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The Author's Corner

 



Christine Wicker

 

Not In Kansas Anymore: 
A Curious Tale of How Magic
Is Transforming America

 

Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not In Kansas Anymore:
TWPT Talks to Christine Wicker

2006TWPT


TWPT:  Tell me a little about your spiritual background and what beliefs you held to as you grew up.

CW:  I was raised Southern Baptist and left the church when I was in college. I was born again at nine and was a committed Christian through most of my college years. There were few magical beliefs in our family, but lots of Jesus.
TWPT:  You were a journalist for the Dallas Morning News for 17 years. When did you become interested in journalism and how was it that you ended up as a journalist with the Dallas Morning News?

CW:  I studied journalism in college, and went to the News after having taught journalism on the community college level and worked at three other smaller papers. I began at the News as an editor on the Sunday magazine, but my goal was always to be a writer. I worked as a feature writer, Sunday magazine columnist and religion reporter.

TWPT:  Did writing about religion for the Dallas News broaden your perspectives as to your own spirituality? What are some of the topics you explored in your writings for the Dallas News?

CW:  Being a religion reporter caused me to write my second book, which is called "God Knows My Heart: Finding a Faith that Fits." It's a sort of manifesto that proclaims my evolving beliefs about the availability of God for everyone who wants to seek him. And even those who don't. That was a real reach for a former Southern Baptist girl.

It came out of my experiences with people of different faiths. Although they had different things to say, they all seem to trace their beliefs back to their own experience. Often their beliefs were really different but the experiences they described were a lot the same.

My first exposure to Wicca came as a religion reporter. I liked the Wiccans I met, and especially I liked that they had such a good sense of humor about themselves. That was the first time, I'd thought about Wicca much at all. Being a religion reporter also brought me back into contact with Southern Baptists, something I wasn't too keen about, but once there, I quickly remembered the things I'd always loved about them. The things I didn't like hadn't faded from my memory. I did an international peace project that took me toNorthern Ireland, Eastern Germany andNew York City. I did a story on why people love the Bible so much, something that puzzled me a little at the time.

Religion was a rich beat, and I loved it because I was always dealing with really big issues. Life, death, eternity, what's life about, what are we to do?

TWPT:  Are journalists and reporters just waiting for an opportunity for a book to present itself or was the writing you did as a journalist as satisfying as what you felt when you began working on books?

CW:  I loved being a journalist, but I wanted to broaden out. I spent at least five years writing book proposals and getting no takers before I landed a contract. So I did look a long time for stories that might make books. Writing books has turned out to be more satisfying than journalism. In journalism, you're always working for editors who have a pretty narrow idea of what they will and won't let into the paper. Books are more wide open and require more of the writer's personality and thought. I like that.

TWPT:  From the bio I read on your site it seems that your 2nd book God Knows My Heart was a spiritual turning point for your beliefs and opened a new chapter for you. Tell me about the writing of this book and what it meant to you as an author and in regards to your spirituality.

CW:  That book felt very daring to me, and I expected Christians to attack it. Instead they mostly ignored it, and sometimes praised it for being an honest search. I was astonished by how many of them liked it despite its harshness and rejection of Christian teachings.

I now tell anyone that if they want to know what they really believe, write a book about it. You'll have to probe your own psyche in ways people don't ordinarily do.

As an author, the book was a milestone because I knew that I'd told the deepest truths I knew and that had been my intent. So no matter what happened with the book, I could be proud of it. That was huge for me because I am someone who usually second guesses myself and feels guilty about whatever I've done.

Before that book, I was fairly unengaged with my own spirituality. It reconnected me and opened me up at the same time. I wrote things that I just barely had the nerve to say. Sometimes I'd write them in a flurry and then look at what I'd written and say, "Yeah, that's right. That is what I believe. Oh, dear."

Only after the book was published did I realize that I had actually written a book about what was happening to post-modern Christians and former Christians all over the country.

TWPT:  Your next book seems to confirm your willingness to at least look at some of the other points of view that were beginning to take root around theU.S. Why was it that you decided to write Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead and what did you personally take away from the experience of researching and writing this book?

CW:  I went to Lily Dale as a religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News, and I fell in love with the town. It's so charming and such a great, forgotten piece of American history. I couldn't believe so few people knew about it. It took years before I was able to go back and write the book, but I couldn't shake the allure of the place.

Writing Lily Dale opened my mind in ways I'd never expected. The mediums kept telling me it would and I kept saying, "No way." My experiences consulting mediums, listening to their stories and then training to be a medium myself showed me that we really don't understand the things we so easily reject.Skeptics are generally right about their criticisms but they are ignoring so much. A certain message may have life-changing meaning for the person who heard it and sound like nonsense to everyone else.  

