I’ve Got Questions for Barbara McHugh

Editor’s Note: This exchange is part of a series of brief interviews with emerging writers of recent or forthcoming books. If you enjoyed it, please visit other interviews in the I’ve Got Questions feature.

Bride of the Buddha by Barbara McHugh
  • What’s the title of your book? Fiction? Nonfiction? Poetry? Who is the publisher and what’s the publication date?  

The book’s title is Bride of the Buddha, published by Monkfish Books, and it came out on January 24, 2021.

  • In a couple of sentences, what’s the book about?  

Bride of the Buddha re-imagines the story of Yasodhara, the Buddha’s wife, whom he abandoned to go seek enlightenment. In my novel, Yasodhara has her own spiritual quest, which includes disguising herself as the monk Ananda and changing Buddhism forever.

  • What’s the book’s genre (for fiction and nonfiction) or primary style (for poetry)?

The book is a historical novel.

  • What’s the nicest thing anyone has said about the book so far?

“Life-changing”, “the best book I ever read” by reviewers. “A luminous, imaginative story of love and devotion” by Foreword Reviews. Publisher’s Weekly called my novel an “engrossing exploration of gender dynamics, identity, and the spiritual quest for meaning [that] will appeal to Buddhists and general readers alike.” 

  • What book or books is yours comparable to or a cross between? [Is your book like Moby Dick or maybe it’s more like Frankenstein meets Peter Pan?]

I like to compare my book to the many recent novels from the point of view of women protagonists who’ve had significant relationships with historical or legendary men. These novels tell the women’s stories, as opposed to relating a man’s story from a female point of view. Madeline Miller’s best-selling novel, Circe, is an example. Other examples are Barbara Quick’s wonderful Vivaldi’s Virgins, based on the life of Anna Maria dal Violin, one of the elite musicians cloistered in the foundling home where Antonio Vivaldi was the maestro and composer. Finally, I have been very inspired by Elizabeth Cunningham’s series of books about Mary Magdalen. Like Bride of the Buddha, these novels tell the story of a woman who has been intimate with the founder of a world religion.

  • Why this book? Why now?

We live in a time where we’re suffering the dire consequences of our self-centered values. Buddhism and other religions can offer an alternative, but present their own problems. A primary one is the conflict between embracing the world and transcending it – in other words, love versus mysticism, or social action versus quietism. My protagonist embodies this dilemma, and her story offers, not an answer, but a clarification of the issue. 

Bride of the Buddha also challenges the misogyny of many religions, which take women to be secondary beings unfit to approach ultimate questions on their own.  My protagonist, as a woman, is an example of women as “default” people, with their stories at the center of the human endeavor. “Default: means that when you think of a person, you don’t automatically think of a man. For many women, this perception can be very empowering.

  • Other than writing this book, what’s the best job you’ve ever had?

I worked as a book doctor/writing coach for many years. I love working with other writers; people are offering their best to the world, and there are few things more satisfying than helping them do this. Also, I learned from these writers, and teaching the craft of writing sharpened my own craft.

  • What do you want readers to take away from the book?

Besides a deeper understanding of the issues I’ve already mentioned, I’m hoping to introduce a fresh perspective on Buddhism. I’ve known many women who were turned off to Buddhism because its founder was a man who’d abandoned his wife and child. Hopefully, I make the Buddha’s motivations more understandable, as well as giving a voice to the wife he abandoned. I wanted to depict the Buddha as a human being, with values that resonate with today’s humanism. I also attempted to show how Enlightenment might affect these values. 

  • What food and/or music do you associate with the book?  

That’s a difficult question to answer!  Little is known of the food and music of 2500 years ago; also, the Buddhist monastics were forbidden to attend musical performances and encouraged to perceive food as strictly a means to fuel the body in the quest for Enlightenment.  At the same time, the Buddha was often invited to dinner, where his supporters presumably served him their very best (he had one explicit rule: his monastics were forbidden to eat any meat killed expressly for them).  Which leads me to one food item that figures strongly in the plot: mushrooms. Mushrooms are served more than once in my novel, with far-reaching and terrible effects.  

As far as music is concerned, I’ll just let readers fill in the blanks with their inspirational music of choice.  Perhaps meditative silence says it all.

  • What book(s) are you reading currently?  

The Ministry for the Future: A Novel, by Kim Stanley Robinson, described as “a remarkable vision of climate change over the coming decades.” I’m also reading the Digha Nikaya, (the Long Discourses of the Buddha in translation). 

Barbara McHugh

Learn more about Barbara on her website.

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Buy the book from Monkfish Books, Amazon, or Bookshop.org

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