Questions and Topics for Discussion
There is No Such Thing as a Simple Story
“It all depends, I suppose, on how comfortable you are with uncertainty, how fond you are of mystery, how willing you are to make the quantum leap that faith requires.”
-Diane Schoemperlen, Our Lady of the Lost and Found
It’s almost lunch-time on what has been a typical Monday morning in the middle of April. An ordinary, middle-aged woman writer walks into her living room to water the plants and discovers a trench coat-clad woman standing beside the fig tree. The writer is neither Catholic nor even particularly spiritual but upon hearing the woman beside the fig tree say, “It’s me, Mary. . . . Mother of God,” she knows beyond a doubt that she is, indeed, the Virgin Mary.
Even in these most unusual circumstances, the writer is not one to forget her manners and she promptly invites Mary to join her for lunch. As the afternoon unfolds, Mary eats a sandwich and a bowl of soup but declines the olives, uses -or at least flushes-the toilet, does the dishes, and asks if she can stay the week to rest up for May which is her busiest month.
After some discussion, the two women reach an agreement: Mary will stay and if her host, a novelist, is unable to resist the temptation to write a book about it all, she will call it a “work of fiction.” So begins Schoemperlen’s deceptively simple story, but the ordinary details of Mary’s visit-walking, shopping, cooking, and talking-soon evolve into an extraordinary tour through the fascinating and complex histories of both women.
Though she might humbly claim that the “other Madonna [is] the really famous one”, the Virgin Mary is, without question, one of the most enduring icons of western civilization. Since 40 A.D., she has made more than twenty thousand appearances “on every continent except Antarctica. . . . She has appeared to people of all ages, races, classes, and occupations, to the educated and the illiterate, to believers and nonbelievers alike.”
The narrator is intrigued by the worldwide fervor and devotion accorded to her houseguest. A “veteran and inveterate member of the list-making faction,” she undertakes a thorough investigation into Marian lore. She begins to understand how Mary’s transformation from a rather shadowy figure in the Bible itself-she is mentioned in the New Testament “less than two dozen times, often not even by name”-to one of Time magazine’s most frequent cover models reflects the profoundly human need for faith.
Mary’s anonymous host claims, “I have always known that writing is an act of faith, the one which has always been my own salvation.” But not until Mary’s visit does she realize how the rigorously self-imposed order of her quiet, comfortable life was actually a shield-albeit an illusory one-against the terrors of “les nuits blanches” and life’s disappointments. “It was not until I told my story to Mary that I understood that the hardest person in the world to forgive is yourself. And that the hardest person in the world to have faith in is also yourself.”
At the end of the week, Mary is gone. But while she has left the narrator’s home, she remains in her life. Mary’s continuing presence allows her host to accept that “it is time now to venture out of the comforting and of either/or opposites and travel into the uncertain territory of both/and” and to truly understand Heraclitus’ assertion “that the constant conflict between opposites ultimately result[s] in a harmonious whole.”
When Mary first arrives, the narrator recounts an interview during which a naive journalist asked her, “What is the meaning of life?” At the time, she answered with a guffaw and spew of coffee. Now perhaps she might respond, “there is no way of knowing how the story will end: her story, my story, yours.”ABOUT DIANE SCHOEMPERLEN
Diane Schoemperlen is the author of the acclaimed novel, In the Language of Love (Penguin), and of five short story collections including The Man of My Dreams and Forms of Devotion (Viking), which was awarded Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared widely in anthologies and magazines, including Ms. and Story. She lives in Kingston, Ontario.A CONVERSATION WITH DIANE SCHOEMPERLEN
In your notes you say that you were inspired to write this book after learning about the numerous and varied sightings of the Virgin Mary. Has your opinion about the sightings changed from before you wrote Our Lady? Are you now more or less likely to give credence to a Mary sighting?
As I say in the notes at the end of the book, I had of course heard about these kinds of things before but I had never given them much serious thought. I did not have any particular feeling or opinion about them. They did not seem to have anything to do with me. But they did arouse my curiosity and the more research I did, the more intrigued I became. Certainly I had no intention of trying to prove these people wrong or deluded or crazy. There was a big part of me that wanted very much to believe. By the time I finished writing the book, I was quite willing to accept that these people had had some kind of experience outside the norm, an experience that could not be explained away. I wrote the book based on the premise that it was all true. When I hear about another sighting now, I am more than ever inclined to believe it.
The narrator describes herself by saying, “I am a normal, rational, well-educated, well-adjusted woman not given to delusions, hallucinations, or hysterical flights of fancy. I do not drink or do drugs. The only voice I hear in my head is my own.” Do you feel that-even in fiction-she wouldn’t be a reliable narrator otherwise?
