Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Altered State of Visionary Fiction

What exactly is Visionary Fiction?  Since four of my novels in the Booker Series have been “pigeon-holed” within the category, I thought I should attempt a definition for myself so that I could respond to the obvious question.

For me, the Visionary Fiction genre includes novels that deal with shifts in awareness that result in metaphysical understanding by the central characters.  The plot of the novel is generally more concerned with internal experiences than with external.  The work is also “visionary” in the aspect that the authors sometimes (or often) employ non-rational means such as dreams or extrasensory perceptions to develop the content of the book.

In my own experience, I explore the cultural separation of the rational and intuitive approaches to reality.  Much of what the characters do and say come from an intuitive perspective.  Since I am a cultural man of the Indo-European tradition with its system of logic and reason, I must depend on visionary experiences to give me insights into the intuitive.

The experiences are not intellectual.  They cannot be professionally researched or forced by will into expression.  The altered reality comes through surrender, not aggressiveness.  It is always beyond the mental resources of the author.  It is a humbling experience, which in its appearance on the page, can only be acknowledged as a gift.

All this being said, a good novel is a construct requiring writing talent and an apprenticeship to the craft of writing.  One must learn and practice the trade to be able to employ the visionary material in a meaningful way.  Visions alone do not spontaneously turn non-practicing writers into novelists.  The novel, by definition, is a form.  It has literary precedence and craft standards.

It occurs to me that much of the literature of the industrial age to the present has been a medium defining the chaos of the “modern” human condition.  I hope that visionary fiction breaks from the angst of the past and shows its authors and its readers a more enlightened passage into the future.  In this regard, visionary fiction may be truly visionary.

But why the novel?  Why not non-fiction testaments to visionary viewpoints?  The good novel has penetrating power to individual awareness because it involves the reader in the deep process of human character.  The good novel is more than information, more than entertainment.  It is a pathway to the reader’s subconscious mind.  Hawthorne called this achievement “the single effect,” that indescribable feeling one experiences on reading the last page of an important novel.  If the reader has immersed himself or herself in the process of the character, the experience is more than vicarious.  It is profoundly real; and within the subconscious mind, the reality is not separate from feelings that actually occurred to the reader in his or her physical domain.

If you allow yourself the reflection, has there not been a book in your life that altered your awareness—a reading that you mark as a turning point in your own life?  What facts in the book were responsible for your feelings about it?  Is it not the intuitive qualities that resonated within you from the reading that prompts you now to cite its importance in your personal life?  Can you enumerate the altered chain of choices that you made thereafter?

Visionary Fiction could be in danger of being branded as “message books.”  Who needs more messages in the sensory bombardment of the information age?  I hope that Visionary Fiction becomes the medium for metaphysical experiences on a deeply personal level and that the content transcends momentary emotionalism and initiation to the occult, to lead the reader to his own visionary experiences.

I set out in a series of novels to explore the possibility that an individual caught up in a western material environment could, in fact, remake himself as a human being.  His exploration, and mine, hopefully becomes the reader’s as well.  And in that process, we share a vision that leads to future awareness of our common humanity.

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Cannibalism: No Fit Subject for a Novel?

I think that a writer has to follow what is presented to him or her and then follow their curiosity to where it leads. I had read the best selling book ALIVE when it was published in 1974.  It was a fascinating true account of how the people of an airliner crash, high in the remote Andes Mountains, had survived for weeks by cannibalizing their fellow deceased passengers.  The concept was gruesome, but the elements of heroism were also plainly evident.

Nothing would have warranted me to think more on that horrific subject had I not come across a small newspaper article no more than one column by three inches that probably appeared in the New York Times.  The report stated that the survivors of the Andes crash had experienced remarkable health following their rescue from the crash site.  Although they had suffered much, individuals who had allergies, arthritis, and other nagging conditions prior to the accident were free of symptoms for periods of six to eight weeks afterwards.

