Secrets Lives: Interview with Barbara Ardinger, Part Two

by Elizabeth Cunningham
Secret Lives

Welcome to the second half of my interview with Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. We are talking about her newly released novel Secret Lives and its host of bodicious characters from the ages of thirteen to “pert near a hundred.”

(Attention last minute shoppers. Here’s the link to buy Secret Lives!)

Secret Lives has an interesting structure. There are themes and characters that thread through the whole book, but each chapter has a distinct focus on a distinct issue—new love for an older character, a rocky moment in the marriage for a younger one; her daughter’s coming of age; homelessness; medical malpractice; cancer, to name only a few. Then there are the less quotidian problems—some misplaced Norns from the Midwest wreaking havoc with the weather. Can you say a little about how you chose the novel’s structure? Were there elements in the story that took you by surprise?

The book comprises twenty-seven braided stories. I began by writing the story that became Ch. 1, then more characters appeared and I wrote more stories. Yes, some of the elements did surprise me—the inquisitor, Jacoba’s cancer. Madame Blavatsky was a very loud surprise. I did not expect a talking cat. Friends also made suggestions as I wrote. One friend said Bertha should have been a stripper when she was young; another friend suggested what happens to her as the book progresses. Another friend suggested karmic fleas as a result of Blavatsky’s mischief and the circle’s reversing spell. People said Millie was boring, so I gave her a mid-life crisis. I love to write revisionist fairy tales, so that’s where Celestia Wolfe came from, plus the letter she delivers (which still brings tears to my eyes when I read it) is the denoument of an earlier story. I met some older women who were active volunteers with senior citizens, and one of them mentioned that old women often get sold out of their homes, so that was the beginning of Sarah Baxter’s story. Hannah’s dream of the floors falling out of her mother’s house comes from nightmares I had after my beloved grandfather died. One day I saw a pile of rags under a bush in the city of Orange, and when I bent down to look closer, I saw eyes looking back at me; that tiny incident turned into Coyote’s story. There are “real life” elements in every story. But at the same time, the characters dictated and acted out the stories. It’s magical realism plus the craft of writing.

To this day, I have no idea quite where the weather war came from. I don’t know anyone who has been in and steered a cone of power. I needed to make the Wintergreens’ threat against the circle real enough to wound the women and lead to the final diaspora that ends the book. (Secret Lives is thus bookended by diasporas. We need to be outward bound, and the cliché that when a door closes another one opens is true.)

Writing the weather war was the hardest work in the whole book. I had to make it dramatic and scary without turning it into a cartoon or a really bad 3D movie. I chose to see the war through Brooke’s eyes because she’s young and strong, but also intellectual and highly unlikely to have any experience in magical warfare. I also had to tie Matthew more closely to her and the circle, so he became a warrior in service to the crones. I don’t know how many times I rewrote those three chapters. The Wintergreen sisters were also hard to write because I didn’t want them to be foolish, though I knew someone who spoke in malapropisms like Hazel, and I bet everyone has met a flirt like Myrtle. But the Norns are scary! Those three chapters had to show authentic destruction. As the women tell us, a life worshipping the Goddess is not necessarily an easy life. It’s not all pretty rituals and fancy jewelry.

Although I would never describe Secret Lives as didactic, you convey a lot of information about how people practice earth or goddess-centered religion. One poetic thread of the story traces the journey of a shaman from what you call Old Europe. There is also a marvelous send up of a metaphysical church and of a Gardnerian coven that takes itself a bit too seriously. Was giving accurate information on practices many people misunderstand or vilify a strong motivation for writing the novel? Would you tell us a little about your own practice?

There are fifteen rituals in Secret Lives that readers can adapt to their circles … though I’m pretty sure they won’t successfully create any dragons. (Readers—if you do get a dragon, please let me know!)

The prologue, set in Old Europe, is based very carefully on the works of Marija Gimbutas and was corrected by my friend Miriam Robbins Dexter, the protégée of Gimbutas. Old Europe is, basically, the Balkan nations near the Black Sea, plus early Greece. The invasion of the warriors from the Russian steppes is also historically accurate. It’s how the sky and storm gods (Zeus, Jehovah, et al.) came to us.

In my time, I have studied the Aramaic Bible with Dr. Rocco Errico, plus Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. I once belonged to the Edgar Cayce association (I got a nice kiss on the cheek from one of Cayce’s sons). I have taken refuge with Dagmola Jamyang Sakya, been initiated as a Dianic witch by the Circle of Aradia in Los Angeles, and created and facilitated numerous public and private rituals. Today, I’m pretty much solitary (Cairo explains that solitaries don’t belong to organized circles or covens), though I get around. I have friends who are Gardnerians and members of other traditions who shared what they could with me. To this day, a lot of people seem to think that witches are New Age practitioners. Pagans and New Agers have some things in common and borrow a lot (often from each other), but they’re not the same. Explaining the differences is one reason for the chapter about Rev. Debbee and the psychic fair that Bertha and the cat turn into a vaudeville show. (Another reason is that it’s just plain funny and was fun to write.) A friend in the UK who reviewed Secret Lives said she’d met Rev. Debbee (or someone very much like her) at Glastonbury. I think anyone who has ever been to a mainstream metaphysical church has met Rev. Debbee and Gwennie and maybe Donnathea. We see them every day.

