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Interview: Rachel Pollack on "Immortal Snake"

Rachel Pollack–author of "Immortal Snake," the cover story of our May 2008 issue–said in an interview that the story was inspired by a famous African myth known as The Ruin of Kasch.  "I read it in Joseph Campbell’s book Primitive Mythology, but it appears to be centuries old," Pollack said. "I first read it in 1966, and it has haunted me for decades.  So this is a story I’ve wanted to write for a very long time."

Pollack said that the plot is entwined with the setting: an imaginary kingdom where true power rests with astrologer priests known as Readers, for their ability to read "God’s handwriting in the sky," to tell them when anything has to happen. "The king, who is always called Immortal Snake, rules in great luxury until the terrible day when the Readers decide the Snake must shed his skin in a ritual death," she said.

The story begins with a young man becoming the latest Immortal Snake.  "His first duty is to choose a male and female ‘Companion,’ whose only function is to be killed first when the time comes to sacrifice the king," Pollack said. "For the female he chooses his sister, who is horrified.  For the male he chooses a storyteller slave named Tribute of Angels.  He forgets about this and spends his time partying until one night panic seizes him.  He could die at any moment!  He summons the storyteller to distract him at a dinner, and to his amazement the story carries him and everyone else in the room so deeply into his spell that they lose track of time and space until it ends. The storyteller comes every night and becomes the favorite of the court."

One night, the sister, who has bitterly changed her name to Broken By Heaven, comes to hear this renowned slave.  "The two of them fall in love and Tribute uses his hypnotic qualities to put everyone in a trance so that he and Broken By Heaven can make love in the king’s bed," Pollack said. "They continue this way until one night Broken decides she must take on the Readers.  And so she challenges them to hear her lover.  ‘God’s handwriting in the sky is great’ she tells them, ‘but God has given Tribute of Angels the power to tell stories in a way that will never be equaled.’  Against their will, the Readers too fall under the spell of the storyteller’s voice. I will stop there, for fear of giving too much away."

Pollack had to consider how much of The Ruin of Kasch she wanted to keep, how much to change. "And I also wanted to tell at least some of the stories that Tribute of Angels uses to entrance everyone around him," she said. "For this I did variations on classic stories, such as Persephone and Demeter, or a kind of vampire version of Tristan and Isolde, mixed in with other myths, such as Adam and Eve.  There is also a wholly original story inspired by prehistoric cave art.  Of course, the particular stories also had to match, in tone at least, the moment in the larger story."

Pollack’s current project is something with a similar theme: a sequel to her novel Unquenchable Fire, which is about magical storytellers. "I’m quite excited by the new book," she said. "Unquenchable Fire was published all the way back in 1987, so it might seem an extremely long time before the sequel.  But after all, I took forty years to do ‘Immortal Snake,’ so I figure I’m way ahead on the new book, which is called Courageous Wisdom."

For more information about Pollack’s work, visit her website and her blog.

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