- Published: 19 June 2013 19 June 2013
Carrie Knowles Interviews Peggy Payne, author of Cobalt Blue, Roundfire Books
Peggy Payne and Carrie Knowles, good friends and colleagues for 35 years, both have new novels released within a few weeks of each other. These two, who work in adjoining offices in Raleigh’s historic Oakwood neighborhood, are on a rollicking 3-state tour together doing readings and signings. They call themselves The Crazy Ladies Book Tour, since both their main characters are women who are a bit off the rails for most of their respective stories.
Payne’s previous novel, Sister India, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her first, Revelation, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She is also co-author of The Healing Power of Doing Good.
Carrie: So, Peggy, how do you describe the kind of fiction you write? Does it fit into any familiar category?
Peggy: The short answer is: I write spooky-sexy novels about religion. The first was set in a church in Chapel Hill, the second in a holy city in India. Cobalt Blue is about a 30-something woman, a painter in Pinehurst, who has hit a low point in her life and then while in the meditative state that painting produces, has a spontaneous religious experience that overwhelms her and quickly begins to disrupt her life.
Carrie: It’s about religion and yet the Wilmington paper, among others, says that in places it’s sexier than 50 Shades of Grey. Explain!
Peggy: You could say it’s a story about ecstatic religion and sacred sex. Both! Though the sex doesn’t start off feeling very sacred. It has a 50 Shades-ish flavor.
Carrie: But I know those books weren’t an influence.
Peggy: No, I’d finished Cobalt Blue before they emerged. And Cobalt Blue is very very different from those. But I think it appeals to a lot of the same readers. And I’m pleased that the 50 Shades books prove that a huge number of women, as well as men, can be engaged by a story that involves some unsettling sex.
Carrie: How do you describe the religious experience in Cobalt Blue? It’s sure not Presbyterian, as in your first novel.
Peggy: Here’s where I take a deep breath. It’s pretty exotic for Eastern North Carolina where I’ve lived my whole life. It’s called kundalini rising. The Hindu-Buddhist tantric belief is that there’s a reservoir of psychic energy located at the base of the spine. Meditation and yoga are usually required to prepare for and to allow tapping into that force. But it can also happen spontaneously through entrancing activities like making art.
Carrie: And this is what hits Andie Branson and knocks her for a loop while she’s at work?
Peggy: It is. And it takes most of the rest of the story for her to find out about this stuff and to get herself under control again. Without long preparation, it’s supposedly like a fire hose going off. And in a most vulnerable area of the body, at the base of the spine.
Carrie: Two things we should get clear: do you believe in kundalini and is this book at all autobiographical?
Peggy: I’m open to the idea of kundalini. I think of it as the life force. Cobalt Blue is a story about a woman suddenly dealing with the full power of the life force. And no, not at all autobiographical.
Carrie: Then where did it come from? I know you get asked that a lot.
Peggy: Here’s the ironic thing: after I finished my first novel, Revelation, I wanted to write something lighter and settled on a premise for a bedroom comedy. But the story evolved. Spirituality welled up under the events of the story. And it gets pretty dark before the light gloriously rises.
Also, this novel can be read simply as an emotional/psychological crisis in this woman’s life with the kundalini explanation seen as just a name and reason she gives for what she does and what she goes through. That’s the sort of final decision I like to leave to the reader. For myself, whatever the truth of the matter in the physical world, I believe that Andie was seized from within by something large. Divine, even. That fascinates me.
Carrie: At the same time, you’re going around promoting this novel of the terrifying and the divine wearing a one-shouldered blue-sequined body stocking of a cocktail dress.
Peggy: Cobalt-blue-sequinned. And I’m dressing up as the life force, a bioelectric river of energy. Or maybe that’s just the excuse I give….
And, well, anything for a little literary attention. I just had a piece about this dress appear as the back page essay in Publishers Weekly, “Tap Dancing Authors,” about all the non-writing things that authors do to get people to come to readings, to get people interested in our books.
As you know, I did once provide cobalt blue punch at a reading. Tasty, but looked like Windex or that blue toilet bowl cleaner. Won’t be doing that one again.
So since I can’t play the banjo and make frightening fruit punch, my strategy is to dress funny, like a blue flame. At the age of 64, no less. I also have a long blue-cape and blue star-shaped sunglasses. It’s a look I tremulously launched at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. Now it’s mine. And it’s tremendous fun.
Carrie Knowles is the author of the new novel Lillian’s Garden and of The Last Childhood: A Family Story of Alzheimer’s. Her next novel Ashoan’s Rug, also published by Roundfire Books, will be out in September.