I’m super excited to feature South Bay Writers (SBW) member and author Marjorie Bicknell Johnson. SBW’s book club, TalkBooks, selected Jaguar Princess : The Last Maya Shaman as its first group read. The following interview is a summary of TalkBooks’ live Q&A with Marjorie about the book.
What inspired you to write Jaguar Princess?
I’ve been interested in Indian cultures in the Americas for a long time. The Mayans were good mathematicians and astronomers, with a writing system similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They had complete libraries with beautiful books. In 1562, the Spaniards burned more than a thousand books in one bonfire. Three books still exist.
In the PBS documentary, Breaking the Mayan Code, an eleven-year-old boy made major contributions to reading the inscriptions on Mayan stone monuments. I thought, “A girl could do that!” and then, “Who would want to read Mayan writing?” I decided that the girl would be born of a King, with the blood of a shaman and the ability to read.
Who was your intended audience?
I wrote partly for myself, but intended it as a young-adult book that could be enjoyed by adults.
If you had to choose one of your characters to have lunch with, who would it be?
I’d choose Pex (pronounced “Pesh”) because I admire her ability to study all the languages and how she learned to balance her abilities as a shaman with her career aspirations.
Do you and Pex have anything in common?
We both love to climb trees and draw.
Where did you get the idea for Kedar?
I wrote about him in my first book, Bird Watcher, which is the first book, chronologically. I’ve flown planes, including a floatplane like the one flown by Kedar.
Which parts of the book flowed, and which parts did you find more challenging to write?
The prologue flowed because I felt what happened to the Mayans was so unjust.
The part where Pex wandered in the desert with the codex was more difficult to get through. Pex’s character was also challenging because Mayans don’t exhibit emotion in public. They don’t cry or smile, or hug everyone like the people in our culture do.
How did you come up with the connection between reading the codex and Fibonacci numbers?
It’s fictitious, but connected in a way. There’s a relationship between that and the golden rectangle that Plato and Greeks were so fond of. Mayans have a construction for making the golden rectangle too. They have a book like the Bible that says the first thing the gods created was a square and then explains how to construct the square using rope. I tried to add a puzzle in my book.
Do you have any quirky writing habits?
I have to start with a pen in my hand for my brain to work. I write a part of a chapter in pen, then type it; add a little bit, print it and edit with a pen.
Marjorie Bicknell Johnson taught mathematics for twenty-five years before she became a pilot, and she published ninety mathematical papers before she wrote a novel. She is addicted to the Fibonacci sequence—she served on the editorial board of The Fibonacci Quarterly, an academic mathematics journal, for 40 years. She enjoys sharing her passion for writing, and is the author of two published novels, Bird Watcher and Jaguar Princess.