The question of whether the narrator is reliable or unreliable is thematically important in the novel. It reflects the general attitude towards people who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary: are we supposed to believe them or not? It is also connected to the theme of fact and fiction and how they are connected and how they work together to give us our own particular picture of reality. The quote from Kathleen Norris at the beginning of the book is significant here. She points out that people are more likely to “believe” fiction than non-fiction. This is ironic of course because we know that fiction, by its definition, is supposed to be made up. And yet we are more willing to practice that “willing suspension of disbelief” when we are reading fiction. We are more inclined to believe what a fictional narrator is telling us. Readers have long accepted the fact that more often than not, fiction can be the best way of getting at the truth.
The Virgin Mary is, “of course,” a Virgo but the narrator is a Cancer and Cancers are generally considered the “mothers” of the zodiac. Is there any significance to this? Are you a Cancer? How much of the narrator is based on you?
The brief mentions of astrology in the book are significant in that for some people, astrology is a kind of religion. They have put their faith in the stars, rather than in God. It is one more way of searching for meaning and purpose, a product, I think, of wanting to believe that there is someone or something in charge, that it is not all up to us alone. As for Cancers being considered the “mothers” of the zodiac, that was in fact a piece of luck. I wanted to make the narrator a Cancer because yes, I am a Cancer. The facts that Mary is the mother of God and Cancers are the mothers of the zodiac fit together nicely.
There are many other things about the narrator that are like me. Obviously I am a writer. Her house is very much like my house. I too wear bifocals and I too have short dark curly hair that is just beginning to go grey. I too have had a series of unsuccessful relationships with men and I too have never been married. But, unlike the narrator, I do not live alone. I live with my son and three cats. I do not have siblings. I am an only child. All of this is part of the theme of fact versus fiction, the question of how to tell the “true” story of a person’s life. I purposely made the narrator both like me and not like me. The most important similarity between the narrator and myself is our searching, our questioning, our longing to believe.
You frequently blur the line between fact and fiction and intimate that there is little difference between the two (e.g. “History is simply a matter of choosing a story and sticking to it.”). Are you concerned that people will think this is a true story and “declare the water that comes from your garden hose holy”?
Yes, the thought has crossed my mind! Given that people do tend to believe fiction, especially when it is written in the first person point of view as my book is, I wonder if some people might think I really have seen the Virgin Mary and had her stay at my house for a visit. But I definitely have NOT had these same experiences as the narrator. And the water in my garden hose is just the same as anybody else’s! This is definitely a novel and Mary has never paid me a visit. But if she ever decides to, I am more than ready and I know exactly what I’ll make for lunch.
During the course of writing Our Lady, did you ever consider converting to Catholicism? Have you ever? Do you currently practice a religion or some form of spirituality?
I did attend church several times while I was working on the book, although it wasn’t a Catholic church. Like the narrator, my experience with church pretty much ended with Sunday school. I have never been particularly attracted to organized religion. I feel that too many things have been said and done in the name of religion that have nothing to do with God. Also I am not a joiner. I prefer that my spiritual practice remain private and solitary. I pray a lot, more now than I did before I wrote the book. Like the narrator, I now feel that a lot of what I used to suppose was just me thinking and trying to sort things out, has been in fact prayer. I do believe that God is listening.
The narrator writes, “for the time Mary was with me, I was living both inside and outside of time. . . . I was both in time and beyond it. Just as she has always been. Just as she is, was, and ever will be.” Was this your experience while writing Our Lady? How was the experience of writing this book different-or the same-as writing your other works of fiction?
I did often feel while writing the book that time had been suspended but that is an experience I have always had when writing. It takes me out of myself, out of this world, into another place where time passes differently. I am never happier than when I’m actually writing. It is my anchor and, like the narrator, I have always known that it is my salvation. Maybe it too is a special kind of prayer.
But some things were different in writing this book. I have never written a book that involved so much research before. I found that I very much enjoyed this part. It was always exciting to discover more about Mary and to have some of my own thoughts and theories confirmed in other people’s books. During the three and a half years that I worked on this novel, I accumulated not only a large number of books but also an array of Marian paraphernalia that soon turned my study into something of a shrine. The wall beside my computer desk was adorned with holy cards, pictures of paintings, and an authentic milagro cross from Mexico. Next to the desk I have a three-foot-high statue of Mary that I got half-price at the closing-out sale of a local Christian supply store. Around her neck I have draped several rosaries and crucifixes. I lit fragrant white candles while I worked. In the kitchen I stuck Mary magnets to the fridge and I put a small silver statue in my car. Although the book is finished now, I still have the big statue beside my desk and the little one in my car.
