Friday, March 23, 2012

Endless Number of Stories: An Interview with Michelle Embree

A few months ago, I got the chance to talk with writer Michelle Embree when she asked me a few questions about creativity. She also told a hilarious story about rescuing my artists’ books from the clutches of mattress warehouse junkies. This happened years ago, when we were neighbors in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Since then Michelle has written two plays (Hand Over Fist and Fish in a Barrel), a Lambda-nominated novel (Manstealing for Fat Girls), and currently lives and writes in Baltimore, where one path of her writing life has evolved into that of a Tarot reader. Over at her website, Michelle muses on the Tarot, talking about its images as a narrative bridge between the conscious and the undermind. She emphasizes the Tarot as a means of thinking rather than belief, citing John Trudell’s idea that thought is dynamic while belief is a form of death.

Since reading Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, I’ve been interested in the gray area between literature and Tarot. Constrictive devices have been really helpful for my writing process lately, and the scenario Calvino sets up in the book—a castle where visitors can only communicate via a Tarot deck—appears to unfold on a similar wavelength. It really made me want to learn more. That’s why Michelle seemed like a perfect person to talk to: as a writer and Tarot reader, she’s the ideal guide to navigate the intuitive terrains. 

Note: The collaged Tarot cards below were all made by Michelle. Also, for those not in the Baltimore area, she now gives readings via Skype!

Matt Runkle: Can you start out by talking a little about how you first became interested in Tarot?

Michelle Embree: I'd seen Tarot cards, I'd had mine read a few times, then in 2002 a housemate gave me a deck.

MR: Do you remember what deck it was?

ME: It was the Rider-Waite deck. I still use that deck, in fact it was the only deck I ever used until a couple of months ago . . . I started reading using the deck designed for Aleister Crowley.

MR: Can you compare the two decks a little? Like what about the art on each do you connect with in your practice?

ME: The pictures on the Rider-Waite were done by an artist named Patricia Coleman-Smith, her initials are in the corner on each card. She was the first to make complete scenes on the suit cards and her interpretations are good, very memorable and evocative. Her art can make the characters seem very animated, and I like that about the deck. It makes talking about what is happening in the cards fairly easy to do. When I use the Thoth deck I rely more heavily on the numerology, which I also like. There is a different feel to each deck that is hard to describe exactly. My Thoth readings tend to go into more deep psychology than conscious actions.

MR: That's interesting. I'm not very familiar with the Thoth deck, but when I picture it, I think of more muted colors. The Rider-Waite-Smith deck has this vibrancy that makes sense with it being more connected to action. I know when we were neighbors long ago, you were in the midst of creating your own deck using collage. What was that process like for you? And do you still have that deck?

ME: I have yet to finish a deck. I made a handful of cards then in 2003, a couple of them will make it into a complete deck. I make cards based on Tarot often. I put them on postcards or give them as gifts or whatever, blessings, I guess. I am, however, in the midst of making my own deck now. It has taken many years for a sense of the right aesthetic to emerge. I have mostly made cards that directly interpret the Rider-Waite illustrations, which has been good practice. But I have begun to develop my own vision, and that is exciting because I really have been looking for it for nearly ten years.

MR: That's exciting! I can't wait to see it. So at what point did you start giving readings? Was it something that evolved out of you familiarizing yourself with the deck as you artistically re-interpreted the cards?

ME: I gave some readings to friends after about a year of using them, learning about them, and then I didn't read for other people for several years. Nothing bad happened, I just stopped doing it. But I still read cards for myself and books on the subject. At some point I wanted to read for other people again. I was slow about it, though; I took my time and now it's something I want to do everyday. This past summer I spent with Dave and Janet [our mutual friends in North Carolina], it was serious business out there with the cards. That experience really motivated a desire to read more cards.

MR: And so how would you characterize your personal approach to reading Tarot? Like could you explain your philosophy?

ME: I read this somewhere: Tarot is a book disguised as a deck of cards. It's the characters and landscapes and events and personality traits that make up stories. It is an infinite number of combinations, an endless number of stories made from a finite number of traits and experiences, the essentials, every card in the deck will be part of every human life. To different degrees and outcomes, anyway, every person will encounter the characters and landscapes and events depicted by the Tarot. A reading is a discussion about life, about the relationships we have with our thoughts and our history and our motivating desires.

MR: Wow! That's great. . . . I've been interested in the Tarot as a sort of book. It's interesting that Crowley actually named his deck after the Book of Thoth. I've also been trying to learn more about the relationship Tarot has with literature. I mean, really, the definition you just gave could also be a definition for the novel, right?

ME: Yes. It is the hero's journey or the fool’s journey, the quest, and inside of that story are all the other stories, all the things that happen.

MR: So do you feel like there's a lot of intersection between your work as an artist/writer and your work as a Tarot reader? Or is it even fair to make a distinction?

ME: Mmmm . . . It's relevant. It is part of a fiction writer’s job to adequately imagine what motivates a character, and to imagine what that character might find. Should they follow a certain path, they are likely to find, what? That is writing, that is reading cards, for me, yes.

MR: That makes sense. I was just doing a little research about the Tarot's history, and the less esoteric version goes that it evolved out of a deck that was used for games. The major arcana were added to the standard deck as trump cards (around the same time as the invention of the printing press, interestingly), and allegorical pictures were added to these trump cards. It seems natural that people would start using these pictures to meditate on their own lives and the lives of others—similar to how myths function, I guess. I like the idea that as time has gone on, these images have spiraled off into a lot of different directions, interpreted and re-interpreted by artists and then again by Tarot readers. Do you feel the weight of this history when you are reading? As someone who is not very naturally intuitive, I'm just curious about what it's like to be able to tap into a tradition like this.

ME: There are so many stories. What is exciting to me about using the imagery and structure of Tarot are the number of stories we can find that relate. Create more relationships, personal connections. Recently I heard myself call the Six of Cups, The Phillip K. Dick card. Because he wrote something about giving and receiving simultaneously being the nature of God. Something like that. Something that struck me and inspired my own mythologizing.

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