Interview with Mari Gayatri Stein

Out of the Blue Valise, Fuze’s latest release by prolific author and illustrator Mari Gayatri Stein, is flying off the shelves and enchanting audiences everywhere! Recently we sat down with Mari and asked her some questions about this marvelous journey of whimsy and pathos, humor and heart.

Out of the Blue Valise is an intriguing title—how did you come up with it?

The vehicle of Po’s freedom was a blue valise, delivering her to an amazing destination and offering a life transformation. Originally, the working title was Po’s Pages and edit by edit it evolved, first into The Blue Valise, thanks to my editor Molly, and then the designer, Ray, came up with Out of and so what always existed in potential came to actual life. Often in the creative adventure, the obvious answers are buried in plain sight. The more I reread and rewrite, the more surprises come to light. An “Aha!” moment with a tap on the forehead, usually accompanied by a smile. There is a subtitle—Getting There Without Going—which suggests the subtext, the story within the story. Our imaginations take us on the best life journeys, don’t they?

Why hippos? Why Africa? How do these unusual animals and this unusual setting resonate for you?

First, I have always perceived animals, plants, and things—animate or not—to have a voice, a life force, and a destiny. My husband, Robert, gifted me with a stuffed, farting hippo named Po. Hippos aren’t the gentlest of creatures, so it was Po-fect that Po had a problem with anger. She got SMAD, sad and then mad.

Then Africa was my mother Rhea’s unrequited dream. We were like one unit, Rhea and I. I have always taken refuge in the animal world and as a child created imaginary jungles in the shrubs and hedges and bushes in the Hollywood neighborhood where I was raised. I inherited her dream and during the writing of Out of the Blue Valise, I had a reservation to travel to Africa on safari with an old friend. In the end I couldn’t trust my body to make this journey. Do I regret it? Yes. Was it a good decision? Probably, but who knows? Acceptance is a big theme in the book as is love, forgiveness, humanity, humor, whimsy, folly, feeling fear through, and trying never to cause harm to another or oneself.

I like mysterious settings. I wanted to be a movie star from the time I was five and to live in a story that promised everything—and delivered. Hence, Petal’s “the kiss that presses the veil.” That’s why I love happy endings and yet bow to the unknownness of life. I try to live one day at a time to outrun my demons, or better yet to distract and tame them with words and images. I am a watery creature, a Pisces, and feel more at home in warm water than on the ground. Gravity is definitely not my friend.

Are you involved with causes associated with our many endangered species?

World Wildlife Federation does good work. I am adopting both a hippo and an elephant. It is heartbreaking the suffering that goes on. Greedy poachers murder our beautiful wild animals. We are destroying their habitats. One feels so helpless, so I follow what Mother Teresa said to us when we met her in Calcutta: “Serve your neighbor. Find out what are their needs and offer your help. You don’t have to go across the world to be of service or do good works.”

Of course the slaughter of animals and people is occurring across the world from where I live, and so I do support activist organizations and have sent my characters abroad to do the work I cannot do in person. I hope the book inspires others to meet harm with compassion and to extend their lovingkindness to all beings and creaturekind and contribute in any way they can: monetarily, physically, energetically, and in prayer to the reparation and unity of all sentient beings.

How long did it take to write Out of the Blue Valise? What was your favorite part of writing this book? What was the most difficult part?

I started Blue Valise five years ago, but the real book took three and a half years. The first draft is always a delicious torment, as are all true passions. The part I love best is editing and playing with words. I am in hippo heaven with tea and pages and my thesaurus—yes, a real book, a thick one. It’s red.

Is there a particular message or realization you’d like readers to take away from this book?

Message? Be kind, love, laugh, be silly, forgive, and take risks in the name of love.

It feels like there are many elements of personal experience in this fictional narrative. Would you care to unpack some of them for us—remove them from the blue valise, perhaps?

I am Mila, Petal, and Po beating to one huge hippo heart. My body is a task to tread in. I have an artificial heart valve, a fake hip (that has been recalled), and during the writing of this book had cancer twice. I continued to rally thanks to the courage of my characters and their humanity, and I tried never to let earnestness seep in through the cracks while the real world closed in. I love tea and nutty bread. My husband is a Brit who bakes. Mumbles and Flakey are my rescue dog companions. Hippos dominate the den sofa. I have nowhere to sit, but oh well. It’s worth it to be on the sidelines and smile and watch them cavort. They all have their own voices and dialects. I do believe we can change size with the right prayers and mantras. Prove me wrong.

I am a Francophile. Paris and Africa, here I come—well, that is my dream.

I have been an artist and a writer since childhood. It is where I live, in the dream, in the image, in the word. What inspires me is the juxtaposition of opposites and merging duality into oneness with humor. War becomes peace. If we were to sit together and chat, I would see balloon captions above your head and I might send you a drawing with a thousand butterflies the next day if you alluded to loving them.