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Starhawk and I chatted about her fantastic sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing the other day. Here is the transcript of our interview. If you’re interested to hear it, simply go to my podcast Gungho Eco. The book will be available March 1st through major retailers, such as Amazon here.
Maya: Starhawk, I loved reading City of Refuge. And I had a few moments where I thought it was better than the first, than Fifth Sacred Thing.
Starhawk: Well, that just warms my heart, Maya, because of course my huge fear writing was “Oh my god, what if it’s not as good as The Fifth Sacred Thing?” What if everybody who liked The Fifth Sacred Thing is disappointed? And I’m really happy to hear from you and also from other people that they’re not disappointed, that they really liked the book. And yeah, some people really like it even better than The Fifth Sacred Thing.
Maya: When did you decide to write a sequel?
Starhawk: Well, I had always thought about writing it, but… you know, it’s such a big time commitment, to write another work of fiction, and in some ways really the time to have written it was probably right after writing The Fifth Sacred Thing, but I actually wrote the prequel, Walking to Mercury then. And, then I felt I needed to take a break and write some non-fiction. And, then I got involved trying to save the world, which was a big time commitment as well. (laughs) But a couple of things happened about four years ago. One was that we were working on bringing this all to the screen, so I was writing a screenplay, and writing a pilot, and the characters started to come alive again, and started to talk to me, and I started to think about where their story might go. And just become immersed in the world once more.
And also, at a certain point, I turned 60 and had to kind of look into the future and say “Oh, well, what I really wanted to do in life was write fiction. I haven’t actually written that much fiction. I can’t let another 20 years go before I start writing fiction again, because I might not have more than about another 20 years left. If I want to do it, I’d better do it now.”
Maya: So, do you have a very particular process on a daily level of how to sit down and write? Do you need a quiet space, do you have to be alone, or can you do it anywhere?
Starhawk: Yeah, people always ask me how do I get started, how do I write, and I always tell them: You just have to write.
It helps to have a quiet space. I am lucky that I have some land out in the country where I can go and be out in the woods, and just wake up and sort of go directly from sleep to meditating, to sitting in nature for a little bit each morning, and really opening up and listening to what the natural world is telling me. And then, drift into writing. Generally, I’ll write all morning and into the afternoon. At some point, I’ll have some breakfast. I don’t turn on the internet until after I’ve done my writing for the day. That’s probably my number one tip for anyone who wants to write.
Starhawk: And I am very disciplined about it. I’ve learned to be over the years. And I travel so much and have so many other commitments that I kinda have to be. When I have some precious time to sit there and write, I just can’t afford to spend it filing my nails and cleaning the house, although really both those things, you know, could be beneficial. (laughs) But I really have to actually put everything aside and write.
Maya: Yeah, Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women who Run with the Wolves talks about how women douse our fire, our creative spirit, by constantly attending to small tasks. (laughs)
Starhawk: Yes. And there always are small tasks, large tasks, things that are much more pressing than your writing. But if you want to write, you have to really commit yourself. Treat it like a job. Don’t schedule things during those precious hours. And: write.
Maya: Now, when I was researching psychic abilities recently, I realized there are a few different types. There’s Clairvoyant, where you see things; there’s Clairaudient, where you hear things; there’s Clairsentient, where you feel things. When you’re thinking about your characters and the story arc of characters, do you hear them talking? Do you see them interacting? Do you feel them? How does it manifest?
Starhawk: I would say, all of the above. If you really put yourself into creating characters and visualizing them, then they start to come alive. You see them. You hear them speaking. Sometimes I will hear dialogue, you know, without quite knowing the moment of, Okay, where are they sitting, and what are they doing? And, you know, how are they actually physically interacting. But, what I try to do is get down what I do hear and do see, and then kind of go back and fill in the other senses. I have a tendency as a writer, I think, because I try to visualize so strongly to make it too much detail sometimes. You know, I’ll tend to say: She stood up. She turned around. She faced the stove. She put her hand on the handle, and opened the door. She looked inside. …She saw the toast.
Maya: The toast was hot.
Starhawk: Instead of saying, She took the toast out of the oven.
Starhawk: Sometimes that level of detail is useful and sometimes it’s not. It can get in the way, especially in screenwriting and action description. You know, where you have such limited space for a story. I’ve had to really control that urge to completely describe every aspect of every action.
Maya: But I’ve also heard that a lot of professional writers resist the urge to edit while they’re doing a first draft because you need to just get it out before you can edit yourself. What’s your process of editing?
Starhawk: That’s true for me. I do a first draft, where I just get it all out. And it’s almost like trance writing or something. I’ll just close my eyes and write. And then I’ll do a second draft that’s a lot of the fleshing out and also the structuring. How do all these pieces fit together? Cuz they don’t always come through in the chronological sequence, either of the story or the sequence that they’re gonna ultimately have in the book. And then I’ll do a third draft to go clean that all up. And actually, on City of Refuge I think I did five full drafts, and then sent it to the developmental editor, who worked with me on it. And I did a sixth draft with her, and then had it copy edited. So, it’s a lot of editing. (laughs)
Maya: So, do you do an original first story arc before you start going just streamline writing? Do you edit out the characters arcs and the overall story?