My imagination then leaped to the unstated conclusion that the human flesh diet had somehow transferred health benefits to those survivors. It was an outrageous idea, but how might the crash survivors respond to their experiences of the health benefits?  Might they want to investigate it?  Research it?  And where would that lead them when such a taboo study had to be done in secret?  I sought to develop answers to these questions.

A writer’s curiosity should propel him or her into the research mode, and so for several years I read everything that I could find on cannibalism.  I was interested in fact, not fiction, and so I read the psychological and anthropological science on the subject.  At the end of that study, I felt that I knew as much about anthropophagy as any graduate student in the world, and I felt confident that I could combine the research with creative imagination to write a very original and unusual novel.

Flesh was my second novel, written about 1980.  I sent the manuscript to a classmate from our days together at UVA—Bob Friedman, who was to become the subsequent publisher of my four Booker Series novels.  Bob had been a first reader of my short fiction and first novel, but he was usually slow and brief on the comeback.  I might wait for months for him to say “nice job.” His reaction to Flesh was very different and immediate.

“You kept me up all night!” he said as the opening line in his telephone call.  Bob had read Flesh in one sitting.  Bob’s conclusion about Flesh proved to be prophetic.

“This book will be bigger than Jaws, or no publisher will touch it,” he said.  And Bob was right for nearly 30 years. Based on my synopsis of Flesh, no agent or publisher wanted to read it.  If they expressed themselves at all, their tones rang of disgust.  My defense of the novel as an allegory was useless.  The subject, as far as they were concerned, was too taboo.

Well, in 30 years, the appetites of readers (pun intended) and media viewers have changed. Human dissection is common on the forensic crime shows on television.  Hit vampire novels, television shows, and movies show copious blood gushing.  And zombies?  The onslaught of body-devouring zombies is as ghoulish as a slaughterhouse.

In writing Flesh, I did what every writer should do. I pursued what was presented to me, supported my curiosity with solid research, and then completed the novel that had propelled my imagination.  Now we get to see if Bob was right.  We’ve overcome the cautions of previous-day publishers by the wonderful vehicle of e-books.  What remains to be seen is if Flesh becomes bigger than Jaws—the book and the movie.

Don’t be afraid.  You will laugh at some scenes in Flesh.  The verisimilitude, however, is creepy.  My wife Pat worries that after Flesh, no one will ever again come to our house for dinner.  If you think that I am daring you to read Flesh, I guess that I am.  After 30 years of suppression, Flesh is out of the closet.

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Encounters with William Faulkner

1954 photo of William Faulkner by Carl van Vechten

I first saw and heard William Faulkner just as many second-year men at the University of Virginia did during a question-and-answer class set up to discuss his novel Light In August, which was standard American Literature course material in 1961.  Joseph Blotner, the U.Va. English professor who was to become Faulkner’s official biographer, introduced the world-acclaimed author with few words and took a seat.  Faulkner rose from his chair and stood at the lectern, slowly surveying four tiers of students who sat in a semi-circle around him.  What the students saw was a 64-year-old small-framed man with white hair and a thick mustache.  There was an embarrassing silence as Faulkner made no introductory remarks, but waited for the first question.  Finally, someone had the nerve to ask one.

If we expected the roar of a lion tamer’s voice, Faulkner’s soft Southern tenor with its almost prayerful intonations was a surprise.  So, too, were his responses to long, complex literary questions about dark symbolism and such.  His constant position was that he was just a farmer who liked to tell stories about the struggle of the human heart.

My personal introduction to the writer whom we U.Va. types referred to as Mr. Faulkner, just as we referred to Thomas Jefferson in the present tense as Mr. Jefferson, was made by George Garrett who started the creative writing program at U.Va. in 1962.  George is the revered and widely beloved mentor to a thousand writers like me.  George wrote at such a level of high quality in so many literary genres that no critic could fathom or contain him. He never repeated himself in fiction or in poetry and was thus a true original.  His unparalleled generosity to students was demonstrated when he asked Henry S. Taylor (who was to win the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) and me if we wanted to have coffee with Mr. Faulkner.