TWPT:  Were there any flags being raised by those who knew you about the subject matter that you had decided to write about in Lily Dale?

CW:  Once again, I was writing a book that scared me. For a journalist to write in a truly open-minded, appreciative way about Spiritualists just isn't something that is usually done. Lots of people told me that I couldn't make a book out of the town. I was constantly aware that I was writing for an audience that would reject me and the people I was writing about. That made me pay a lot of attention to my tone. I'd take a few steps forward, let the material get a little weird and then I'd back off so that balky readers would have a little time to breath and not be so threatened that they would throw the book across the room. Sometimes I'd do that with a joke or by letting the reader in on my own doubts.

TWPT:  Your latest book seems to be the next step for someone who is exploring the realms of magic and alternative spiritual paths inAmerica. After Lily Dale what was it that drew you further in to topics that most mainstream writers would have dismissed as not worthy of their time or attention when you published your latest book Not In Kansas Anymore?

CW:  You're right on in mentioning mainstream writers. I spent most of my life earning a place among those "serious" mainstream journalists, and in both those books, I was tackling topics they would never deal with in an open-minded way. I did fear that I'd be discredited. But my whole effort has been about listening to people and really trying to understand and relate what they're saying. So I couldn't stop doing that. For starters, that would have been boring. I would have just been repeating my own prejudices instead of learning anything new.

I started Not in Kansas Anymore because I noticed that so many people in all walks of life were talking about magical ideas. That intrigued me. I wanted to know what was going on. I heard that there was something called a "magical community." I wanted to know what that was. Then I discovered how smart and analytical some of them were, and it went from there.

TWPT:  Not to encroach on the topic of your next book but as a religion writer for the Dallas News weren't you afraid of the religious right's reaction to the topics you were planning to cover in Not In Kansas Anymore and was that a consideration at all when you decided to go forward with this book?

CW:  I didn't think about the religious right too much. Now that I'm dealing with them more in researching this new book on megachurches, there's been some controversy over my openness to magical ideas, but not that much. Yet.

TWPT:  What was it that surprised you as you started to delve into the research for this Not In Kansas Anymore?  

CW:  I was surprised by how much more common and every day magical events are in everybody's lives. It's not that they happen so rarely, but that they happen so much that people have to really push them away.

And with the megachurch book which hasn't been published yet I was surprised to realize that we treat conservative evangelicals as the ones who are "different," but those of us outside of the church are the ones who've changed. Not them. They're just holding to what most everybody believed in the 1950s and even the 1960s. And it's a pretty good system in many ways. I was surprised to see how effective the Christian church is in doing what it sets out to do.

But to me the really fascinating questions turned out to be who are they?, why did the rest of us change? and how did we do it? That's a lot bigger bit than I expected to take.

I realized that what's happened isn't a slipping or corruption of values so much as a whole different set of values. We've gone from believing that rules and doctrine and hierarchy and punishment and guilt are the right paths to goodness. Now the wider society, which is what I mean by we, is adopting more empathetic, flexible ideas that are based on the idea of not hurting others. It's actually a variation of Jesus Golden Rule.

TWPT:  As you started your interviews with the various practitioners were you apprehensive at all about meeting these folks?

CW:  No. I wondered if they would open up to me. But I wasn't afraid of them in the way that other people might have expected me to be. People kept telling me that they would be afraid, and that was one of the ways that I knew people did believe in magic much more than they usually admitted to.

TWPT:  How was it that you decided who you were going to talk to and what subjects that you wanted to present in your book?

CW:  One example of my own form of magical thinking is that when a topic or a certain group of people start coming to my notice, I kind of think of that as an omen or a guiding. So I usually go a little ways with whatever "lead" I get and see if it opens up to me. For instance with the African-American magical system hoodoo, a woman inMemphis said she felt led to talk with me. As we were chatting, she mentioned hoodoo. I asked her some questions. She gave me a web address for Cat Yronwode, a Jewish woman in theSan Francisco area. I looked her website, luckymojo.com. A few weeks later I was inSan Francisco, I had a free day. and a rental agency had a special on cheap rental cars, I called the number on the website, Cat's husband answered and said, "Come on out." He sounded friendly. So I did. And it went from there.

TWPT:  Did those early ideas give way to other ideas and topics as you progressed with your research and got to know some of the practitioners first hand?

CW:  I was astonished that magical practice had such a rich, illustrious history and that it affected so much history, art, and science.

I was also amazed as how many people had been practicing magic all their lives. Like a lot of people, I thought most magical practice was among kids who soon out grew it.

