canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Gail Sidonie Sobat

Gail Sidonie Sobat author of The Book of Mary, published by Sumach Press in May 2006. Sobat has written two children’s books as well as a collection of poetry. She is the creator/coordinator of YouthWrite, a summer writing camp for young people in Alberta. The Book of Mary was a regional bestseller this summer in Western Canada.

We had a chance to speak to both Lois Pike, publisher of Sumach Press, as well as the author about the book. 

(September 2006)


What inspired you to write about the life of Mary?

Certainly, the example of strong women I know and love inspired Mary. Also, in my own study of the four gospels (I took The King James Bible as Literature as part of my graduate studies), I recognized how seldom Mary is mentioned (perhaps a dozen) and that in those verses she speaks only a few lines. I began to wonder about her version of events. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear her side of the story, especially if she were removed from the altar or pedestal to which the Church has so long relegated her. What if Mary were real flesh and blood—as far as any character can be—and told her own life story in her own words? I began to imagine that it was at least as full, as exciting, as important as that of her famous son. And I also considered that so many of my best male friends—those who have compassion and a desire to better the world—have had an important maternal bond. What if the mother’s life and words informed the son’s? And therein lies the genesis of the character and the narrative.

What sorts of reactions did you anticipate?

Shock from some sectors. Condemnation from the fundamentalists. Hopefully, some nods from progressives and feminists.

What sorts of reactions did you experience?

The book is still so young… So far reactions have been very favourable and generous. I do have a few Catholic friends who refuse to read the book.

What type of research did you do?

I began with the four gospels and read and re-read them. I consulted Several different bibles and a text called The Other Bible, which is a consortium of apocryphal writings. I delved into sacred writings by women and works about the early Christian church, particularly women in the early movement. Feminist theology was helpful in filling in some of the gaps. A number of scholars proved very helpful: Bishop John Shelby Spong, Kenneth Davis, Harold Bloom. I talked to a number of people of different faiths and sought out what information I could about first century Judaism. I poured over history texts and maps, watched many hours of documentaries about the holy land and various biblical biographies, National Geographic specials. I re-watched "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Jesus of Montreal" and "The Last Temptation of Christ." And finally, I had the opportunity to live in Turkey where I visited Cappadocia and saw the underground hideouts and churches that the early Christians used as they spread the word. According to legend, Mary is purported to have moved to Ephesus and died there; one can see her little hut which remains to this day. But also, interestingly, Ephesus was the traditional place of worship of the goddess Artemis whom the early Church certainly wished to replace with their own semi-goddess. Living in Turkey helped me to become familiar with the land and the climate of the Middle East. My time there transformed the narrative.

How much (if any) of your character traits are also a part of Mary's character? Or in what ways do you identify with your vision of Mary?

As I said, other women inspired the character of Mary. In particular, I was moved by the life of a friend who had lost her son, as did Mary. Somehow my friend survived and carried on, living a meaningful life, doing good works, making what I consider an extraordinary difference in the world. I used her example for the life of Mary. Some of Mary’s less desirable characteristics—her self-righteousness, her bossiness and wilfulness—are probably mine. I wish I were as strong and as selfless as she is. Perhaps we share the same passions…

Why is this unique story about her important to you?

Well, first and foremost, I think it’s a good story. I also think that Mary asks important questions throughout the entire novel, questions I hope all thinking people ask about the injustices of the world. Mary’s narrative is a bildungsroman, and, as well as a dialogue with herself (and various others through the letters), it is an ongoing conversation with a god she doesn’t believe in. In that sense, this is a very 21st century text. Mary is in many ways a 21st century secular woman springing from the Judeo-Christian tradition who grapples with issues of spirituality in a world that appears to her eyes devoid of morality and the spiritual. She is a kind of modern-day everywoman. And I hope that in some way her example reframes the place of Mary and of women in this important mythic narrative. Maybe for some, Mary will be an example of agency and courage in a difficult and teetering world.



The book is a regional bestseller, why do you think this is so?

Unexpected sales have a lot to do with an author having a profile in a community and a bit of a public following familiar with her works. Gail has audiences in Edmonton and Calgary due to her previously published works, both in poetry and young adult fiction, and because of her work as founder and Co-ordinator at a popular summer writing camp for teens in Bragg Creek, Alberta.

Had you anticipated this reaction?

No not at all, but we’re pleasantly surprised that it has done so well in the region where the author lives and we hope to build an audience across the country.

What makes Sumach books unique?

Sumach Press is dedicated to publishing high quality, accessible, feminist writing, both non-fiction and fiction, for adult as well as young adult readers. We support work that challenges the conventions of contemporary life and writing that explores grassroots activism as well as informed critiques on a variety of subjects. We are committed to promoting a diversity of voices and opinion through a variety of genres, from serious studies to literary work.

What can we expect in the future from Sumach Press?

We have a really interesting cookbook coming out in September called Street Food From Around the World. In October, we’ll be launching two young adult novels as well as a non-fiction anthology on trans-feminism. We’ll also be participating in Pages Bookstore’s This is Not a Reading Series on Tuesday, October 17th at the Gladstone Hotel. We will be launching a mystery novel about bike couriers and urban space activism in contemporary Kensington Market. We’ve booked Toronto’s own “Song Cycles” a choir on bikes to perform for the event. City councillor and Chair of the Cycling Committee, Adam Giambrone, has confirmed his attendance. We may even have a pre-event group cycle through Kensington Market!

Nathaniel G. Moore conducted these interviews.







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