A: In your memoir, Four Corners, you write that you were raised as a “strict Ayn Randian atheist.” But you’ve recently studied with shamans in Peru. And The White Mary is full of jungle spells, village rituals, and missionaries. Is this novel covertly spiritual?
KS: I’d say it’s overtly spiritual. My intention was to explore an idea: how a person responds when something awful happens. We can let it defeat us—or not. My goal was to connect with people who are suffering, to acknowledge and validate their struggle.
A: Your only sibling, Marc, drowned in a river on the Namibia-Angola border in 2005. You went to Africa and brought his ashes home. The White Mary is dedicated to him. Both of your main characters are dealing with loss—Marika of her father, Robert Lewis of his son. Was this book a response to your own grief?
KS: I wrote the entire book not long after my brother died. It was like an obsession. I lived then in a tiny basement apartment in Columbia, Missouri, unemployed for a year. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. It was a very private experience. I almost feel that the book wasn’t so much written by me, but rather channeled through me.
A: Did the novel emerge fully polished, or did it go through a few drafts?
KS: I did some pretty intense revisions. I’ve never worked harder on anything in my life.
A: What motivated you, at 19, to start traveling to far-flung places by yourself?
KS: Growing up, I always had low self-esteem, and travel was empowering for me. By going to unfamiliar or even hostile areas, I discovered parts of myself I didn’t know were there. It was a way for me to be reborn, in a sense, to discover who I was and what I was capable of.
A: It’s also more fun than therapy.
KS: Frankly, I wouldn’t wish my trips on anyone. Lots of them have been really unpleasant.