“In the bayous of Louisiana a young woman is uprooted from her home by forces beyond her understanding. The face of evil hides behind a benevolent smile and promises a new world order of peace. Warrior priests protect an ancient blood line from an enemy determined to eradicate it from the world. Faith and reality collide as final prophecies come to pass. Will evil reign or will the righteous rejoice? Two children hold the key, and they are silent.” – Synopsis of In the Time of The Cathar Moon.
This month, we’re doing something a little different. Holly Sullivan McClure is an author of novels about spirituality and faith, with some mystery thrown in.
15) Holly, you’ve described yourself as a priest in the Celtic Christian Church. Can you give us a little backstory about how that came about and how did it lead you to become a writer?
My journey to the priesthood began many years ago when I was on the nursing staff of a hospital outside Atlanta. I worked on a unit where we treated critically ill, often terminal patients. There were times when a patient from a sacramental background didn’t get the spiritual help they needed from our protestant chaplain, so I called the priest from my little Episcopal church to come visit them. I saw the peace it gave them when he administered the sacraments. He taught me to assist him with the Eucharist and I witnessed so much comfort from the few minutes we spent with people who had every reason to be afraid. My priest, Father Bob Fisher, encouraged me to consider seminary and mentored me as I began exploring the possibility.
When both he and the bishop who advised me died, I gave up on the idea, until 2005, when I had a long talk with a Celtic Christian bishop who helped me see why I should reconsider. She honored spiritual ways that came from my Cherokee mom’s background and helped me understand how this was an asset to my priesthood rather than a liability. After six years of study and preparation, she ordained me on May 16th 2010. My first duty came early the following morning when I was called to the hospital to administer last rites to a man who was dying. His nurses joined us and were amazed when this man who had been so frightened, was at peace, smiling through tears and talking about all the people who would be waiting for him when he left his body. I knew then I had made the right decision. As for my writing, many of my characters aren’t traditionally religious, but their spirituality adds another dimension. In Cathar Moon, the historical element is the inquisition against a Christian sect that didn’t adhere to the accepted dogma of the church that dominated their world, but followed a different path, honoring the rights of each person to seek sacred knowledge beyond the accepted teachings. It begins with the historical martyrdom of the last known Cathar Perfect, and then becomes a fictional imagining of the Cathar descendants in present day. I tried to be as accurate as possible, traveling to the South of France, exploring Cathar sites and interviewing people who said they were descendants and believers. My book, Conjuror, goes back to my childhood and draws on the spirituality of my Cherokee people. Some of my books explore the soul after death, paranormal abilities, and different ways of viewing the powers latent in humanity.
14) Your religious faith and ordination as a priest aside, what led you to choose spirituality as a genre? Was there a life-altering experience?
Life altering experience. I don’t often talk about it, but at the age of twenty, I had a near death experience that altered my perception of the nature of our existence. Without going into gory details, the birth of my son resulted in a ruptured uterus, and I bled out. According to a nurse who was with me at that time and visited me after I was conscious a couple of days later, there were a few minutes when she couldn’t detect vital signs. During that time, it felt as if I had expanded into a different reality. I was greeted and welcomed home by people who loved me and who I recognized as my loved ones, even though I didn’t see anyone physically. We were likes lights flowing into each other, knowing each other’s thoughts and memories. I was given information that would save my son’s life. I was shown a medical condition that would require surgery if he was to live. I chose to return to this life to give him a chance to survive. It was difficult to get his doctors to take me seriously when I tried to tell them about his problem because I didn’t know medical terminology, just a description of what I saw. As he got sicker, a pediatric surgeon consulted and knew what was wrong. He had the surgery and grew up healthy. The doctor complimented my ‘mother’s intuition,’ so I let it go at that. My experience didn’t fit any spiritual beliefs I knew of, so I came to feel I had to find my own path.
I wouldn’t say that I chose spirituality as a genre. It’s just something I see in my characters that rounds them out.
13) Tell us about the Low Country Mystery Series. They’re not your typical whodunits. The series is driven by the twins, Aislinn and Audrey. Even though they’re teens, what makes them so engaging and effective as detectives?
