‘Witches of America’ author Alex Mar working on follow-up in Woody Creek
IF YOU GO …
Who: Aspen Words writer-in-residence Alex Mar
Where: Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar
When: Tuesday, May 22, 5:30 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: Free copies of Mar’s book “Witches of America” are available in the Aspen Words office at the Red Brick Center; aspenwords.org
Alex Mar has taken her readers into contemporary witches’ covens, into the Church of Satan, and into the mind of a robot engineer replicating humans as androids.
The journalist and author of the acclaimed 2015 book “Witches of America” uses immersive reporting and an empathetic approach to explore subcultures and overlooked, unconventional corners of American society.
“It’s a world view that’s outside of the mainstream, and how to get the reader inside of it,” Mar said, “where you can feel you can relate to the thinking of someone who is a completely obsessive android designer or you can relate to someone who calls herself the high priestess of a coven.”
Mar is the Aspen Words’ writer-in-residence for May and will give a reading Tuesday at Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar.
She’s spending the month in Woody Creek working on her follow-up to “Witches of America.” The new nonfiction project, she said, examines a murder committed by a teenage girl in the 1980s and the forgiveness offered to the murderer by a victim’s relative.
“I won’t say too much about it, but it’s about what I’m calling ‘radical forgiveness,’” Mar explained.
While the “Witches” project required in-depth and on-ground reporting to profile paganists and practitioners of the occult — and being trained herself as a witch with a coven in New England — the new book has required a tremendous amount of historical research. Mar has been digging into court papers and archives from the 1980s and ’90s and piling up interviews.
“That’s really exciting, but it does become this question of ‘How much? At what point am I free to just focus on the writing?’” she said.
That’s what her Aspen Words residency is for.
Mar is stepping back from the research to concentrate — in this idyllic writer’s residency at the Catto Shaw family’s Mojo Garden Farm — on the book’s narrative.
“While I’m here in the hills in beautiful Woody Creek, I’m trying to use this environment to focus on crafting some scenes and worrying less about archival materials and sources,” she said.
This spring, Mar was a National Magazine Award finalist for her Wired magazine cover story on android designer Hiroshi Ishiguro.
Before that, she spent years reporting on pagan societies and the occult — a journey that began with her 2010 documentary film “American Mystic.” The film included a portrait of a young woman who identified as a witch and led Mar into her long inquiry into modern American witchcraft.
“I felt like, well, here is a new religious movement that really only goes back to the 1950s and that has so much to offer and is really genuine — there are a lot of serious ideas to grapple with in the pagan movement,” she explained. “As a journalist, it was irresistible.”
In the process, Mar found herself grappling with her own faith and spirituality. The book evolved, in part, into a memoir and — much to Mar’s surprise — a personal story.
“I am someone who had not written a lick about myself,” she said. “I was not someone who leaned heavily on the first person, but it seemed dishonest not to incorporate myself in the book in that way.”
As Mar was preparing to spend this month here, she revisited the works of Hunter Thompson, the writer who put Woody Creek on the map and revolutionized participatory journalism. Mar, who was working at Rolling Stone when Thompson died in 2005, picked up “Hell’s Angels” and reread “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” before she headed west.
“Part of me thinks it’s tragic that his lifestyle, for some people — the fascination with his lifestyle and his decadent antics — overshadows his work,” Mar said. “His work was a big deal and writers can still learn from him.”