Tuesday, March 7, 2017

PUYB Virtual Book Club Chats with 'The Mountain Goddess' Shelley Schanfield

Shelley Schanfield’s passion for Buddhism and yoga arose sixteen years ago, when she and her son earned black belts in Tae Kwon Do. The links between the martial arts and Buddhist techniques to calm and focus the mind fascinated her. By profession a librarian, Shelley plunged into research about the time, place, and spiritual traditions that 2500 years ago produced Prince Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. Yoga, in some form, has a role in all of these traditions. Its transformational teachings soon prompted Shelley to hang up her black belt and begin a yoga practice that she follows to this day.

Because she loves historical fiction, Shelley looked for a good novel about the Buddha. When she didn’t find one that satisfied her, she decided to write her own novels based on the spiritual struggles of women in the Buddha’s time. She published the first book in the Sadhana Trilogy, The Tigress and the Yogi, in 2016 and will publish the second, The Mountain Goddess in early 2017.


About the Book:

Author: Shelley Schanfield
Publisher: Lake House Books
Pages: 471
Genre: Historical Fantasy

A beautiful warrior princess. A tormented prince. A terrible choice between love, duty, and spiritual freedom.

In ancient India, rebellious Dhara runs away to a sacred mountain to study with the powerful yogi Mala, a mysterious woman with a violent past. Flung by war onto an adventure-filled journey, Dhara meets and captures the heart of Siddhartha, whose skill in the martial arts and extraordinary mental powers equal her own.

Worldly power and pleasure seduce Dhara, creating a chasm between her and her husband, who longs to follow a sage’s solitary path. She takes on the warrior’s role Siddhartha does not want, and when she returns wounded from battle court intrigue drives them further apart. As Siddhartha’s discontent with royal life intensifies, Dhara’s guru Mala, who has returned to her life as a ruthless outlaw, seeks her former pupil for her own evil purposes.

Dhara’s and Siddhartha’s love keeps evil at bay, but their son’s birth brings on a spiritual crisis for the prince.  If he leaves his kingdom to seek enlightenment, he turns his back on love and duty and risks destroying his people. Only Dhara can convince him to stay. 


Thank you for this interview, Shelley! Can we begin by having you tell us how you got started in Buddhism? 

Shelley: I grew up in a house filled with books, everything from hefty histories to James Bond thrillers to thick Russian novels to Mad magazines.

Among them was The World Bible, an unobtrusive paperback I particularly treasured, which contained scriptures and stories from many religions. The Mustard Seed, a legend from the section on Buddhism, was a favorite. Briefly, it tells the story of a young woman, Kirsa, who is driven mad by her beloved son’s death. She meets the Buddha, whose teachings on impermanence and compassion heal her grief. This tale resonated strongly with me, as a disabling illness had struck my oldest sister, and though thankfully she survived I saw Kirsa’s grief mirrored in my parents’ eyes.

That little book has followed me around ever since, first to college near San Francisco, where I fell in love with Asian history and culture. The spiritual traditions fascinated me, and I still remember my amazement on discovering that samurai warriors used Zen Buddhism’s meditative techniques to clear their minds before battle.

Fast forward a few years, past earning a Masters in Library Science, getting married, and packing up the World Bible and my many other books for a move to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Once again family illness upended things. My husband and I were already busy taking care of young children and aging parents when his brother developed a devastating neurological disorder. It fell to us to care for him. During this chaotic time, my son and I took up the Korean discipline Tae Kwon Do, which like all Asian martial arts has roots in the Buddha’s teachings. Its choreographed punches and kicks calmed and focused me during a stressful time and I was reminded of those samurai preparing for battle. I soon I dove into a sea of books on the subject, beginning with that World Bible.

I’m an avid reader of historical fiction and looked for a good novel about the man who became the Buddha. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, a popular book in my college days, had failed to move me. I wanted something that would bring to life the legend of the Indian prince who gave up everything to find the answer to suffering, the way T.H. White brought to life King Arthur’s struggle to replace might with right in The Once and Future King.

