the Tarot. She is also a poet, an award-winning novelist, and a Tarot card and comic book artist. As a fiction writer, Rachel has been bestowed many honors and awards, among them the famed Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction (for Unquenchable Fire) and the World Fantasy Award (for Godmother Night). She is a recommended member of PEN International, and has written for numerous publications.
Q & A
Iulian: Rachel, your first published works trace back to the 70’s. Since then, you’ve authored multiple books, both fiction and non-fiction, and many short stories. Tell us how did you get there? What was your life like before writing and when did you know you were going to be a writer?
Rachel: I began writing stories around the age of 8 or 9, when my family went on a trip and my parents gave me a Big Eagle tablet and a pencil. I tried to write a fantasy epic, but it didn’t get very far. I started writing complete stories in junior high school, but did not get anything published until Michael Moorcok bought a story of mine for New Worlds in 1971. Before that, I went through a few years of “encouraging rejection,” but you really have to be determined, and believe in yourself to keep going.
Your writing is filled with elements pulled from various faiths, religions, and traditions. You blend them beautifully into your fiction, and explain them perfectly through your non-fiction. How did you become interested in this and what are the most fascinating aspects to you?
I loved fairy tales and mythology. As a kid, I ate them up. In college I began to read more seriously in myth, including Campbell, Eliade, Levi-Strauss, etc. This was on my own, though one or two lit classes touched on myth. In 1970 I first discovered Tarot, or Tarot discovered me. This led to a greater awareness of esoteric, mystical traditions. I actually had become interested in high school, when I discovered a shelf of what I now realize were some very serious occult books in the Poughkeepsie Library. Not until much later did I realize how amazing that was. But it was through the Tarot that I really learned about such things. What fascinates me is the sense that the world is different than we think it is, and also the great depths of truly wild stories that can be found in various traditions.
You create amazing, unique worlds and fantastic characters. Your Arthur C. Clarke award for “Unquenchable Fire,” World Fantasy Award for “Godmother Night,” and Nebula nomination for “Temporary Agency,” are a testament to that. Give us a bit of how these worlds came to you? Also, what do these awards mean to you? Have they changed the way you write?
They don’t change what I do, but I am very proud of them. Unquenchable Fire came to me as I read various books inspired by shamanic traditions, or tribal myths of various cultures. They all seemed to be written by people who had no contact with those traditions but thought they should set their stories in those cultures. So I thought, why not transplant that kind of world view, and some of the more bizarre practices, into contemporary America. It was written almost in a kind of dream state (which is not to say I did not spend many hours crafting it). It also was inspired by a teacher in college who was talking about the story of Leda, who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan. He said that it sounds horrible, but she was turning down God. What if when Mary was told she would bear the Son of God she said “No, thanks. I don’t want to lose my figure.” My hero, Jennie Mazdan is not so frivolous, but when she finds out that the Living World has made her pregnant with a divine child, she’s furious and tries to fight back.
Temporary Agency began with a single sentence that popped into my head while working on something entirely different. The sentence was “When I was fourteen a cousin of mine angered a Malignant One.”
Godmother Night was inspired by the Grimms’ fairy tale, “Godfather Death,” but I could not really get into it until I had a dream about seeking help from the Goddess Kali, who in my dream was called Mother Night.
You were at the helm of Doom Patrol, a comic book from DC Comics. That’s a very different animal and I am curious how was that work for you? First of all, how did you get there, and what would you consider your major contributions to it?
I loved writing DP, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I got the job by meeting the editor at a party and telling him how much I admired the then current writer, Grant Morrison, who had created a daring and brilliant surreal superhero comic. I must have mentioned that it would be a dream to write it someday, because Tom Peyer, the editor, said that Grant would be leaving in some months, and would I care to submit a sample script. I did, and Tom liked it enough to make it my first issue. While I continued in the surreal direction that I loved from Grant, I also developed my own themes, which were about accepting yourself, however strange you might be, however outcast, and living your life. It was very controversial—many people really hated it—but others said that it taught them how to live, which is the best compliment you can ever get.
