Mary Rickert’s The Memory Garden, which reviewers are calling “a breathtaking masterpiece” and “genuinely uplifting,” is unlike any novel I’ve ever read. It’s a domestic drama that’s also a fantasy novel, a feminist statement in the most anti-Sheryl Sandberg way imaginable: instead of leaning in to traditional (and traditionally male-dominated) forms of experimental writing, The Memory Garden stays in the realm of herbal remedies, witchcraft, gardens, and other historically scorned feminine arenas, while retaining a high-minded literary tone: both precise and challenging. I enjoyed The Flamethrowers, with its cool tone and motorbike-riding heroine, but to me this novel is the anti-Flamethrowers. And that’s great, because it thrills me to no end that writers are creating “feminist lit” in such divergent, equally provocative ways.
The Memory Garden is the tale of Nan, an amateur witch who has helped women “in trouble” in the past — we all know what that means — and of her foundling child Bey, who may have nascent supernatural abilities. Nan harbors a particularly dark secret from her girlhood, a loss which led to her choice of profession. On a weekend reunion with Nan’s childhood friends, in which they gather for a “flower feast” — literally, a feast based around floral ingredients and flavors — and exchange reminiscences that turn into accusations, the truth emerges. The novel’s plot is formed into what Rickert describes as a “spiral” structure, slowly unfurling itself. Oh, and there are ghosts around Nan’s house, who pop in and out to aid the unfurling.
Rickert’s life as a writer is its own fascinating story, whose chapters have included working at Pioneer Chicken and being “the oldest barista” at a coffee shop while finding her way towards publication. When she started cohabiting with her husband, Rickert brought all her belongings to his house in a wagon, which sounds like the opening of a fairy tale if there ever was one. She eventually earned an award-winning reputation as “M. Rickert,” a writer of horror and dark fantasy fiction. Now she’s publishing her genre-bending novel under her real name.
It was a treat for me to ask Rickert, whom I met in a writing workshop years ago, about abortion plots in fiction, intra-genre literary battles, the limitations of realism, and her characters’ propensity to munch on butterflies and curried flowers.
Flavorwire: What drew you to writing about fantastic and paranormal topics?
Mary Rickert: I had a very long apprenticeship as a writer. I tried to learn to write like Bobbie Ann Mason, John Cheever, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. These writers all had something to offer me, but they didn’t have my voice.
Eventually, in a workshop with Douglas Glover, I turned in an odd story that the other students did not enjoy. Later, Doug told me not to let anyone take my voice away from me. The story I wrote next was about a young woman, named Lantana, who ate butterflies. At the end, after suffering for her appetite, she waited in a meadow until a butterfly landed on the small flower she had pursed between her lips as bait, and I wrote “it tasted,” and then hesitated. In that moment of hesitation, I had a clear understanding. How did that butterfly taste? “Better,” I wrote. “It tasted better.” I think of that flawed story as my “voice” story. I’m not against realism, but I just don’t understand a reality reduced to material aspects.
Talk about your decision to change your byline from “M. Rickert” to “Mary Rickert” — was it intentional, and did it signal a change in your writing’s direction?
I made the decision to write as “M. Rickert” when I was young and not aware of the history of women writers abbreviating their names to help their work be taken seriously. Instead, I had wanted to simply seal off any opportunity for readers’ reflection about the author. But I discovered that this wasn’t working, so I thought that the novel would be a great time to make the switch from M. to Mary.
How long have you wanted to publish a novel?
I wanted to publish a novel for 25 years and wrote several unsuccessful attempts. I wrote too short and would retroactively stuff words into the piece, producing ugly, misshapen monsters. After working for nine years on a “novel” that failed, I decided to quit and didn’t feel bad about the decision. Then I sat down to work on a short story and after a few days realized I had something that might be a novel. I enrolled in the MFA program of Vermont College of Fine Arts. My first mentor there, Joshilyn Jackson, suggested that I take a one-sentence description and expand it into a paragraph. Once I started doing that, the entire novel structure opened up for me. You would have thought I could have figured this out on my own, but I never did.
I felt that the voice of the novel and its subject matter was some of the most intensely female I’ve ever encountered in a literary work, from the topics of fertility and flowers, to the paucity of straight male characters, to the domesticity of the setting. This refusal to use any “male”-coded tropes blew me away. What makes this novel feminist in your view?
The use of witches was meant as a way to explore how women’s power has been subjugated. To this day most depictions of witches, who exist on a mythological level as figures of feminine potency, are reduced to caricatures of evil. I also meant to draw a line between the abortion story and a story of witches, believing that many of the same people who object to one would also object to the other. The young women in this novel lose so much because they are unable to access their own power. They live in a misogynistic society that informs many of their own bad decisions. For instance, their choice of abortionist [they choose a male doctor instead of a local female healer] is tainted by sexism; so even in their rebellion they remain shackled by misogyny, which is tragic.That tragedy is compounded when a woman is wrongly blamed for the abortion, as so often women are punished for what men do.
How have readers been reacting to the abortion plotline? Did anyone warn you away from writing about abortion?
No one, as far as I know, has commented on the abortion at all. I don’t know what to make of the silence. On the other hand, no one asked me to reconsider or modify that plot point, which I find heartening. I am not the sort of writer who knows the entire story before I write it. So I knew that these old friends shared a secret for a long time before I knew what that secret was. When I realized that it involved an abortion, I was pleased to have the opportunity to address pre-Roe women’s rights.
During the long weekend of their reunion the women rarely talk about men. We learn that one had a bad marriage, but these women have other things to talk about and think about besides men. The great love story here is the love between these women. And it is also a mother-daughter love story, a story of inheritance that explores how one woman’s unfinished business might become her daughter’s legacy.
And OK, not to harp on this, but the narrative tone, mixing realism, fantasy and humor, also felt feminine, or at least un-masculine.
The tonal quality is meant to convey the whimsy of a fairy tale, which is the language of stories women created and told as nursemaids and mothers but did not write down because they were denied education. The whimsy is also meant to be a mask for the dark story contained beneath it, just as each woman has her own dark story she learns to shield from those who would use it against her. Finally, the structure of the story is a spiral, which creates a sense of blossoming, rather than a more traditional, aggressive structure. I want to be clear that I’m not saying a feminist novel can’t have an aggressive structure or be wildly different from mine; I’m just describing the elements within my novel that I consciously worked with as an expression of feminism.
If you could eat one dish from your novel’s central flower feast scene, what would it be?
This is a very difficult question for me. I have fantasized about this dinner many times. I guess I would say the dates stuffed with goat cheese and rolled in lavender. Or maybe the violet truffles? Then again, I think I would have to sneak into the kitchen and try at least one curried day-lily!
I’m afraid my imagination does not cooperate with limitations.
Do you witness the way “literary” writers and genre writers sling arrows at each other, and if so how do you react — as someone who, in my mind, crosses those borders pretty nimbly?
It’s human nature, unfortunately. We are creatures whose intellectual capacity is defined by discernment, which becomes transposed with judgment. But on another level, the writing community needs to take responsibility for the beast it has created. A workshop should strive to evaluate technique rather than assign value. The current state of the literary community at large — like an unwieldy, poorly run workshop — is the natural evolution of this culture. We need to insist on text-focused critique rather than dogma, and establish a no-tolerance policy for intra-literary bigotry.