Update on The Pilgrim Mara

by Stephen Billias and Bela Breslau

Thanks to everyone who gave feedback on the proposed cover photo for The Pilgrim Mara. We got many insightful responses, more than we had received on any other post. Your suggestions and comments were extremely helpful.

In this challenging time, are you finding yourself more or less engaged in spiritual activities like meditation, prayer, or service? As you read through this update, we hope it triggers you to think about these practices and ideas. We’d be happy to hear from you on how the pandemic is affecting your inner lives.

The Pilgrim Mara, is out to just one publisher right now, a press that accepts unsolicited, un-agented submissions. Their catalog focuses on Buddhism, with books by the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, treatises by Buddhist spiritual leaders, writers and scholars. We hope they will add our book to their small fiction division.

As I longtime writer, I’m used to rejection. This is Bela’s first book. As I’ve said to Bela, every day that goes by is a day without a rejection. It would be incredible (and maybe slightly irritating to me) if the publisher accepted her first book (with me) on her first submission. If we are turned down by this publisher, our next step will be to do an agent search. We believe the book is worthy of mainstream publication.

Stephen and Bela

Stephen and Bela

Why did we write a book with a strong Buddhist theme? Bela and I met through the practice of Shintaido, a Japanese body movement and martial art. Underlying the martial arts techniques and movements of our practice is a profound spiritual, meditative, and transformative practice. It’s been a big part of our lives together. From 2006-2016 we founded and ran the Shintaido Farm, a center for the practice of Shintaido, in Deerfield, Massachusetts. As Instructors, we often co-taught classes. Our collaboration on The Pilgrim Mara was a natural outgrowth of our partnership in Shintaido and our lives together.

Why a Buddhist book, though? Neither of us are formal practicing Buddhists. We’re fiction writers. But our backgrounds created a good framework for writing this book. After suffering a horrific tragedy, Mara, the main character, takes several false paths before she finds a Buddhist practice that leads her to a renewed faith in life. Our exploration of Shintaido suffused our lives with concepts and deep connections to Eastern thought—concepts like Mu (Emptiness), Ten (Heaven) and Eiko (Glory). We both had satori-like experiences in Shintaido. Bela drew on one of them, takigyo (waterfall training) for a scene in the book.

In addition, Stephen worked and studied briefly at Roshi Bernie Glassman’s House of One People in Montague, Massachusetts. He was connected with Zen Peacemakers, which recently published one of his poems in their website journal. When we left the Shintaido Farm, we sold it to the Engaged Mindfulness Institute, a Buddhist training and retreat center which is expanding and doing wonderful things at the place Bela and I built. There was something beautiful and full-circle about the transition from Shintaido Farm to Windhorse Hill Retreat Center (EMI).

We have a sequel to The Pilgrim Mara in mind. Your thoughts about spiritual practice in times of crisis would inform that book. Thanks!

Book cover image for The Pilgrim Mara

During this long and difficult period of enforced isolation, Bela and I are continuing to work on the novel The Pilgrim Mara that we wrote together. It’s the story of a young woman who has suffered a horrific personal tragedy, and is trying to find her way in the world again. She goes down several wrong paths before she finds meaning and renewed purpose in her life through a meditation practice.

We plan to sell The Pilgrim Mara to a mainstream publisher. If that happens, we won’t have a say in the book cover. Publishers have designers who would do that work. If we end up publishing through Odeon Press, our own imprint, as we did with A Book of Fields, we’ll select the cover image ourselves and produce the cover with the help of a local designer.

In early February this year, before the quarantine began, we took a research trip to San Francisco where much of The Pilgrim Mara is set, to check our memories and our writing against the current reality.  As part of this research we went to Green Gulch Zen Center on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. While there I took this picture in a Zen garden:

We would love to hear what you think of this photo as a book cover image. A main theme of our novel is the idea of a pilgrimage and a search for meaning. Thanks for your comments and suggestions. We appreciate your energy and support as we move forward on this project. You can post comments on this blog.

If you have a minute, please go to www.stephenbillias.com and take a look at the pages there. In the near future we’ll be revising the website to make it a shared site for both me and Bela, who is hard at work on a book project of her own that will be the subject of a future blog.


Stephen and Bela

A Year of Accomplishments

The year 2019 was one of accomplishments for me and my wife Bela. We brought out A Book of Fields, the collection of fictional short stories about the Pioneer Valley and the people who live here. We had a big book launch party in October, and multiple readings in bookstores and other venues in the area, including one last night, Wednesday, January 8th, 2020, at the Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts, organized by the Straw Dog writer’s group. The book received fantastic reviews. And to top it all off, we wrote a novel together! More on that subject later. On to 2020, with hopes for more success to come.

First Newspaper Review

First Newspaper Review

A Book of Fields has received it’s first newspaper review, from author Tinky Weisblat in the Greenfield Recorder of Thursday, August 29th, 2019.  You can read the whole fantastic review from the link above, here are some excerpts:
There are 25 gems in ‘A Book of Fields,’ a delightful new collection of stories about the Pioneer Valley by Stephen Billias of Deerfield.”
Billias deftly paints portraits of places and people in them that are full of color — and often full of humor and heartbreak. His characters are fictional yet they will seem true and familiar to the reader.”
A Book of Fields” may be the best book I have reviewed this year. It will make you laugh and sigh and treasure every field and every person around you.”
Many thanks to Tinky for this glowing review!

Book Launch Party for A Book of Fields

We’re pleased to announce that Odeon Press is publishing A Book of Fields, Stephen’s collection of short stories about people in the Pioneer Valley. The party will be Saturday, October 19, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. at the Windhorse Hill Retreat Center 595B River Road, Deerfield, MA.  There’ll be great music by The Green Sisters, four real sisters from Hubbardston in the valley who sing in beautiful sisterly harmony. Please join us for this exciting event!