In previous Paths to Publication, I’ve featured two traditionally published authors and an award-winning self-published author, Judith Gille, who happens to be a friend of this month’s published author, Mary Oak. They met in one of my classes, I believe. Mary Oak’s path to publication was really unique: involving a collaboration with her publisher.
Her book, Heart’s Oratorio: One Woman’s Journey through Love, Death and Modern Medicine, is a memoir about life (and near–death) with a genetic heart condition. This award-winning book is composed of many voices: physical and metaphysical; medical and mystical. It’s a love story, a heroine’s journey and a medical drama that explores the fragility and resilience of the human heart.
Terry Tempest Williams said of it: “In her journey, Mary Oak listens to her body all along the way. Her words enter one’s bloodstream as oxygen. Heart’s Oratorio is beautiful…a soul- sustaining, heart-saving healing grace.”
What was the path that led you to writing the book?
Almost twenty-one years ago, my first cardiac symptoms occurred in tandem with leading a ritual on the suffering of the earth. The life-threatening nature of my illness had a metaphorical signature from the beginning and that compelled me to write. At first I wrote to bear what I was going through, to bear witness. I had the sense that my life was creating the story and I just needed to write it down. The first folks I shared my story with were fellow students in my MFA program in Creative Writing at Antioch. For my creative thesis, I wrote what I called an Ecomythic Memoir, about the healing of my heart, presented within a mythic context while addressing a “right relationship” to the living Earth. Some of those pieces were published in obscure journals here and there as well.
When did you know you were writing a book?
When I finished the memoir for my MFA, there was a niggling feeling in me that the story could deepen, that it could eventually become a book. But years went by. I got caught up in teaching. Then when my life was saved by the very medical technology I had always shunned, my healing story got far more complex and needed to be told that much more.
How did you know it was done and ready to send out?
I didn’t. If left to my own devices, I might still be whittling away at it! I was taking a Deep Revision class with you, and you had read enough to tell me you thought it was ready to send out query letters, and I trusted your judgment. That speaks to how beneficial it is to get an objective view: how fresh eyes offer perspective, how we help each other in the writing process.
What was your approach to finding a publisher?
You challenged me to choose my dream publisher and send out a query letter. A few days later I came across the mission statement of Goldenstone Press, which stated their commitment to foster “authors with the capacity of creative spiritual imagination who write in forms that bring readers into deep engagement with an inner transformative process.” That resonated with what I was trying to do.
So I gave it a shot. Much to my surprise, Goldenstone wanted to see the whole manuscript! They were enormously encouraging, they believed in the book and they wanted to publish it, but…. they couldn’t, at first. Since they are a very small press and didn’t have the funding, they sent me on my way, hoping a bigger press would take it up.
Long story short: nine months later, after I had made a few attempts to find an agent or publisher and was considering self-publishing, Goldenstone approached me again and offered to publish it collaboratively, splitting the upfront costs and eventual profits between us. I realized it would be way more affordable for me (since taking the route of self-publishing would mean I would need to hire an editor, graphic designer, proof reader, etc.,) and in addition, it would give me the support of being in partnership with a press that had connections for distribution, etc.
Can you describe the process of working with your publisher?
I didn’t know what to expect. There was no map. I was possessive of how I wanted the book to be and had to make compromises. There were a couple of times that I looked wistfully at self-publishing authors, envious of their complete control.
But what I gained far outweighed what I might have done differently if left to my own devices. I am happy to be a Goldenstone author. I worked closely with an extremely supportive editor: Lee Nichols. Having heard of negative experiences with editors, I was surprised at how much he respected my work and how little he interfered. He began by inviting me into the dance of editing, and it was a graceful one, for the most part. This dance happened exclusively by email, which made it very surreal. I never met him and didn’t even know he lived in a different part of the country than the publisher.
I see on your website blurbs from Terry Tempest Williams, Joanna Macy, Robert Sardello, Nancy Mellon, Melissa West and Brenda Miller. How did you get such great endorsements?
I had it easy. I didn’t have to contact people I didn’t know to ask. All these folks supported my writing the book in some way–as teachers or mentors–and were happy to contribute this way. There was a problem with getting Terry’s blurb by the time the book was published so it missed being on the cover, which would have been nice. But I use it for promotion.
What was it like when the book came out?
To suddenly have the book in my hands, in the world, was thrilling on one hand, and shocking on the other, as if it were my newborn baby. My story was outside me now. It had become a product, for sale, and furthermore, I needed to be involved in marketing it. I hadn’t anticipated that extreme shift of focus OUT in contrast to the inward orientation of writing.
To market the book, it needed exposure, and I felt exposed in the process. A lot of this transition was about letting go: obviously, I had no control over where the book would go or how it would be met. There were particular people I wished would not read it. I was surprised to find one of them really appreciated the book and became instrumental in getting the book attention in the field of narrative medicine.
Writing the book made me an author, which has grounded me as an authority in my niche as a writing guide. People get in touch with me through reading the book to work with an archetypal approach to memoir, to write as way to deal with a medical crisis, to write about their connection to the living earth. Having the book out has helped make my teaching and my work as a writing guide my central work. I have a writing studio now to offer consultations and writing circles in.
I’ve taught creative writing for years but new dimensions have opened as a result of doing a whole book. I know the lay of the land now and can help guide others through the process. Having the book out there with its original message continues to open doors.
I hope that it will be possible to take the book out into a wider circle beyond the readings I have done locally. I am beginning to generate new writing—more about bridging the mythic dimension with the everyday.
I am also inspired to continue to deepen my work as a midwife to the creative. I really enjoy doing developmental editing and one of my goals is to foster more strongly my work as a writing guide, based on my feel of the whole of a book from inside.
Mary’s work, rooted in a love for the living earth and a spirituality that draws from many sources, has appeared in various journals in the U.S. and the U.K. Mary holds a degree in Mythopoetics and Sacred Ecology, and an MFA in Creative Writing, both from Antioch University. She teaches creative writing and works as a writing guide in Seattle.