Q and A with Suzanne Clores, MEMOIRS OF A SPIRITUAL OUTSIDER
Tell us a little about Memoirs of a Spiritual Outsider.
It's a book about my personal quest as a twenty-something to bring spiritual connection and sacredness into my life. Like many members of Generations X, Y, and particularly of the Millennials, I wasn't willing to whole-heartedly embrace my religious upbringing, but still felt a longing for some divine connection that I couldn't quite articulate. The book is my pilgrimage through various "outsider" spiritual traditions, such as Wicca, Shamanism, Voodoo and Sufism, in hope of finding my own path that felt more authentic and experiential than what I knew. It's a universal story.
You wrote this book when you were still in your 20s and I've heard you say that you view it from your present vantage as the work of a young writer who is quite different from the writer and person you are now. How has your relationship to this book and to who you were while writing it changed since its publication in 2000?
Every writer I know cringes a bit when asked about their first published book, and while that used to be me, I think I've softened a lot and have come to love and embrace the 25 year old who wrote MOASO. I love that the book is a memoir from such a curious, vulnerable, and undaunted narrator. The interviews, research, and other field work I performed to accompany the personal narrative are still solid. Most of all, I'm grateful to the many incredible people who were willing to help with my pursuit of such earnest questions: how do we live without a religion but with a sense of the spiritual, and a greater wisdom and understanding of our world and ourselves? I think the question of the book is still relevant, maybe even more so now.
The quest for meaning and connection in an increasingly disconnected life has become a familiar theme to just about everyone. It has also become a billion dollar marketplace, from ten minute guided meditations in the cubicle to soul-inspiring home decor. Ironically, I think the marketplace helped the conversation along. I think people are more willing to engage with the question of their own spiritual needs, and examine their own lives for evidence of sacred things.
When I read this book, I was so impressed by your fearlessness in immersing yourself in experiences such as Burning Man and the study of several other religious and spiritual traditions. Your trip to New Orleans to meet with a voodoo queen was probably my favorite chapter. What, in turn, was your favorite section to write?
The New Orleans journey was probably the highest risk for me as a writer, mostly because I had no referrals for the people I was going to interview. I just picked up the phone. After a few weird encounters with white hipster Brooklyn voodoo people whom I met in the early days of Craigslist, I found, by pure luck, a denomination of African American nuns in New Orleans who were willing to invite a white, East Coast, lapsed Catholic girl into their convent to discuss their sacred traditions--the ones practiced by their mothers and grandmothers. So I got on a plane. I was honored to be invited and trusted to hear their stories, even though many of them remained off the record.
My meeting with a voodoo priestess came about because of a referral from those nuns. The spiritual communities in New Orleans were quite fluid. Nuns and voodoo priestesses had open communication. But then, New Orleans was very much a fluid city culturally speaking when I visited, which was before Katrina. I haven't been back since.
This chapter was one of my favorites to write, too, because it was the first time I felt something click in my quest. I had been freed by the research experience, and had shifted from observer to participant. The nun and the priestess I interviewed, the history of Voodoo (Vodou is the correct spelling, but no one uses it) in the US, how New Orleans was regionally so different from New York, combined together were so rich and interconnected, they injected me with the gold I was seeking. I had come to terms with my lofty questions by encountering real, generous people, and wrote truthfully about it.
How did readers respond to this memoir in 2000, and when it was rereleased in e-book format in 2010?
The letters I got then very much match the emails I get now, for the same book. Fifteen years have passed, and people still find the book somehow, somewhere and send me notes of thanks. Either the book helped them through a period of doubt, or questioning, or exploration. One reader was a proud conservative Christian Baptist and a father of four. He was definitely not my projected reader demographic, and yet, he took time to write an email of thanks for 'opening his eyes' as to why people pursue other spiritual paths, and what those paths might be about. That was incredibly rewarding.
What are you working on now, if you don't mind telling us?
Thank you for asking! I've been writing fiction since MOASO, and have two novels simmering in a drawer, but then two years ago shifted back to memoir and a similar theme, which I've tried to capture with The Extraordinary Project. The Extraordinary Project is a website I started that collects stories about our most unusual human experiences; those flashes of insight or unexpected moments of wisdom that come from very untraditional means and defy scientific explanation. Meaningful coincidences. Hearing voices. Seeing visions. Having a dream that predicts the future.
I know I may sound like that astronaut who walked the moon and who now studies Extra Terrestrials, but the idea came to me from a really grounded and ordinary place. It started when it dawned on me that I was able to count at least a dozen of my own extraordinary moments, known as anomalous psychological experiences, and I realized how strange it was to engage with them in an honest and non-reductive way. This memoir is about the process of engaging with them, some of the science behind them, the skepticism, and the implications extraordinary moments have on how we live, love, learn, heal, and all that good stuff.