“Lonely in the Heart of the World” by Mindi Meltz: An interview with the Author
By Steve Krimi
Mindi Meltz’s latest novel, Lonely in the Heart of the World, has just been published to critical acclaim and general wonderment at its epic mythological fairy tale scope, gorgeous poetic writing, and literary sensibility. The book is an all Western NC production as the cover art, book design, calligraphy, illuminated lettering, internal art and publishing are all done by local artists. She speaks here about the sacred feminine and masculine in her work, imagination, the heart of writing and writing from the heart. She will be reading and signing her new work at Firestorm Cafe, 48 Commerce St., downtown Asheville, on Friday, December 6th at 7pm; she is also scheduled to be interviewed on Main-FM 103.7 on Thursday December 5th 11am on “Asheville ‘n Arts” with Carol Anders.
WNC Woman: You’ve stated that you had no intention of writing a fantasy novel as you wrote Lonely in the Heart of the World. Given that there are deities, a unicorn, a princess in a tower, etc., this seems incredible. So maybe you can talk about your novel vis a vis the fantasy genre, especially concerning the review from Jill Allen of Foreword Reviews stating you “delight in upending the conventions of fairy tales, even as (you) push the boundaries of the genre in new ways.”
Mindi Meltz: With rare, literary exceptions — The Last Unicorn, Gregory Maguire’s work, Narnia, maybe a couple others — I don’t read fantasy and am not much interested in it. Fantasy and science fiction are a genre, and I tend to be interested in literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction), which doesn’t follow a formula and deals with personal transformation, realistic relationship, and often cultural, social, and environmental issues—as my novel does. Fantasy isn’t the same as fairy tale. Fantasy (in my opinion) is a modern, escapist genre of entertainment. Fairy tales, to me, are more along the lines of myth, which is an ancient structure for making meaning out of life. When I created mythical beings in my story, I created them as symbols of real life, just like dream images reflect real life in their own beautiful language. I wasn’t trying to create a different, other world from this one, the way fantasy and science fiction do. I was trying to say something about this world, in a language of symbols and words that I find beautiful. This language, like the language of dreams, is sometimes more effective at expressing our world, because the beauty of it speaks directly to our hearts and souls and reflects a deeper truth, rather than just feeding into the mental constructs we already have about everyday reality.
WNCW: The feminine, in both human and divine form, is integral to the redemption found in Lonely in the Heart of the World. This not the feminism generally touted in literature lately, where it often seems a matter of women being better than men at macho things. What is this feminine principle in your book, especially as relates to what seems to be a lost and confused masculine principle you depict?
MM: The bad-ass tough-girl archetype is so popular in literature, and I think especially in the fantasy genre, right now—and I think that’s great, but I get bored with it being the only kind of heroine that is acceptable or respected. So much of feminism seems to be about proving that women can do the same things that men can do. I am all for that, but I think there’s a lot more to it, and I’m more interested personally in reclaiming and empowering the lost feminine in our world. In our culture, everything that was connected with the feminine has been de-valued—the home, family, gentleness, nature, silence, emotional sensitivity, selfless relationship—and it has been devalued by both the patriarchy and feminists themselves because it was traditionally connected with the feminine. I try to reclaim all of these things in my story, and show that they are also powerful and necessary.
There are several strong female characters in my novel who embody more varied archetypes of femininity: seduction and innocence, mother and warrior-huntress, creativity and destruction, tough passion and selfless sacrifice, young maiden and wise witch. There are also several men who are powerful but are, as you say, lost, because of course part of what happens in a world where femininity is degraded is that masculinity also gets degraded and confused. This is a piece that my story explains better than I can—in many ways I think my story is actually wiser than I am, because there are things that came intuitively that I can’t explain analytically. But it seems that the men in my story have lost touch with what it means to be a man, partly because no one has taught them how to relate to women, what their role is with women, and how to integrate femininity into their own natures. The princess came down from the tower on her own because her prince never showed up to rescue her, and that was positive and empowering for her: she got to become a real person. But there are also deep personal consequences for the prince who never got to rescue her. Now he has to redefine for himself what it means to be a hero, if it doesn’t mean carrying off a helpless princess. I take this question just as seriously, and I have equal compassion for his plight as for hers.
I think what is unusual about Lonely in the Heart of the World, especially if one insists on comparing it to fantasy novels, is that the storyline itself follows a more feminine form. It doesn’t build its tension like the typical hero’s journey and culminate in a big masculine-climactic battle. Although the main heroine goes off on an adventure-quest, thus demonstrating that such a quest doesn’t belong exclusively to the realm of men, other women and men in the story experience complimentary journeys that are more about spiraling inward. In many ways, it’s a story of interconnection rather than linear progress, and the most important revelations of the story occur in following the river back down from the mountain—down from the climactic peak and deeper into the heart of the world.
