Ashley Mayne lives on the edge of a deadwater marsh once known as Hell's Acres. Near Millerton, the valley was legally part of Massachusetts until the 1850s, but it was cut off by the Berkshires, and New York lawmen had no jurisdiction there. "So it was kind of a hideout for horse thieves and brawlers," she says, sounding pleased.
Indeed, the characters who populate Mayne's extraordinary novels Tiger (Dr. Cicero Books, 2015) and Mankiller (Dr. Cicero Books, 2014) might be right at home in such company. A recent Bard graduate, Mayne writes about edgy, sometimes predatory outsiders in fierce, glowing prose. From Mankiller: "Fire lives inside of wood; every tree, every house, is fire in its dormant state, fire sleeping, waiting to be awakened. It's all there in the grain."
Mayne opens the door of her cobalt-blue farmhouse barefoot, in cutoff jeans and layered tank tops. Sun-browned and lithe, with a waist-length curtain of hair and glints of silver jewelry, she looks startlingly young. The home she shares with farmer and painter Chris Regan and Louka, the foxy feist-terrier mix she calls "my familiar," overflows with creative and outdoor accoutrements: paintings and musical instruments, a manual typewriter, hiking boots, antlers and jawbones, a cast-iron crowfoot, a sickle, old skis. There's a red tribal rug airing out on a clothesline, and faded Tibetan prayer flags hang over a door flanked by bee balm and catmint.
It's a sweltering day, and Mayne goes to the fridge for a pitcher of home-brewed iced mint tea. When she sits down to talk about writing, it's clear that for her, it's a verb of motion.
Regan's Sky Farm produces organic salad greens, and Mayne calls herself its "road warrior." During the growing season, she logs hundreds of miles daily in the delivery van, bringing mesclun mixes to local restaurants and farmers markets. These long solitary drives, she says, are "great thinking time."
When farm work slows down in the winter, long drives give way to long hikes with Louka. "Hiking is something I do really passionately," she asserts. "It's harder to worry when you're in motion. It's good for constructive thoughts, as opposed to cannibal thoughts that aren't helpful."
"I'm riven with doubt in most aspects of my life. I'm a worrier. There's practically nothing I don't second-guess. But once I get to the writing desk, it's all right. It's a magic circle. You sit down there and sort of drop into something else."
Talk to Mayne for awhile, and you might feel a little bewitched. Her eyes are pale green and her gaze asymmetrical, so she seems to be simultaneously looking you right in the eye and focused on something beyond.
She grew up in Austin, Texas, where her family has lived for generations. Her mother is a speech pathologist, her father a software engineer. Mayne didn't start reading until she was eight or nine. "When you learn to read so late, you bypass the traditional books for children. I started right in with Alexandre Dumas." She started writing during what she calls "a turbulent time in my childhood. I felt very lost. So I wrote. Things a nine-year-old would come up with, like pirate adventures."
As a teenager, she started acting. At 18, she moved east to join Walking the Dog, an avant-garde touring ensemble now based in Columbia County. She worked with them for four years before applying to Bard. "I've always had mentor-like relationships with other artists, and Bard is all about that," she says. "My playwriting mentor was Caridad Svich. I spent two semesters taking classes with her, and her sensibility—fearless, brutal, vivid, tender—cracked something open in me."
Mayne didn't start writing prose until her senior year, when she made an intuitive leap from the theatre department to the Written Arts building, pouring her heart out to novelist Mary Caponegro. "She read my plays and thought I could write prose," Mayne recalls gratefully. The first thing she started was Tiger.
It's hard to imagine a more ambitious first project. The novel's main characters are a fallen Jesuit priest named Ochoa and his former student, Tony Luna. Their stories unfold over decades and continents as the narrative leapfrogs from Ochoa's senescence to his brutal Basque childhood and stint as a missionary in an Indian village stalked by a Sundarban tiger. Tony first appears as a chilly, rich Brooklyn photographer obsessed with a feral young woman he meets on the street. Their pasts intersect at a church-run Connecticut boarding school where Ochoa and troubled teenager Tony shared a forbidden-fruit sexual bond.