In "Witches of America," Alex Mar chronicles her five-year exploration of modern-day pagan-practitioners across the United States, weaving a narrative that is at once cultural ethnography, historical retelling and personal journey. Mar self-identifies as a skeptic and a seeker, someone most pulled to those living and believing on the hem of society. She writes, "I've always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe — communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together."
Mar captures a panorama of covens and clans, cults and communities. She traces the origins of the Wicca movement to 1950s London, communes with goddesses at a Pagan Spirit Gathering, attends a gnostic mass of the Ordo Templi Orients in the Bywater of New Orleans, and trains under a teacher in the Feri tradition of witchcraft. In her telling, Mar serves as a compassionate and witty interloper to the vast world of occultist believers all around us.
"Witches of America" documents the many everyday Americans who lead secret lives of magic and mysticism all around us. I'm interested in how you identified the people you wrote about in the book. How did you find them?
I made a documentary called "American Mystic" about six years ago. It's a documentary that intertwines portraits of three different people from different parts of the country who are all members of some kind of fringe or minority community. I knew that in making that documentary, I wanted one of those individuals to be someone who considers herself a witch, but I had no idea at the time what that might really mean. In the process of exploring that and traveling around the country for months and months trying to find the right people for the documentary, I ended up spending time with a number of different covens and meeting a lot of people who call themselves pagans and, in many cases, witches.
The first person I focus on in the documentary is a woman named Morpheus. We were around the same age, I found her incredibly funny and interesting — a really no-nonsense-straight-talk kind of person who happened to live this very serious, fully immersed life as pagan priestess. It was through that whole casting process that I ended up meeting an entire network of people around the country who practice witchcraft very seriously.
I knew once I was done with the documentary that my friendship with Morpheus had hit a nerve, and I wanted to go back and try to understand her magical practice. As a result I started to get to know even better the people in her circle and started reaching out. It kind of spread outward like that, where different clusters of people would put me in touch with other clusters of people.
How were your personal perceptions of witches turned upside down? What surprised you most?
I think the biggest surprise over the years of working on this book was the sense that you just can't make assumptions about people. Again and again I was meeting people who were introduced to me as a serious shaman or the high priestess of some witchcraft group or a very serious occultist. They would turn out in person to be a soccer mom in a little town in Massachusetts, or someone running a tech start-up, or a yoga teacher.
It really ran the gamut and made me all the more aware that you can't judge people by appearance, even though that's something we're so trained to do. I met over and over again these Americans who led a double life that their many co-workers or neighbors had no idea of.
Were you ever frightened, during the most intense moments of your research? By the practices you witnessed?
I wouldn't say that I was ever afraid. I wrote about people who I found really fascinating as individuals. They are the equivalent of a local Christian pastor, or a very devout rabbi or a very serious Buddhist monk.
In some cases I met people who were very flamboyant in their practices, and certainly there's a chapter very late in the book that is about a particular black magician who I met in New Orleans ("Sympathy for the Necromancer"). That's a very extreme, very dark chapter that stands apart from the rest of the book.
What about by your own experience of these rituals? Did it ever feel too real?
Sometimes there's this shock of the new, you know. There's the shock of having a new experience. But I very quickly saw a relationship between what was going on in these different occult rituals and witchcraft ceremonies and my own Catholic upbringing. Catholic mass is a very high mass and a very elaborate form of drama — to be inside of a cathedral is an incredible, moving experience.
For someone who's a skeptic and who is constantly asking herself a lot of questions about whether or not there is some kind of god out there, whether or not there is some sort of meaning to our lives, I would say that any sort of intense religious ceremony is going to be a little bit intimidating. It's a question of whether or not it's alienating or if there's a personal connection to be found there.
How has the pagan community at large reacted to the book? Has there been any pushback?
I'm really grateful for how the book was received critically. It's been very well reviewed. In terms of the pagan community, it's been very controversial, online and in different chat forums and blogs. I think a big part of that is how sensitive it is to write about any religious movement whatsoever, because you're talking about very closely held personal beliefs. And in some cases there's a little discomfort with the fact that I'm someone who is searching and who is a skeptic. Even if at a certain point in the book, I am personally becoming involved and I'm studying and I'm participating and I'm asking myself whether or not these magical traditions have something in service for me.
I think some people feel that only a longtime devotee has a right to write about a particular faith, and I just fundamentally disagree with that. I think it's really important to make a space in which we can acknowledge that there's a gray zone. There's a lot of doubt involved in faith. And for myself and most of the people I know well, that's actually more the area in which we live.
"Witches of America" is as much a work of cultural ethnography as it is a chronicle of your own quest for spiritual meaning. You are present each step of the way. How will this project shape your voice in the future?
The book is a literary nonfiction account of a community right now, a new religious movement, but it's also very much a memoir. In general with my magazine stories, I do tend to use the first-person in a much gentler way, as a way to lead the reader in. This memoir element is really new for me.
As I move forward I think I will maintain that balance. It really depends on the material, how much of myself I'm going to put on the page. My next book will have nothing to do with religion, so I'm excited to dive into a new territory in the next couple of years.
Mar will speak at the Arkansas Literary Festival at 4 p.m. Saturday, April 16, in the Cox Creative Center.