On a more basic level, I’m also proud that the main characters who really drive the story in Lonely in the Heart of the World, as well as their wisest teachers, are women. Despite the newly popular role of the tough-girl in literature lately, when I look at the great fairy tale epics of our time (Lord of the Rings, etc.), I don’t really see that anywhere. The greatest heroes, with the most breadth of personality and experience, have generally been men.
WNCW: Your book is a powerful act of the imagination, and a call for the need for connectivity of all aspects of life. What is it about human imagination that would lend itself to forging these connections?
MM: Without imagination, we have no way of rescuing our world and ourselves. Without imagination, we refuse to believe that anything could be different from what it is. Without imagination, we cannot empathize with anyone or anything but ourselves, which makes us not only destructive but also intolerably lonely.
The great thing about writing is that metaphor and symbolism—which are such major components of it—are a way of revealing and maybe even creating, through consciousness, the interconnection of all life. If one thing in nature reminds me of another thing which reminds me of another thing which reminds me of my own feelings, etc., then by making those connections I am able to empathize with nature or other people by literally experiencing what I perceive within my own body and self. I am also able to understand myself better by what I see in nature or in others. Empathy and imagination are totally necessary for each other; one cannot exist without the other. In order to imagine the inner lives of characters who are living experiences I have never had, I need to practice empathy. And in order to empathize with others, people need to practice imagination—which is one reason why novels can change the world.
WNCW: Your method of storytelling is lush and poetic as opposed to the rushed linear style of many prose writers. Can you talk about what brings you to write that way?
MM: That’s interesting because I think in carrying out my daily life, I am often rushed and linear! But when I write I’m in a different space. I have a sense of wonder that goes back to childhood—some kind of deep reflectiveness, an introverted tendency to look within and within and within, and a fascination with asking what really is this life, this reality, this feeling?
I find writing to be a sacred activity. I don’t mean that I have intended it to be sacred, or that I have set out to write in a sacred way, but rather that I have become aware, when I think about it consciously, that writing is an activity in which I feel in the presence of the divine. So it makes sense that when I am in that presence, I automatically slow down, become more meditative, and am filled with that special sense of wonder that washes away ordinary bounds of thought or time. But it isn’t a dramatic experience, and I haven’t always been consciously aware of it. It’s just like when I go for a walk in the woods, and my whole attitude and being subtly shifts, because I know—even if I’m not thinking about it—that I am in the presence of Everythingness, and I feel it relating to me.
Also, about my writing being “lush”—I think that has something to do with its connection with my body. Writing is a sensual experience to me: I feel what I’m writing about in my body, and it helps me to empathize with and vivify the story. Writing is such a whole-being experience for me. It involves right-brain creativity, left-brain organization, body, spirit, and of course heart.
WNCW: Say more about writing from the heart.
MM: I’ve been noticing lately that the books that really move me are the ones that I feel are written from the heart. When I don’t like a book or a story, it’s usually because it’s written with what feels to me like a cynical coldness, in which none of the characters have real hearts and the narrator clearly has no hope for them. I know that kind of coldness is a big trend in literature right now, and I’m sure a lot of people like it and see it as more “realistic,” but it doesn’t do anything for me. And I don’t mean that stories have to be happy and cozy and have happy endings, of course. I just mean that in the stories I love, I can feel the author’s heart in the story; I can feel his/her compassion for the characters, even if the voice is cynical; I can feel that the writing is intentionally relating to me as the reader. Obviously this is subjective, and different people will have different judgments about which books are written from the heart—and that is fine. But I just think it is important.
I always write with love. I love my characters and I love the story itself, like a friend that walks with me throughout the years I’m writing it, and I love the unknown people who will be reading it. I write because it’s absolutely necessary for me to do so, but I also write because I have something I want and need to offer to the world—something more than entertainment, something that heals. Sometimes after seeing the years of painful struggle I went through to get published, and all the rejection letters, friends would ask me what could possibly make it worth it to me to keep trying. The answer is that to have people read my writing and get something out of it is as satisfying and necessary to me as an offer of love being received. We all need to love and be loved. Writing is how I love the world.
Mindi Meltz’s first novel Beauty was published in 2009. Her publications also include essays in WNC Woman, Animus of Wells, Maine, and a literary anthology Earth Beneath, Sky Beyond. She holds an MA in Transpersonal Psychology. Her writing, based in nature and dream, has been inspired by teaching, counseling, and field biology work in many landscapes. She grew up in Maine and now lives with her husband in Bat Cave. Lonely in the Heart of the World can be purchased locally at Malaprop’s, Firestorm Books, and City Lights in Sylva, and through Mindi’s website www.mindimeltz.com, where she can be contacted.