You are teaching creative writing at Goddard College. Do you see yourself as a teacher first, or is that something that came along as a natural complement to your writing career? What do you love most about teaching and how has this arena changed in the last 20 years?
Actually, I’ve just recently retired from Goddard, after some 12 years. Other than a stint at a college just after grad school I have not taught anywhere else, so cannot say much about the field. Goddard, however, is a remarkable place, where both students and faculty are passionate about what we do. The method of teaching involved working one-on-one with a handful of students, so we can really work intensely. I love helping writers find their true voice. I’ve met some wonderful people at Goddard. I also teach Tarot, and have done so for many years, around the world. I think of the Hasidic idea of “learning together,” rather than me on a podium.
You’ve worked closely with Neil Gaiman in the past. Since he is one of my favorite authors, I wanted to ask you about that collaboration. Tell us a little bit about how it all happened and what came out of it?
A woman at DC suggested doing a Vertigo Tarot deck (Vertigo was the adult fantasy imprint that carried both Neil’s Sandman, and my time at Doom Patrol). Karen Berger, the Vertigo editor, brought Neil in. I had known him for years, actually, but it was a joy to work with him. The four of us worked out the choices for the primary cards, and then the incredible Dave McKean did the art. For the suits, Dave followed his own path, though I sent him information on traditional qualities.
If you were to reveal your fiction world to someone unfamiliar with your work, where would you tell them to start? From your own portfolio, what is your personal favorite work of fiction?
I often tell people to start with Godmother Night, since it’s a bit more accessible than some others. I can never decide which is my favorite, probably that or Unquenchable Fire.
In issue #4 we’ve included your story “Forever,” originally published in F&SF in 2010. Tell us a few words about it.
Forever was one of those what-if moments. What if the Goddess of Death entered the body of a human woman, and then forgot who she was. It’s really that simple, but I have to say, it’s one of my own favorites among all my short stories.
What is your advice for young writers trying to break-through in this increasingly tough publishing market, that’s under the constant pressure of becoming more and more paperless?
Above all, keep writing. Keep reading to find your inspiration, find the voices that will inspire your voice. And network. Meet other writers, go to cons, take a look at local writers groups and collectives. And keep writing.
Tarot is a big part of your life. Even though in this interview I focused on your fiction work, I want to touch on this subject as well since it is a very important part of who you are. Your book “78 Degrees of Wisdom” is often referred to as the Tarot Bible. Give us a glimpse of this world. What does it mean to you and how does it integrate in your life? Feel free to go in as much detail as you’d like.
What a big question! Tarot is never-ending, always opening new doors and dimensions. I love the combination of images, like moments in a story, and ideas, worlds of symbolism. I first saw it in 1970, when a fellow teacher (the job after grad school) read my cards. I don’t remember what she said, I just remember thinking, “I have to have this.” It struck me as similar to comics, really, since the pictures had such a quality of storytelling. It was largely unknown then, and it took some searching. I’ve actually drawn my own Tarot deck, Shining Tribe, based on tribal and prehistoric art. I’ve also used the Tarot to create stories, sometimes completely from scratch. That is, just pull a bunch of cards at random, and see what story they inspire.
What’s next for you? Are there any exciting projects for the future? Is there anything else you’d like to add?
My novel, The Child Eater, came out in England last year, and will appear in the States in the summer. I also recently self-published, along with artist Robert Place, The Burning Serpent Oracle, a deck of cards based on a 19th century fortune-telling tradition. And I’ve been writing a series of what I call “shamanic noir” novellas. The third is due out soon in Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Thank you very much for this interview, Rachel!
Some of you might not know this, but recently Rachel Pollack announced on her Facebook page that she is battling cancer. She’s currently going through severe chemotherapy sessions and she needs all our support. If you want to help Rachel through these difficult times, please visit the Campaign To Assist Rachel Pollack. You can help with donations or simply by spreading the word. All our thoughts are with Rachel and we wish her a speedy recovery!
Find below a selection of works by Rachel Pollack:
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