Starhawk: No. Maybe I should. But I tend to just have a vague idea of where I’m going and start writing.
Maya: That’s really brave! That’s really brave, because a lot of screenwriters say you have to develop the story arcs first, because then… how do you… what happens if you get in trouble, and you can’t connect certain story arcs? (laughs)
Starhawk: (laughing) Well, I felt lucky with The Fifth Sacred Thing, where I really had no idea where it was going, but in the end it all came together. And with City of Refuge, I did have in my mind a rough arc for each… not even so much of an arc, but for each character… it’s kind of like… what is their shift going to be? What is their tragic flaw, or what is their weakness that they need to work on, and how is that going to develop? But I find the richness of it actually comes through the writing. I think it’s different in screenwriting where structure is so key and so important, and again where you have such a limited time to develop a full story. I think for that it does make sense to plot out the arc ahead of time, and get the action and the structure down, and then let the dialogue come. But for a novel, one of the gifts of writing a novel, and one of the joys for me after working for a long, frustrating time trying to boil The Fifth Sacred Thing down into a screenplay, was just you can expand. You can let things happen. You can digress. You can let characters talk. You can explore ideas. You can really create a whole world.
Maya: One of the things I loved in the novel was your fluid ability to update the current environmental problems we’re facing into the newer novel. So, when you wrote The Fifth Sacred Thing, nuclear was a big part of the conversation. And now City of Refuge includes things like drones, which didn’t exist. Did you have any hesitancy with how much to update? To kinda keep the through line with Fifth Sacred, with the previous story?
Starhawk: Well, fortunately, even in Fifth Sacred Thing, climate change was very much a feature. There were a lot of aspects that we knew about 20, 25 years ago when I was writing it that are just even more present right now. I was so grateful for our drone program in a warped sort of way, because one of the questions I had was How can Bird commit himself to nonviolence and still get to be a little more of an action guy than he was in The Fifth Sacred Thing? So, the drones were perfect for that. Especially, not even so much in the novel, but as we’ve been working on the screenplay and the pilot, you know, it can shift, and come out of the sky and not actually be killing people or hurting people.
Starhawk: But yeah, it’s always a challenge because on the one hand, you want to update, and on the other hand, things move so quickly and technology develops so quickly, it’s hard to leap-frog enough ahead of it so that it hasn’t caught up and past you by the time the book comes out.
Maya: Right, that’s the trick.
Starhawk: Recently, I listened to Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed as an audiobook, and that’s a book I had read back in the 70s and really loved. And, I loved it again as an audiobook, but there are things that you recognize where they have, like, computers spewing out key punch cards. And you go back and go, Oh right, this is 70s technology, with no way to imagine at that point what computers would be now, forty years later.
Maya: Another thing I love about the new novel is your expounding on characters we’ve already met, but also the addition of new characters, such as Isis. I’ve always loved that character. And so it’s nice to see her story arc. Are there any characters that kind of called out to you before you created them, and/or are your favorites in City of Refuge?
Starhawk: Well, one character is Smoky, who’s the pen girl who’s liberated when the North manages to throw the Southlanders out, and she really popped up and called to me just with her incredible rage and her incredible heart. And River, who’s the soldier who defected from the Southlands becomes a much more major character in City of Refuge, and following his story. Imagining what is it like to be someone who’s really bred and born and raised from toddlerhood to be nothing but a killing machine, and what does it really take for that person to change, and to crack, and to come alive, and really work toward becoming a full human being? And the other character that sort of popped up was Livingstone, who’s a naval officer… he’s actually… well, I won’t spoil it but just say he’s with the Southlanders and he plays a very duplicitous role in the book. And of all of them, he’s like the one character… everyone else in the book is morally driven, even the villains… but he’s the one totally amoral character. And as he developed through different drafts, I really became very fond of him.
He’s sort of like a breath of fresh air, with everybody else having all these agonizing decisions and things, he’s just like, Well, how’s this gonna benefit me?
Maya: Yeah, you kind of need that as a counter with very moral people. So, maybe last question: Without giving away any spoilers, what do you think is the main theme of City of Refuge?
Starhawk: For me, a novel always starts with a question. And City of Refuge really started with a question: How can we build a new world when people are so deeply damaged by the old. And I think all the characters as they move through the story to me kind of embrace, and experience, and wrestle with that question. Both themselves, and the people they encounter in the book.
Maya: One of my favorite quotes has always been the head of the San Francisco Mime Troupe* from the 70s said, You have to offer the people a vision of a better life so strong that they will insist upon realizing it.
Maya: And I think that’s what you do, Starhawk.
Starhawk: Oh, thank you.
The much awaited City of Refuge is available HERE.
*Please note: On the recording I misattributed this quote to the head of the Bread and Puppet Theatre, but it was actually Joan Holden from SF Mime Troupe. It’s been changed on the transcript accordingly.
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