Kelly Sue DeConnick on Her Relationship With Tarot, and a Magical New Kickstarter

Kelly Sue DeConnick on Her Relationship With Tarot, and a Magical New Kickstarter
Get ready for a new way to look at the arcana with The Literary Tarot. (Image: Brink Literary Project)

Whether you assign any faith to the mystical fates of a deck or just appreciate the often lavish artwork that goes into interpreting the arcana, tarot has seen a resurgence in popularity recently, especially in fandom circles. But now a new collection of arcana cards wants to give the fates a literary twist, and is recruiting a host of stars to help out. Gizmodo is excited to reveal the first look at some of the contributors to the Brink Literacy Project’s new Kickstarter, The Literary Tarot.

Recreating a full 78-card deck covering all the major and minor arcana — with art and design from Samantha Dow, Shan Bennion, Ejiwa Ebenebe, Isabel Burke, and Bradley Clayton — the collection also comes with an accompanying guidebook featuring contributions from dozens of beloved contemporary cartoonists and writers. Each essay in the guide takes one of the arcana and examines it through a piece of classic fiction that embodies that arcana’s attributes. Gizmodo is thrilled to tell you just some of the writers contributing to the project and their arcana/literary pairings for the guidebook — including site co-founder and Hugo-winning novelist Charlie Jane Anders! Check out the full list:

  • Starting off with the Major arcana, PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novelist K-Ming Chang (Bestiary) pairs the Magician with Wu Cheng’en’s 16th century novel Journey to the West
  • Amal El-Mohtar (author of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning novella This Is How You Lose the Time War) pairs the Star with Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Emily of the New Moon
  • Lev Grossman (The Magicians) pairs the World with King Arthur
  • Talia Lavin (the author of Cultural Warlords and the host of the Moby Dick Energy podcast) pairs the Devil with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
  • Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning writer Kelly Link (Get in Trouble) pairs Two of Pens with Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirlees
  • The bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng, pairs the Hanged Man with T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
  • Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Award-award-winning novelist Rebecca Roanhorse (Black Sun) pairs Death with Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Quill Award-winning novelist Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy) pairs the Fool with Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote
  • Simon Tolkien (No Man’s Land: A Novel) pairs the Chariot with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island
  • Meanwhile, for the Minor arcana, Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning writer Charlie Jane Anders (Victories Greater Than Death) pairs Knight of Cups with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
  • Margaret Atwood (Handmaid’s Tale) pairs Queen of Light (Cups) with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
  • Tarot reader and host of The Word Witch podcast Charlie Claire Burgess pairs Eight of Swords with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper
  • Bestselling writer Roxane Gay (The Bad Feminist) pairs King of Pentacles with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey
  • Hart Hanson (creator of the TV series Bones and author of the novel The Driver) pairs Page of Wands with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain
  • Erin Morgenstern (The Starless Sea) pairs Five of Light (Cups) with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
  • Novelist and biographer Alec Nevala-Lee pairs Two of Swords with Sophocles’s play Antigone
Image: Brink Literary Project, Other

Image: Brink Literary Project, Other

Image: Brink Literary Project, Other

Image: Brink Literary Project, Other

Image: Brink Literary Project, Other

Image: Brink Literary Project, Other

Image: Brink Literary Project, Other

Image: Brink Literary Project, Other

“I’m so humbled that the literary community has come out in such throngs to support our nonprofit,” Brink Literary Project CEO Dani Hedlund said in a brief statement provided to Gizmodo. “It’s dazzling to work with so many of my literary heroes on this deck and to share their enthusiasm for storytelling and creativity in such a unique form.” To celebrate the launch of The Literary Tarot Kickstarter, Gizmodo is proud to share an essay from contributor, comics writer extraordinaire, and Captain Marvel legend Kelly Sue DeConnick about the guidebook, and her own personal relationship with tarot as a writer and fan.

My near-daily Tarot practice is difficult to square with my larger world view.

I’m just not very woo. I put no stock in astrology, or in divination of any kind. I have an almost-desperate concern about the fate-based “chosen one” narratives that have come to so dominate our modern mythologies. If our purpose as artists is to get closer to the truth by telling lies, they strike me as having veered miles off course in the wrong direction.

I do love the world-building, but the notion that heroes are born as such, that Targaryens will be Targaryens and that the Force just runs in some families like a particular bacterial gut strain, rankles me. It rankles for many reasons, including the way I think it serves to subtly bolster existing hierarchies, but mostly it rankles me because it crashes headlong into my experience of the world and the constantly-evolving people in it.

Heroism, as I have seen it, is both a learning process and a series of choices. The people I have known who I could call heroes came to fit that descriptor over time, through hard work and humility, not birthright. And often, most often, they have changed dramatically along the way. Certainly, there is weight to be given the Nature side of the Nature/Nurture divide and yes, we are all big bags of chemicals, but even so, I must insist people change. Circumstances change. Nothing is set, nothing promised. And what a gift that is.

Humanity is so much more beautiful for its dangerous imperfection and malleability.

All right, so where were we beyond “I am an unfun curmudgeon, determined to ruin all the things you love?”

Tarot! Right.

So, for me, the cards do not have a consciousness. They don’t know anything I don’t, nor do they act at the behest of an unseen hand that somehow has nothing better to do than get all up in my dumbassery.

Again I stress, for me, the cards are nothing more than what they are.

