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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

the spiritual adventure story

Rain fell through the night and continues to fall. Raindrops sparkle on leaves outside. There is the insistent beep of the garbage truck backing up the lane. The air is still: only the longest feathery twig of the yew shrub outside stirs, almost imperceptibly. Kimmie is taking today off to extend the Easter long weekend. I served her coffee in bed so she could lie there and read I Hate You, Don't Leave Me, a book on borderline personality disorder (no--Kim doesn't have this).

On those rare occasions when I'm asked when I began this novel, or how I decided to do it, I usually say something vague like, "I've been developing this idea for years, even decades."

It's hard to pinpoint the origin of it exactly. My first response is to say that its origin was in 1979. I was 20, traveling with my friend Brad, and we had reached Belize City, a hot, damp woodframe settlement crisscrossed by stagnant sewers called canals. We had found a room in a clapboard hostel, which we shared with Terry, a gruff-voiced, longhaired traveler from upstate New York who had spent more than a year on the road, and Orit, a young Israeli woman. (Yes--the Belizeans were casual about throwing young men and women into the same sleeping-room together, where they would meet each other for the first time.) There I started reading a copy of Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom, an investigation of modern man's strange attraction for totalitarianism, which I had got at an English book-exchange in Mexico (I think I may have left Faulkner's Sanctuary on the shelf in exchange).

The pages of the mass-market paperback had become puffy and fat from the moist tropical air. I enjoyed Fromm's writing (Brad had first put me on to him a couple of years earlier by lending me The Art of Loving), and his digging into large-scale social and political trends by looking at their psychological causes. There was something about this--the science of mass movements, mass behavior, as being linked to the dark closets of our personal unconscious drives--that attracted me.

I was also thinking about astrology, which I had just begun not so much to study as to open my mind to. I would draw the astrological glyphs in the little pocket-notebook that I carried around in my hip pocket, again following Brad's example, and study them, trying to intuit their symbolic meaning. And I thought about the famous alchemical slogan I had read in Jung: "Our gold is not the common gold." This phrase excited something deep in me, stirred my bowels with feelings of profundity and creativity and possibility. Using this slogan as a watchword, one could create an adventure story that was really a spiritual quest. One could combine narrative excitement with depth of meaning. The gold sought by your characters would not be the common gold--although it might look like the common gold.

If not the phrase, then at least the idea of a spiritual adventure story was born in me. I knew that this was the type of work I would like to write, although I had no idea how I might do such a thing. If I wanted to have spiritual content, then I would have to find that. My own life would have to involve a spiritual education or search to give me the authority to include it in my work. How does one come to write with authority about spiritual things?

My search had already begun. What seemed to have happened in that hostel dormitory in Belize was that I realized that my spiritual search and my writing career were not separate, but were, possibly, intertwined and belonged together. The seeker is a writer, and the writer is a seeker. The work (if any), and maybe the search (if fruitful), would be a unique product of that alloy.

As Brad and I continued our adventure into Belize, through Guatemala, and back up through Mexico, the thought and feeling of that inspiration resonated in my mind while my senses were jammed and barraged with the intensity of those brilliant, chaotic, strong-smelling places.

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