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Penny-Anne Interviewed by Jordenne Rachelle

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I wrote holy cards: dead women talking because not to do so would have driven me mad. No doubt it’s a strong indication of poor mental health to admit to hearing voices in one’s head, but in fact I do, and they are, by times, quite insistent. I felt a deep-seated urgency to tell the stories of these holy women, or perhaps retell them is a more accurate description, to present them in a different light, teasing out elements heretofore ignored or suppressed. Not surprisingly, the voice I gave them is an echo of my own, bespeaking my own struggles with faith, Catholicism, patriarchy, violence, and the silencing of women.

Also, I wanted very much to deconstruct some of the legends and traditional interpretations of these stories which I feel have been used to serve purposes not conducive to the healing and flourishing of the feminine spirit – the glorification of suffering, the perversion of the cult of virginity, the hatred of the female body, and the devaluation of female spirituality. I felt compelled to restore a robust humanity to these women, to take them off their plaster cast pedestals, and give them back to my readers not as models to be emulated, but as sisters and companions.

Q: How did you come across the stories of these interesting women in history?

A: Well, I grew up with these stories, absorbed them through a kind of osmosis as the children of devout Catholic parents are wont to do. Practically from the time I could read, I would page through Butler’s Lives of the Saints, utterly mesmerized by the glamorous illustrations of the beautiful young martyrs and the accounts of their heroic deeds. Pretty heady stuff for a little religious girl.

Much later, when I took my pastoral ministry degree, I had the opportunity to take another look at the lives of these women, this time in the context of critical thinking and feminist scholarship. And my eyes were opened. I dared to question what I had been taught in my youth, and discovered, to my surprise, that I did not have to reject this part of my Catholic formation, but reframe it with the aid of some creative imagining.

Finally, to research holy cards: dead women talking, I made use of several superb websites, as well as books by such theologians and luminaries as Rev. Richard P. McBrien, Sarah Gallick and Giselle Potter. And I even browsed through good old Butler’s a time or two as well.

Q: Why did you take this approach (poetry) to tackle these subjects, as opposed to prose?

A: Poetry cuts right to the heart of the matter. It compresses the moment, conveys an emotion, reveals a truth, and does it all with an intense and gracious economy of language. When it’s done well, the reader is held in a ringing silence at the end of the page, maybe only for an instant or two, but that is all that is necessary to feel transported, touched by wonder, alive. This is the challenge of poetic storytelling, and achieving it is one of the most satisfying experiences in the life of a writer.

Q: What has shaped your writing process?

A: I did not study English or creative writing in university, so my writing process is something that just developed as I gave myself to the craft. There is a call, some call it inspiration, that grabs hold of me when I’m meant to write something. I would read the stories the saints and then the poem would begin to take shape in my head, often beginning with the last line. If I didn’t have time to write it down immediately, it would keep tugging at me, trying to get my attention, and I’d find myself muttering lines, stanzas and occasionally the whole darn poem as I ran my errands, kept appointments, or did my housework. Sometimes, two different “she-saints” were competing to be heard, and I needed to write their stories just to get some peace. I don’t know if this describes a common experience of writers, but it certainly describes mine.

Q: How do you feel this first book has represented you as a writer?

A: Now there’s a fascinating question! And one best answered by my readers, I should think. But I would hope holy cards: dead women talking represents me as a writer fully engaged in and dedicated to advancing the stories and voices of women, contemporary, historical and legendary; as a writer who enjoys knocking icons sideways to see what can be learned about them from a new angle; and a writer who is witheringly critical of rules for rules’ sake, the teaching of mythology as gospel-truth, and the oppression of women in the name of God or religion, or anything else.

Q: Do you have any plans for any upcoming books?

A: holy cards volume 2: dead women still talking is in the works! Bless you for asking!

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