We can part ways on this, of course, and that’s fine, that’s good, many of my “Tarot friends” — yes, that’s a thing — see the cards as a means of communing with the capital-U Unknown. Oddly enough (given my opening tirade and assertions), it’s not particularly polarising. I’d say we agree to disagree, but it’s such a non-issue we seldom even bother discussing it.

But human beings are messy and contradictory creatures and try as I might, I cannot exempt myself from that. So, here’s where things get muddied: I do have time for some aspects of Jung. I own more than one dictionary of symbols and for a while, even took particular supplements in the hopes that they might trigger lucid dreaming in which I intended to learn more about my own language of symbols.

So it seems there is some part of me that is at least a little bit open to the idea of… what exactly? Either a collective unconscious, or, perhaps, a higher/deeper self, one that may not be able to divine the future or advise on practical matters, but one that might help the conscious mind make less-obvious connections.

And that’s it, isn’t it? The ability to make or see less-obvious connections is — if not a definition of creativity by itself — at least a necessary aspect. First draft, I’d describe the process something like this: you begin like an explorer, a scientist even, searching for how seemingly unrelated ideas are connected. You turn over rocks, take notes of what you see, go spelunking, observes sounds and smells. You don’t judge. If you’re persistent and brave, you will uncover connections.

Sometimes they’ll be strong, like sinew, sometimes delicate, like spider webs. You collect the fibres and begin to line them up. Soon the fibres catch and snag and felt themselves into a thing that is both the same and different from what you started with. And that new thing will likely find its way into a composition you’ve been working on, revealing one more tiny piece of a larger picture.

Did I say I wasn’t woo? I’m so sorry. Every time I make a declaration about myself, I think of four or five exceptions. It’s like trying to pin down mercury. As soon as I put my finger down, it isn’t there anymore.

But, as it happens, that crack in the door (or the logic) isn’t necessary for how I actually use the cards, or what I use them for: to reveal those unseen connections. They’re sort of… tools for the explorer.

Without the metaphors this time: in my work, the cards help me solve problems when I’m stuck. I ask a question or present a character, then draw a card and look for ways to connect the ideas associated with that card to the matter at hand. The most blatant matches are no fun at all. The real gold comes in the ones you think are not helpful at all at first, but I continue mulling them over until I find my way in. If I fail, what of it? I draw another card or simply ask a different question.

In more personal matters, I seldom get more specific than “what do I need to know today?” I draw a card, look up interpretations and find what holds my interest. Throughout the day, I tend to come back to the ideas presented, sometimes in opposition to them. It’s always about reframing and finding connections.

In both cases, she says, asserting her rationality, the cards are acting as mediums or facilitators, but not between me and a heavenly being. Rather, I see them as prompting a conversation with myself.

The needle swings back again when I consider that I own several decks and I assign them each different arenas of expertise. Moreover, there are cards that have particular significance to me, and when a suit, a number, or Major Arcana figure repeats more than once over a short period of time, I cannot help but feel like the Tarot is trying to tell me something that I haven’t fully understood just yet. Perhaps that is a begrudging admission of supernatural belief? Or perhaps just an acknowledgement that the mind craves narrative and imposes it often without my consent.

These inconsistencies that I relish in other people are unnerving in myself. There is comfort and safety in knowing who and how you are. It’s easy to love fluidity in the abstract or the other but the intimacy of it in the self prompts an amygdala response. I want to assert, “no, I am this way!” and be done with it, even as I know that finding myself fixed in a mood or a mindset would be tragic.

Which brings us at (long, long) last to the Literary Tarot.

Dani, who oversees Brink and this project, gave a bunch of writers the opportunity to find and share connections between cards in the traditional Tarot deck and classic works of literature. The symbols on the card were then reinterpreted by an artist (one for each suit) through the lens of the chosen book, creating something new. There’s something delightfully meta about that isn’t there? To do with the cards, what I usually use the cards to do…?

Add to that a reframing of the suits from an author’s perspective — quills for swords, for instance — and I didn’t just want to participate, I wanted to know everything! I want to have long conversations with the authors involved about their own language of symbols, how old they were when they read the books they chose, and what significance they hold. I want to see all the many connections. And have all those conversations with myself.

I will disagree with many of the choices, of course. But I will mull them over until I find my way in. Perhaps the ones I least understand will prompt me to read — or reread — the book in question. Perhaps in doing so, I will uncover a connection — an idea — that I would not have stumbled upon without.

Perhaps that idea will change me in some way.

I sat down to write about the Tarot and instead, I’m afraid what I’ve done is illustrate the process of the Tarot by sharing with you a conversation I might have had with myself, turning over my own insecurities and closely held beliefs about growth, how we get there and what we must give up in order to do so.

That is how Tarot works for me. It is never the thing. It won’t stay centre. As soon as I put my finger down, it moves like mercury and looking at it means looking at my own dynamic reflection.

None of this even begins to get into the Tarot’s origins as a game, or its relationship to the modern playing deck, for which I also have a long-lasting and sticky affection! But I have gone on much longer than was my intension and so I will end in this way:

We are messy creatures, full of contradictions. Those seeming inconsistencies are my favourite thing about you. I am charmed and nourished by your capacity to be many things, at once and in succession. And when I am my bravest self, on the days when I am drawn to the suit of swords, I can enjoy that promise in myself.

Even if it sounds a little woo.

The Literary Tarot Kickstarter is live now, and will run throughout June.