Inhabiting The City of Refuge: A Talk with Starhawk

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Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing is a post-apocalyptic tale about a multicultural community of witches resisting the forces of evil. When it came out in 1993, it was a best-seller. Now, twenty years later, her new novel City of Refuge answers the timely question: how do we build a new world when people are broken by the old?

What inspired you to write the sequel and why at this time?  

When I wrote The Fifth Sacred Thing it was over twenty years ago.  The last few years we have been working to bring it to the screen. That put me into writing a screenplay and a pilot, immersed me back in the world of the characters.  I kept hearing from people saying how much the book had meant to them and how so many people felt like  it was more relevant now than it was when I wrote it.  

So I started to think about what would happen if the story went on.  The characters have a way of doing this. They started kind of banging on the door and saying, “You know, there’s more to our story here.  You’re not done with us yet, and we’re not done with you.” So I decided to go ahead and write a sequel.

What is it about?  What happens in a nutshell that you can reveal?

In The Fifth Sacred Thing the story centers around the kind of ecotopian society that has developed in Northern California after environmental and social collapse had splintered the cCountry and left it devastated.  In Southern California it’s gone the other way, people have become more militaristic, more racist, more ruthless.  So the story centers around what happens when the South-lands invade the North and how the North can resist this violent assault without becoming what they’re fighting against.

The City of Refuge picks up where The Fifth Sacred Thing left off.  It centers around a different question that I have been wrestling with:, how can we build a new world when people are so deeply damaged by the old?  

In City of Refuge, the people from the North realize they can’t be liberated completely, they can’t be safe, and they can’t really have security when the Southlands are still in such desperate conditions.  They set out to liberate the Southlands.  Of course, then I had to figure out how they were going to do that.  As I was wrestling with that question, I had a dream.  I woke up from the dream with this message echoing in my head that said, every city needs three things: a Plaza, a Hearth, and a Sacred Tree.  So, build a City of Refuge in the heartland of the enemy.  

That gave me the title for the book and a sense of where the story was going to go. Bird and Madrone are two of the main characters of The Fifth Sacred Thing. They go to the Southlands to find a way to build a refuge in the midst of this very, very oppressive and ruthless culture.  Madrone is a healer.  Bird is a musician who’s been to the Southlands before, and been kind of a guerrilla fighter.  

One thread of the story centers around their adventures, and then another centers around another group who takes an army down through the Central Valley to liberate it. A third thread centers around the Navy that goes down, a sort of a rag-tag collection of old fairy boats, whatever they can cobble together, to the ocean. The different character’s stories weave together, but a lot of it is really a story about how wounded we are as people.  So many of us, in different ways. The book addresses what it really means to confront that, how we can nonetheless heal, and what it takes to do that healing.

I remember when I was reading The Fifth Sacred Thing I was impressed with the depth of research you had to do. It wasn’t , but not the kind of stuff that you can just read about or talk about with someone once. You really have to know it from the inside out.  I’m curious what inspired you to make the choices you did about how the story went, and how that ties into this next book.  Not just the stories but the approach and the realities of what it might be like to  be to live in prison and all the otherthe situations that they’re in.

For me it’s important as a writer that when you’re visualizing a story, you’re bringing a world alive.  It takes a lot of focus and concentration, as you’re projecting yourself inside your character’s heads in your imagination.  

For example, in The Fifth Sacred Thing, the story turns on soldiers from the Southlands defecting to align themselves with the North.  In City of Refuge I took the next step and said, Sso, what’s that going to actually be like?  You know, this lovely peaceable society where women and men are entirely equal, where there’s no stigma about being gay or straight, where people are peaceful, where people live in harmony with the natural world, where they are honoring artists and gardeners and poets and singers.  Then you throw several thousand guys who’ve been born and bred and raised to be nothing but weapons, who have no education, no concept of the world, and have only been raised to treat women as objects to use and exploit and rape…. How’s that going to work? That’s part of the fun or writing.  Trying to imagine what would it be like. What would you know and what would you not know?

There’s a section where the soldiers are talking with some of the children and they’re looking at a sculpture and asking, “What’s that?”  A girl says, “That’s Mars.”  What’s Mars?  Well, Mars is a planet.  What’s a planet?  We’re standing on a planet…” And the soldier reacts, “No, that can’t be.”

What is it like to really have absolutely no concept of the world around you and then to slowly develop it and how do you feel when you realize the incredible richness of the world that’s been kept from you?

Yeah, that’s a big question right there.

So I guess the fun of the writing is trying to get inside the character’s heads and emotions and allow yourself to fully feel that and experience that, and then try to convey it on paper.  Well, I guess it’s not paper anymore, electronic bits on screen.

What are some of the tools that you use to get inside of another person and  see things through their experience? How do you know, on a deep level, how people would react in those situations?

I have been teaching different kinds of spiritual techniques for many, many years including meditation and visualization partly as part of my personal practice. I find that it comes in handy when writing fiction, or maybe writing fiction is part of my spiritual practice.  That ability to actually focus and concentrate and create an internal image for yourself, and then enter into it, and then take the time to expand it fully and say, “What am I seeing, and what am I feeling, and sensing, and what feelings what emotions is that evoking in me?  What would I need to do next?”  I have a bad tendency as a writer to over- explain things.

