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January Magazine Interview With
Martha C. Lawrence, April, 2000
In Their Own Words
PISCES RISING, the fourth installment in Martha C. Lawrence's astrological series featuring parapsychologist/P.I. Elizabeth Chase, was just published by St. Martin's Minotaur. Leading off from last year's Aquarius Descending, the story follows Chase as she begins to cope with the death of her FBI lover, Tom McGowan, while simultaneously trying to determine who scalped a Native American casino owner. These endeavors are destined to teach Chase about reservation life at the same time as they test the resiliency of her spirit. Before Lawrence began a nationwide tour to promote her new novel, I e-mailed her with some questions about the research that had gone into writing Pisces and about the future of her detective character. She generously sent back the following answers:
Q: Why did you choose to set this latest tale on a Native American reservation? Do you have a long-standing interest in American Indians?
A: I don't think I fully understood why I was drawn to the Native American setting until after I'd written Pisces. I'm not an American Indian, yet I have a long-standing interest in spirituality and nature, two areas that practically define Native American culture. I grew up close to the land -- much of north San Diego County was undeveloped chaparral in the 1960s. As a kid I spent nearly every daylight hour outside. I rode my horse bareback with a hackamore (a bitless bridle); the forts I built were huts made from dried anise stalks and desert grasses. When I was researching Pisces Rising I learned that the Native Americans in this area did the same things hundreds of years ago. A psychic once told me I lived a past life as an Indian in Southern California. I dismissed it as horsepucky at the time, but now an infinitesimal part of my brain wonders if it might be true.
Q: How did you research the reservation setting for this tale?
A: The answer to that question is nothing short of amazing. I knew when I got the idea for Pisces Rising that I needed an introduction into the local Native American community. I had no idea how I was going to accomplish that. But when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I was getting my hair cut at a new salon, of all places, shooting the breeze with the stylist. When I told him I was a novelist and thinking about writing a murder mystery set on a Native American reservation, his face lit up. Turns out he was a full-blooded Luiseno Indian. He regaled me with tales of his family and tribal history, and invited me to spend time with him on the res. That was just one of the many ways help came to me as I was writing Pisces. A Native American friend gave me several Indian fetishes -- carvings of animals that can bring power and protection to the person who carries them. Happily, learning about animal medicine helped me to make sense of a vision I'd had in the mid-1990s: I'd been meditating one afternoon and opened my eyes to see a giant red spider hanging from the ceiling near the window. As I got up and walked toward the window, it dawned on me that there was no such thing as a giant red spider. Yet the spider was hanging there, solid and real. When I was practically nose to nose with the thing, it disappeared. I really didn't know what to make of that experience until I started writing Pisces.
Native Americans tell us that Grandmother Spider wove the web that brought humans the first picture of the alphabet. Spider represents storytelling and creativity. I had my spider vision just before I started writing my first book, Murder in Scorpio (1995). I doubt very much that was a coincidence.
Q: How do you think Elizabeth Chase's experiences in Aquarius Descending and now Pisces Rising will influence her as a character?
A: Characters are defined by the decisions they make. That applies to life as well as fiction. Think about it -- our responses to the tough decisions are what make or break us. Elizabeth made some mistakes in Aquarius Descending and paid a high price. I think we've all had at least a taste of that experience. But Elizabeth's hardships in Aquarius didn't break her. Folk wisdom says that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. That's true for Elizabeth. In Pisces she rises from her despair and begins to see the bigger picture.
Q: Have any experiences from your own past helped you to understand what Chase is going through after the death of her lover?
A: I lost my father when I was 13 years old. I was kneeling at his bedside when he took his last breath and slipped away. At such a vulnerable age, the loss of the man I loved most in the world was devastating. My father's death was perhaps the defining experience of my life. Decades later I'm still feeling the emotional shock waves of that event.
The year I was writing Aquarius Descending, I lost not one, but two men in my life, both of whom I deeply loved. The book contains a dedication to one of them. To write a happy ending, or even a noncommittal one, was impossible for me at that point. Knowing there was a fervent controversy in the mystery world about the killing off of significant others, I desperately tried to avoid McGowan's death. I wrote two early versions in which McGowan didn't die. My editor deemed them "hollow... false." She was right. Writing must come from the heart, and my heart was breaking that year.
Mystery and crime novels, by their very nature, deal with the cold, irreversible reality of death. In astrology, death is ruled by Pluto. Astrologers teach that what Pluto takes away, it gives back in a higher form. It's not an easy lesson, but I expect Elizabeth will master it one of these old days.