Jessa Crispin’s latest book is a new take of Tarot. We’re all familiar with Tarot cards, but she is an expert in them, and would like to draw them away from the wayward realm of gypsy caravans and medieval fairs, and help you put them to use in your daily life. She has quite a daily life, herself. A regular contributor to The Guardian, she is best-known as the founder of the review website, Bookslut (and its later offshoot magazine, Spolia). Bookslut is hugely influential in literary circles, and draws more readers than many long-established magazines. A powerhouse on Twitter, Jessa has a firm hold as a mighty presence in the world of literati. We spoke to her about her new book, The Creative Tarot, as well as her role as mover/shaker in the publishing world.
Noah Charney (NC): I live in Slovenia where folks love to play Tarok. What's the difference between Tarok and Tarot, and were Tarot cards ever used for a card game, or did they begin as a fortune-telling device?
Jessa Crispin (JC): I think Tarok is played with just a standard deck, though, right? I don't think there's a link, other than the name, which is a variation on the Italian game that the tarot cards were originally designed for. So yes, the tarot was originally just a game, but they started to be used for divination in the way that everything -- cheese curds, clouds, playing cards, coffee grounds -- has been used for divination. People always want some sort of glimpse of the future or of their own psyches, and we find external imagery is really helpful for that.
What was it like the first time you had your fortune told via Tarot cards?
Not that interesting, actually. I had my own deck in high school, but I was crap at it. I think my first reading by someone else was just a college friend. I don't remember anything she actually told me, just that it was the standard, "You will stop feeling like shit all of the time soon, you will find love at some point, we are just trying to make you feel better so you can get out of bed in the morning" kind of thing.
Which is still, I find, the way most tarot readings go. There are a lot of bad readers out there who just want to... not scam you, but tell you what you want to hear. I don't know how many of them are even aware they are doing this. But it's always the same. Money will come, love will come, happiness will come. Sometime. It's vague. But soon. I don't find that helpful at all.
Do you have a card that you find most intriguing (I hesitate to ask about a "favorite," but...)
They're all pretty good and crazy, right? Even the Devil, that fucker. My "birth card" is the Chariot, and so I look for him. When he's in a reading, or when he's my card for the day, I feel like I'm well-aligned, like I'm doing the thing I'm supposed to be doing. But when he's been missing for a while, I wonder what it is I'm doing wrong.
You've founded two very successful magazines, Bookslut and its offshoot, Spolia. Bookslut very quickly became a major player in the literary world, and has more monthly readers than many more institutional publications. What do you see as the source of its success? What do you think it was that launched it into the orbit of the literati, becoming a household name and reliable source of quality articles?
Oh man, I don't know. We were young and didn't take ourselves too seriously, but had a high standard for intelligence. All of these things were kind of missing from the literary conversation at the time. I grimace a bit at your calling Bookslut and Spolia "very successful," but okay.
Look: we had a good run at the beginning, because it was this weirdo thing. And that gets you a lot of attention at first. But then, if you're still the weirdo thing ten, or in our case fourteen, years down the line, people don't really know what to do with you. The establishment is going to want you to conform to their standards, and we never did. So now we're in this odd space. And there was no way I was ever going to conform, there was no way I was ever going to say something like City on Fire is a super important book or whatever. I was never going to play cheerleader for a sexist, racist capitalist industry. Or for its inane white boy heroes. So it's cute when you're new, but tiring after a while. Now I'm not sure where we exist, to be honest.
You're being interviewed for a new online magazine that hopes to enjoy some of the success of Bookslut (though with a very different focus). Any words of advice on how to raise the visibility and influence of a new publication like ours?
None. Everyone is fighting for visibility. Fight for fucking integrity instead.
As an editor, what do you look for in a good article? Or perhaps it's easier to list some red flags that suggest you won't care for the writing?
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
Your new book describes using tarot cards to "boost the creative process." Can you give us an example of what you mean by this, what a reader might expect from the book?
Tarot cards are cues. They bring clarity just by presenting a random idea or image to you, and you use that image or idea as a spark in the confusion. As in: here is this chaotic mind that is blocked or too full or unable to focus, and you pull a tarot card, or do a whole spread, and you use that to help organize and arrange your thoughts. It's the narrative, the spine. It organizes the chaos, helps you sort through it to see what is valuable and what is not. But you have to put work into it, you can't just expect it to be a magical key. You will have to do the work.
Do you own an antique tarot card set? I see some rather evocative ones occasionally in Slovene or Austrian antiques shops and they always draw my eye.
Nope. They're expensive, I'm a broke writer.
Is the gypsy tarot tradition distinct from the traditional use of tarot cards elsewhere, or are the two similar/linked?
Tarot cards are just cards. You can kind of doing with them whatever you want. Tell fortunes, use them for self-analysis, play a game. There's nothing inherently magical about the cards. You get out of them whatever you put in.
Have you tried to use tarot to predict when The Creative Tarot will hit the best-sellers list?
Like I tell all of my clients, I don't use tarot cards for prognostication. Plus, having a bestseller, being famous, people talking about you and looking at you, this is basically my nightmare. Don't tell my publishers, but I am most happy when being ignored. I write things because I believe in them and love them, but I publish them because I need the money. If I were independently wealthy, all this shit would go into a drawer. The actually being read part of all of this is the part I am least comfortable with.