An Interview With Mary Sojourner on Her Novel 29
Editor’s note: Mary Sojourner, Matador Network contributing editor and writing faculty at MatadorU, has published a new novel, 29 (Torrey House Press). Jo Jackson, one of her students at MatadorU, long-distance interviews Mary about her book below. 29 is available now, and will be officially launched with a benefit reading for Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, a Flagstaff community organization, on September 21 in Flagstaff.
Jo Jackson: To begin, what are the essentials of the novel 29, and where did the story come from?
Mary Sojourner: At least three threads weave through 29. Nell Walker and Monkey Barnett fall precipitously into something neither of them can name — except to call it Much. Nell finds her way toward a resolution with her mother, who had raised her single-handedly as a Sixties Susie Creamcheese (see Frank Zappa) kind of mom. The Chemehuevi of the Mojave Desert learn that a huge corporate solar invasion is on its way to the desert, near 29 Palms, that will damage their Sacred Salt Song Trail and the desert ecosystems and wildlife — and decide to fight back.
Nell has been fired from her all-consuming job as a marketing director for a global Big Pharma in Los Angeles, in part because of her affair with a higher-up, in part because of her age. She has been supporting her mom in an up-scale Memory / Demenia Unit, and quickly finds herself with her house in foreclosure, most of her possessions gone, and the knowledge that she needs to get the fuck out of Dodge.
She flees to the Mojave Desert town of 29 Palms, with $600 to her name, takes refuge in a women’s shelter, and answers an ad looking for a computer geek. When she first walks into the interview in the one dress-for-success suit she has left, the owner of Monkey Biz — a daily stoner — thinks she’s a narc. They fall in Much, Nell learns that Monkey has been having dope-fueled apocalyptic visions, visions compelling in their consistency and intensity. A few days later, she meets Mariah, a Chemehuevi indigenous woman who has been attacked by solar company goons, and the novel is on its way.
29 grew out of Much. Monkey was real. We slammed into each other and just as abruptly broke apart. Then my Flagstaff life began to fracture along fault lines I hadn’t known existed. I wrote the first draft of 29 in the summer of 2007 as an exorcism. Six months later, I fled to 29 Palms, knowing somehow that the Mojave would incinerate what needed to be ash — not just from the harsh ending of what I believed was the deepest connection possible, but from a long life of unfortunate genes and even more unfortunate choices. While I lived there, I learned that a solar corporation was threatening to build an installation impinging on ancient, sacred Native American desert intaglios near Blythe, California.
I lived in the Mojave for a year. The same fierce heat and glare that did their work on me, were eventually too much for my aging body and eyes. I left in 2009. Four years later, one of the publishers at Torrey House Press asked me if I had a novel I could send. I gutted half the original exorcism, road-tripped to Chemehuevi country and listened to what the people told me — and wrote the final version of 29.
From song titles, to musicians, to the Paiute Salt Songs — tell me about the significance of music in this book.
I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s, with music as one of my three allies — the others were reading and fleeing outdoors. My mother was a fine jazz pianist who never played outside our home. She turned me on to Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, Marian McPartland, Gene Krupa — and allowed me to go to jazz clubs when I was underage. I interviewed the brilliant jazz saxophonist Gerry Mulligan when I was seventeen. I remember thinking how calm he was — didn’t learn till later that he was a heroin addict at that time, and was probably trying to suss out who the fuck this starry-eyed kid with the notebook was.
The Blues and rock ‘n’ roll carried me through those unfortunate genes, and even more unfortunate choices, for sixty years — still do. They have been my own song trail: hearing the Delta blue guitarist Son House in a gloomy coffee house near Lake Ontario, in the late ’50s, and joining the Civil Rights Movement. Playing the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” over and over, and thinking I had found a way to believe that there was the possibility of peace. Pounding The Who’s “Not Gonna Get Fooled Again” into my ears at brain-smashing volume, and knowing there was a way to love fury. Playing Van Morrison after Much was nothing, and keeping an enraged faith in the “Raglan Road.” Finding William Burroughs and Material on that dangerous “Road to the Western Lands.”
At the very beginning of the book we’re introduced to fifty-five-year-old Nell, who lost her high-paying job during the 2008 economic downturn. In the early hours of the morning, just before she leaves LA for good, she considers her prospects and there’s this line: “She was fifty-five. She was a woman (…) In her field (…) she was dead.” Can you unpack this? What are your thoughts on ageism in the United States?
I’m seventy-four. When I was twenty-eight, I was the organizer for an old peoples’ political organization. The women were the driving intelligence and force of the group. One day, we were planning strategy. As we finished, I suggested we all talk about how old we were. These powerful women morphed into giggling and red-faced children. In that instant, I vowed I would always be proud and open about my age.