For Example:

He walked across the room. He stopped in front of the night stand. He noticed the coins. He picked up a nickel. He put it in his pocket.  

Instead of just saying: He picked a nickel up off of the nightstand.  

But that’s because I’m really trying to visualize it for myself.  I have to go back in the editing and go, well maybe I don’t need every single little piece of that description.

But I find if you do that work, I think actors do this too, if you really visualize the physical realities and the actions then that often does evoke the emotions and then the emotions turn into an inner dialog.

That is how it is.  We create our world and then we live in it.  In your writing you really get that sense, you can feel what it’s like to be in it and think about things you never considered before.  Are there any particular books or movies or even experiences that inspired you to this whole series?

When I originally wrote The Fifth Sacred Thing there were some key books that were very influential. For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful book The Dispossessed. She envisions this somewhat austere anarchist socialist planet in the future and this academic who gets taken to another planet. That’s more like the consumerist U.S. projected forward and the clash of those cultures I always found fascinating in that work.   

Also, Doris Lessing’s science fiction.  She has a whole series that’s more literary, more beautifully written.  Shikasta is the one that the series begins with, I think, and that was an important influence for me.  

Have you always liked science fiction?

I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy.  Ursula K. Le Guin talks a lot about this too — for me, speculative fiction gives you the chance to confront ideas and possibilities, and to explore human relationships in a larger context. It’s a great way to impact the world today through writing.

I can see how the interest in science fiction and fantasy was a natural inclination towards witchcraft and how it ties together.

My interest in witchcraft and goddess religion and magic stemmed a lot from the Librarian in my third grade class who gave me C.S. Lewis’s books, the wonderful Narnia books, to read when I was about 8. This is ironic because they’re such Christian books and the witch is the evil thing in the book, but it was that wonderful magic of suddenly stepping into another world, and the completeness of that world that he creates that is so brilliant. That made me always long for magic.  

There are other wonderful children’s books like Edward Eager’s books, Half Magic, The Time Garden and Magic By the Lake and Edith Nesbit books. A lot of wonderful children’s fantasy.

Like A Wrinkle in Time


Wonderful.  It seems a lot of the meaning in the series and in the book is focused on moving forward into the future, where do we go from here, how do we clean up these messes and make it work, and is it possible. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it relates to our actual world? What do you see in the possibility with this line of thought?

In both The Fifth Sacred Thing and The City of Refuge it was important to envision a positive future, or at least half way positive. There’s at least a possibility of creating a future that we might actually want to live in.  Because so much of futuristic fiction is apocalyptic, dismal, ‘mad max’ and a grim vision of what’s ahead of us.  I believe we need to have an image of what we want to create.  We need to have hope or some sense of what it is we could create if we’re going to be able to create a world we want to live in.  

If we can’t envision it, there’s no way we can bring it about.  I think it’s important for writers and artists and poets and musicians and filmmakers to give us some sense of hope and possibility, not just doom and gloom.  There is doom and gloom in City of Refuge and The Fifth Sacred Thing, there is some of that post-apocalyptic vision. But there is also the sense that there are ways that we could create a culture where people take care of one another, where people have lives of beauty and fulfillment and joy, where we can come back into balance with the natural world, and where we still can live and thrive.  I think people desperately need that sense of hope.  It’s been very gratifying with City of Refuge to hear from people over and over again, “you give me hope and that’s why I like the book.”

That’s really wonderful.  You hear in our language all the time, “I just don’t see how it can happen” and we do need to be able to see.  What are your plans for getting the book out there? What comes next?

City of Refuge is the first book I’ve ever self-published. I’ve always been published by a major publisher like Bantam, which published The Fifth Sacred Thing and the prequel, Walking to Mercury. They didn’t want to publish a sequel to a book that was twenty years old. They have not been hearing from all the fans I hear from, and they didn’t think there was an audience for it.  They’ve been bought and sold and resold and merged so many times that they’re not the same entity they were twenty years ago. There’s nobody left there with any connection to the book.  

The publishing industry is less and less interested in books that hit a niche market. My books have always done well, but they’ve never been “spectacular blockbuster best sellers.”  They are only interested in what they think are going to be the “spectacular blockbuster bestseller.”

So I decided to go self-publish.  It’s a great time for it.  There are ways of doing it now that make it within reach for somebody who doesn’t have a lot of money or backing. I did a Kickstarter over the Summer and it ended up being the second-highest funded fiction project ever. That gave me the money to get the book edited, copy-edited, and designed. Now it’s up on Amazon as a Kindle book. We’re going to keep it on Amazon for the first three months because that opens up possibilities of doing special things with it. It’s also up there as a print-on-demand book, and bookstores can get it through Ingram Book Company, which distributes books to lot of different outlets. People can get it online or they can also go to their local independent bookstore and ask them to carry it.  

Kickstarter (preorder)

“City of Refuge” on Amazon

Read an excerpt from “City of Refuge” on Reality Sandwich.

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