October 18, 2012

Tales from the Yoga Studio: Meet the Author ~ Miri McDonald

Rain Mitchell is actually Stephen McCauley, author of Insignificant Others (2010),  Alternatives to Sex (2006), True Enough (2001) but also The Object of my Affection which starred Jennifer Aniston in its movie adaption.

Under this pseudonym, he is writing a series of novels set around a yoga studio in LA. The first book, Tales from the Yoga Studio was published in 2011. The second installment, Head Over Heels was published in earlier this year.

I’d like to start off by saying that Stephen McCauley is a pleasure of a person. He’s such a humble guy, especially given his credits. I hung up the phone wishing I could have conducted the interview with him at a coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where he lives) and afterwards, walked with him to the nearest yoga studio for a class. He’s the kind of guy you’d love to practice next to and have that unspoken conversation about the teacher and the intensity of the sequence being taught, all in a few shared smiles and eye gestures.

We also have similar views and experiences with yoga, which made the interview even more fun. I could relate to his Stephen’s dedication to his practice, his openness to various styles of yoga all tempered with a healthy dose of irony.

Here’s an edited summary of our conversation. Enjoy!

Why write under the pen name Rain Mitchell?

An editor that I had worked with at Simon and Schuster moved to a new publisher (Penguin) and contacted me because she knows I do a lot of yoga. She told me they wanted to develop a series of books about yoga and launch it as a fresh series with a new author. It was initially sort of a secret that it was me but, to the extent that anyone cares, now it’s pretty much public knowledge.

If the topic of the series was quilting, I couldn’t have faked it. But I love yoga. I’ve been doing yoga since I was a teenager and thought it would be fun to write about it.

How is Rain Mitchell different from Stephen McCauley?

Rain is very different from me and I discovered that pretty quickly. Rain had a better work ethic than me. He (or she?) would go to the library and write pretty steadily, seven days every week.  My own books have taken me years to write, but I was writing these very quickly. Perhaps it was because these books are more plot-driven than my books. Mine tend to be more quiet, character studies.

I had a different attitude writing as Rain, too. My own books tend to be ironic. There’s an ironic attitude towards everything. Relationships, work, are all approached with irony for the sake of humor laced with a little skepticism that reflects my own point of view. With these books, I didn’t need to do that. I could be more earnest. Yes, the Tales from the Yoga Studio series is satirical about world of yoga but at the same time, the books affirm the value of yoga in people’s lives and how yoga positively influences relationships and friendships.

For example, in the first book, Tales from the Yoga Studio, the character Stephanie, the screenwriter, had just come out of a not-so-great relationship. She was drinking a lot. And, it was her involvement in yoga and friendships with the women she met at Edendale Yoga who got her out of the crisis.

How did your yoga practice start and how has it evolved?

My practice began when I was in high school. I was not an athlete but was always active. I loved bicycling and running in my youth. Plus a friend’s father told me to do pushups every night and then again in the morning, adding one more each day.  I did that for a surprisingly long time.  Another friend of mine said she was watching this TV show on PBS about yoga. I watched a few episodes and then I just started doing it. Yoga suited my body somehow and seemed kind of hippie-ish and countercultural.  It was definitely not mainstream in those days.  My mother saw me doing it and started crying because she thought I must have been smoking pot. (Which of course I was, but not while doing yoga.)

I went out and bought books about yoga. Back then, I won’t say when because that would reveal my age (laughs), yoga classes were hard to find.

In college my practice diminished a lot. But then, maybe 20 years ago, I happened into an Ashtanga class and thought, wow, this is incredible. I thought it was amazingly difficult. But also really beautiful.

I started doing Ashtanga pretty regularly. And as the years went on I became pretty much a total yoga slut, trying all sorts of styles. Now my practice is a very eclectic vinyasa.

Now, I practice about five times a week and here in Cambridge, MA and am within walking distance to about five studios.

Yoga has really changed my life. It’s made me a more calm person and much less reactive.

What kind of yoga teacher do you prefer?

It almost seems as much intellectual as it is physical. The teachers I like are really able to communicate alignment and refining adjustments to your body verbally. There is a precision and ability to use language and they are clear and precise. I go for that. My least favorite kind of teacher is when it’s all about them and their ego trip.

I teach creative writing and I try, to the greatest extent possible, to make it about my students. It’s about their writing. Not mine. I think that is an ethical thing that spans across all teaching.

What kind of research did you do for the book?

That was one of the fun things about writing these books. I was obliged to take all kinds of (yoga) classes. I spent some time in LA, specifically Silver Lake, where the books are set. And, I went to Wanderlust twice. The Flow and Glow Festival in Head Over Heels is based on my experiences there.

How did you choose the characters for the books?

