Last year, I sat down to chat with author James David Audlin. Picking James’s brain is a bit like pulling at a thread on your shirt, only to realize, some minutes later, that you’ve unraveled the shirt and now stand there half naked with about thirty-two feet of thread in your hand instead of a mere speck of lint. “James, when did you first know you wanted to be a writer? How old were you?”
“I’ve always been a writer. My first story, that I can remember, was ‘A Trip to Mars’, written and illustrated when I was around three years old.”
“THREE?? I thought I was a prodigy. Three?”
“Unaware that people think ‘it’s too hard to write a novel’, I innocently wrote my first novel at the age of twelve. It’s derivative and not very good, but I proved to myself that I could write a novel.”
“I was in my 30s before I proved that one to myself.”
“My first truly good novel,” said James, “was my fifth, composed between ages sixteen and twenty-five; readers will know it as A Mirror Filled With Light. Based (like many subsequent novels) on dreams, this is the novel in which I discovered my own true voice as a writer.”
I was counting on my fingers under the table, smiling with smug satisfaction – even a prodigy can take nine years to write a really good novel. I don’t know why, but I felt a bit better, knowing that. “So, tell me – where do you get the inspiration for your stories?” I asked.
James smiled. I knew this one, but I like to hear him tell it. “Most of my fiction (including novels, stories, and theatrical plays) are based on dreams. My dreaming is quite vivid, and often even during a dream I’m thinking to myself what a terrific novel this dream will make!”
“You know, you introduced me to the concept of ‘lucid dreaming,’ some twenty years ago. I mean, I’d done it, but had no idea that it was something others did – or desperately wanted to do. I never even thought of it as a wellspring for fiction.” I reached out to pull another strand from James’s mind. “How do you transform the ideas from dream-state to paper?”
“I awaken in the morning and write down as much as I can remember of the dream; these notes are fleshed out into the finished work. In fact, I have one collection of actual morning-after dream notes, which also includes in some cases the finished work that came from a particular dream. It is titled The Book of Dreams. The rest of my fiction comes from waking visions, which are just like dreams except that I’m awake: without warning, I will see and hear a story even more vividly than the ‘reality’ around me; again, I only need write it down.”
“Hear that, teachers of the world? Sounds an awful lot like ‘daydreaming,’ to me. I wonder how many great literary works were squashed by teachers demanding kids pay attention? I wonder if it ever occurs to them how costly ‘attention’ can be?”
James continued, undaunted by my silliness. “Both of my full-length plays are based on vivid dreams. Poetry is almost always written in moments of overwhelming inspiration, often based on dreams; I hear the poem being dictated to me–”
“Me too, but people think I spend days writing my sonnets. We can’t give away all the tools of the trade. If they knew the little people in our heads were just giving dictation–” I shuddered, as if someone was walking over the grave of my literary career. “Egads, man! We can’t have that!”
James shook his head. He said, “My nonfictional books are more deliberate than this; they are founded in observation and research. However, all of my writing, including nonfiction, is inspirational in the very act of writing; they are literally dictated to me, and I need only write them down. As a result, I rarely have to do any extensive editing or rewriting; this is usually just a matter of cleaning up my inaccurate transcription of what was dictated to me.”
I began moaning and banging my head on the table. James just laughed. “Everyone answers to their own voices.”
“You clearly have a great respect for a diversity of religious traditions and teachings,” I said, rallying somewhat. “To which are you drawn most strongly, and why?”
“I am an ordained Christian pastor in the United Church of Christ, now retired from the parish. I also took precepts as a Chogye Zen Buddhist monk, and took vows with Sufi Islam. I also have been for decades deeply involved with Judaism, Hinduism, and Taoism. Most important, I have been a student and teacher of the Native American spiritual tradition since my youth.”
“I’m still not going to a sweat lodge.” I figure my friend Karen R. and James could share a laugh over that.
“I also was a professor of world religions on the university level,” said James. “My approach is that various spiritual traditions are like spokes on a wheel: they are most different in their various cultural contexts, on the periphery of the wheel; viewed culturally, these lines seem to point in many different directions – up, down, left, right. But, of course, as we move along one of these lines, toward the center directly ahead, we slowly realize that the other lines, though they appear to us to be crooked (not parallel to our own, they are nevertheless also striving to reach the same center. The closer we get to that center, the more these lines tend to converge. Thus my experience has been that the deeply mystical elements in the world of faiths (Vajrayana, Sufi, Kabbalah, Native American, mystical Christian, and so on) tend to be all but indistinguishable in their wisdom and teaching.”
