Questions and Topics for Discussion
After coming to the startling conclusion that her fiancé was not really the man she wanted him to be (that man would pay the $10 to get her to the hospital when she is ill), Mara O’Shaunnessey abandons everything—her feisty grandmother, her job, her home, and her garden (carefully transplanted to her grandmother’s yard)—to take a position as an art teacher in a small farming community in rural Oregon. Excited to start all over again, Mara immediately makes herself at home; despite having nowhere to live, she has already acquired a companion, Harvey, a pig she rescues from certain doom at the local livestock fair.
With Harvey and the rest of her worldly possessions in tow, Mara is drawn to a ranch on the edge of town, the home of Earl and Edith McRae. Earl and Edith are busy people. Running their ranch, after all, takes a lot of energy—spiritual, physical, and emotional. And at first it seems that they don’t have time for someone like Mara, though Earl begrudgingly rents her the old cabin behind the McRaes’ own house.
But keeping busy is the only way the McRaes can keep their minds off the tragedies that have visited them. The indescribable heartbreak of losing a child. How much they miss their only grandson, Daniel. Keeping busy, though, also prevents indulging in frivolities—like dancing, laughing, and enjoying their time together.
As Mara sets about fixing up her little cabin, Earl and Edith become more and more enchanted by their new tenant. The moment she finishes up the mural of a dog she’s painted on the side of her house, the very dog depicted shows up during a thunderstorm. Edith finds herself compelled to do things she never expected to be doing at this stage of her life. Of course, making snow angels while naked and taking kamikaze horseback missions into town in the middle of the night isn’t something she thought she’d do at any stage of her life. Earl and Edith find themselves dancing each night in their parlor, roses woven into Edith’s hair, just like when they met. But what is Mara really? A witch, a shaman, a healer, a guardian angel? No matter, Earl and Edith are having too much fun to wonder for long.
The McRaes’ beloved grandson, Daniel, has been leading a life of his own since the day he fled to Alaska. Scarred by the death of his parents, Daniel has always been much better at running away than facing the disappointment on his grandparents’ faces. Despite all these years of near silence, his grandparents write regularly to ask him to come home. And until now he has always refused, content to forget what he was once supposed to be and concentrate on what he has become—a fisherman. But this letter feels different. This time his grandfather even says “please.” There are more than just fences that need mending.
What Daniel finds on the ranch astonishes him. Edith and Earl laughing more, flirting more, loving more. In fact, there are so many changes, all connected to Mara, that the ranch does not seem like the oppressive place he ran away from. Now it feels like a place of happiness, safety, and stability.
But this happiness, as Daniel is terribly aware, is fragile: Earl is gravely ill.
As Mara and Daniel become partners in running the ranch, she must help him finally make peace with his past and future. Mara knows no being passes through this life without making a difference for good or for ill. But as Daniel lashes out as the awful memories of the past begin to visit the present and Mara feels the powers she has relied upon for so long begin to fail her, she wonders if she has ever really been able to do any good at all. How can Mara hope to change this grown man whose emotions are so tangled? The clarity both Daniel and Mara seek arrives unexpectedly with a strange cry that splits the night. And suddenly the two are tied together as family, a clear future of both sorrow and joy spreading out before them.ABOUT KAYA MCLAREN
Kaya McLaren teaches art and lives on the east slope of Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state with her dog, Big Cedar. Her second novel, On the Divinity of Second Chances, will be published by Penguin in winter 2009.A CONVERSATION WITH KAYA MCLAREN
Q. Your descriptions of day-to-day life on a ranch are incredibly evocative. Do you have experience working on ranches? Did you grow up in that environment?
I didn’t grow up on a ranch. I wanted to. For a while when I was a kid, I did have a pony, and then later a horse. I rode my bike out to take care of them every day. There’s nothing like a good horse—nothing. After I no longer had a horse, I simply rode any horse anyone would let me ride. I still do. I was a horse instructor at a summer camp for a short time and I worked as a guide on a dude ranch, too. I had a horse a few years ago. She nearly killed me, though, so I sold her to a breeding farm. Now she just eats grass and gets lucky.
Mary Roberts is a rancher in Montana I interviewed. She’s the reason behind the great details. My second cousin Robin not only put me in touch with Mary, but also answered some of my questions. Robin and her husband are bucking bull breeders and stock contractors. Glimpses into their world are always a treat for me.
Q. What elements of the book, particularly with regard to Mara’s intuitive powers, are drawn from your own experience? Are any of the characters based on people in your life?
This is an uncomfortable question for me. I started writing Church of the Dog on a snow day when my TV was broken. It was too cold to go to the back part of the house where I painted and made stained glass. I thought it might be fun to write a book and think of it like a painting. I didn’t keep any of my paintings then. I just liked the experience of painting. Naturally, I figured I wouldn’t keep the book.