As the writer-in-residence, Mr. Faulkner had office hours for conferences on the fifth floor of Cabell Hall, but few people were advised of them to prevent him from being bothered by autograph seekers.  George would check his watch at the end of Mr. Faulkner’s office hour, and we would walk down the hall to see if the great man wanted to join us for coffee in the Old Cabell Hall “cave” which was mostly empty that late in the afternoon.  Usually, we would find Mr. Faulkner dressed like us in sports coat, button-down collar shirt, striped tie, and khaki pants, sitting behind his desk reading a book.

Our conversations over coffee were far from literary, although Mr. Faulkner did tell us that the death of Ernest Hemingway was suicide and not an accident.  Mostly, we talked current events and university sports.  Mr. Faulkner was an official timer for the U.Va. track team, and he was an avid horseman.  One day he told us that he had received an invitation to attend a luncheon at the Kennedy White House but that he wouldn’t go.  Washington seemed too far to go for lunch.  He must have repeated that comment to a reporter because the next day it appeared in the New York Times.

Mr. Faulkner in conversation often used an extremely subtle form of double-entendre.  Often the surface meaning was humorous and its secondary meaning surprisingly deep and well conceived.  Henry Taylor and I used to replay Mr. Faulkner’s coffee talk and try to unravel the layers of meaning in what we had first taken for casual remarks.  Sometimes we recognized intellectual spins that went beyond three or four associations. Did Mr. Faulkner think that deep?

The spring of my third year at Virginia saw the publication of Mr. Faulkner’s last book, The Reivers.  At the Corner off grounds, a few hundred hand-signed and numbered copies sold for $10 each.  I never saw Mr. Faulkner sign any editions of his books when offered for autograph.  He signed no books except those arranged by the publisher for special sale and those he inscribed for personal friends.  I never imposed on him to sign anything for me.

In conjunction with the publication of The Reivers, the University arranged for a reading by Mr. Faulkner in the Cabell Hall Auditorium.  Tickets were issued to English Departments throughout the state, and the hall was filled early by guys like me in coat and tie and by college girls in summer print dresses.  Knowing Mr. Faulkner’s awkward habit of waiting for questions from the audience without prologue, George Garrett positioned Henry Taylor and me with first questions to break the ice.  We became Mr. Faulkner’s performance “shills.”

Mr. Faulkner read the horse race scene from The Reivers.  Part of the text was in dialect; and on the whole, he read well and with some feeling, although his voice was not very strong.  When the reading ended, there was prolonged applause, and then Mr. Faulkner stood mute as was his custom.  My moment had arrived, and from the podium he recognized my raised hand with a nod.  My question was one that I had asked before at other readings, and George suggested that I use it for this event.

“Mr. Faulkner,” I said standing. “Hollywood has produced film versions of several of your novels.  Have you seen any of these productions, and what do you think of them?”

The old gray fox smiled for perhaps the first time that afternoon.

“It is in the contract,” he said.  “I am not required to see the film.”

That summer, Mr. Faulkner died at his home in Oxford, Mississippi as a result of complications from a horse-riding accident.

I can still see Mr. Faulkner pause, smile, and answer my movie question.  And I will always smile back because he knew that I knew that he had written the screenplay for Sanctuary, adapted from his novel, and that he had done other movie work in Hollywood for Howard Hawks.  Mr. Faulkner, all kidding aside, knew the movies.

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The Celestine Prophecy Connection

Bart and Monty reviewing music and lyrics for THE AWAKENING OF HUMANITY oratorio

When James Redfield made the concept of synchronicity clear in his novel The Celestine Prophecy, people all over the world began to recognize it in their personal lives.  The ostensibly chance meeting between a classical music composer and me is a great example of synchronicity at work to achieve significant results.  In the summer of 2006 a native North Carolina composer and concert pianist named Edmund Barton (Bart) Bullock, who has lived in France since 1978, was staying in a donated mountain cottage near Boone to practice his piano concerto for scheduled concerts in 2007.