Something was also very different about the daily process of writing this novel. With my earlier books, I would often finish a day’s writing feeling that I had done some really good work. But when I looked at it the next morning, it often wasn’t as great as I’d thought. With this book, it seemed to happen the other way around. I would struggle and struggle with a scene or a passage and at the end of the day, I would think it wasn’t working at all. But when I looked at it the next morning, I would discover that it was exactly right! Sometimes I wondered if Mary herself was rewriting my pages while I slept!
Which do you prefer writing-short fiction or novels?
That’s a very difficult question. They are two such different forms, requiring a different technique, a different focus. I haven’t written a new short story in a long time but I always assume that I will again. There are things you can do in a short story that wouldn’t work at all if you had to sustain it over the whole length of a novel. But there are, obviously, stories that are much too large to be contained in the shorter form. This book in particular seems to me to be telling a VERY BIG story. One of the joys of writing a novel is being able to immerse yourself in it for years. But one of the joys of writing a short story is that it’s short and you can be done with it in a few weeks or months. For now I think I will continue more with novels. The ideas that I have now are much larger than what could be contained in a short story. I am very interested in the idea of a novel as a series of linked stories. Perhaps that is the ideal solution for a writer who loves to write both!
Who are some of your favorite writers and influences?
Kathleen Norris, author of Amazing Grace, The Cloister Walk, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and other books, was definitely my most important influence while I was writing this book. But to answer this question more generally, I am an avid, possibly compulsive, reader. A partial list of my favourite writers includes Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Alain de Botton, Italo Calvino, Isabel Allende, Eduardo Galeano, Jane Urquhart, Merilyn Simonds, Sandra Gulland and many more! Three of my all-time favourite books are Santa Evita by Tomas Eloy Martinez, Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, and The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag.
Are you working on anything now?
Currently I am putting together a book of short stories. It is a selection of stories from my earlier books of short fiction which are all out of print now and have only been published in Canada. It is very pleasant to be reading over all these old stories and still liking them!
As for another novel, I haven’t started one yet. In the past, I had never taken much of a break between books. It was always: finish one and start the next right away. But this time, after finishing Our Lady, I decided to take a real break. I hadn’t done so for over ten years and I felt I needed it. I felt that I had poured my whole self into writing this book in a way that I hadn’t with the earlier books. I needed some time to fill up again. This time of not writing has been a little strange. As I said, I am happiest when I’m writing but at the same time I felt I needed to stop for a while and let myself recharge. So on the one hand, I know it has been good for me but on the other hand, I have felt a little lost without a book in progress all the time. I do have at least four ideas for novels now. Soon I will have to decide which one to do next. Whichever one it ends up being, I think I’ll keep that big statue of Mary beside my desk just in case!DISCUSSION QUESTIONSWhat is the significance of the long-lost charm bracelet and its reappearance in the narrator’s life just before Mary visits?
As the narrator and Mary sit down to share their first lunch, “[Mary] did not volunteer any information about herself and I did not ask many questions beyond those directly involving lunch.” What questions would you have asked? How would you entertain the Virgin Mary for a week?
Like the narrator, most people-whether or not they’re Catholic-have some knowledge of the Virgin Mary and what she represents. What did you know about Mary before reading Our Lady? Can only Catholics believe in the Virgin Mary?
At first, the narrator is neither particularly pleased nor excited to be receiving her divine visitor. Mary explains that she chose her because “you have a comfortable home with an extra bedroom. . . . You’re between books right now. . . . You’re a great cook. . . . [And] you don’t need me at all right now.” How true is this? Does she “not need” Mary?
In the chapter called “Doubt”, Schoemperlen points out that in the seventeenth century, “the intangible sin of sadness was replaced by the more specific sin of sloth.” Does that make sadness less of a sin than it was four hundred years ago? What do you make of that exchange?
In the chapter called “Truth”, the narrator is sharing her life story with Mary and thinks, “I am either the victim or villain of this story.” A little later she decides, “I am neither the victim nor the villain of this story.” Then, in the chapter called “Faith”, she realizes, “I am both the victim and the villain of this story.” What does she discover-between truth and faith-that allows her to recognize this duality?
What do you think Mary means when she tells her host, “sometimes what looks like irony turns out to be in fact grace?”
How do you think your life would be changed if Mary visited you? Would you keep her visit a secret? Why or why not?
Mary knows the narrator will write a book about this visit and has permission to do so provided that she claims Our Lady to be “a work of fiction.” Do you think it’s a “work of fiction” or of “mental reservation”?