TWPT:  I would assume that some of your research involved the printed materials about the various paths and belief systems you were going to look at. Were there any books that stood out in your mind as very helpful in pointing you in the right direction for what you were looking for?

CW:  I hate to be so predictable but Drawing Down the Moon was the first book I read, and it changed a lot of my ideas. The main thing was that the Wiccan concept of divinity was so much more nuanced and sophisticated than I expected. 

TWPT:  From your travels I'm sure that you heard many times what magic was and what it was not. Within your own mind did all of these ideas coalesce into a consistent concept that you'd like to share with our readers? I'm also curious as to whether you believed in this concept of magic in actual practice before you started this book and did you have any change of heart either way (for or against) after doing the research and writing this book?

CW:  I did hear a lot of definitions. My own was a very wide definition that isn't much of one. I simply called it all that science won't allow because what people were doing inside the magical community were doing was one thing, what average middle-class people outside the magical community was another and what traditionally Christian people were doing was another. So I wanted just to deal with it all.

I also used that definition, after a lot of debate with myself, because I felt that for the general reader what was compelling was the idea that despite all that science has taught us and despite our complete dependence on science for much of the meaning in our lives, human beings still have their own, very persistent ideas about reality.

TWPT:  Where did your travels take you during your research for Not In Kansas Anymore?

CW:  Savannah,New Orleans,Cleveland,Orlando, Chapel Hill,New York City,San Francisco.

TWPT:  Looking back on all of your interviews from a perspective further down the road what was your impression of the people that you talked to and was this what you had expected when you started or was it more of a surprise?

CW:  Magical people were some of the best read, smartest, most thoughtful people I'd ever talked to. That completely surprised me. 

TWPT:  Was this book written on speculation to submit to HarperSanFranciso after it was done or was it requested by Harper from the outset?

CW:  I'd written a proposal just focusing on Wicca. I wanted to delve into the idea of a female god and what it would be like to worship one, but my research into that quickly showed me that I was off track. At the same time, I realized how big the magical community was.

The editors at Harper said a book on Wicca would face a lot of competition because so many books were already on the market. So when I proposed doing something broader, they went for it.

TWPT:  I know that Harper is pretty open to spiritual diversity so what was their impression of the final manuscript that you submitted to them for publication?

CW:  They've been completely supportive of the book. A lot of things I thought they would flinch about, for instance a Satanist using the Bible and revering Jesus's example, didn't bother them a bit.

TWPT:  After all is said and done with this book, Not In Kansas Anymore, what did you take away from the experience in terms of a deeper understanding of what lies just below the surface in America? Those things that most of us might even do unconsciously but would never admit to if pressed on the issue.

CW:  I came to believe that magical ideas are not only more common than anyone realizes, but they're more functional than they get credit for. I came to believe that people have magical ideas because they experience magical events in their lives. So it's exactly opposite of that outsiders think. They think magical people deceive themselves into thinking something is really happening. I think they're often noticing what's happening, seeing a pattern and then using their awareness to draw strength, hope, connectedness and a sense of control. Those are all elements that humans need to thrive.

I think magic isn't so much irrational, as it critics might say, but nonrational -- and experiential. I think one of the reasons people are tuning into magical ideas is that they are relying on their own experiences more than what other people tell them they can or ought to believe. Brain studies are telling us to be careful of what our brains tell us. But if I can't rely on my own brain, whose can I trust?

It now seems to me that life simply presents magical moments to us. We can accept and make something of them or we can explain them away. Most of us do some of both. We do it so quickly and automatically that we're hardly aware that we're doing it.

That's magic as nonmagical people experience it.

Magical people do more, of course. They use magic as "the technology of the sacred," as anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann put it. I love that concept.

TWPT:  Your book has already gone to soft cover so tell me between the hardcover edition and the soft cover that is out now how has it been received by your readers so far? Have you received any feedback from your readers as to what they thought of the subject matter and your handling of it?

CW:  The reviews were good and blog comments have been too. I've been surprised by the range of people who like the book. I've heard from Christian ministers, Unitarians, a coffee-shop owner, a funeral home director, college students, home-makers, lots of magical people. Some people have gone on to read all my books after reading Not inKansas. Mostly, they don't say much more than that they wanted me to know that they loved the book. Sometimes they say they were put off by parts of it and then I won them over. Some say they now notice magic in their own lives more. Some say they will never think of magical people in the same way again. One guy said he's becoming an expert on the thinking of Christine Wicker by reading everything I've written. Yikes. He's going to know me better than I know myself.

TWPT:  Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with the readers of TWPT and I wish you luck with Not in Kansas Anymore and with your upcoming book.