A Wide World — And A New Book by Verena Mahlow
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
Ten years ago on May 1st, I came from Mainz, Germany to Dallas, ready for another adventure in my life. At this time, I had been making a nice living writing— as a journalist, translator, author of fiction and non-fiction and, in the last two decades, creating scripts for German TV-movies and crime serials.
Many of my stories — even most of my PhD-thesis —I wrote on the Spanish island of Ibiza, where I lived part of fifteen years. I like nothing more than to discover countries and cultures, research the different aspects of history, and I love stories that bring us close to unknown, or little known, parts of the world.
And here is where my thriller Island of Dead Gods comes in. While Ibiza is quite famous as a travelers´ dream destination with its vibrant artist- and hippie-scene, its techno clubs, laissez faire-lifestyle and some of the most picturesque beaches in the Mediterranean, it also has an extraordinary, 3000 plus years old history.
Most seafaring people, from near and far, left their marks on the island: the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Normans, Romans, Arabs, Vandals, Corsairs and, the latest: tourists embarking on ferries or their own fancy yachts.
Once, a friend brought me to the “Cueva d´es Cuieram” in the quiet Northeast of Ibiza, a cave high above the sea that is an ancient place of worship to the Phoenician goddess Tanit.
The legend goes that Tanit was the patron goddess of Elisha, the crown princess of Tyros in current Lebanon, whose own brother tried to kill her to usurp the throne.
But Elisha outsmarted him and fled across the ocean — with 40 loyal men and the crown jewels of her affluent city state. On Cyprus, she invited 40 young women who worked in “Sacred prostitution,” an awkward ritual custom of the times, to come with them — and off they went, to Ibiza.
There, the Phoenicians started a prosperous business mining salt, built harbors, founded thriving cities and inaugurated temples for their goddess. When, as is said, Tanit advised Elisha to move on to the African coast and found Carthage, the descendants of the Phoenicians, The Punics, kept coming back to Ibiza for many centuries to bury their dead in the necropolis of Puig des Molins, the biggest one of its kind in the world.
As long ago as Elisha and her people had settled on Ibiza, I was flabbergasted to learn that the worship of Tanit is not a thing of the past. In the cave of Es Cuieram, on a rough stone altar, we discovered all kinds of devotional objects of today, figurines of the goddess, plastic amulets, yellowed photos of imploring devotees, even a little booklet where people had written down their invocations, wishing for love, a child, rain, money, health. This on a Spanish island where every little village seems to be towered by a Catholic church. I asked my neighbor, an old Ibizan called Bartolo which religion they actually believed in, and he only shrugged, “Tanit o Jésus — es igual,” whichever god(dess) was the most likely to fulfill their wishes. With a twinkle in her eye his wife, Maria, clarified, “But Tanit is the one for us women.”
Already then, I knew that I wanted to write about this: a story that was set on Ibiza and comprised ancient matriarchal culture and women´s lives of today, the turbulent 21st century with its seemingly ineradicable misogyny, the worldwide sex-related scandals that seemed to make headlines almost every day.
A thriller, I decided, would be the best form to frame the clashing aspects of my topic.
So I wrote a first version of Island of Dead Gods — in German — and showed it to my agent who was initially thrilled by it, and then, after speaking to potential publishers on the Frankfurt book fair, had things to complain about. “Too many women” and “should be more mainstream” were the two reasons I eventually fired him. As I, at this time, was busy with my TV-writing, I put the manuscript aside and moved on, and a bit later even moved to the US with my American husband. But I never really forgot about my story; I always told myself that some day I would get back to it.
And then came 2016, and I realized that the topic was still very much present, even more alive than it had seemed before. The term “locker room talk,” playing down blunt sexism, made it into the news, “feminist” (again) acquired a tarnished reputation, and calling women “dog” or “horseface” seemed to be accepted lingo on the highest political level.
So I dug out my manuscript and started to write a second version, this time in English. I loved the challenge of writing in another language, but at the same time, I was a bit insecure. I needed to know if my command of English was good enough, and if potential readers in the US might even be interested in fictional occurrences on a far away island in Spain. One of my protagonists is a Texan, so there is a connection, but still — I had my doubts.
At this time, I discovered Writing Workshops Dallas and, in the spring of 2017, signed up for a fiction workshop with Blake Kimzey, eight weeks of classes comprised of eight students.
We started out by submitting the first twenty-five pages of our manuscripts and would get a critique in writing from each other participant and Blake. Then we would discuss the stories and critiques in class and proceed by submitting the next twenty-five pages to see if we were going anywhere promising with our ideas.
As a TV-writer, I was used to candid — sometimes quite painful— assessments of my scripts by producers, editors and directors, and that was exactly what I wanted: no sweet talk, no fake compliments, but honest appraisals of my first fifty pages, and, ideally, some suggestions from fellow writers of where I could do better, do more, or delete.
And that´s exactly what I got in this class: In an atmosphere of amicability and trust, we discussed each others stories, had straightforward exchanges of ideas, and the set time of the classes never seemed to be enough. I felt so encouraged by the others´ reactions and interest in my book that I not once again doubted if I should continue writing it or not.
When I was done, I sent the manuscript to a professional editor — Barbara B. Scott of “A Woman´s Write” — and then a query letter plus synopsis and a few pages to seven different literary agents. I admit that I had quite mixed feelings about this step, as, at this point, I had read a lot of warnings concerning the contact abilities — or willingness — of agents towards unknown authors, and these feelings proved true: three of the agents didn't answer at all, two at least sent polite rejections saying that my topic didn't seem a “good fit” for them, and two asked for the manuscript. One of them eventually informed me that she was sorry but couldn't do it after all, and for the answer of number seven I´m still waiting.
But this doesn't matter anymore, as in the meantime I had submitted to Atmosphere Press in Austin, and they accepted my manuscript. For their services, authors have to pay a fee (less than for comparable indie-publishers), but they are quite selective and do an excellent job at editing, designing and promoting the book, and they don´t charge royalties, so the profits all go to the author. For me, it was a great alternative to self-publishing. During the whole process, I felt in good hands, and the end result — the proof copy I´m holding in my hands —speaks for itself.
The release date of Island of Dead Gods is July 20th. I hope this book will find its readers.
ABOUT NOVELIST VERENA MAHLOW:
Born in a small German town above the Rhine river, Verena Mahlow was always the first one on the trains to adventure in the great wide world. She went to summer schools in France, took scholarships in Italy, was a DAAD/ Fulbright student in Middlebury, VT., a scholar at the IWT Center of Rhodes, the University of Milan, the Literaturhaus Munich ecc. As a student, Verena waited tables at winefests and carnival sessions to earn the money for Eurorail-passes and plane tickets to explore the continent from Greece to Gibraltar, and traveled across the USA from coast to coast. Verena has worked as a journalist, writer, translator and interpreter, and lived part of many years on the Spanish island of Ibiza. There, she translated a book on Ibizan ethnology and wrote her PhD-thesis on the Jewish writer Claire Goll and female identity in the arts. After some stints in academic Ivory towers, Verena decided to get a training as a scriptwriter and wrote a number of scripts for TV-movies. In German, she also has one (award winning) novel, many short stories, essays and other non-fiction published. For some years now, she has been living on both sides of the Big Pond, in Mainz, Germany, and Dallas, TX., where she realized that after years of TV-writing she burned to returned to fiction. Verena's first short story in the English language, “Goodbye, Shoes” was published in January, and her first novel in English, Island of Dead Gods, is available for pre-order. Visit Verena on the web at: verenamahlow.com