So, in the beginning, it was just sort of a vacation into a warmer imaginary place that was based on the community where I was living and who I was at the time. What would it be like if I lived behind someone’s house and wasn’t alone? What would it be like if I had supernatural powers? What would it have been like if I could have adopted my student’s pig? And wouldn’t it be great if I was given a horse and had a place to keep it? The book was largely my dream at that point in my life, not so much my reality. Sure, the way I viewed the world at that time is very much woven into the book. Since I didn’t intend to publish it, it ended up being a much more personal book than I would have written if I knew I was writing for an audience.
As far as intuitive powers, I get asked that question a lot. I never know how to answer it. I’ve never shrunk a tumor, if that’s what you’re wondering.
Q. How do you go about “weeding”? What advice would you give to others about how to find activities and philosophies to cultivate a rich life while weeding out the negatives?
I’m no master of this. My closet is evidence of that. I do notice that I tend to handle negativity by moving, like I might get on my bike and ride and ride and ride, or I might ski really fast. I might sing loud or dance around my house. When my physical body isn’t clear, for me, nothing is clear. Feng shui is a fun exercise in intention. I do like the idea of allowing our physical reality reflect our commitment to different ideas, intentions, and dreams. I also like to write my prayers all over my shower walls in soap crayon. That’s one way I ask for help “weeding,” reflect on gratitude, and commit to what kind of force I want to be in the world. I notice other people clean their houses to “weed.” I wish I had a little more of that in me.
Q. Why did you choose to structure the book with the four different narrators? Do you think it made the book easier or more difficult to write? How do you go about creating these four individual personalities and their voices?
I think I was contemplating how it is that we all have such different realities in this world, and yet, all things considered, we coexist pretty peacefully. It’s easy to think that the rest of your family or the rest of your community shares your perceptions. I’m here to tell you that they don’t. Was it hard to write? No. In fact, I really enjoyed it. It allowed me to weave together the wide spectrum of perceptions that are all inside me. I mean, if you ask my best friend who I am most like, she might tell you I’m actually more like Earl than Mara. I can be pretty cranky.
Q. Please describe how you go about writing. Is there a particular place where you feel most in tune with your characters? Are there certain times of the day when it comes easiest for you?
I wrote this book in the bathtub. Ha, ha, ha! You just read a book I wrote naked! I called my bath tub “my office.” I wrote longhand in a three-ring binder. Computers are too dangerous in the bathtub.
Nowadays, I proofread in the bathtub, but I write up in my loft. I love to write late at night. I always listen to music when I write. Sometimes I’ll listen to the same song over and over for a while if it helps keep me in the right space. While I wrote Church of the Dog, I must have listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” a thousand times. It’s quiet, simple, acoustic, and a little melancholy. I’m not good at writing in chronological order. I skip all around and write whatever I feel like. Then I weave it together. In a way, it creates an interesting framework to fill in as I go. I’m trying to make myself be a little more linear these days. I think it will improve flow and continuity if I could do that. You hear about writers who sit down and write in a really disciplined way. That sounds like so much non-fun, I can’t begin to tell you. If the book is a chore to write, it might be a chore to read, too. Ew. I write because I love writing. Sometimes I write when I’m trying to make or find peace in a certain situation. Usually, I write because it’s fun. I hope my books are fun to read because they were written with that spirit and spontaneity.
Q. Since you are an art teacher and a dog owner, it seems natural to surmise that the character of Mara O’Shaunnessey is based in part on yourself. Did you intend to write a character that contained aspects of your personality? How important is art in your own life? Does your own home resemble the Church of the Dog?
I’d love it if my house did look like the Church of the Dog! I live in a little log house now. I love it. Visual art has been getting neglected in my life lately because I’m going through a really powerful writing time. I only had one painting night in the last two years. It was fabulous, though. Creating visual art is profoundly calming to me. It clears my mind. It helps me lose judgment about troubles, and see my life more like a canvas, a work-in-progress, an imperfect, but beautiful creation.
The other part of the question I feel like I already answered. It needs to be said that I wrote this book ten years ago. I was twenty-eight. I hope I’m not the same person I was when I was twenty-eight. I hope I’ve evolved into a gentler and more graceful person. I hope I’m more compassionate and less judgmental than I was ten years ago. I hope my capacity for love is greater. I hope every year I grow in that way. That’s the uncomfortable part about creating something and having it go to press; it freezes a moment in time and may or may not reflect the truth as I understand it in the future.
It’s possible for books to become like shoes we’ve outgrown.
Q. Mara has deep interest in her students and is dismayed when they have troubles. Do you think schools in this country are failing to nurture students? What improvements do you think should be made?
Do I think the schools are failing to nurture students? My first thought was, what do we mean when we say the schools? The teachers I know are very, very committed and caring people who would walk through fire for any one of their students. The administrators I’ve known have all wanted the students in their school to have unlimited possibilities available to them as they progress through life.
Education in the United States is tricky. I think there are few, if any, other places in the world where an educational system accommodates such a wide spectrum of cultures, values, and ability levels. Most educational systems in the world don’t strive to educate everybody. Standardized testing has become paramount in our systems, and yes, that does break my heart sometimes. There are so many strengths a person can embody which are not strengths that can be measured and represented with a numerical value. How sad to have an eight-year-old look at a number and think, “I’m below average,” and potentially carry that limiting thought pattern with him the rest of his life. I do not feel good about participating in that aspect of the educational system.