A reader of The Celestine Prophecy, Bart felt a sudden and strong urge to obtain a copy of the film adapted from the book.  A few nights after the viewing the movie, he was at a dinner party where he described the unusual urge to his tablemates.  One of them told Bart that he had recently been on a quiet Blue Ridge Parkway hiking trail when he encountered an acquaintance, Pat Joynes.  In the brief conversation, Pat mentioned that her husband (me) had his book The Celestine Prophecy: The Making of the Movie published. He told Bart that I lived in the area and that an introduction could be made to bring us together.

Telephone conversations led to informal dinner parties where Bart played his Appalachian Concerto privately for us.  Then Pat and I attended a summer concert where Bart performed his own compositions with a chamber group, and we obtained copies of his CDs.  In turn, Bart read my four Booker Series novels and the Celestine movie book.

By early 2007 Bart and I felt that the synchronicity of our meeting should lead to a classical music collaboration.  We decided on the form of an oratorio for four featured soloists, chorus, and symphony orchestra.  I went to the Hayes School of Music library at Appalachian State University to study the libretti of oratorios; and by December 2007, I had written the libretto for The Awakening of Humanity in six movements.

In early 2010 the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra and the Hickory Chorale Society became the initial financial supporters for Bart to compose our oratorio.  Public arts agencies and private donors would make up the balance of the commission, and our premiere target date was April 2012.  And then the recession decapitated the arts funding agencies, and all the commissioning support that we anticipated disappeared.  Nevertheless, Bart completed the first two movements of our oratorio, and the music was wonderful.

Bart returned to the US from France twice to work through lyric changes in the second movement, and I had to rewrite entire passages of the poetry to fit Bart’s music.  Trust me, I never felt so inadequate in my writing life; but through Bart’s patience and encouragement, I actually improved on the libretto.  I also learned that poetic meter on the page is not the same as beats in a piece of choral and solo voice music.

With the libretto and the music for the first two movements available to share, Bart’s colleagues in France rallied to support the completion of the oratorio and its ultimate performance.  The Toulouse Conservatory of Music, a center for classical music in France and all of Europe, endorsed our oratorio project and offered an exchange of musicians and singers with an American music school to facilitate its performance.  The emerging possibility is for as many as three performances in France at world-class venues and two performances in the US.  The Franco-American cultural exchange, however, will again depend on financial underwriting by both institutional and private sources so that Bart can complete the composition.  The hope is for a full score by June 2012 with orchestrations soon to follow, and a premiere and subsequent performances in February and March 2013.

Pat and I are among those who consider Bart a musical genius as a composer and as a pianist.  You can see and hear him play his own compositions with symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles, and in solo recitals at www.edmundbartonbullock.com.

Monty and Bart resize

Bart and Monty

 

2016 Update

When the funding for The Awakening of Humanity dried up, Bart returned to concert performing and commissioned composing, and I wrote two books that were published in 2014 and 2015. There was, however, interest in the completed score of the first two movements, and they were performed three times (January and July 2015) in France by the Ensemble Vocal Unité under the artistic direction of Christian Nadalet. A professional DVD of one of the concerts was made with subtitles in both English and French. It can be seen and heard here.

Bart continues to be recognized as a significant composer. In 2014, the Danish Royal Family commissioned Bart to compose and perform a song cycle based on the Prince Consort’s poetry. In 2015, Bart completed a Te Deum commissioned by the Catholic Church that will be premiered with an 80-voice choir on April 17, 2016, in the cathedral at Auch, France.

Interest in performing the completed oratorio, The Awakening of Humanity, has been expressed in both France and the United States. The orchestras and choruses, however, while willing to underwrite the performances, do not have the resources to commission the final four movements and its orchestrations. Bart and Monty need funding for a six-month period that can be entirely devoted to completing the work. They hope that patron support and participation in 2016 will allow them to complete the oratorio and schedule premiere performances in both the United States and France in 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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