One of my intentions in Secret Lives was indeed to teach readers to distinguish between witches (who worship only the Goddess) and neopagans (who worship gods and goddesses) and Gardnerians (who are in the lineage invented by Gerald Gardner) and the mainstream metaphysicians and New Agers. I explain more of this in the FREE READER’S GUIDE. A good friend who is a third-degree Gardnerian gave me information on Gardnerian rituals, but I got the invocations from a website, so there’s nothing oath-bound in the novel. I’m hoping that mainstream readers will enjoy the stories and learn something from them at the same time.

One conflict between the women in the circle is about how open to be, how much or little to reach out to other groups. Emma Clare, the matriarch of a lineage that goes back for generations, is particularly adamant about remaining hidden because her family has suffered persecution. I don’t want to give away plot, but I will say I very much appreciate that you do not sugarcoat the old ways. Did you ever know anyone like Emma Clare? Did you do research to create her character’s background?

No, I’ve never met anyone exactly like Emma Clare, but I went to college in southeast Missouri (the college I call Sagamore State is really Southeast Missouri State University, which was still a college when I was a freshman) and got to know people from the Ozarks. The people of those old mountains have a rich and honorable history. I also did a lot of real library research to get Emma Clare’s Ozark dialect correct and to get the customs in the flashbacks correct. There were “witch women” and conjurers, so Mammy Annis could be based on reality. (There’s also an obvious allusion to the movie The Wicker Man.)

Emma Clare’s obsession with “keeping shet” is real. Even today, Christian fundamentalists picket our rituals held in public parks. (When the Dalai Lama was in Long Beach early in 2011, two bearded men were picketing him, too.) I’ve been harassed myself. Emma Clare’s fear is real, and in 1989-90, neopagans were in real danger in some parts of the U.S. Maybe not so much today, but I listen to the news and hear people like Glenn Beck and the Republican candidates, and say to myself, “Emma Clare was right. Nothing has changed.” Emma Clare looks very much like my ex-husband’s great grandmother, who was 100 years old when I met her in Dexter, Missouri, in 1962. BTW, the story about the Volkswager is true; it happened to me in 1967.

There is a wealth of wonderful, memorable characters in this novel, who, as you note, are as real in their way as we are. Are there any you identity with especially? Were there some that were harder to write than others? Did you do a character study of each one first or did that emerge as the story unfolded? Please give us a little taste of what it might be like to be part of that circle.

One of my favorite characters is Bertha, the circle’s trickster and clown. She gets away with things I wish I could do. But I don’t know anyone who is as powerful as she is. Like Cairo and Brooke, I’m one of the Goddess’s thoughty devotees. (Brooke’s Ph.D. dissertation is my Ph.D. dissertation on Cleopatra.) I’ve known very practical women like Sophie, Verlea is very much like several black women I’ve known, and Herta has elements of my grandmother.

Some people ask how I kept track of so many characters. I made lists! I have lists of their birthdays, of their husbands, of their back stories. I made lists of who was present in any given scene so I didn’t assign dialogue to someone who wasn’t there. For the reader’s convenience, I put a list of characters in the front of the book so readers will know who’s who. Seventeen members of the circle, plus the cat and a ghost. Twenty-seven friends and relatives, including Emma Clare’s ancestors and the shaman. Twenty-four “others,” including Rev. Debbee, two residence managers, the doctor, and more dead people.

Some of the minor characters were harder to write because at first they were less real. I wanted to make Rosa, for example, as three-dimensional as anyone else. Likewise the nurses and Rita and Geneva, the two women who organize the residents of the Towers. It was easy to write Elsie’s asthma attacks (been there, done that), and the black goddess that appears in the prologue and who Jacoba sees in the hospital came to me in the hospital when I had a near-death experience after an asthma attack in 1992. The shaman surprised me when she came back and walked across Europe. I have no idea how she has lived to be 6 ½ thousand years old. But she turned out to be significant—she helps in the weather war and appears in the novel’s final climax when the senior citizens watch the villain get what he deserves. Oh—and that villain … he was suggested by an engineer I once met on a technical writing assignment. Nankhani talks just like him. And, yes, I totally share Cairo’s view of the Super Bowl.

The characters that were the most fun to write were the cat and Frances J. Swift, the residence manager who talks like every corporate memo we’ve ever read. She is redundancy incarnate. But ya gotta feel sorry for her when Madame Blavatsky embodies the Cheshire Cat and starts haunting her. Matthew, the Green Man, was also fun to write; he’s so sexy he almost took over the second half of the book. He has, I confess it, elements of my boy friend when I was writing Secret Lives.

Everything in Secret Lives is real, both real in the sense of older women coping with a society that doesn’t necessarily respect them and magically real. I have been honored to live with them.

Thank you, Dr. Ardinger, for giving us a glimpse into the rich world of Secret Lives. If there is a question haven’t asked that you would like to answer, please do! Also, please include any information you’d like to share about your work as an editor and urls for your website and blogsite!

My day job is editing for beginning authors who are smart people with good ideas but don’t know how to get their ideas down in readable form. They don’t want to embarrass themselves in print, and so they hire me to help them.  

My hopes for Secret Lives are that (1) I’ll get a return on my investment in it and (2) lots of smart pagan women and smart mainstream women will buy and read it and love the women in the circle as much as I do.

My website:

My Facebook Secret Lives page:

I write a blog every month about the time the sun sign turns. I post it on my home page. Just scroll down.

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1 comment

Unknown December 19, 2011 - 2:14 pm

So, how do you buy this book? Is it only online on Amazon, or can you order it from a bookstore, and if so, who is the publisher, and that kind of data? It does sound like a fun book to read.


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