The Low Country Mysteries began with an appreciation of the low country as a place with a sense of mystery and history. Each book has a historical element that becomes part of the mystery. The importance of family and connection to ancestors is a driving force in this series. Audrey and Aislinn are aware that their parents have secrets that make them different from others. A sadness prevails, an estrangement from their beloved grandmother, and a forbidden heritage that finds a way into their lives when they turn thirteen, changes their lives in ways they never imagined. They have secrets they must protect as they move into their ancestral home, make new friends and learn to live in a place that feels alien to them. The psychic abilities inherited from their grandmother who has solved many unsolved crimes, helps them follow in her footsteps as she teaches them. Their first ghost, a boy who died on their property when he was fifteen, loves doing detective work with them. My own background growing up in a family that saw ghosts and talked to the dead, prepared me to understand the family in these books. I understand how a family draws closer when they are different. It’s important to appear normal, even when you know you are anything but.
12) What is the intersection of faith and fiction? Or are you more interested in parallels than intersections?
Mythology became important to me when I was still in first grade. My grandfather’s stories, and the stories of other Cherokee people in my community, taught me to look for greater truths within the story. I loved Norse, Egyptian and Greek mythology, and came to understand that what we called myth, was the religion of the people of their time. In the stories that currently unfold with the translation of cuneiform tablets, we see the origin of stories in the Bible as they were told long before Abraham was born in the land where they were created. They are all stories that contain a deeper mystery. That’s why they survive. “Secrets lie in the heart of myth, like light within a shuttered lamp.” I like to think some of my writing holds veiled secrets that are perceived by the reader.
11) Plotter, pantser or plantser?
I’m a hybrid. I begin writing when a character or plot comes to mind, then start jotting notes by hand in a notebook I keep beside my laptop. Some of those notes become an informal outline with random ideas of how things might turn out unless my characters decide to go a different direction. They most often go where I had not planned in the beginning.
10) When you were growing up in the Smoky Mountains, who were some of your favorite authors and had any of them gone on to influence, inform or inspire your own work?
Growing up in Robbinsville NC, my favorite place was the little library across from the store where my parents bought groceries. While they shopped, the librarian picked out age-appropriate books for me. I don’t remember who the authors were but I still remember some of the stories. They were pretty basic and I enjoyed them, but my favorites were the ones my older brother brought home. They were paperback mysteries with lurid covers, usually with a picture of a gun toting detective and a scandalous looking woman. I loved the process of solving crimes and bringing bad people to justice. Mom and Dad didn’t think they were appropriate for me, so I had to read them in secret. That made them even more appealing. When I discovered Tolkien, that began a whole new chapter. Epic fantasy in created worlds took over my reading time for a while. I love Science Fiction and discovered Bradbury, Asimov, and the other greats of their time.
9) I have to admit, when I first began reading the synopsis for one of your earliest books, The Promised Child, the first thing I thought about was Dan Brown. Then in the second paragraph, one sees, “This book isn't the next Da Vinci Code, nor is it intended to be. It goes beyond where that book stopped.” Can you please explicate what you were aiming for in this book?
Promised Child was first published by a British publisher who didn’t do much with it. When the contract was up and the rights returned to me, I rewrote some of the things I didn’t like and republished it as In the Time of the Cathar Moon. As for what I was aiming for, it was to complete a story I had been trying to write for over twenty years, long before Dan Brown’s book.
8) What is Grace St. John’s heritage in In the Time of the Cathar Moon and what have the Cathari been guarding for the last two millenniums?
I met a Cajun man in New Orleans who said he was a Cathar. He said he was descended from Cathars who escaped the inquisition against them, and migrated with the people who later became known as Cajuns. He talked about their beliefs, including that the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene still alive and were protected until it was safe for them to be revealed. Those descendants, and the book the Magdalene wrote in which she discloses the teachings Jesus told her and no other, were the treasure guarded by an order within the Cathars.
7) In the standalone, Twisted Hair and the People of One Fire, you revisit the threat of some impending doom or apocalypse. Do you see imminent annihilation as a necessary crucible through which your characters have to successfully emerge in their spiritual journeys?
Twisted Hair and the People of One Fire is from my heart. One of my most treasured memories is listening to the stories of Cherokee elders during my childhood. They were full of pain, sorrow, hope and wonder and a promise that stayed with me until I saw it fulfilled. The Twisted Hair is a holy man, a storyteller who travels the land bringing the stories and sacred ways to the people, and collecting more knowledge wherever he goes to share during his journey. He is safe, even in the land of the enemies of his people because he wears an elaborate hair style that marks him as one to be honored.
