Michelle Gordon interviews John A.A. Logan
I suppose my instinct tells me that this is true. Twenty-four years practice and study of meditation and yoga also predispose me to see the world from that viewpoint. I was brought up on a farm, where the energy of animals and natural surroundings, forests, fields, insects, snow, sun, may have left me with a sense of the inter-connectedness of things. There were people of all ages on this Highland Scottish farm, from very young children to a very elderly First World War veteran, and again, everything and everyone seemed connected. This kind of life seemed to prepare me later for the Taoist or Yogic ways of perceiving the individual in a matrix of life. I was also very influenced as a teenager by a much older friend who eventually went off to live permanently in Scotland’s only Buddhist Temple. I would walk and talk with him for hours, regularly, over a period of several years, it was like a free education. But my own instinct was telling me that we are all interconnected spirit, from one source, and destined to return to that source, even before I was fortunate enough to have a friend who could help me articulate this.
Have you ever had a spiritual experience, involving synchronicity, angels or spirit etc?
On the farm as a child I often experienced nature as a numinous, and luminous, thing. Lights and colours of trees and plants, even the sound of wind, could be both delightful, and at times oppressive, as though felt and sensed too intensely.
One year on the farm, my grandfather gave me an old telescope from the 19th century. One night, moonlight was coming in my bedroom window. I got out of bed and kneeled on the floor, looking through the telescope at the very clear stars. I saw something strange, like intersecting hoops of white light, circles within circles, much larger than the stars. When I lowered the telescope and looked at the sky with the naked eye there was nothing unusual there. When I returned the telescope to the eye, and searched around in the sky again, there were the bright white interlinked circles again. I went to wake and tell my parents. I wanted them to look. They told me to go back to bed. I went back and watched the circles again for a long time, and then went to bed. After a long time lying down, I got up again and looked at the sky with the naked eye. Nothing there except the moon and stars. I looked through the telescope again and found the circles eventually, very large in the sky, clear and distinct and certainly nothing man-made, not a satellite or anything like that, the form was constructed of pure white light. I must have been 10 years old then. That is the only thing in my life I have ever seen like that. The memory is as clear now as on the night I saw the circles. If I’ve had experiences with Angels or Spirit it is on the subconscious level, I tend to “feel” my way through situations carefully when time allows. Sometimes, in emergency situations, matter of life and death situations, I’ve felt what might be called the presence of spirit, guiding and protecting myself and loved ones.
I’ve had many experiences with synchronicity. Once, twelve years ago, I had a literary agent who only sent my first two novels off to one Scottish publisher, a publisher which did not publicly exist yet, but was to be launched later, so my agent told me, under the name of 11:9. She was so certain that this publisher was going to take my books that she sent them nowhere else, we waited a year to hear back from this publisher. One day a package arrived in the post. Sample chapters being returned by another publisher, a London publisher I’d sent them to two years earlier and had long forgotten about. “We found these in our office, sorry for the long delay in returning them to you” said the note with the chapters. I had taken the chapters out of the envelope with the note and was just about to bin the envelope when it occurred to me to look inside it for anything else. At the bottom of the large envelope was a very small piece of white paper, not much bigger than a postage stamp, with the number 11 on it in black type. I looked at it and thought, “That’s strange, I’ve been waiting for a year for my agent to hear back from a publisher called 11:9 and now these chapters come from another publisher, with this scrap of paper in the envelope with 11 on it. It would have been funny if the scrap had had 11 and 9 on it”. Then I turned over the piece of paper and on the other side was typed “11 + 9”. A week or two later my agent wrote to tell me she was “shocked” that the publisher 11:9 had just told her they did not want either of my novels.