Lee is the center of this fictional universe.  She’s idealized, the teacher you want to have. She has integrity as a teacher and gives a lot to her students beyond asana. At the same time, her personal life reflects the 21st century woman in LA. The other women are appropriate to LA. They are people who you would find in (yoga) class. I also wanted to reflect the racial diversity you find in LA.

Imani represents that diversity, in part. When I taught at Harvard for a year, I met a number of students from various backgrounds who were the first in their family to go to college. They were caught in a dilemma where they were incredibly proud of what they achieved and their families were proud too, but at the same time, resented them a bit for having opportunities and experiences that distanced them from their family.  I wanted to show that struggle through Imani.

I thought it was interesting that Kyra was a priestess. I’ve seen those titles added onto yoga teacher’s names here and there. Can you talk about that?

One of themes of this book is what happens when you achieve a certain level of recognition, stardom really. A lot of yoga teachers are like celebrities now. And you really feel that at a conference like Wanderlust. There can be a great teacher that’s not as well-known giving a class with only 13 students in it. Then, a yoga star has hundreds of people in class. And I think the whole celebrity aura is often bigger than what they are offering. The students get no individual attention and (in some classes I went to at Wanderlust) couldn’t see or hear the teacher. But because it was a “star” teacher, everyone wanted to be in the class. Kyra represented that phenomenon in the book. Lee, on the other hand, doesn’t want to fall into the trap of using personality, fame, and (let’s not forget) sex, but also can’t quite avoid it given the industry and the fact that she has to support herself and her twin sons.

Tell me more about Lainey.

The great thing about LA is that it’s a huge city with every kind of person living there. You see the stereotypes and then there are people that have been living there forever that don’t fit the glamour/fame/money stereotype at all. It’s a great American city that’s wildly diverse.

Lainey represents the people you meet at universities and other institutions who are in administrative jobs and on the surface, are often kooky and eccentric. But, the more you get to know them you realize they are running the whole department.

Lainey was downsized out of a university job and I think she got the job at the yoga studio out of necessity. She met Lee and thought, here’s someone who needs my help. She took over and got things organized.

And, she probably goes home, turns on the TV and eats pizza and ice cream, saying to herself those “fucking bitches at the yoga studio.” But then, towards the end of the book (Head Over Heels) she finds herself at the door of the studio at the start of a class. She just smoked a joint. She feels out of place and embarrassed. But she stands there and breathes for a few minutes.

So she may be opening herself up to it. I am not sure she’d ever take teacher training but you never know!

Tell me about the men in the book.

My favorite character to write about was Alan. He’s horrible, a narcissist who’s mad at the world for not recognizing his genius, even though his talent is mediocre at best.  I know a lot of men like Alan, handsome and completely self-centered who end up getting taken care of by nurturing, intelligent women like Lee who really ought to know better.  I kept thinking Alan was going to get better, become a good person, but never did. He was always self-centered and awful. 

You could have written his story that way. Why didn’t you choose to do that?

Sometimes you want something for a character and you even write it that way in a draft, but it feels false. You say to yourself this doesn’t sound right. So you can’t do it.

For example, when Katherine, another character I really love, is in the gondolier with a cowboy type she just met, I thought, oh, here’s a chance for a hot sex scene. But then I realized, no I don’t think she’d do that, I couldn’t make it believable. So it became something else that felt more realistic.  You always have to stick to the truth of your characters or you end up with something that’s implausible.

Photo: Flickr Lululemon Athletica

Are there more books coming in this series?

It’s a projected series of three but the timeline for the third book is undecided.  I miss the characters when I’m not writing about them.

What is your opinion on the commercialization of yoga?

I will say that I’m not a purest about anything in my life. I have a healthy diet but if I want to have a piece of cake, I have it.

I had some nasty satire about raw foodists in the book. The fact is, I love raw food but I wanted to get to the idea that when anything becomes a religion, it can be too much. I can’t go there.

I’m not a purest about yoga. I got into it as a form of exercise. The spiritual, or deeper level benefits came in almost surreptitiously. They snuck in when I wasn’t looking. And I think this happens for a lot of people even if you just practice at big commercial studios.

And I think there are some huge benefits to commercialization. For example, any day of the week, at almost any hour, I can choose among at least five classes near my house.

Also, different people want different things and I don’t think it’s bad if people want to do a hybrid class of sorts or just sweat or just show off their new Lululemon pants. Something good will sneak in, even if you’re not looking for it.

As a writer, I also feel it’s best to not have a big agenda. There were things I satirized in this book but, that wasn’t the main intention. The main intention was to tell the stories of these characters and the value of yoga in their lives.

Miri McDonald works in strategic communications and a yogini on and off the mat. She earned her 200 hour teaching certification in 2005 from Tranquil Space Yoga in Washington, DC. Miri lives in Madison, WI where she is doing her best to live in the moment, learning from her favorite gurus, her two young boys and a crazy black Labrador. She tweets at@mirimcdonald.

Editor: Kate Bartolotta

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