05 March 2015

Interview with Michael Schmicker, author of The Witch of Napoli

Thanks for joining me at Carpe Librum Michael as part of your blog tour with HFVBT. I’d like to start our interview by asking when your personal interest in Italian Spiritualist medium Eusapia Palladino (1854-1918) first began? (For those who don’t know, Palladino is the inspiration behind the main character in The Witch of Napoli).
Author Michael Schmicker

We first met in a library. I was researching the scientific evidence for psychokinesis (the ability of the mind to move or affect objects – to levitate a table, for instance), and stumbled across the famous “Feilding Report.” It describes a series of sittings England’s Society for Psychical Research (SPR) conducted with Palladino in Naples in 1908. Palladino was in her mid-fifties, and had been sparring with skeptical scientists for two decades. She had been caught cheating multiple times, yet she also produced some of her most amazing psychokinetic feats under extremely strict scientific controls. The SPR had declared her a fraud; continental scientists disagreed. They forced the SPR to give her one last chance to demonstrate her psychokinetic powers. She won that dramatic showdown, thumbing her nose one last time at skeptics.
Eusapia Palladino

Eusapia knocked me off my feet. The Italians say when you fall hard for a woman at first sight, you’re struck by a colpo di fulmine – a lightning bolt. She was fiery-tempered, amorous, vulgar, confident – in a Victorian age where respectable women were insipid saints on a pedestal, stunted socially, sexually, intellectually, economically. She allowed strange men to sit with her in a darkened room holding her hands and knees (“proper” women would have fainted, or thrown themselves off a precipice if caught in that situation). She flirted and teased her male sitters, argued loudly, slapped an aristocrat who insulted her country, flew at men who accused her of cheating (even when she did). Yet she was also extremely kind and generous to anyone in trouble, loved animals, gave to beggars. Her heart was large. I thought she’d make a hell of a heroine for a novel – and a Hollywood movie. I’ve finally got the novel done. Next up, getting in the door at 20th Century Fox. A guy can dream, right?

What can you tell me about the title for The Witch of Napoli, because she wasn’t really a witch was she?
The real-life Eusapia wasn’t a witch. She didn’t cast spells, mix potions, or put curses on people. She was simply a medium – a woman who talks to the dead (perhaps). But she could also levitate tables, make objects fly through the air, and perform other spooky feats Christianity associates with devils and witches, so the title works. It took me a while to come up with it. I started with “Séance” – it’s short, and easy to remember, but it’s a bit tricky to spell when you’re typing a search in Amazon books. So I changed the title to “Queen of Spirits” – “queen” is a popular title word in the historical fiction genre, especially with older female readers. But several friends argued the word “spirits” suggested alcohol – was it the biography of a celebrated mixologist? I caved in and finally came up with “The Witch of Naples” – the word “witch” has cachet, especially with younger female readers. Then someone reminded me there’s a Naples, Florida too. So to distinguish the two, and keep the title which I loved, I opted for a little Continental flair, spelling the city like the Italians do. Ecco! as the Italians say: There you have it.

I read that your interest in the paranormal began when you were in Thailand working as a Peace Corps Volunteer; did you see something there that made you a believer?
I was open-minded about the paranormal before I got there. Heretical hypotheses about the nature of reality don’t frighten me – I majored in philosophy in college, taking mind-stretching courses like epistemology (what is truth?) and ontology (what is reality?). In ontology class my freshman year, the professor read us a wonderful poem called Chuang Tzu and the Butterfly written by the well-known Chinese poet Li Po. In it, Chuang Tzu falls asleep and dreams he is a butterfly. When he awakes, he asks himself the question, “Am I a man who dreamed I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming I am a man?” Think about it for a minute. How do you scientifically prove you’re not the latter?

