This reading group guide for Alchemy of a Blackbird includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Claire McMillan. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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For fans of The Age of Light
, Alchemy of a Blackbird
is a mystical, historical novel based on the true story of the twentieth-century painters and occultists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, each beginning as the muse of a famous lover and then breaking away to become an icon in her own right through a powerful friendship that springs from their connection to the tarot. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Readers are immediately introduced to Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington. What is your first impression of these friends?
2. In chapter three, readers experience an overview of Remedios’s time in prison before a guard simply unlocks her cell and lets her free. Why do you think this happens?
3. In the beginning of the novel, an angry Oscar hurls his glass at a wall after a mention of him being in love with Remedios, which moments later through his tarot reading we learn may be true. Then, a bit later in the book, Remedios mentions Oscar may help with Benjamin and André’s latest creative idea—and Benjamin hesitates. Why do you think this is? Do you feel Benjamin believes Oscar is in love with Remedios? Why or why not?
4. Remedios and Benjamin are lovers, but she cannot help but feel unsupported when he doesn’t stick up for her, especially to his best friend and partner André. Why do you think Benjamin acts this way?
5. Do you believe it was fate that Remedios ran into the printer’s shop to hide from French police? What do you think Remedios took away from meeting Madame Carvon?
6. Remedios watched the pain her dear friend Leonora endured but had no choice but to leave her behind, before they could one day be together again. How do you think Remedios made this hard decision? Was it what Leonora would have wanted? What would you have done? Explain your answers.
7. Leonora Carrington was given the Two of Cups tarot card (pg. 159). Do you believe this is in reference to her platonic love with Remedios? Or is the card further exploring themes of self-love? Romantic love? Explain your take.
8. Benjamin seemingly encourages Remedios to prioritize her art and her dreams, but his actions and lifestyle say otherwise. What is your take on their dynamic? Do you believe Benjamin is truly supportive of Remedios as an artist?
9. Leonora is a main pillar of support for Remedios and her creativity. How important do you think it is to have a strong foundation in an otherwise lonely career as a solo artist? Does Leonora’s encouragement help drive Remedios’s success?
10. This novel is broken into two parts, France in the fall of 1939 and Mexico in 1941. What growth, personally and artistically, did you notice in the characters? What other major character changes did you notice between parts I and II?
11. As a reader, did you enjoy learning about various characters through their tarot reading? Why or why not? Why do you think the author chose to tell the story this way?
12. In the end, do you feel it was fate that decided the outcomes of these characters or was it from the choices they made and challenges they faced? Enhance Your Book Club
1. “When Remedios awoke the next morning to the scent of baking bread, for a moment—and how disorienting this was—she thought her father would knock on the door and tell her to get dressed, that they were going to visit one of the aqueducts he designed. The clear quality of the bright midday light took her right back to her childhood in Catalonia” (pg. 37). As a native-born refugee, do you think Remedios is remembering her childhood with her father because it is one of the few moments she felt at home, safe and cared for without needing to be on constant high alert?
2. “The seller turned to Remedios. ‘Buy what you wish, mademoiselle. No need to wait for someone to give you what you need. You must acquire your tools for yourself. You are the agent of your destiny’ ” (pg. 5). What early lesson was the vendor teaching Remedios and Leonora? Do you think these words stuck with Remedios specifically, as she continued her journey through tarot? How might this lesson have helped Leonora regain strength down the line?
3. The author ends the novel with a tarot reading of our main character, Remedios Varo (pg. 248). After all you have experienced from the novel, what do you believe the significance of The World card is? Did you foresee a separate reading for Remedios? A Conversation with Claire McMillan Q: Where did your inspiration for Alchemy of a Blackbird come from?
A: Viewing Remedios Varo’s painting, The Call
, which hangs in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, was an alchemical experience for me in that it shifted something inside me. I’ve never had an experience like it. Remedios and Leonora sometimes alluded to their paintings being spells, and I’m pretty sure I felt that. I had to know all about the person who painted this portal. I started reading about Remedios and Leonora with no intention of writing about them. I was halfway through a draft of another novel. As I read more about Remedios, I set the half-finished book aside and knew I had to write about her life. Q: Historical fiction can often be influenced by art, so making the decision to include tarot is a unique approach to the genre. Where did you get the idea to intertwine art and history with tarot? How did you know which tarot lessons to give to the characters?
A: I’d been studying and using the tarot for about ten years and had no idea that it would show up in my work. I was drawn to the tarot as a tool for self-reflection and self-discovery and solely for my personal use. As I became more interested in it, friends started asking me for readings. I don’t have a calling to be a professional reader, but it is always an honor and an intimate trust exercise to read the cards for someone you’re close to. Some may say that reading for someone you know effects the reading negatively as one is less “objective.” But my late teacher Rachel Pollak used to say that reading for someone close to you is the very best way to use tarot cards as you can bring all your knowledge to the reading which adds great depth of insight and understanding.
As I was researching Varo’s life and learning how inspired by the tarot she was, my own interest in the tarot gradually dovetailed with what I was reading and everything came together.
In writing the tarot definitions for the third-person characters, I wrote each character’s chapter first because I wanted to make sure that their voice and perspective moved the plot forward and added to the reader’s ability to enter into the dream of the book. Once I’d done that, I went back and chose the tarot card that I thought best represented the arc, or the theme, or the point of view of that character. I also wanted to show, perhaps, my approach to the tarot and how it can offer insight. For me, it’s less about predicting the future and more about what can be personally considered or embodied in this moment that will offer aid or clarity. Q: Is there anything you learned from your research that you wish could have made it into the book?