The bigger question to me is, “Is our culture failing to nurture children?” I would like to see an end to the glamorization of violence in our culture reflected in the media. I would like to see a slower pace for our children, where they have time to make up their own games, use their imagination, and explore nature instead of going from one structured activity to another. I would like to see a culture for children that downplayed competition and emphasized cooperation. Maybe by overemphasizing competition, we actually teach children to be cruel to others and themselves. I don’t know. I would like a culture for children where it is believed that any child who is doing their best is succeeding. I would like to see a culture for children that challenged them to create their own entertainment rather than rely on the latest gadget for it. How do we tell our children that they have enough and they are enough and that they’re beautiful, when thousands of commercials a week, their peers, our standardized tests, and sometimes coaches tell them the opposite? That’s what I love about summer camp. At summer camp, it’s enough just to be a nice kid.
Q. Please tell us more about your relationships with your four-legged companions. Have your pets found you, or did you actively seek them out?
I saw an ad for Tasha Good Dog, my first dog, in the newspaper when I was working archaeology. There was a creepy guy on my crew that made me wonder if I should have a gun. I thought a dog would be more fun than a gun, so I looked for the biggest, scariest, free, full-grown one I could find. As it turned out, she got carsick, so taking her to work every day on these Forest Service roads wasn’t going to work for any of us. After a day or two of that, I packed her up and pursued teaching. In that way, she did protect me from the creepy guy, just not in the way I expected. Ha! Life is so funny like that.
I picked up my current dog, Big Cedar, at a shelter. There was a night where I couldn’t stop thinking that I had to go there. I went the next day. I was looking for something with a little sled dog in it since I’m such a snow person, and he wasn’t that. He’s a German Shepherd-yellow Lab mix. I was also looking for a female, and he wasn’t that either. But while the other dogs in the shelter went nuts, jumping up and down and barking at me, he just sat there and looked at me. He said to me earnestly in plain telepathic English, “I’m the BEST one.”
Well, what are you going to do when a dog tells you he’s the best one? You take him home.
Q. What are you working on now?
Right now I’m finishing my third book, How I Came to Sparkle Again, and sometimes I pick up the manuscript of my fourth novel. Sparkle takes place in a ski town, in ski culture. It explores a couple themes: how does the nature of men and women differ in the context of love and how do we have relationships with loved ones when their religious convictions override their respect for us?
In my fourth book, I entertain the idea that if Jesus were to reincarnate, the people who profess to love him the most might be the least likely to recognize him. Is anyone else so very tired of hateful bigots pretending to be do-gooders? I’m so tired of everyone thinking God likes them best and that everyone else is going to hell. That’s ridiculous.DISCUSSION QUESTIONSIf you could travel in your sleep, where would you go? What companions would you like to accompany you?
Daniel wonders if “the only way to freedom is through devastation.” He cites the Revolutionary War as a path for freedom for America, the Civil War as a path to freedom for slaves, a dam crumbling to release a river. What are some other instances where renewal comes from destruction? Are there are other ways to reach freedom and renewal? What are they?
Discuss the significance of Mara’s dual visions of her students’ futures (p. 174-175).
Mara isn’t sure she has had an impact on her students. What are your vivid memories of teachers that influenced your own life? Which ones made a positive difference in your life? Negative? How?
Daniel is angry that the funerals of his mother and father, and later, his grandfather, seem insulting to the very people they are meant to honor. Who are funerals really for, the living or the dead? Should clergy respect the varied religious traditions that might be represented or tailor services to fit only the religion of the deceased?
Edith can’t seem to give Earl’s clothes and effects away and her son’s room is still as he left it. She reflects that her mother got rid of all Edith’s father’s personal items almost immediately after his death. Which way of coping with a death do you think is healthier? Why? Are there items that remind you of people or events, things you have thought about letting go of but have not?
Mara questions Daniel about his negatives—photographic negatives, that is. What are some projects you have not seen through? Why did you abandon them? Do you think you will ever see them through to completion?
Kelli attempts to abandon her newborn with Mara and Daniel. How would you react if someone tried to leave a baby with you? Would you react in the same way that Mara and Daniel do? Could you open your home to someone who in Kelli’s situation, despite the possibility of it affecting your own life in a significant way?
In her dreams, Mara has traveled near the edge of Heaven several times. Is this aspect of Mara’s personality believable? Is Mara truly in Heaven, or is it just a construct of her own imagination? What do you picture when you think of Heaven?
Mara collects quite a few pets through the course of the novel, beginning with Harvey, her pig. What personality traits are do you look for in a dog or other sort of pet? In a friend? In what ways do they overlap? Would you consider any of your pets a guardian angel?
The author chose to use four different narrators in Church of the Dog, Mara, Earl, Edith, and Daniel. Did you find that you missed one of the characters after they stopped telling the story from their point of view? What character did you become most attached to during the course of the novel?