Another instance of synchronicity began in 1998, I met the Scottish sales rep for Secker and Warburg in a hotel. He told me he thought I should contact a famous Scottish novelist, to seek his help and “sponsorship”. I didn’t do that, but two years later John Fowles and A L Kennedy edited a paperback anthology published by Vintage in London, and the only two novel extracts in this book, that were by Scottish writers, were by me and this same Scottish novelist who the Secker and Warburg rep had suggested I seek out as a “sponsor”. So I wrote to tell the novelist that I considered this to be a synchronicity story, me and him in this book together after the sales rep had advised me to ask him for “sponsorship” etc. I also said to him that perhaps he would think me crazy for believing in “synchronicity” at all. The novelist replied that he was surprised the sales rep had mentioned him, as they had argued once by phone. The novelist also told me that he had a synchronicity story of his own to tell me. He said he had once sold his copy of Carl Jung’s Synchronicity to a second hand bookshop in Edinburgh, and that two years later he had been in a second hand bookshop in a remote town 200 miles north of Edinburgh, and had seen a copy of Synchronicity there on a shelf and thought, “I’ll get that to replace the one I sold”, but when he opened the cover he saw his own name inside it, it was the copy he had sold in Edinburgh two years earlier.
Do you believe in life after death? Why?
I do. Again, it is a feeling or instinct telling me that this is probably the case. I saw an interview with the actor, James Coburn, not long before his death, and he was asked this question. He talked about the Tibetan Bardos, and the journeys and stages after this life, in transition to what comes next, and about how what we experience in this life is preparation for “what comes next”…then Coburn said with a big grin, “and that’s when the REAL adventure begins…”
I’ve known two people who believed strongly in reincarnation, one was the friend I mentioned earlier who went off to live permanently in the BuddhistTemple. The other had lived at the Findhorn Spiritual Community for several years. I found that when I talked to them, my conversation would seem to focus on plans and hopes based on the period between now and my death, in “this world” so to speak. That was my context, at least it was 15-25 years ago, during the periods I would have had these long conversations about life with these men. I knew them at different times, they never met each other, but my conversations with them would go the same way. They would listen until I was finished talking about my plans and ideas in “this life”. Then both these men would take their turn to talk, and listening to them, for me, was almost like being in a trance after half an hour or so. I would feel happier and happier while they talked, and their talk was not limited to their own lifetime, it was clear they were thinking ahead into the next one and beyond. For all I know they were perhaps receiving strong signals from lifetimes or experiences lived before this one. I don’t know. But they had this large context. I would leave their company feeling great, better than I had before meeting with them, but after an hour or so I would have completely forgotten what they had said, it was so far from the context of my own life, it just slipped away. Now, I find that whenever I encounter, in person or in writing, or in film, people, artists, thinkers, who have this idea and belief that there is life after death, life beyond physical death, or simply life beyond the physical, I always feel happier and as though I am encountering truth.
Have you ever had a near-death experience?
No. I’ve had accidents and illnesses and incidents which have cast a shadow, though. I’ve been present at the accidental death, and near-death, of members of my family. The first time that happened I was 11, so that shadow came at a formative age.
Do you believe in God?
I do, although it is something I’d be reluctant to define too much. I don’t think I believed, or perhaps it is more correct to say sensed, God, until I was 11. My life, and my family’s life, became more difficult then, and it seemed that difficulty and risk pushed me into circumstances where I was alone and had to become aware perhaps of what “underpins” reality. First, the surface constructions, the social constructs, were pulled away. A very risky way of learning anything, really. It seems to be in an agonised testing-to-the-limits that a person’s feeling or sense of whether or not there is a god, sometimes emerges, if it emerges at all, in a sort of emergency or survival mode.
I like what Dylan Thomas used to say, that he had no confidence in a faith that had not been tested to the limits, and perhaps been renounced before being recovered again.
I’m also reminded of William Golding’s novel, Free Fall, in which the boy’s religious studies teacher is a cruel despot; but it is from the example of the avowed atheist science teacher’s kindness, that the novel’s main character comes to believe in, or have a sense of, God.
I think there may be a universal principle that too fervent a belief in any one thing can sometimes invoke that thing’s opposite.
Perhaps that is why Mikhail Bulgakov began The Master and Margarita with the quote from Goethe’s Faust:
‘”Say at last – Who art thou?”
“That Power I serve
Which wills forever evil
Yet does forever good.”’
If you had plenty of money, would you still be doing what you are now? If not, what would you be doing?
I would still be doing what I am doing now.
Who is your favourite visionary/spiritual author (fiction or non-fiction) and why?
