My favorite novels pick me up, carry me off, and put me down smack in another time and place, and after I turn that last page and return to the present, I feel enriched. The here and now is more interesting to contemplate when contrasted with the past. Who we were explains so much of who we are.
In his autobiography, Goethe wrote:
One feeling which prevailed greatly with me, and could never find an expression odd enough for itself, was a sense of the past and present together in one — a phenomenon which brought something spectral into the present...It must not be forgotten that the closest unions are those of opposites.
It's a quote I've always found fascinating, and it resonates with me now even more since I've been writing a series of novels that play with the concept of reincarnation (The Reincarnationist ; The Memorist ).
These books have required me to do research going back as far as the ancient Indus Valley, covering subjects as diverse as binaural beats, the history of Central Park, meditation, the catacombs of Vienna, Vestal Virgins, the Napoleonic Wars, Kabala, and Beethoven's eating habits.
In the process of writing, one of the curious things that has both confounded me and amazed me is how many times I've come up with an idea — not knowing the thing happened, or the people were connected, or that there were facts to support it — only to later be doing research and find out that my imaginings were once very much reality.
Is it proof of the collective unconscious? Coincidence? Evidence of past life memories bleeding over into this life? Guarantee of cellular memories?
I'm still not sure what I believe, but there are simply too many instances like the one that inspired The Memorist for me to write them off as conincidence. What if, I thought one day, Beethoven was interested in Eastern philosophy and got involved with a secret society that was studying reincarnation?
More than five years later when I finally got around to doing research for the book, I discovered that Beethoven had indeed belonged to a secret society that delved into reincarnation theory, had borrowed books on Hinduism from two ladies who ran a private library in Vienna, and was so fascinated with what he read, he copied some of the more relevant information into his own notebooks.
How does something like that happen? What does it mean? I don't have any answers, just questions. And the questions are what keep me writing.
Powell's was kind enough to offer me this blog to explore some of these questions over the next few weeks with some of the authors who I think excel at evoking a time and place that they have never known...not in this life, anyway.
(Read Part Two here.)