Lockdown Interviews: no14 Cassandra Passarelli interviewed by Jeremy Dixon


Cassandra Passarelli (Liberty Tales, Five by Five,)  interviewed by Jeremy Dixon, Liberty Tales, The Other Side of Sleep, Dusk, In Retail 

Jeremy: You have had work accepted by many different publishers, has there been anything different about working with Arachne Press?

Cassandra:      Arachne is a very personal publishing house. They reach out to their writers and involve them. Five by Five was published two years ago but I still feel part of the Arachne family.

Jeremy: You are a Buddhist and a Yoga teacher, and I wondered if these disciplines and ways of living have had any influence on your writing?

Cassandra:      For sure. In fact, my PhD research at Exeter is motivated by the question of influence and overlap between writing and Buddhism, two practices that are of great importance in my life. Writing and Buddhism are forms of studying our own minds and those of others. Both require patience, mindfulness, attention to detail and being a deep listener. I would like to think that writing brings you in an experiential, slower way to an awareness of interdependence, impermanence, emptiness and the conditionality of everyday existence. Certainly, they complement one another.

Jeremy: Has the Covid 19 virus and the subsequent lockdown had any effect on your creativity?

Cassandra:      As a fierce believer in independent thought and personal freedom, the first few days were disorientating. First, classes at the university stopped, then the library closed, then my daughter was sent home from school. Then I understood I wouldn’t be able to visit people I love (who live in other countries) for some time. Then the shops in our town shut and basic provisions were hard to get. It was difficult to concentrate… my writer’s mind was analysing this reaction, predicting where it would lead us politically, socially and spiritually. So many people have been dying for years all over the world from things as simple to solve as diarrhea and malnutrition or more complex like malaria and cholera, yet this virus is inspiring an exponentially greater fear… perhaps because the West can’t escape. The suffering it will cause is staggering. But in this nook, an incredible peace has descended, birdsong has replaced car engines and night skies have cleared to reveal distant stars. My daughter and I began to talk with and assist the elders in my street and we found this gentle rhythm to do yoga, study, write, garden, read and take our long walk each day. New ideas are fomenting…

Jeremy: What writing plans do you have for the future?

Cassandra:      I don’t really plan much. I start new stories, as and when. I revise work in progress in between. I submit finished stories. I read.

I’m putting together my first collection gathered around the Buddhist concept of the three marks of existence (suffering, impermanence and non-self) which my creative writing supervisor at Exeter University, Andy Brown, is reading. And working on the second chapter of my thesis on the congruence between Buddhism and fiction in the short stories of George Saunders, that the University’s Buddhist Dean, John Danvers, is reading. And I’m running a workshop with a small group of creative writing undergraduates over the summer.

Jeremy: What is your approach to your writing?

Cassandra:      My approach? Every day I get up, do yoga, go for a swim (run, now the pool is closed), eat breakfast and sit down to work by nine with a cup of home-roasted, freshly ground coffee. I work till four o’ clock or so. Sometimes I pick up on something in the evening for a couple more hours.

Jeremy: Would your writing be the same without your experience of travelling and living in different parts of the world?

Cassandra:      No. Although I haven’t been on the road now for several years (just short trips here and there), my travels were a large part of my education. Leaving England for a decade and a half drew things from me that would have otherwise remained latent. I would say it made me stronger, wiser and (hopefully) less selfish; I met amazing hospitable, generous people who showed me other ways of thinking. This has shaped how I write and has accentuated my outlier mentality.

Jeremy: Do you have any writer heroes?

Cassandra:      I wouldn’t use the word hero. I admire writers who struggle, down here, with us, but whose brilliant minds soar.  Where to start? Recently, I read the often-anonymous, deeply moving poems of the earliest Buddhist nuns (reinterpreted by Matty Weingast) in The First Free Women. I still turn to long-time favourites like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Essays of Michel de Montaigne or the poetry of the Mexican so-called phoenix, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. And the authors I grew up with; James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton or Raymond Carver. Or ones I discovered later: Eduardo Galeano, Maya Angelou, Tove Jansson, Charles Johnson, Jeanette Winterson, Kevin Brockmeier, George Saunders, Deborah Levy …

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