For some reason, I’m always a little more hopeful for the world when I talk with James and hear him speak about the commonality of faith and wisdom. But in today’s heated religious and political climate, it’s hard to be optimistic, sometimes. “In your opinion,” I asked, “is it possible for us all to ‘just get along’? Or are there such fundamental differences between some faiths that conflict is inevitable?”
“The hucksters of religion–the megachurch television “preachers”, reactionary demagogues in Islam, Judaism, and so on–tend to emphasize the differences between religions–the circumference of that wheel–and to inform their followers that the other spokes are crooked and thus are heading to hell and damnation; they do this to sell a brand and to gain customers–converts–to fill their bank accounts and provide them with adulation and power. This is the very nature of cultism. The mystics of religion (Thomas Merton, Gandhi, my teachers Zen Master Seung Sahn and Sidi Muhammed Sa‘id al-Jamal ar-Rifa‘i ash-Shadhuli, and those like them) do not talk of themselves, do not emphasize hatred of others, do not demand money, but emphasize the oneness of all true spirituality. The future of the world depends on whether people listen to the hateful hucksters or the loving mystics.”
“How do faith and religion influence your writing, James?”
“My faith is expressed in my writing. While of course I hope my books are interesting and entertaining to read, still I hope they say something. I don’t want people to put down my novel Rats Live on no Evil Star, for example, and say to themselves, ‘Well, that was diverting; what shall I read next?’ I hope that weeks, months, even years later, they are still thinking about the novel and what it says about the nature of humanity and love and time and death and transcendence. Perhaps my most spiritual fiction is in the story collection Lives of the Saints. These stories go deeply into the matter of spirituality, but in Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and other contexts. They are not a pallid puréed piss porridge of facile faith, but discomforting, even frightening.”
“Pallid puréed piss porridge?” I repeated, laughing. “I’m so stealing that line, James. I’m going to find the worst book I can find to review, just so I can say that it was a pallid, puréed piss porridge. Oh, stop with the raised eyebrow.” I stifled my giggles and let the man continue.
“False spirituality pats us on the head and tells us that we’re just fine. True spirituality yanks us out of our comfortable delusions and throws us in the deep end of the truth.”
The look on James’s face just dared me to extend his porridge metaphor. I opened my mouth, but thought better of it. “What do you see for the future of writing and publishing? Do you think it’s easier or harder for writers to get published and make a name for themselves, today – and why?”
“Worldwide, public budgets for the arts are being curtailed or eliminated, so it is rare that new plays by playwrights like me get produced on stage, unless one can round up a group of dedicated volunteers and talk some building with performance space in it into letting you use it for free. And the high overhead of producing books (editing, typesetting, copyediting, printing, binding, distributing), which already provides very little profit margin, has been cut down even more by governmental efforts to collect more tax revenues–hence the devastating effect on the publishing industry of the “Thor Power Tools” Supreme Court decision in the United States, with equivalents worldwide. Meanwhile, the huckster mentality is taking over everything. It matters not whether a book is good; what matters is whether it will sell. Hence the number of celebrities who pretend they’ve written books. The result is that many wannabe authors feel their only chance is to write a pastiche of books that sell well, and then flog the heck out of it, with the result that they become literary prostitutes.”
I felt like I’ve been sucking on a lemon, and gave James a pointed look. The irony was lost on neither of us as I set out to promote the heck out of his new web site, audlinbooks.com, and teach him how to leverage the power of the “little blabbermouth bird” of Twitter to promote his books.
“I firmly believe that, while it takes years of patience, we should write what we are inspired to write. We should find and speak in our own voices. Don’t seek out the world, let the world come to you!”
“You really believe the world will come to you?” I’m not so sure. I started out thinking content was king, but I know that the king needs his queen, and his queen is marketing. Really, James has a huge body of work that cries out to be read – but it cries so softly that it is in danger of being lost in the susurrating mountain breezes of Paso Ancho. The man writes because he’s passionate about sharing his visions and ideas, and it would just be a damned shame if readers come late to the party and give him his accolades posthumously. He smiled as if reading my mind.
“You are right, of course, about the King and Queen needing each other; I was speaking more about people who let the Queen rule the King. They need to work together as much as possible, but, in my personal view, if it comes to a choice, the King (inspiration) is more important than the Queen (marketing). We cannot market a lack of inspiration. We can, however, some day if not today, market unsullied inspiration.”