Ageism is the most prevalent “ism” in the United States, and the most prevalent and unrecognized marginalization. I’ve written about it here.
There’s a quote at the beginning of the book from Monkey: “You should write a book about us.” Is Monkey, the pot-smoking mechanic that Nell works for in 29 Palms, based on someone real?
Monkey was once real. His visions were real. Our instant Much was real. Our story was only a little different from Monkey’s and Nell’s. The surreal power was the same.
There seems to be a lot of yourself in this story. Is the distinction between fiction and life writing a valuable one to you?
Most of my writing — novels, short stories, essays (political and otherwise) — emerged and emerges from my life. As a child, I was to quickly learn to be my own world, which is another way of saying I had to become self-centered or go mad. I write about that in the memoir Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire. It is also true that, once I start writing, the words take over so that what may have begun as a story of self becomes much larger. I am continually surprised by who and what appears.
I wrote Nell as a wealthy and driven Big Pharm executive, because I wanted to write a character very different from myself. As the novel continued to take shape, I realized she and I had much more in common than not, but of course, life slams her on the butt –- and she not so much changes, as she evolves into a woman much closer to who she and her mother were when she was a child.
As the story unfolds, Nell befriends Mariah, a local Chemehuevi Native American, and discovers that a solar energy conglomerate, FreegreenGlobal is planning to build on a sacred Paiute trail. Why did you choose for the “bad guy” to be a renewable energy company?
Before I answer this, I’d love our readers to go to this video about the Salt Song Trail. It is important to understand the significance of the trail in Chemehuevi life.
I have learned that the best way to implement solar power is with localized rooftop installations. At the time I lived in the Mojave, a grassroots enviro group, the Wildlands Conservancy, fought and defeated the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s plan to build 85 miles of power-transmission towers and lines carrying geothermal, solar, and wind power from the Salton Sea area of the Imperial Valley, to a substation near Hesperia. The lines would have cut a nearly mile-wide swath through the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve in Morongo Valley, a critical water source for migratory birds and wildlife, and through parts of the privately-owned Pipes Canyon Wilderness near Pioneertown. The Conservancy taught me. I understood that corporate solar power in the desert was anything but green.
As I worked with the final version of the novel, I realized that I could link Monkey’s visions of the future apocalypse with the new information I was learning about the devastation caused by corporate solar power farms. Solar arrays burn birds alive. The desert tortoise have been yanked from their homes and dumped in alien lands. And, both in 29 and real life, old sacred Native American desert intaglios near Blythe have been irreparably damaged.
When I learned that the indigenous keepers of the Salt Song Trail believe that to damage the trail is to destroy the songs and their spiritual life, the threads in 29 untangled and became the book.
We cannot have all the electrical energy we believe we need. It is more than clear to me that we cannot continue to consume everything we want — and I have been writing that for at least thirty years.
What makes Nell different from the “well-meaning white people” that Mariah despairs about?
I’ll let Nell answer: “Not much. Maybe one of my few saving graces is that I got involved. I didn’t just click on Like.”
I love the way you manage to subtly render the gap between the male and female experience visible. For example, there’s this interaction between Nell and an LA taxi driver at the beginning of the book:
“I got many cousins up there and not one of them ever had a prostitute live with them for free, much less—excuse me, in my country boys are taught not to say crude things to a lady like yourself.”
“Suck their dicks,” Nell thought. Out loud, she said, “Turn here. It’s a short cut.”
There’s an idea being bandied about these days that fiction has become a “woman’s thing.” How would you respond to someone if they told you this was “a woman’s book?”
I’d say, “Hey, you got that right.” And yet, I love the way Monkey, Keno, Danny, Leonard, and the other men came through. I went to my first consciousness-raising group when I was thirty. Consciousness-raising groups were the foundation of the feminism of the ’70s. A bunch of women sat around and talked about their lives as women. There were usually brownies. Sometimes there was wine. There was no whining. We were there to understand what we had in common and what had kept us from uniting with other women.
I remember leaving the first meeting and thinking that the men I knew (radical and otherwise) needed to do exactly the same thing. Over the years, I saw how much damage men did because they didn’t do just that — connect with each other. One of my favorite chapters in the book is when Leonard, the Chemehuevi leader, reaches out to Monkey after the self-thrown shit has hit the fan in Monkey’s life. In many ways, this is a woman’s book for guys.
What are your thoughts on the future of the Native American struggle in the United States?
(Puts head down on desk.) It continues to feel insane to me that Europeans invaded a land filled with intact cultures and decimated them — and that most “white” people don’t get it. I don’t know how any Native American can look at a white person without puking. Given our recent experience in Northern Arizona, in which ten years of legal, political, and boots-on-the-ground activism to stop a local ski resort from making snow with dirty water on the sacred mountains here (sacred to thirteen Southwestern tribes) was thrown in the trash by the Forest Service and three white judges in San Francisco, I can only feel heart-sick. I’m astonished at the perseverance with which indigenous activists fight for the land — of course, they have been doing it far longer than we colonizers have.
