Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Barnes and Noble Unabashedly Bookish

Jill Dearman, who interviews authors for the Barnes and Noble "Unabashedly Bookish" blog, read Picking Bones from Ash, then sent me some questions to answer. Below, a snippet of our conversation.

JD: The metaphysical aspects of your novel were particularly fascinating to me. What are your interests in that area? And how did you find a balance between grounding a generational family tale with some of the more surreal aspects of the book?

MMM: My Japanese family owns and runs a Zen Buddhist temple in the north of Japan. I spent a lot of time there as a child, stumbling by accident into “the bone room,” where cremated remains are held for people who can’t afford burial plots, and climbing around the hills behind the temple structure. In Japan, most people have Buddhist funerals, and return to temples and priests for regular memorial services. And since priests are so involved in death and dying—and rebirth—they are also necessarily involved with ghosts and lingering spirits.

I grew up absorbing all of this before I could even really make sense of it. I heard my mother’s cousin chanting sutras at six in the morning. My grandfather would talk about repeatedly meeting the benevolent spirit of a woman when he was out climbing mountains. He knew the secret to exorcism, and used it when necessary. My mother’s cousin, who currently runs the temple, has done the same.

These are educated, modern people. Their beliefs are reflected in ghost stories, folk tales and fairy tales, much in the same way as a western person might blithely mention “happily ever after” or “knight in shining armor” or “she was such a witch” without pausing to think of the origins of these terms. We are all a reflection of our cultures, and the kinds of stories we grew up hearing and absorbing.

I would also say that in general, I’m drawn to studies of religion and spirituality—anything “weird”—even though I myself am a rational person. I just think that there is a reason why spirituality in one shape or another continues to mean something to us. I don’t feel that the God versus science debates are really a helpful way to tackle the question of how we all came to be here. A more useful observation of religion would be to say that the toughest problems most of us face—love, grief, suffering—are spiritual. Our wealthy and technological advances don’t seem to make us immune to suffering. So, how can a modern person live with a healthy and realistic degree of spirituality? It seems like a timely and interesting question. And Japan and the US, as two very wealthy and modern countries, seemed like natural places to explore these themes.

Read the rest, then check out more interviews!

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