Mikhail Bulgakov. I find a great spiritual warmth in his novel, The Master and Margarita. I also love Knut Hamsun’s novel, Hunger, Dostoyevsky’s novels, and Robert Pirsig’s two great books. There would have been a time too when Carl Jung’s writings would have been those I chose. D.H. Lawrence’s fiery vision held sway over me too at one time, and I almost feel I am betraying John Kennedy Toole for not choosing A Confederacy of Dunces’ comedic vision, and his character Ignatius’ world-view, as the summit of anarchic spiritual achievement!
But, finally, The Master and Margarita seems the bravest and truest vision of life I have found set down in the distilled wisdom of fiction.
From the back cover blurb of my Harvill Press copy, which I found once by chance in a bookshop, having never before heard of the novel:
The devil makes a personal appearance in Moscow accompanied by two demons, a naked girl and a huge black cat. When he leaves, the asylums are full, and the forces of law and order in disarray. Only the Master, a man devoted to truth, and Margarita, the woman he loves, remain undiminished.
Earlier this year, I found myself writing the following in a blog post about John Kennedy Toole and Bulgakov:
It’s impossible for me to think of Toole without Mikhail Bulgakov coming to mind.
Perhaps Bulgakov is Toole’s Russian anarchic counterpart.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA was not published until Bulgakov’s wife got it into print 27 years after the author’s death.
In Bulgakov’s case the suppression of his great novel drove him so far from the path of self-preservation that, during the period where dozens of Soviet writers in Stalinist Russia were being murdered for their writings (as documented in THE TERRIBLE NEWS) Bulgakov wrote to the government in complaint at his work’s suppression! Resulting, bizarrely, in a return personal phone call from Stalin three weeks later, and Stalin’s offer to Bulgakov of work in the theatre, but not of his novel’s publication.
How important was it to Bulgakov that his novel, THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, be published?
He was still working on it when, terminally ill, he had to retire to bed permanently. He kept working on it, dictating corrections to his wife, after he had gone blind. He worked on the book right up to his death aged 48, the dream of that book alive in his eyes perhaps as he took his last departing blind blink.
Had he despaired though, like Toole, at not seeing his novel published through eight years of work on it?
Oh yes. Once, he set the book on fire, burned it, to be done with it.
Only to later rewrite the novel from memory, from his subconscious, from his soul, entering the line into the book, “manuscripts don’t burn”.
And yet, after he died, it still took his wife 27 years to get the book published in Moscow.
To an extent perhaps greater than in any other novel I’ve read, The Master and Margarita seems to constitute a distillation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s soul or spirit, into words.
Do you believe that your work is divinely inspired? That the words come from a higher source?
I do think that there are writers who work from the subconscious, and writers on the other end of a spectrum who work more consciously. I love the work of the authors and film-makers who delve deep into the subconscious for their material. I find that I do tend to try to work that way myself, probably under the influence of those who inspired me. Some believe that one residence of god is in the individual’s subconscious, a higher source, and that yes, good writing and fiction and art does come from that source. “The well” as Hemingway called it. Of course, to believe in “the well”, may not necessarily be to believe in God/god…or “the universe’s” influence…but I sometimes think that is where language causes false divisions among people. As in the William Golding example mentioned earlier, sometimes in practice the self-proclaimed Holy act the most cruelly, while the avowed atheists sometimes act as though moved by the Grace of Spirit, and, of course, vice versa. Each thing, again, having the seed within itself of its potential opposite perhaps, as in Yin/Yang philosophy.
Have you ever experienced the ‘dark night of the soul? If you did, how did you get through it?
Films, books, friends, family, Yoga and meditation have helped. Nature has helped, sitting by a canal in the dark watching swans swim by, sitting by the sea, or on top of a high hill in the wind looking down at the sea and across at the mountains. I saw a documentary on TV about ten years ago, a man was interviewed who had returned from World War One traumatised and enraged, unable to live with his family, or return to his job, unable to talk to anyone. He described the terrible anger and bitterness and fractured alienation. He said that within a year of coming back from the war he had taken to spending most of his time alone in the woods of the English countryside near the town where his sister lived. He would sit for hours by a pond. One day he was sitting there, crying, staring at the water, when he realised that a swan was standing beside him. The swan bent its neck and laid its head on his shoulder. The man said that, for him, this was the moment that he felt within himself a return to life/mankind again, and that from then on things became better gradually.
