Interviewed by April D. Boland
AB: What was the first piece of writing you ever published?
MM: I wrote a piece of fiction (which was really non-fiction) on some odd images about the birthplace of James Dean, which is where my mother grew up. It was clear to me that I was going to deal with sexuality and how people hide from it.
AB: The After Death Room seems to emphasize the link between the body and one's spirituality. There is the HIV virus, which is a physical condition, and there is yoga, which promotes both the physical and the spiritual. You also seem to search for spiritual answers to what is, superficially, a physical problem. Can you talk more about this link, and what led you to write about it?
MM: Ah, that's my book; people should read it to find out. I've faced death and the struggle of sexual identity and I've heard a lot of awful and cruel stories. You have to look at why suffering exists and how to respond to and live with it, or you will destroy yourself and other people in the process. It's very simple. Yoga and my spiritual yearning for how compassion works (on myself and others) is what kept me alive. I have seen sadness and depression kill many people, often very gifted people with all kinds of opportunities. I have also seen people with nothing survive anything. I've seen deep faith in people - faith in Allah, faith in science, faith in the dignity of human beings, faith in Jesus, faith in Dharma, faith in Shiva and Shakti, faith in the revelatory power of art to break open people's hearts and shatter their minds.
AB: What are you currently working on?
MM: Essays about how yoga can help those who are learning how to write or develop their creativity. As a teacher, I use yoga in my classes. I want to show how important it is to help students see that their health has a direct effect on their creative life. I'm very concerned by how emotionally troubled many students are based on how they live and are manipulated by consumerism. I'm also organizing a ceremony on the lake front in Chicago called 'Prostrations for Peace' where we are inviting people to create a kind of altar for peace as well as raise money for Emergency, a neutral humanitarian group of doctors and nurses who treat people in war-torn areas. This is another manifestation of what I'm talking about in The After Death Room - spiritual activism and how it takes place organically.
AB: Do you have any writing rituals?
MM: I like to practice yoga or go swimming first, eat, and then work all day.
AB: Where did you go to school? What did you major in?
MM: I first went to school at Indiana University, where I was lost, and mostly studied acting and went from major to major. Then I went to Divinity school at Chicago, right after leaving a small African village while in the Peace Corps. I had a kind of breakdown there. Breakdowns are really spiritual crises, and I was processing just what in the world had happened to me in that village of people. When I learned that I could not write academically to save my soul, I went to work in museums and to the University of Washington in Seattle to study creative writing. I wrote fiction, but everyone liked my thesis essay better than my over-wrought novel.
AB: What is the most significant thing you learned about the AIDS epidemic and the people involved in it worldwide from your traveling experiences?
MM: That people have an enormous creative potential to solve problems and heal themselves through their cultural strengths of spirituality, the arts, and ethical standards.
AB: How long did it take you to write The After Death Room?
MM: Three years. Also two years to travel and research, and now two years to promote! It has been difficult to get the American publishing world and the media to recognize the importance of the stories in this book.
AB: Is writing easy for you? Does it flow smoothly or do you struggle with it?
MM: I don't know anyone who writes well or with integrity who would say writing is easy. It's an art. It takes a deep devotion to craft and vision and these things naturally take time to cultivate.
AB: Memoir is such a personal style of writing. How much are you conscious of the reader when you write?
MM: I wish I could say I always am, but in writing this book, I really learned to trust craft and story. I also paid a lot of attention to my body - to the physicality of experiences and how places and cultures affected me. I really wanted to make people feel the physical travel of this type of journey into my sexual history, my living with HIV and the way people are living in other countries.
AB: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?
MM: Oh, I have many. Eduardo Galeano, Ryszard Kupuscinski, W.G. Sebald, James Baldwin, Bill Finnegan, Tracy Kidder, Joan Didion, Gretel Ehrlich. They go after the truth in matters we don't want to confront. They deal with the struggles of our time with grace and craft and deep respect for the power of words to change people and save lives.
AB: Who, or what, inspires you? Do you have a muse?
MM: I swim and practice yoga; my body has become my muse. Its physiology naturally reminds me of the fragility of life and amazing harmony within all living things.
Michael McColly's website can be found at http://mccolly.ecorp.net/ and you can learn more about Prostrations for Peace at its blog, http://www.prostrationsforpeace.blogspot.com/.