“How do you do that, anyway?” I shuddered. Anyone but James, it’d be damned creepy – him poking around in my head. I considered stubbornly conducting the rest of the interview in silence. But (reading my mind and all), he just sat there waiting for me to ask the next question. “James, what advice would you give to young writers?” Knowing James, he wasn’t about to go all cynical, at this point, like I might have, and say “learn a trade.”
“I wrote an essay (which will be included in my forthcoming collection of essays) directed to young writers, containing gobs of advice. Another important point is: when writing don’t try to turn out a finished product on your first draft. Just write! Don’t worry about spelling and grammar. When the Muse grabs you by the throat and says, ‘Write this down!’, write it down. Worry about spelling and grammar another day, when the Muse isn’t dictating to you. Your fifth grade English teacher was wrong: don’t worry about conjugation charts; worry about speaking clearly in your own voice.”
If you had to sum up your Seven Novels of the Last Days into one paragraph, what would you say about it?”
“The Seven Novels of the Last Days was inspired by a series of dreams I had as a teenager. The entire heptology was mapped out before I was eighteen. I’ve been writing it my entire life; the seventh and final volume is not far off from active writing.”
I started counting my fingers again, under the table. “Holy cats,” I muttered. That’s a bit more than nine years. Nine years ea–no, James isn’t that old. But I grinned and his expression hinted disconcertingly, once again, that he could read minds. I tried to behave, but that would be a first in the twenty-odd years I’ve known James, so why start now?
“The heptology was always conceived as a series of dreams during one night, a night in which the dreamer is going to die in her or his sleep. The story is of the archetypal man and woman, through several incarnations from the most ancient times to the far future when the universe is about to come to an end, remaining powerful in the might of love, in the face of encroaching evil of greed and bigotry. This series contains some of my most harrowing writing, with graphic descriptions of incomprehensible wrongness, but also of regeneration and hope.”
Graphic descriptions of incomprehensible wrongness… I scribbled that on a paper napkin, right alongside pureed piss porridge. I smiled innocently. “Go on… Where would you recommend a new reader start? What’s a good introduction to your work, James?”
“Reading the first of the Seven Novels of the Last Days–The Voice of Day, means committing oneself to reading the entire heptology, so let’s put those aside as an introduction to my novels. My best-known novel is certainly Rats Live on no Evil Star, though it is not the most accessible, since it has about seven narrative streams arranged in a mosaic of time and space. I think I am proudest of this novel, as probably my longest sustained flight of absolutely the best prose I can write; every phrase in this novel was inspired, and it means so much to me that I translated it into French (Palindrome) and into Spanish (Palíndromo). I’m thinking about translating it into other languages. Probably my most ‘fun’ novel is All You Need, set in a near future in which there is a religion based on the Beatles. You don’t need to be a Beatles fan to enjoy this rollicking adventure.”
“Thank you, James. At this point, I’m going to suggest that we take a break and stroll over to your site, where my readers can take a peek at your blog and get to know a bit more about your books. See you over at AudlinBooks.com!”
What’s Audlin Up To These Days?
Since this interview was published, in June 2012, James David Audlin has completed and published The Gospel of John: The Original Version Restored and Translated With Introduction and Commentaries.
The Gospel of John is one of the world’s greatest works of literature, modeled on classical Greek philosophy and drama, but soaring above these in its own new genre. It was itself less successfully imitated later.
And John’s is the only narrative gospel with a legitimate claim to composition by an eyewitness to Jesus – the anonymous Beloved Disciple. But the original work was never completed. Others later edited the manuscript to suit the doctrines of the new Christian religion, even adding some spurious new material. Making things worse, much of the book got badly disordered over time. Simply put, the gospel as we have it today is a mess.
This translation undoes the damage to restore – not the unfinished original text, but the masterpiece the Beloved Disciple and his amanuensis sought to compose. By so doing, we gain a sharply drawn first-hand account of Jesus of Nazareth. Here we encounter a vividly real man sent by God to urge humanity to accept God’s will – described in a narrative set down before creeds and doctrines repackaged him as God incarnate.
For a world that has replaced truth with lies, spirituality with commerce, wisdom with hatred, this is a work that gives us pure, undiluted sacred wisdom as shared with us by a man many call the greatest who has ever lived.
You can read fascinating commentary and discussion on James David Audlin’s blog.