Sometimes events or periods come along which just have to be out-waited, or outlived, almost like surviving an episode of poisoning.
I wrote my first novel (not one that is yet published) during such a period.
It gave me something positive to concentrate on each day.
By the time the novel was finished, the dark period was over.
What is your favourite spiritual quote?
“Everything passes away-suffering,pain, blood, hunger,pestilence. The sword will pass away too, but the stars will remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the Earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars? Why?”
― Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard
Where is your favourite place to write? What’s the view like from there?
Physically, I write in a room with no view. But before I write on a keyboard in that room, I write in my head. I used to do this while sitting, usually in the dark, beside a canal, or beside the sea. Chapters would organise themselves in my mind as I sat. For several years now, though, I have lived beside the forest hill where the Pictish King of Scotland once had his fort, made of vitrified stone. There is a view from the hill summit down to the sea and across to mountains. Deer can be heard barking in the trees at 4 a.m., they can be encountered on the paths too. I meditate/think/sit/write while sitting there in the sun, wind or rain.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I would go to the top of the hill beside this house, just as I do now.
Do you schedule time to write or just when the inspiration takes you?
I write either first thing in the morning, or not very long after. It is very disciplined and scheduled, like a daily yoga practice or tai chi practice is scheduled. I need the daily discipline and order as a means of finding a clear and regulated channel through which inspiration has access to me, if that makes sense. The monk meditates at 4 a.m. every day. At 4 a.m. every day the universe knows where to find the monk.
Do you believe in magic?
The possibility interests me. It seems more logical to me to believe in a world with some magic in it, than in a purely physical/mechanistic world. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” etc. A universe with purpose and direction makes more sense to me intuitively than the cold, brutal jungle some Western scientists seem to have envisioned as our lot for the last 150 years or so. On the other hand, an unfettered belief in magic, while throwing reason out the window altogether, is/was/would be just another form of tyranny. Those polar extremes of the spectrum invoking their opposites again.
Are you an early bird or a night owl?
I am very much a night owl, but often I subvert this by beginning work, or exercise, at 4 a.m., which can be conceived of as either early or late. I quite like sending out 5 a.m. emails, no-one knows whether I am up very late or very early.
I became an indie author because my literary agent in London could not sell my fifth novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford. The film consultant who had discovered the multi-Oscar winning film, Slumdog Millionaire, as an unpublished manuscript, also worked with my agent and she thought my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, was the best novel she had read in the last four years. Then editors at publishing houses said they loved the book, but the sales departments of the publishing houses did not seem to think the book would be sufficiently profitable for them to take it on.
So I published The Survival of Thomas Ford myself, and I have written in more detail about this here:
In the nine months since I epublished it, I’ve seen The Survival of Thomas Ford have £1000 worth of downloads in its best week on Amazon in April, enter several Amazon bestselling charts, and win a Special Award in the eFestival of Words Best of the Independent eBooks Awards 2012.
One side effect of this little bit of Indie success has been my literary agent approaching film producers with The Survival of Thomas Ford, and he wants my sixth novel, when it is completed, to send out to London publishers.
Psychologically, being an indie, or having the option through epublishing of being Indie, is far more healthy than the position I found myself in for 22 years of writing, before the epublishing avenue opened up to me this year.
If you could give another indie author just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Have fun doing it. If it’s not fun and enjoyable, change direction a little bit, try something new, even if that means taking a deep breath and a day off while you recalibrate…then move forward again until you find a way to do it that feels good. Don’t try to do everything at once. Don’t let anyone else’s ego make you feel bad about any decision you’ve taken on the direction for yourself and your work (although that’s usually more a hazard for the author with an agent and a publisher, than for the Indie, it’s still something to look out for as we form alliances or join groups here and there on the journey).
Where can we find you and your books online?
Thank you for telling us about yourself, John!