In the opening section of Kristine Langley Mahler’s A Calendar is a Snakeskin, a bear lumbers out of nineteen years of the author’s nightmares into fearful reality. Dreams become slippery. In exchange, the real world offers ghosts, snakes, and secret symbols at every turn. Mahler’s writing is a work of magic, asking how we might find connection between exploding candles and distant wildfires, between license plates and ancestral origins. Treating herself with as much curiosity as her surroundings, Mahler’s voice shoots sparks off the page. I finished Snakeskin hyper-aware of a steady friction on the page, an internal and external world rubbing up against each other to slough off past selves, so that I, too, felt I’d been transformed into something new. To honor the cosmological wonder of Mahler’s writing, we spoke alongside an astrological chart of Snakeskin‘s publication date, its “book birthday” on October 31st, 2023.
Erin Vachon: What an intense astrological baby you’ve birthed here. Oodles of Scorpio placements dominate this book’s birth chart, so I feel a deep affinity, speaking as a Scorpio stellium. Snakeskin‘s Sun in the fourth house in Scorpio means a focus on root systems and ancestors, “looking for connections between where we are from and who I am from and when did they move and what made them stay…” How has Snakeskin uprooted your ideas around ancestry and home?
Kristine Langley Mahler: I had no idea quite how Scorpio this book would turn out to be, but I’m not surprised there’s that power stellium of the sun, Mercury, and Mars in this book’s fourth house of HOME AND ANCESTORS (!!!). Living through Snakeskin was surrendering to the push and pull of my own power struggle between the fear of an ending and the fear of a beginning. Writing Snakeskin, however, meant owning the regeneration process. The book comprises a near-year of observation, occurring between two eclipses, when changes to my understandings of home and ancestry and family (all fourth house significations) belligerently dropped themselves into my path whenever I tried to look away. But the signs couldn’t be ignored and I had to go inward, taking stock of my secret fears and letting the venom run its course, in order to allow my love for my home—and my ancestors—and my family—to regenerate.
EV: Snakeskin harbors its Moon in the eleventh house of Gemini, transforming community building into meaning making. The emotional heart of this book lives in its network of lives, a social heritage of ancestors stretching back through time, connecting the living and the dead: “I am a medium, after all.” Can you speak about this role in mediumship, as an author?
KLM: My personal chart ruler is in Gemini, so we’re old friends—I’m constantly listening and watching for communications from the other realm. The year of Snakeskin was the year of snakes, and I didn’t know I needed to transform until I kept seeing them. The year that followed Snakeskin, as I began to process what I’d written during it, was the year of feathers! I found bird feathers everywhere I went, on the sidewalks in my neighborhood and the trails in the hills outside of town. I understood—and continue to understand—the feathers as messages that I am on the right path. When I am writing about something sticky—and memoirists always are—I watch for patterns in the world outside me. I watch for the unexpected as a sign that I am understanding the interior places I needed to examine. The feathers will leave me too, inevitably, and when they do, I will watch for something else. It doesn’t matter if they are not “real” communications from the universe—I have decided they are, and anyway, I believe in the power of placebos.
EV: With a Venus in the second house of Virgo, Snakeskin overthrows demonstrative love in favor of steadfast care, embracing the state of loner. I find the passages about your daughters particularly powerful, a challenge to the historical figure of the man-as-writer, reclusive and withholding. You write into the role of writer and mother with love and anxiety, troubling necessary waters: “I require space – even from my daughters.” How does purposeful space – of all kinds – open up possibilities for care in writing?
KLM: Of course my book’s relationship guide (Venus) is a dang Virgo, analyzing and trying for perfection! I’m so grateful for nonfiction books like Doireann Ní Ghriofa’s A Ghost in the Throat and Karolina Ramqvist’s The Bear Woman, both of which were written by women who were obsessed with their subjects and both of whom address the truth that their obsessions came, at times, at the cost of their own families. As a parent—and particularly as a mother, a role which has been historically exhorted to sacrifice the self in service of one’s offspring—I have had to learn to own my requirement for space. American society would make y’all believe we’re all meant to be extroverts and needing to be alone means there’s something wrong with you. I’m not having it. Maybe it’s being an introvert, maybe it’s because of the exhaustion inherent in BEING a parent, maybe it’s the necessity of interiority as a memoirist. But giving myself purposeful space to write and contemplate is—as you put it—a form of replacing demonstrative love with steadfast care. I would argue it is steadfast care for the self most of all.
EV: A Mercury in the fourth house of Scorpio manifests in the return to home, again and again. And yet, ghosts linger there as well. The chapters in Snakeskin append the word “ghost” to various words, Ghostheart, Ghostchoke, Ghostwatch, “addressing ghosts directly.” What ghosts did you consciously raise in this book, and which rose unbidden?
KLM: Mercury comes in hot with this book, the courier of all the messages I received and the guide who helped me communicate them. I loathe ghosts—let me make that very clear—I hate ghosts, hate them to death, have avoided ghosts as long as I can remember, would leave the living room at sleepovers when people started telling ghost stories, can’t stand them. I DID NOT consciously raise any g-d ghosts in Snakeskin, but I got them anyway. The only way I could manage the ghosts was to try to placate them. I titled the chapters with -watch, -choke, and -heart, because they are also the three things I found myself doing. Watching for ghosts. Choking on the ghosts who showed up. Exiling the ghosts of old fears from my heart. I still hate ghosts and I pray every night that they stay the hell out of my house. And then I ask them to reveal themselves through my behaviors, because the ghosts I love are the ones communicating through my ancient DNA.
EV: Since Mars is also in the fourth house in Scorpio, Snakeskin reveals that the most intense desires come from a need to control: “Being Type A is believing you can control the uncontrollable. “If this placement faces the hardest challenge head-on, “all the attention in the world will not change the phantom ache of resolved emotions, the anguish of a solution.” What do you do, then, once you’ve arrived at the end of that difficult essay?
KLM: I love that you grabbed this passage because it came so early for me in the writing of the book—what does a person do when all the drama’s been enacted, the stage torched, the ashes smoldering, but you’re still in the front row because you can’t stop staring? I suppose it’s the very thing I tried to build myself toward during the year of Snakeskin: the courage to move forward nevertheless, knowing that this rebirthed skin will slough itself off too, hoping to be open and watching for signs I am doing it right.
Kristine Langley Mahler is the author of the essay collection Curing Season: Artifacts (West Virginia University Press, 2022). Her work has been supported by the Nebraska Arts Council, named Notable in Best American Essays 2019 and 2021, and published in DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Brevity, and Fourth Genre, among other journals. A memoirist experimenting with the truth on the suburban prairie outside Omaha, Nebraska, Kristine is also the director of Split/Lip Press. Find more about her projects at kristinelangleymahler.com or @suburbanprairie.