You’re involved in environmental activism. Do you share your character’s sense of impending environmental apocalypse? Is it too late? If so, what keeps you fighting?
We have, as Monkey might once have said, screwed the pooch. As he envisions and I write in 29, if we’d started fifty years ago to do what we should have, maybe, maybe the future would be — ah, fuck, I don’t even believe that.
What keeps me fighting is whatever keeps me writing and whatever I feel part of when I’m in the Mojave and in the shadow of the sacred mountains.
In your interview with Superstition Review, you gave some advice to aspiring writers and artists: “Make beauty. Make change. Make trouble for the settled and secure.” Would you say that’s your life mission? Is that what you set out to do with this book?
Bottom-line, I’m an old-time Wobbly (International Workers of the World). I often think that our demos and actions need to be held not at government offices, but on the lawns of the homes of the wealthy. Of course, we’d have to storm their gates to get in.
I recently learned of a true story — I live in a single-wide trailer in Kachina Village, a rural neighborhood south of Flagstaff. The homes here range from beat-up converted travel trailers (caravans) to 5,000-square-foot houses. We adjoin a gated golf mansion fortress called Forest Highlands. A good friend and his wife also live in Kachina Village. Their beloved cat disappeared two months ago. Recently, the cat was found. A woman in Forest Highlands had the cat living in her garage. My friend went to pick up the cat. She insisted on meeting him at the vets and wouldn’t give her name or address. My friend has also noted that she had bleached blonde trophy wife hair and inch-long fingernails. As he was leaving, the woman said to him, “So, she went from the outhouse to the penthouse, I guess.”
From the moment I heard the story, I have not stopped thinking of how to shatter that woman’s illusion that she is safe and secure. The only explosive I can use is my writing.
My missions in writing 29 were two-fold. 1. To write Monkey’s visions. When we were together, I believed — and still believe — that he was the antenna and receiver. I am the scribe. We were — are — both cynical people. That made the visions even more compelling. He was the last person in the world I could have imagined receiving the messages. 2. I wanted to tell the story of the Salt Song Trail and the potential solar farm threat. We are watching too many indigenous cultures be subsumed into the Big Colony. I suspect the fact that my mother’s people had fled religious persecution centuries ago runs deep in my blood. And, as a girl I watched the farm country I lived in be taken over by suburbs — creeks drained, hills leveled, wildlife driven out.
My intentions were only as strong as the story that came through. That’s always the case with the writing. I love this line by Antonio Machado: “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”
What are “desert eyes?”
I raised three children by myself. No alimony. No child support. In 1984, when I was almost 45 and my kids were young adults, I drove away from Rochester, NY, to live in Flagstaff, Arizona. I’d been in the Southwest desert twenty years earlier, and been terrified by its hugeness, how the horizon and the earth seemed to be nothing but a void stretching everywhere. A friend had persuaded me to visit the Grand Canyon in 1982. He walked me to the edge with my eyes closed and said, “Open your eyes.” I did. Here is what came next (from my memoir, Solace):
In a heart-jolt of vast aurora rock, I was taken. Amazed. Knowing I knew nothing, and nothing was exactly enough.
I cried every day of the drive back East. It seemed unbearable to return to a world without huge light and mountains rising from hard desert.
From that moment on, I began to write not only from my own life, but from Place. Twenty-three years later, my best friend and I road-tripped on the back roads of the Mojave Desert, and my desert eyes saw everything — saw that not only was there NOT “Nothing out there,” there was everything.
You are a writer for Matador Network and a teacher for MatadorU. I wonder if you have any thoughts for your readers who write?
Read. Read every chance you get — real books, magazines, the backs of ketchup bottles — most essentially, read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.
Write. Write every chance you get — in a battered notebook, on a computer, on a handful of beer coasters. Do not go to college. Do not buy the American Dream. Live out of a bag — not on your parents’ or partner’s dole. Be scared. Be furious. Be unsettled and insecure. Be your own burning wo/man.
Note: Mary will read and sign at independent bookstores throughout the Southwest in September, October, and November, including at Changing Hands in Tempe, Antigone’s in Tucson, Sundance in Reno, and Peregrine Books in Prescott, AZ. She will also give readings at the Southern Nevada Community College in Vegas, Silver City, New Mexico, and at King’s English in Salt Lake City.
Contact her at Breakthrough Writing for schedule info. You can also purchase her novel here, or contact Martha Shideler (email@example.com) at Aradia Bookstore for more information.