After college I became a journalist (Microsoft and Colgate-Palmolive aren’t looking to hire Aristotles). I knew how to ask questions and write clearly, and worked as a crime reporter for a year before joining Peace Corps in 1969. I taught English at a Buddhist monastery school in Bangkok, and moonlighted after hours for the Bangkok World newspaper, slipping up to Laos and Cambodia on weekends to cover the Vietnam war and penning feature stories for the Sunday magazine.

One week, I decided to interview a famous Thai fortune-teller, Khun Mae. She turned out to be a warm, friendly lady in her 70s. Khun Mae dressed old style – the way Thai women did before Western culture redefined beauty. She sat bare-breasted on the linoleum floor, her shriveled boobs resting on her kneecaps, her skirt tucked between her legs, her grey hair cut butch like a man’s. The few teeth left in her mouth were black from chewing betel nut, and she spit the juice into an empty condensed milk can clutched in her gnarled hand. I remember she had this wonderful laugh. Her father had served as a court astrologer to Siamese royalty in his day, and he had passed on his occult knowledge to her. After we exchanged a traditional wai greeting, and I sat down on the linoleum floor beside her, Khun Mae asked me my birthdate (Feb 26), my day of birth (Friday), my time of birth (not sure), and added 543 years to my life (Thailand doesn’t use Anno Domini; in their calendar, Buddha’s birth marks year one). Then she pulled out a little grey school slate and started chalking down Thai numbers and odd symbols. When she finished, she blew my mind with a series of remarkably accurate statements about my life before Thailand, and what would happen in the future. Somewhere in a trunk, I still have a copy of the notes I made that day.

What an amazing experience! I also read that you've never seen a ghost yourself but have you witnessed or experienced any other paranormal phenomenon? 
Khun Mae was my most dramatic personal brush with the “paranormal,” though I frequently experience a lot of Jungian synchronicity in my life. 

What compels you to investigate the paranormal?Journalistic curiosity. Besides, it’s a lot of fun! Whenever people find out I write about the paranormal, they pull me aside and whisper, sotto voce, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but....” then proceed to tell me about seeing their grandmother’s ghost, or experiencing a chilling premonition that came true, or recalling the time a dowser with a forked stick found water on their neighbor’s farm. When they’re finished, they add, “But please don’t tell anybody what I told you.” That’s sad. Why are we so ashamed to share these stories? These puzzling phenomena continue to be seen, felt, experienced and reported by people of all ages, races, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds; in every country on earth; often in forms and manifestations unchanged since mankind started recording them four thousand years ago. Ridicule doesn’t make them disappear; education doesn’t make them disappear; the immense technological achievements and intellectual prestige of modern science cannot eradicate belief in them. Perhaps it’s time we seriously, open-mindedly examine the best evidence for these “impossible” phenomena.

We seem to have more and more books and TV shows based on paranormal and supernatural themes, and running parallel to that are significant leaps in scientific discovery. As a published and experienced investigative journalist in the field, what trends do you see in terms of people believing in the paranormal?Reputable pollsters like Gallup have found that the majority of the American public accepts the reality of one or more paranormal phenomena. I’m not sure what Aussie polls show, but I think acceptance will increase as 21st century science slowly extricates itself from its mental cage of 19th century philosophical materialism. The implications of quantum physics are astonishing in terms of what it suggests about the true nature of “reality.” The impossible suddenly becomes possible – even probable.

Do you prefer to buy your books online, from a physical bookshop or borrow them from a library?
Andy Carpenter designed
this book cover for
Michael Schmicker

A bookstore, if I can find one. I love cover art, and hate squinting at a 2-inch jpeg on Amazon. At a bookstore, you can pull a paperback off the shelf, plop down in a chair with a cup of coffee, and admire the art full-size. Writers sometimes get so caught up in their prose that they forget buyers do judge a book by its cover. The book-reading experience starts with art, not words. Andy Carpenter in New York City did The Witch of Napoli. He's done covers for a half-dozen New York Times best-sellers, including Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, Caleb Carr's The Alienist, and even art directed LL Cool J's Platinum Workout. He was worth every penny. 