This book begins with his journey to a sacred town in the mountains covered with smoke, the mother town of his people. He brings the story of the arrival of turtle people who prophecies foretold would cause the end of their world. The mother town sits in the bend of a river around a mound where the counsel house stands and the sacred fire that unites the seven clans burns. There the wisdom keepers live. We were told the town was the first town of the people and had been there for ten thousand years. During the attacks on the Cherokee, followed by the removal the mother town was destroyed, the people scattered and its location lost. We understood it would be found again when the ancestors returned and showed where it was. It happened when bones were found in a site in the bend of a river, and dated by archaeologists to ten thousand years ago. The Eastern Band now owns the site and honor 11,000 years of history in the area where I grow up. This book compresses the stories I heard into one book. It is filled with sacred mystery, which was the way of life I treasure.
6) Describe your typical writing day, if there’s any such thing. Do you write exclusively in a notebook or journal or is it all done on your laptop? Do you set word goals and, if so, what are they?
I wish I had a typical writing day but my life isn’t that well-ordered. My goal is simple- just finish the book as quickly as I can. I love the days when I can get lost in creating my story so completely that I forget the time. I still have family and friends who claim my time, and my work as a priest can take me away when I least expect it. I don’t have a church, just my home and people who know they can call me anytime they need me. I also work part time as an extra-actor for movies and TV shows filming in the Atlanta area. My writing is sandwiched among all of that. I sometimes take my laptop to bed with me and write until I fall asleep. That makes for some interesting dreams.
5) In novels such as Conjuror, your work seems happiest when it straddles the lines of fiction, fact and fantasy. In your mind, does one seem more powerfully predominant over the other or are all three equal?
Conjuror, weird as it is, is as close as I will come to writing an autobiography. My grandfather delighted in telling stories that would scare us to death. One of those is the basis for the very bad thing that happens in this book. It came out of memories of myself as a little girl, listening to those stories, hearing about all the supernatural beings who lived around our home, and believing every word because my family believed. In the book, I’m Wren. My parents, grandparents and brothers are in it as I remember those days. Names are changed, and they aren’t exactly the same, but they recognize themselves. Of course, the murders and mayhem are fictional, as far as we know. Writing it was like taking a trip back to childhood and revisiting the imagination of a little girl who never gave up believing the unbelievable.
4) Coming from a Cherokee/Scots background, you seem to have united both in a seamless meld in perfect proportion to each other. Was this something you did naturally in your life and fiction or was/is it an ongoing struggle to do so?
Both sides of my family were storytellers. From the Scottish side, I learned of a boy married to a fairy woman who returned to the family when they needed him. He brought back a fairy flag that would protect them in battle. I recently visited that flag which still hangs over the mantle in Dunvegan Castle on Skye in the Scottish Highlands. So, fairies are real! The Indian side told of the immortal Nunne’hi who lived all around us. Little people lived in the woods and would try to lure us to their villages. This was all just a natural part of my life. I wasn’t asked to believe or disbelieve. I listened and repeated these stories to my kids.
3) What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses as an author?
My strengths and weaknesses. My strength is the wealth of stories I inherited and the love of creating my own versions. I hear the music in the language of myth and am inspired by it. My weakness is that I’m lazy. There are so many things I enjoy. I often chose a hike on a mountain trail or a paddle on the lake in my kayak, over a productive day of writing. If I get an invitation to go out to lunch or hang out with friends, I find it hard to say no and keep working. I’m a very social person and enjoy people way too much to finish a book on time.
I’m planning to re-release Too Big Buck. Buck was our 32-pound Pomeranian who we rescued from a woman who disliked him because he was too big. Turns out, he was an amazing dog who made up for the lack of love in his early months of life, by loving and being loved by everyone. I told his story in a picture book for little kids because little kids were his favorite. He lived with us for 15 years. I’m thinking of writing another book about the last chapter of his life. He and my husband Jack were both diagnosed with terminal cancer about the same time. They were inseparable and gave each other comfort in bad time. I once heard Jack tell him about the rainbow bridge and how that’s where they were going. The first to go should wait at the bridge so they could cross together. Buck went first. Just before Jack died, he told me Buck was there to get him. I let Buck’s book go out of print but I think it’s time to bring it back, maybe with more of his story. He was a good dog. That was my only children’s picture book.
1) So, what’s next for Holly McClure?
What’s next for me. I’m working on two books. One a paranormal mystery and one about a very special group of people I knew in New Orleans while I was working in a psych facility. Also, I’ve ordered a new kayak so more time on the water. I’m planning to spend some time in the mountains reconnecting with the Smokies. I’m determined to spend more time writing, but with summer coming on, I might fail that plan.
If you’re interested in learning more about Mother Holly and her work, please use the handy links below: