The Oracle Pool (Littoral Books, 2020) is the latest novel by Maine-based author Agnes Bushell. The novel transports the reader from Manhattan art galleries and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to a sacred oracle sanctuary in Turkey, the Agora in Athens, and even the Syrian border. It is a rich novel that touches on themes of religious mysticism but is ultimately about personal transformation and the depths of friendship. On the journey the reader meets a visual artist, a writer, a minister, and an archaeologist as well as many others, all connected in some vital way.
Inside The Oracle Pool are drawings by artist Judy Allen Efstathiou, who splits her time between Athens and Portland, Maine. The author’s husband Jim Bushell took the cover photograph.
I interviewed Agnes Bushell December 9 th , 2020. As an artist, theologian, and explorer of sacred places, I found The Oracle Pool a rewarding read, and my talk with the author edifying.
Robert Diamante: Agnes, tell us about The Oracle Pool cover photograph. And your inspiration for the novel.
Agnes Bushell: The photograph is of the actual oracle site where the book takes place. In 2013 Jim and I were invited to join a group of students from the American School of Classical Studies who were touring off-the-track sanctuary and temple sites throughout Ionia, Caria, and Lydia in Turkey. Many of the sites had been plowed over, forgotten, and some only recently excavated.
RD: But not all oracle sites are actual pools?
AB: Many of the oracle sites were built over springs. The ruins of the site in my novel had flooded. When this temple—dedicated to Apollo—was originally excavated in the nineteen-sixties it wasn’t flooded. The archaeologists could see the original design of the oracle chambers below the temple.
RD: I have a vision of Daedalus’ vast maze. How big was this site?
AB: The above-ground temple site is about one hundred-fifty feet by eighty-five feet. Only two of the original Doric columns were standing. The labyrinth would have been below the temple. There was still a staircase down, however flooded. There would have been passages—narrow and not very high—with several twists and turns before you got to the inner chamber where the oracle was. The idea of the labyrinths was about the journey that you would take. It must have been quite an amazing experience, being led through the dark paths into the oracle chamber, listening to the oracle speak, then being led out along the twists and turns into the light.
RD: Very theatrical!
AB: Yes. There was something about this site—it had mystery, which inspired me to write about it.
RD: You mention the Sacred Way in the book.
AB: Yes. The Sacred Way is literally the road from the city to the temple site.
RD: All the characters in the novel are connected in some way. Tell us about them.
AB: Many of the characters—except Grace—are at the oracle site when the pivotal event happens. Ruth, Viola, Eunice; something happens to all of them that translates to their lives as they travel from western Turkey back to New York. The event that occurs at that site and its effect changes them.
RD: But Grace is really the main character, although she wasn’t at the oracle site initially.
AB: Grace is a minister who has started her own church based on the teachings of the anchoress Julian of Norwich—really, the first English woman writer. Grace acts as a spiritual consultant for many of the characters. She ultimately ends up going to the oracle site with her friend Artemas. She also has a transformative experience there.
RD: You touch on mysticism in the book: ancient, oracular, Islamic, English.
AB: I don’t think of this book as being about mysticism. Many of the characters are dealing with the possibility of the miraculous. Is it possible in this world to have anything miraculous happen? Are there sacred places that still exist? Those are the ideas I was exploring. I asked, are there still places in the world that retain any sort of spiritual energy?
RD: There is a “place” where all mystical experiences overlap—it is a union with an idea of god. Your characters experience a transcendence, each has some sort of epiphany.
AB: Yet the book is not so much about the mystical experience. I wanted to explore what it looks like to be good, a good person. I wanted to look at the difference between mysticism and simply living a good life. Spiritual goodness. I wanted to explore the idea that goodness comes through the things we do in the world.
RD: Through acts.
AB: Yes, through acts. Our actions in the world. I really explore this through the “un-episcopal" Reverend Grace. Her goodness is her most salient feature.
RD: Truly, the book is about her deep connections to people. And the value of friendship. Are any characters based on people you know?
AB: I’ve stolen parts of people!
RD: Did you have trouble leaving them behind after finishing the novel?
AB: It’s horrible to leave your characters after a book ends. My solution is to move characters
from book to book.
RD: What’s going on with the oracle site now?
AB: I don’t name the actual oracle site in the book. It’s close to Ephesus, which people visit because it’s popular. This site is small, not well known, and only has two columns standing. And it’s flooded. There’s not much to see for tourists. Two thousand years ago it was probably popular. Although it was not one of the seven oracle sites Croesus tested [Book 1, Herodotus]. It became more popular in the Roman era.
RD: You’ve written many books. How do they form for you?
AB: I tend to think about books as a means of exploring. Sometimes it begins as an idea. Sometimes it is a desire to be somewhere else. To paraphrase Salinger, “I write the books that I want to read.”
Robert Diamante is a writer and professional photographer in Maine. His commercial work has appeared in industry-wide publications including books (Brynmorgen Press, Lark Books, Schiffer); magazines (Vogue, Town & Country, Ornament, InStore); and blogs (Rio Grande, Jeweler’s Resource). His non-fiction writings have appeared in Adornment and The Waking. His short fiction has appeared in North by Northeast: An Anthology of Writers from Maine and The Dissident and an upcoming (yet to be named) anthology of fiction in Spring 2021. His photography and writing are archived in the Sampson Collection for Diversity at the University of Southern Maine.
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