Nothing I found satisfied me. So, in a moment of madness, I decided to write my own novel.

Why did you want to incorporate Buddhism in your books?

Shelley: To write a book that told Siddhartha’s story would of course include what he discovered in his search for enlightenment and what he taught after he became the Buddha.

But what was it about his time and place—northeastern India 2500 years ago—drove him to his quest? Research into his era proved fascinating and frustrating.

Fascinating for the era’s conflict between the ancient sacrificial tradition and radical new trends like Jainism and even early yoga teachings (very different from modern Western practices) that opposed it.

Frustrating because there was no written record of the Buddha’s life until several hundred years after his death, and the oral tradition made an inseparable tangle of history and legend .

That tangle is perfect for historical fantasy, which can mix fact with myth and magic. From India’s rich religious tradition so many goddesses and gods, mortals and demons poured onto my novel’s pages that one book would not do them justice. The Sadhana Trilogy was born.

Can you tell us about your latest release, The Mountain Goddess?

Shelley: In the first book of the Sadhana Trilogy, The Tigress and the Yogi, we follow the low caste girl Mala from slavery to a ruthless quest for vengeance to a sacred Himalayan cave, where through yoga she seeks peace and spiritual freedom. She must leave behind her daughter Kirsa, who by a strange twist becomes young Prince Siddhartha’s the beloved companion.

The second book, The Mountain Goddess, introduces us to Dhara, the rebellious daughter of a warrior, who runs away to study with the mysterious yogi Mala. When war reaches their mountain retreat, they are forced to flee to the lowland kingdoms, where Dhara meets Prince Siddhartha and captures his heart. While wealth and power seduce Dhara, Siddhartha wants only to escape them. Against a backdrop of religious and political strife, Dhara, Mala, Siddhartha, and those they love face terrible choices.

Can you tell us a little more about your main characters?

Shelley: Dhara rebels against society’s demand she marry and bear children. Her father teaches her the warrior’s arts, and her guru Mala recognizes her gift for yoga’s supernatural powers. Dhara’s extraordinary abilities equal those that legend ascribes to Siddhartha, but as a woman, she pays a high price for them.

Mala, told from childhood she was impure and unworthy, embraces violence when her daughter Kirsa (whose story unfolds in Book III) is stolen from her. Though she later rejects violence and becomes a powerful yogi, demons from her past torment her and threaten her pupil Dhara.

Sakhi, wants all the things her dearest friend Dhara doesn’t: husband, children, and an ordinary life, but the war on her clan and a family tragedy draw extraordinary courage and compassion from her.
What kind of research did you have to do to write this book?

Shelley: I spent long hours on line and in the University of Michigan libraries learning about Siddhartha’s world, following internet trails to obscure articles about Hindu philosophy as well as pulling dusty books about everything from agriculture in ancient India to the roots of yoga from the stacks. For readable biographies and general interest material on India’s history, myths, and religions, check shelleyschanfield.com under the Resources tab.

What has been readers’ reactions to your book?

Shelley: The Tigress and the Yogi received excellent notices from Foreword Reviews and Blue Ink Reviews. Readers on Goodreads and Amazon have rated it highly (averaging 4-5 stars), and describing it as “mesmerizing,” “engrossing,” “very well written literary fiction,” and “a lovely combination of mythology, Buddhism, and magic that really drew me in.”

I hope readers will enjoy The Mountain Goddess as much and will keep you posted as reviews come in!

What’s next for you, Shelley?

Shelley: India’s vast mythological tradition has completely captivated me. There’s so much more to explore about the Buddha’s time, or I could jump ahead a couple hundred years to tell the dramatic story of the emperor Ashoka, India’s first Buddhist ruler. Then there are the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. With these as my sources, I will never run out of material for future novels

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