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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Spiritual connection with Tibet leads author to novel

September 16, 2007


Award-winning Bellingham author and writing-group leader Mary Gillilan reads from her new novel about a middle-age woman who fulfills a dream to make a pilgrimage to see Mount Kailash.

Question: Is this novel pretty much autobiographical? Did you go to Tibet as a middle-aged woman? Why the autobiographical genre? What liberties did you take with the character of Emmy?

Answer: Yes, the novel is fairly autobiographical. The only way I have gone to Tibet is through the imagination. For 30-plus years I have led writing groups with a consistent message: write the story your heart tells and this story was certainly heart-led. I started writing this tale at three in the morning in my journal. The biggest liberty I granted Emmy was a ticket to Tibet: as she found her way along the high passes I gave her courage to look down the ravines and up into the sky — feel her tiny mighty self in all that majesty and to smile.

Q: Why the fascination with Tibet?

A: Certainly the spiritual angle of Tibetan Buddhism compels me: the country on that high plateau so close to the heavens surely a conversation with God would be acceptable as you drank your yak tea and ate your tsampo. As a teenager, Tibet held the world apart: the potential perhaps in that world people would be kinder or more principled than the people who teased me when I was a young kid with cerebral palsy. However, as a friend of mine always reminds me, wherever you go, there you are. I am fine in this world, but those mountains in Tibet will always call me, and I am fine with that, too.

Q: In her travels, Emmy seems to be an outsider much of the time, trying to learn and absorb, but feeling much frustration in her quest. What’s behind her unease and uncertainty of what she’s seeking?

A: She wants a spiritual cleansing but she feels she doesn’t deserve it. She feels her physical limitations set her a part from the other travelers, just as she has felt a part from the people in her own life. She is frustrated with her body, if she is unable to make the Drolma La, if she is sent back, something is wrong with how she is seeing things. She is right. Transformations are confusing and frustrating: Pilgrimages demand a lot on one hell bent to hang on to the past. Pilgrimages demand you let go.

Q: What is the importance of home to you, and how does travel change your vision of the world?

A: The importance of home centers around my two daughters: the oldest moves to Brussels later this month and the youngest just graduated from college. Her adventure has just begun. Both are (avid) travelers, as am I. When I go to Brussels in October, I will be home with my daughter. However, if we are talking about my place here in Bellingham I have to say, I love my old house — morning jazz in my kitchen, reading the paper with a cup of coffee is home for me. My neighborhood is home where I walk my dogs and talk to my neighbors. I am content. My kids love coming home — at least that’s what they tell me.

When I travel, there I am with my Samsonite case on wheels, a smattering of French in my head, and a train schedule in a sweaty hand: There I am and there is a new world reality. One time in Moscow, in 1979, I gave a denim skirt to the hotel elevator operator. She smiled, and said, “Oh for my daughter, my daughter.” Her smile transformed her face.

You never know what you are going to see, and for me if that thing I must see has a set of steep stairs attached to it. When I was 14 in India, seeing a starving child wash an overstuffed cow in a Calcutta alley influenced how I viewed reverence for cows. My unease is a check list of accustomed ways of seeing things — traveling takes me out of what I find most comforting, and see myself anew. Sometimes that is just fine, sometimes I have some thinking to do.

Q: What are some of the joys and challenges of being a writer?

A: I cry when I finish a novel (joy) — it is how I know I am done. Not with the thousand or so revisits to scenes and all, but I am finished with the story. I have a visceral and spiritual relationship with my words. I started writing at a young age, and it is my way of being me in this world. This comes with a certain amount of challenges: the inability or the fear that gets in my way at times to really say what it is my heart has come to know as truth creates massive roadblocks to self expression!

Q: What do you enjoy about being a facilitator of writing groups? How long have you been writing professionally?

A: As a group leader I am joyful when I see students understand their process and write and delight in the product. I am not talking about happy ending mishmash. I am talking about telling the story the heart knows. Thirty years ago I won my first award for writing, so I guess that’s the length of time you could call professional writing.

Q: What are some of your projects coming up?

A: I don’t know, quite honestly. Poetry continues, as forever — always. I want to do another novel — maybe another one in Tibet or one in Patagonia. I have one finished, waiting for a final walk-through. A story set on the Oregon Coast, a mystery.

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