A: I kept trying to put in the book Varo’s continuing relationships with her ex-husbands and lovers. It seems that once she loved someone, she never really stopped, and she had a talent for keeping people close to her. I deleted her first husband, Gerardo Lizarraga, out of the story entirely. She married him in art school, mostly to get away from her family. She started her affair with Benjamin, and her marriage split up. But Gerardo separately came to Mexico City as a Spanish refugee where he eventually remarried and had children who Remedios was very close to. Gerardo and Remedios were lifelong friends, and he was never really out of her life. Similarly, she and the painter Victor Brauner were lovers for a time while she was with Benjamin, and they all remained close friends. Remedios went back to Paris only once, and it was to see Benjamin before he died and say good bye to him. Even after she came back from Venezuela with Jean Nicolle and broke up with him, they remained friends until the end of her life. Of Jean she actually articulated that had she stayed with him, she would not have become the painter she was. I was fascinated by that decision to leave him in favor of her art. Yet friendship and love remained between them, so much so that when Jean was sick and in need of surgery it was Remedios and Walter Gruen who paid his hospital bills. In part I think this is because the European ex-pat community in Mexico City at the time was incredibly close knit, like a family, as they’d had to leave their extended families and networks behind. They had to be each other’s networks. In part I think it was because it was a very bohemian group of artists and thinkers who wanted to buck convention. And in part I think it is a testament to Varo’s big heartedness and charm that she could maintain these relationships.
However, every time I tried to include all this, the story morphed into one about Remedios in relation to the men in her life. My goal in writing the book was to keep the focus very squarely on Remedios and Leonora and their friendship and art. Each time I’d draft in these complicated relationships with men, it overwhelmed the story and changed the focus. I decided to focus on what felt to me like the major romantic relationships in her life, and leave the others to the side. I wish I’d had the skill enough to get them in there without it looming over everything else. Q: Do you have a favorite tarot card? And if so, what makes it your favorite?
A: It would be hard to name a favorite card. A renowned tarot teacher once said, tarot is never “to you” but “for you.” In that way all cards have something beautiful to offer. A card I’ve learned to greet with equanimity that others might tense up around is the nine of swords. It depicts a person waking up in bed with their head in their hands while nine swords hang over their head. When I first started working with tarot I would tense up when this card appeared, convinced some nightmare would befall me that day. It never happened. Invariably, for me, the nine of swords is about getting lost in what a spiritual friend calls brain loops. When you’re looping through old stories, old patterns, telling yourself catastrophic predictions, really walking around in a horrible dream. One hundred percent of the time those stories aren’t true or don’t come true. Usually during the day something will happen to show me I’m making up a story in my head. So now, when the nine of swords comes up it’s like a gentle reminder that things might come up that day that might throw me into old nightmare stories and loops. If I can remember the nine of swords, it helps me become aware of the loops and release myself out of them more quickly.
But I think all the cards in the Smith Rider deck let us enter into stories. Every card depicts a little scene, usually filled with action. For a storyteller, that’s compelling. My dearest friend once said to me, “Everything’s a story for you.” It’s no surprise I was drawn to the tarot where every card illustrates a little scenario and you and your intuition and the universe create the story of what that means. Q: This story is mostly told through the fictionalized account of real life artist Remedios Varo. Why did you make the decision to tell the story largely through this point of view? Do you think you will write something through the lens of Leonora Carrington?
A: In researching Varo’s life I became enamored with her as a person, a seeker, and an artist. I was lucky that during the writing of this book Margaret Carson’s translation of Varo’s Letters, Dreams & Other Writings
was released and I got to know her voice even more intimately. I knew very early on that I wanted to tell the story through her point of view. I felt very called to her. As of now, I don’t foresee writing from Leonora’s point of view. Q: In addition to creating vibrant characters and rich dialogue, your novel is full of gorgeous imagery that helps a reader envision each scene with ease. How did you create these spaces in such detail?
A: First of all, thank you for saying that. With my last two novels I really started with place and setting and with this one I didn’t. So I wanted to make sure place came alive for the reader without overwhelming the pacing. That’s always the trick, giving enough detail that one can see a scene but not so much that the story is dulled. It’s a tricky dance with research. One is reading and gathering all these great nuggets, such as there really was a zinc swan’s neck bathtub in the Vila Air-Bel or that Remedios really did leave cheese for the mice in the holes of the floorboards of their Mexican apartment. These are details that I know I’m going to use as they’re so evocative. Research is one of the joys of writing something like this, but it can also be a pitfall. One can go on and on researching and never get to the writing. Or, once one decides to write you have so many little treasures that you want to pack in that the story gets lost. I constantly remind myself that good storytelling is about the characters and their emotional journey. That’s the primary thing. The rest of it is just pretty set dressing and using that to serve verisimilitude and add realness to the story. Doing that successfully is a matter of judgment and weighing whether you’re writing historical fiction or science fiction. Q: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new? If you are, what can you tell us about it?
A: Yes, I’m drafting a new novel. I avoid talking about new work because, for me, it lets all the energy out of it. I will say I was sad to leave the world of the spiritual, and the new book will involve some esoteric and occult aspects.