When you have time to read for pleasure, what are some of your favourite books/authors?
One of Michael's
favourite books
I’m a product of my education and era, so my reading leans more classic than contemporary – Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Washington Irving, George Orwell, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Ray Bradbury, H.L. Mencken, E.B. White, David McCullough...I read a ton of non-fiction, particularly history. Historical fiction? Two favorites which pop to mind are Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, because it’s so intellectually rich; and George Orwell's Burmese Days, because I spent five formative years of my life in Southeast Asia. A close third would be Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I wish I had his talent.

What is your secret indulgence?Dark chocolate, 72% cacao – though it’s hardly a secret. My wife and son know I’m addicted.

What's next? What are you working on at the moment?I may follow up The Witch of Napoli with a small Kindle companion book called The Real Witch of Napoli. Many readers have emailed me wanting to know more about Eusapia Palladino, and what was fact vs. fiction in the novel. The short biography might also include a quick summary of the scientific evidence for psychokinesis. But first I have to make sure the Witch flies off the shelves. We’re planning a fun, séance-themed book party in New York in May.

Anything else you'd like to add?Two things, Tracey. First and foremost, my sincere thanks to you for giving me the opportunity to talk with your readers. Bloggers and reviewers like yourself make it possible for new writers to find their audience. Without your help, books die. 

Second, where can I find an outfitter for my dream adventure Down Under – driving a Land Rover across the outback from Alice Springs to Kalgoorlie? I’m serious.

Thanks for your time and kind words Michael. If anyone reading this interview can help Michael with his outback trip, please comment below. Thanks!

Would you like to comment?

  1. Ryan has a question for MIchael: "will they be driving themselves, i.e. Just hiring a vehicle, or do they want a tour guide for the nearly 2000km trip. I hope they understand just how Bloody big Australia is? Cheers"

  2. Aloha Ryan:
    Yeah, we've got a pretty good handle on the size of Australia, and your suggestion of a tour guide makes a lot of sense. Eric, a Transpac sailor and surfer friend of mine here in Hawaii, is game to make the trip with me. He and I drove from Anchorage Alaska to Deadhorse on the Artic Ocean, a run that included 500 miles of unpaved road across the Brooks Range and into the tundra, so we're up for it. If you know of a good tour guide company, drop me a line. THanks!

  3. Now that sounds like a decent road trip Mike!

  4. G'Day Michael:
    With regards to mapping and Australia, I suggest that you go off the "Peters Projection-Map" and not the standard "Mercator Projection-Map" it might put things into prospective. The Alaska drive sounds great. I've made a few calls with regards to vehicle hire from The Alice to Kalgoorlie (5 companies so far today) so far I've only found 1 that will accept the job, SARGENT, they mostly deal with mining contracts [wont be cheap-about 3-4K] the others just wont let their fleet travel that far over 'The Great Central Road'[little more than a dirt track in some places] The other car rental places I called in Alice had no-one on the other end of the line. The trouble being that the entire Australia population is less than the metro population of Texas, with only 2% of people living inland, the remaining 98% all live around the coastline. As the interior of Australia, like were you'd be going is mostly just desert. A trip up the east coast of Australia from Melbourne to Cairns, sticking to the coastline for example would be a brilliant way to see the country. It would be anywhere from 6-10 days drive depending on how hard you both went at the wheel, and what sights you wanted to see along the way. Hope this helps Michael, and I'm sure either way you go you're gunna love Oz, Cheers, R...

  5. That's impressive work Ryan, and thanks for scouting out the companies in The Alice for Michael, I'm sure he's going to be absolutely stoked when he reads your message!

  6. Aloha Tracey and Ryan:
    JUst got back to the thread. My apologies.
    Thanks for the information, Ryan. Lots to think about. But glad there's a company that offers the service. I will definitely do some research on them. You made my day,mate!


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